Mourinho’s lack of ambition continues to hurt Manchester United – view from the Bridge

Chelsea did the usual at Stamford Bridge against Manchester United. A relatively straightforward victory, 1-0 flattered Manchester United. Bakayoko and Morata wasted wonderful openings as Chelsea, led by Cesc and Kante, dominated the United midfield and, by extension, the game. In losing, United fell 8 points behind City – things aren’t looking great for Jose’s men. We care – does he?

“8 points in the Premier League is not 8 points in Portugal, or in Spain, or in Germany” – Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge, 5 November 2017.

Having watched Guardiola’s Manchester City sweep Arsenal away earlier on Sunday, it’s hard not to think that. City, with their millions spent, and team clicking, will not run away with this league. They have won all but one of their league games so far (the one draw amazingly came against Everton at the Etihad). In fact, except for the Koeman-induced draw, they have won all their games this season. They have taken maximum points from fixtures against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. The victory over the latter was probably the most impressive, picking the Champions apart with panache, confidence and control at the Bridge. In many ways, that victory, for the “other Manchester team”, shows why this 8-point lead may be more than just that. It represents a gulf in personality and ambition between two managers.

There’s a well-known saying – “fortune favours the brave.” If you are brave enough, ambitious enough to try to take control of your destiny, provoking situations to bend outcomes your way, you will, more often than not, be successful. If only someone told Jose. You couldn’t read any football website worth its salt in the last week without coming across comment/news/analysis around Jose Mourinho’s away record against Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham or Liverpool. He hasn’t won away from home with Manchester United against those teams. His team has picked up 3 points from a possible 24 in those games.

After the game on Sunday, Mourinho observed that “the team that scored first was going to win”. His team has scored 1 goal away to the other members of the “Big 6” since he came to power at Old Trafford. When you play for 1 point, there’s an obvious problem – 1 point is closer to 0 points than it is to 3 points. In a game like football, often dictated by random events, your opposition trying harder than you to score means that, more often than not, the randomness will favour them.

A friend trotted out an ideal line-up for Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Bailly, Young; Pogba, Matic; Martial, Mata, Rashford; Lukaku. To which I responded – “it does not matter.” No matter the line-up, ambition will often dictate the outcome. Jose Mourinho’s two previous jobs were tainted by his lack of ambition at key moments. Who can forget Cristiano Ronaldo playing doggie in the middle, chasing after a ball Barcelona’s midfielders and defenders were only too happy to pass around him, before he threw up his hands in a massive huff. For once, I felt sympathy for the man – he wanted to play, to be on the front foot, but his manager didn’t want to.

At Stamford Bridge on Sunday, as Mourinho stood by the tunnel and greeted his old Chelsea players, it didn’t take the eagle-eyed to notice that he and Eden Hazard exchanged neither shake nor glance. It was like neither existed for the other. Eden Hazard was arguably the most critical factor to Chelsea winning the 14/15 Premier League title (under Mourinho). Hazard is also one of the reasons Mourinho was dismissed from his job at Chelsea (again). Creating an environment that allowed his best player to work his magic really was an excuse to do the least in pursuit of victory. Who can forget the spate of single-goal margin victories that carried Chelsea to the title in 2014/2015? Hazard got frustrated with a manager who sets out his team to defend, and takes credit for your own magic. He wants to do the least for the most. It might have worked before, but it hasn’t worked for a while. As the Citys and Spurs of the game continue to rise, it becomes increasingly unlikely to work. The problem, for Manchester United, is that this leopard is not about to change his spots.

“There are 18 teams more worried than us”, he said, attempting to dismiss the gap between 2nd and 1st. Standard deflection, really – and it’s not working. However, more worryingly, who or what is he interested in? Others looking worse than he is by reference to a gold standard? Where are the standards, Jose? His problem now is that Manchester City is setting the standard of quality. And for the first time in his career, he’s sharing a city with a “better” club. 2nd place will not be enough for Manchester United this season (or next). It’s also unlikely any new signings will help, regardless of what Jose and Duncan Castles would rather you believe. Indeed, while he initially talked about being at Manchester United for many years to come, his comments about Paris a few weeks ago should not be taken lightly. In Paris, Unai Emery is a sitting duck, playing puppet while Neymar and co. run the team. The Qataris will never say no to Box Office Jose, even if he now treats coaching as a 9-5. That link up is loading…

A final point must be made. Before he left the post-match press conference on Sunday, Mourinho said he had a special mention – for Marouane Fellaini. In short, he was injured for a few weeks, was only in the squad the day before, but came on, in difficult circumstances, and fought for the team and the club. Fellaini was not useless, no. He created some difficulties for Chelsea in the box, and had a decent opportunity saved by the relatively idle Thibaut Courtois. However, he was a liability in midfield and in possession. We all know he’s barely “Manchester United quality” (whatever that means these days). More tellingly, it’s standard divide and rule from Jose Mourinho, an expertly placed passive-aggressive subliminal intended to elicit some sort of desire in the unmentioned players to please him. At Real it was Arbeloa, at Chelsea it was Willian. The problem is that he never picks key players. Why? Because those are nearly always the ones that want to play. To express themselves, to go to the home ground of a big rival and play them off the park. Basically, they want to do what Mourinho does not want to do.

After the defeat at Huddersfield, Mourinho, in no uncertain terms, called out his players for playing with little attitude and desire. But they reflect him and his caution. He loves Marouane Fellaini because the best the player can give to Jose is loyalty and a steadfast dedication to carrying out his destroyer tactics. Mourinho allows him to justify his presence at Manchester United. That is Marouane Fellaini. Jose Mourinho should know that pinning his mast on players like Fellaini will get him nowhere, but one should ask this – does he really care anymore? And it’s the lack of care (a relatively new phenomena) coupled with the steadfast refusal to engage with his peers as peers (except in the media pressroom) that may make his presence at Old Trafford toxic sooner rather than later. He landed in England as The Special One. He left, was Perez’d and came back as The Happy One. He will leave England again, this time as The Disinterested One.

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At Swansea – If I could bottle confidence…

The most impressive thing about this result was the confidence. The scoreline, embellished by 3 goals in the last 10 minutes, is impressive but that was only a product of the control and poise with which United played. The first half was all United possession, probing to break down Swansea’s disciplined 3-6-1. The breakthrough came from a corner kick, yet another set-piece goal – something we didn’t see much of last season.

As my post earlier in the week said, there’s no need to draw any long-term conclusions from the West Ham result – the same applies here. 2 games, 2 convincing wins, 6 points. What we are seeing is a work in progress, a construction on the right path. While there remain certain tactical questions – the absence of width in possession being an obvious one – the team is crafting an identity for itself. As @nanu759 says, a partonopei (“pattern of play”) is the first step to establishing sustained dominance. As almost certainly the tallest team in the league, the aerial threat is superbly complemented by the pacey brio and strength of a more mature Rashford, the finishing of a hungry Lukaku, and the clever scheming and direct running of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Speaking of the Armenian, he was a class above today without ever looking like he was trying hard. His ability to turn off both feet was priceless while with his direct running late in the game, as it opened up, recalled the very best of the Bundesliga’s Player of the Season for 15/16.

The team’s spirit and togetherness is a welcome sight. As reports indicate, it is the best in years – Martial’s goal was eagerly celebrated by Marcus Rashford, with whom he’s obviously in direct competition with. Lukaku scored, and Martial celebrated it with a double fist pump – once again, a player happy for another whose presence in the team is a threat to theirs.

A final shout for Phil Jones. 2 games in and no hobbling must be a beautiful thing to see. His reading of the game was measured, his tackling strong. His partnership with Eric Bailly seems to be blossoming.

3 points, onto the next one.

RU

Opening Day at Old Trafford – avoiding lazy conclusions

To paraphrase @dianekristine, there’s a tendency, in football (particularly football), to draw permanent conclusions from temporary situations. The media cycle is so rapid, the readership’s hunger for ‘expert’ opinions so ravaging that amidst the rush to generate the rowdy conversation that echoes in our pubs, bars, classrooms and living rooms, nuance is often the sorry victim.

This past weekend, Manchester United set out a perfect example. At Old Trafford, Manchester United spanked a strong West Ham side. 4 goals, a comfortable clean sheet and goals from players who, for varying reasons, needed them. In the aftermath, the reaction of the so-called experts has ranged from “Manchester United laid down their title credentials” to “Were Manchester United that good or West Ham were that bad?”

On one hand, you get an unequivocal statement and on the other, a statement which necessarily, for media purposes, provokes the sort of incendiary debate that obscures what is evident. What is evident then? That Manchester United played a very good game from 30 minutes onwards. For the first 30 minutes, there was a lack of cohesion and fluency – West Ham held a solid shape, allowed very little space between the lines and it looked like 16/17 again. However, Lukaku’s opener was symbolic of what this new United represents – pace and power, with the ability to punish teams on the break. With the goal, confidence flowed and the team played with greater panache. 4-0 was hardly flattering, notwithstanding that the final two goals in the dying minutes.

Was West Ham bad? Are oranges orange? It’s like asking to see heads of a coin expecting tails. It’s not common, in football, or any sport in fact, to be good, to execute properly and be properly trounced. As good as Manchester United was, the first 2 goals could be ascribed to lapses in concentration from West Ham players. Doth two individual lapses a narrative create? Perhaps not.

Taking a step back as a supporter that has been burnt by optimism in the last 4 seasons, a 4-0 win to begin the season is a strong start. But it’s 3 points – that’s all. United travels to Wales this weekend to face Swansea – that’s another match, another opportunity to pick up 3 points. A poor performance (or worse, a poor result) will have the murmurers murmuring again, jumping to conclusions.

RU

 

Moments (3) – A Stunner at the Theatre of Dreams

The irony of consolation goals is that they never really are. For a goal to be a consolation goal, the game really must be out of reach, which then raises the question of what there is to celebrate. “Ironic cheers” often accompany such, especially where there seems to be a belated effort to rescue the game – like mouth-to-mouth on a dead horse. Another curiosity about these goals – they are often spectacular. With nothing to lose, players can let loose, be free and try things. “Row Z? We lose anyway.” This piece recalls one such goal. As you read, recall your favourite consolation goals…

 

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“On a scale of 1-7, I was a 9”

SE7EN – 1

The delight on Cristiano Ronaldo’s face was picturesque, back when his joy was unsullied by conceit. It was a more innocent time for him, and indeed for Manchester United. Back then, the sense of self-congratulation and self-promotion that has invaded the club today was absent. Arising from the ‘barren years’, there was a humility among stars that had shrunk, and upcoming stars that had never tasted true success. Ronaldo scored his 1st Champions League for Manchester United in his 4th season – he didn’t take it for granted. Roma, the recipient of his virginal vaccination, took 6 more gleefully delivered goals. As a fan, it was a night of ecstasy at the Theatre of Dreams, especially following the 2-1 trouncing (yes, trouncing) received at the Stadio Olimpico a couple of weeks prior.

7-1. Ryan Giggs’ 4 assists (joint most assists in a game with Neymar, I believe), Alan Smith’s calmly executed exclamation mark to a sleekly constructed counter-attack (still one of my favourite goals ever), Michael Carrick’s locating Her Majesty’s bonce in the top corner…Patrice Evra (before he loved this game) scoring the 7th goal while cutting in from the right as an inverted right back. These were memorable, particularly so when recalled as a collective happening. However, nothing remains as vivid, and as incomprehensible, as Daniele De Rossi’s consolation…

The Moment

It’s 6-0 at the time. The game is dead and buried. There is no Twitter, so my excitement is confined to the gleeful anticipation of catching up with friends when I return to boarding school. Roma hasn’t played badly – they’ve just been blown away. Nobody blames the oak tree for being uprooted in a hurricane. Heading towards the 70’ mark and Francesco Totti, in possession, drifts out to the right wing, lifts his head and surveys his options. Before he’s closed down, he whips a medium height cross into the box. I don’t think there’s any danger because:

1. It is SIX – ZERO; and

2. De Rossi is backing the…SIX – ONE!

I remember the ball hitting the net and Van der Sar trying and giving up at the same time. I think I clapped; no, I know I clapped. I know I wanted to see the replay because my mind refused to fully process what my eyes had seen. The replays don’t show anything I didn’t see before – he’s fully backing goal, with no sight of where it is. The ball comes across and he wraps his right leg around to connect with the ball at an angle, exerting enough spin, to send it flying into the bottom corner which he is completely backing. I’m a sucker for technique – it remains one of the most impressive volleys – goals – I have ever seen. Period. A picture says a thousand words so here’s a moving picture for you to view:

“Back to goal? No problem”

What Came Next…

Kaka came next, a freak of his time reminding us that the consistency of a freak is a surer bet than freak 7-1 victories. Milan stomped past Fergie’s boys in the semi-final on the way to yet another Champions League success. Manchester United ended the season as English Champions for the first time since 2003.

RADU

 

 

 

Moments (2) – Wayne Rooney scuffs me into delirium

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History maker

Media reports in the lead up to the 2011 Champions League Final told us that Manchester United had spent days working on set-pieces and corner kicks to exploit Barcelona’s lack of height. On the day, Manchester United’s corner count – 0. Shots on target? 1. Barcelona? 12 shots on target, with 6 corner kicks. What should have been crushing disappointment at the end of the game was only slightly mitigated by the fact that we had been beaten by possibly the best club-side in history. Respect. Nevertheless, during the game, in the one moment we offered a taste of what we could do, I lost my mind. Read on as I recount the moment Wayne Rooney made me lose my voice…

The Context…

Manchester United and Barcelona met in the Champions League Final for the 2nd time in 3 seasons, with the former having been to the final 3 times in 4 years – while Barcelona was widely lauded as the best team in history, Manchester United was probably on par with this team heading into the Wembley spectacle (at least in terms of consistent success).

In 2008, I watched the final in the bedroom of one of my school teacher’s (caveat – there were lots of other boys in there and it was only for the football). When Van der Sar saved Anelka’s unconvincing penalty, we all went bonkers, save for my lone Chelsea-fan friend, Nanu. In 2009, watching in Edinburgh, I marvelled as we hopped aboard Barcelona’s carousel, dizzied by the mesmeric passing combinations and dribbling of Messi and co. In my mind that night, Iniesta was the best player on the planet (even Rooney thought so).

I viewed the game from a friend’s studio flat in Aberdeen. We had some hope. After all, Arsenal had beaten Barca that season, and Barca had a quite shocking record in England at the time, although their previous appearance at Wembley had yielded a Champions League trophy in 1992). Barca also had players ‘out of position’ – Mascherano was set to continue at centre back with captain shaggy, Puyol, on the bench. Abidal, just returned from liver surgery, would resume his left back position but nobody knew how he’d hold up against an Antonio Valencia in the form of his life.

The Moment…

“It’s peak!”

Barca started the match strong and took the lead in the 27th minute, with Pedro sliding in a neat finish from Xavi’s pass. With no Barcelona fans in the room (except me, of course, and I was on leave for the day), the room was quiet. Going behind wasn’t surprising – all the British media’s proclamations of Manchester United’s greatness withered away with each 1-2 and nutmeg from the men in stripes. The game was literally over until the moment. Then was over after that anyway.

In response to Barcelona’s suffocating pressure, Sir Alex Ferguson instructed his side to push up a bit more. Barca won a throw-in about halfway into their half; seemingly there was no danger. The ball was thrown to David Villa, but with Rio Ferdinand in close attention, the ball bounced back along the line in the direction it came from. Fabio flicked a pass to Wayne Rooney in close attendance, who controlled and played a short pass to Carrick just to his right, who wall-passed it back – Sergio Busquets out of the equation. He then flicked another pass to an onrushing Giggs who returned it. Now my friend and I share this joke, and it’s been running for years, that Rooney is the “scuff-king”. He scuffs volleys, taps ins, even overhead kicks (surely a shinner counts as a scuffed attempt, right?) Well, his finish here, beautifully swept into the right corner came off his ankle.

This was me:  jose-mourinho-celebrates

Can’t hold us back

The next 2 minutes were spent jumping hysterically on a bed, yelling my head off (think it was a Latin-style pundit GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLL **To be continued*) for two minutes and hugging my friend like he’d been to hell and back. Thinking back to that moment again, I can’t recall celebrating so intensely since or indeed before. Perhaps the surprise of the goal, completely out of the blue, coupled with a prior despondency provoked that exuberant release.  We lost in the end, but I’ll never forget the isolated minutes of unrestrained joy.

Today…

Wayne Rooney became Manchester United’s top scoring player on Saturday – a hell of an achievement. However, the joint England and Manchester United top scorer’s (still remarkable!) career has felt somewhat underwhelming. Some could even argue that at the 2011 Champions League Final, he was already past his peak – most would argue his final individual season was 2009/2010; once unshackled from his place as Ronaldo’s Robin, he plundered . There has been recent Chinese talk, with Mourinho stating that he wouldn’t stand in Rooney’s way if he desired a move (hard to imagine Rooney trying to say “I love Evergrande” in Mandarin) – sign of respect or sign of dispensability? Arguably both, but it does inevitably suggest that the scouser’s time at Old Trafford is coming to an end. Will he get a statue? It’s unlikely. However, he is a Manchester United legend and should be remembered as such.

RADU

 

 

Moments (1) – Barthez Hurdles Ronaldo

 

ronaldo

The Phenomenon

A few days ago, an idea came to mind – write about memorable personal football Moments. The one that follows is my first. The tournament, France ’98, crystallised my love for the beautiful game. The Moment, itself a painful one, is still seared into my mind. I recall where I was, what I felt, how I felt it. I’ll hopefully be releasing more of these in episodes over time. Football as such a big part of my upbringing is more than just watched – it is lived and breathed, felt sometimes with a depth that that can incapacitate (as later episodes will show) in unexpectedly swift and surprising ways. As you read, recall your Moments.

Ole Ole Ole!’

My first experience of tournament football was France ’98. The sound of Ricky Martin’s iconic ‘Ole Ole Ole’ continues to reverberate in the annals of my memory. For a time after the tournament, it was by far my favourite song, sound, even. Pulsing with Latin brio and energy, it wasthe perfect opening to an expanded, and ultimately classic, World Cup. Brazil, perennial favourites, scored a 2-1 victory over the plucky Scots. Brazil was my team – well, Nigeria was, but Brazil was my team. It was the team I chose, not the one I was born into. The world champions.  Even a Nigerian youngster was aware of the embodiment of surprise and flair that was the Brazilian footballer. To take on and defeat Brazil at the time still amounted to a victory worth telling posterity. In fact, till today, the Nigerian Super Eagles are serenaded to the trumpet tune of “When Nigeria beat Brazil, when Nigeria beat Brazil oh…”

They were big. And at the time, they possessed the world’s greatest footballer – Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima (I was a nerd back then – some would say still am – and was smug about knowing his full name). Ronaldo, the buck-toothed, blur of footwork, sniping, striking bull of a striker. Lithe, predatory, generous, unbelievably skilful. A two-time FIFA Player of the Year at 21, he was the Lionel Messi of his time. Nike saw all this, saw his global appeal and snapped it all up – just could and often just did it all on his own. I had started playing football then and wanted to be him. His football boots were unique, made for a likewise once-in-a-generation footballer – I wanted them (still do – I see they’ve been re-released in limited edition). He was Brazil’s hope – he was my hope for Brazil and for football. Again, he was also only 21.

 

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Hurdling O’Fenomeno

The Moment…

I don’t intend this to be a eulogy or celebration of the France ’98. It’s just about one moment, perhaps my first truly vivid football memory (besides me playing, of course). It was in the final. I can’t remember the score at the precise point but I know that France was ahead. It was 1-0 at the time of my moment – my recollection of how I felt was one of futility and defeat in the face of the circumstances. Sat on the floor in front of the TV, willing something to happen out of nothing, I watched Ronaldo chase down a long ball only to be hurdled/clattered into by a flying Fabien Barthez. The impact of the French goalkeeper knocked Ronaldo out. The ball was cleared from danger but the camera panned to a prone Ronaldo. Barely moving, he was mortal. To the extent that a child can rail, I did – “is that not a foul? It’s a penalty! It was rough! He can’t do that? Who is this keeper?!” I was hurt. No child wants to see their idol made to look less than their deified position. After some attention, he got up and zombied his way through the rest of the game. At the final whistle, France erupted in joy. In Lagos, I erupted in tears for football for the first and last time.

With the passage of time, we’ve got to learn more about that memorable night. Roberto Carlos, one of his closest friends and roommate at the time, has spoken of Ronaldo succumbing to a seizure so violent Carlos himself had to take emergency action to prevent Ronaldo swallowing his tongue. Indeed, Ronaldo was left off the initial starting line-up released to FIFA, but was later reinstated. Some have speculated that Nike pressure meant that he had to play, with Nike not able to have the most marketable footballer in the world (by far) missing out on the most-watched single event at the time. Ronaldo wandered around in a daze with his Nike R9 boots and silver medal dangling around his neck. This time he couldn’t do it – but Nike was winning.

michael-owen-ronado-tweet

Idiot

Today…

Last week Michael Owen tweeted about Ronaldo “putting the pounds on.” Michael Owen is an idiot. Idiots like him intentionally or not continue to encourage the description of one of the greatest players in history as “fat Ronaldo”. I followed Ronaldo until his final days at Corinthians, knees shot, heavy but still sublimely potent. At his retirement press conference, he spoke, for the first time, about his hypothyroidism which was detected too late in his career. He tearfully recalled taking the jibes for years, the shots about his weight and apparent lack of professionalism. For the 7-year-old not wanting to see his idol defeated, I felt vindication.

RADU

 

 

STICK WITH THE STATS OR TWIST THE TACTICS: THE VAGARIES OF INTERNATIONAL TOURNAMENT FOOTBALL  

 

** This was penned as a preview to the round of 16 matches by @nanu759

“Stats are misleading.”

Honestly they are; and even more so during tournament football.

I’m not a huge fan of stats-based reports because they tend to be ambiguous. The best way to view a game is to watch it and no amount of statistics can give you an honest picture of what happens in a game. Football games by their nature are played by human beings (we don’t know about Messi) and human beings have emotions.

If you trawl through Stats Zone after a game you didn’t see, to view patterns you might have missed, you have a one in two chance of being misled by assuming your team had a great day in the crossing stakes. Only if you had actually seen the game might you have noticed that the opposing fullback let crosses come in from deep rather than deal with a pacy winger who could get to the byline.

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Apps such as statszone have made it easier to forget what you witnessed [Stats Zone]

Little things such as an early hack that went unpunished by the ref might prevent a player from going down a channel that could have led to an opening and such quirks punctuate many a football match.

Having made note of this, we can now delve into the world of international tournament football and the dreaded word: TACTICS!

It’s a known that competition in tournament level and especially international football is vastly different from weekly club games. The simple reason is that over a shorter period of time and with more intense mental pressure, players tend to react differently. Some players are turned on by the opportunity while others wilt. It’s not uncommon to see a player in razor sharp league form for his club arrive at major international tournament and look bereft of ideas, motivation and luck. Players such as Zidane lived for the big stage and were most successful in many high pressure games. Others are famed for not being able to handle it.

This is where the issue of tactics comes in. A good/successful coach in international competition has great ones in his arsenal and must utilize them wisely for his team to be successful whilst hoping that his opponent neither has one that matches his nor gets the benefit of luck. If two teams adopt similar tactical styles from their coaches, the chances of a draw are more likely. For this reason, It’s no surprise that 4 of the last 5 European cup finals between teams from the same national federation have gone to extra time (Bayern x Dortmund that didn’t was settled in the 90th minute) and three of the four that did go to extra time went to penalties

Rui Costa of AC Milan challenges Edgar Davids of Juventus

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Knowing me knowing you! ’03 UCL final is a prime example of a clash of analogous tactics [Goal]

I don’t like using examples (at the risk of using what might be an exception to justify my arguments) but here’s another one… attempt.

Belgium versus Italy on paper looks like a difficult but winnable game for the red devils but the azzurri had one tactical advantage over the Belgians before the game even began; the expectation was heavily on the minds of the Belgians. Combined with the act that there was a lot more cohesion in the Italian unit and a dogmatic message/presence for their coach Antonio Conte, it was rather surprising how little was expected of the Italians. Without playing exceptionally and without any marquee player to lump with responsibilities, the Italians waltzed through much of the game with consummate ease. Much is made of the abilities of players such as Pirlo and Verratti who were missing in the team but a simple direct over the top pass from Leo Bonucci was all it took to destroy the Belgian façade. This breakdown might sound overly simplistic but in truth there was really nothing else to Italy’s game. Players such as Candreva, Parolo and Giacherrinini stretched the game and forced Belgium to spend the entire game trying to recover the ball.

Mental fatigue sets in a lot quicker and although the stats showed that Belgium were getting closer to the Italian goal with big chances at the end, the tactical battle was already lost and the scoreline could have been worse with the Italian breakaway chances being as clear as they were. Wilmots also played into Italian hands by taking off Nainggolan (a player who offered something different to what the Italians were effectively dealing with by cutting off Lukaku and preventing hazard and De bruyne from combining) to bring on Carrasco instead of taking of Fellaini. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say but the idea of leaving Fellaini on paid no dividends as despite his height, he was unable to trouble Italy’s BBC – physicality is their forte. Surely an alternate approach was needed. At the end of the day, the Belgian forward line looked like a unit that had never trained together before. In their final two games, Fellaini was decidedly DROPPED and Belgium subsequently won both.

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Experience x Wit divided by Expectation x Fatigue = Italy Win. [Reuters]

Another issue in International tournaments is the stick or twist conundrum that all coaches face. It doesn’t matter what stage you find yourself in, it’s bound to come up. For some, changes are enforced due to injury or some other reason such as ill-discipline.  At other times, it’s technical factors such as your opponent identifying the dope in your side (before you do) that forces you to make a shift.  A typical example is your team’s fullback being targeted by two rapid wide players and facing an overload.

Deschamps faced it during France’s two games already at the tournament, and if anything he has learned that neither Coman and/or Martial provide a sufficient Plan B and that Les Bleues best hopes currently rest on the ambition of their prime forwards. The team went plan A to plan B in the first game and by full time in the second game had gone from B to A all over again! Pogba’s demotion was part disciplinary and not that he played that poorly or withered in the first game but the stats (sigh) didn’t make for good reading and if you ask me, I’d say that his reputation is overplayed slightly due to his physique and highlight-ability. Deschamps acknowledged those facts and humbled him but Martial’s terrible game and Coman’s inability to combine with Sagna ruined that experiment.

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Is the weight of legacy definition affecting his decisiveness? [France-24]

Evra and Matuidi were accused of patronizing each other too much as they regularly do in most French games and they subsequently toned it down vs Albania but it didn’t help the team going forward.

In Group B, the German and the Polish coaches faced the same issue when both their teams lined up. Germany were very open in defence and had to rely on super-heroics of Boateng and Manuel Neuer to bail them out while Poland were surprisingly profligate. Much of that owed to Northern Ireland marking the hell out of Lewandowski and leaving his less able but highly inventive partner Milik with most of the chances. Germany decided to play to their strengths and kept the Poles occupied in their territory (That last line was not a WWII pun). The game finished goalless. Gotze came up short again and Mario Gomez started and scored in the final game. Germany have been creating chances for fun but their lack of finishing is truly worrying.

The final group games were mainly bereft of major tactical changes in terms of style.  What we did see was personnel coming in either as part of rotation (see Italy and their 8 changes) and as acts of desperation. As evidenced by Hungary x Portugal, once multiple factors such as uncertainties in other simultaneous games are put in, you’re in for a crazy open game. Cristiano Ronaldo thrives on games such as these and it was no surprise to see him stand out with two exceptionally well taken goals and a peach of an assist for Nani. Joao Mario in this form is undroppable while Andre Gomes is a candidate for the bench in their upcoming game vs Croatia (Quaresma’s lack of fitness could mean he plays though) they might need a bit more control. Joao Moutinho was equally poor and has not performed the role of linking midfield. If they are both dropped, Danilo will definitely come on to pair with William Carvalho and a slight possibility of Renato Sanches off the bench. His ‘lack’ of discipline could help if Portugal decide to sit back as he can break away and combine with any of the front three.

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Three is a crowd? Magic combo for the men in Teal [Reuters]

In Group D, Spain on their part stuck to the same line-up that plucked away at the Czech Republic and put in a stellar performance against Turkey. Croatia made 5 changes in what was widely assumed to be a rotational side. The stats favored Croatia in the end but they were somewhat skewed by the fact that Spain missed a penalty at a point in the second half when they were in the ascendancy and that Croatia’s winner came from a pass after an Aduriz shot. One seemingly tactical error that can be pointed at Del Bosque was actually a technical one; bringing on Bruno Soriano for Nolito. It actually had the opposite effect and instead of shoring up Spain’s midfield as a defensive sub, it encouraged the Spanish defenders to push up, leaving the brunt of defensive work to Busquets and Bruno alone. Were Spain complacent? Probably. Expect a very tight game on Monday at the Stade de France vs Italy.

In summary, over a shorter period for a tournament as opposed to a 10-month league campaign, the stats tend to be somewhat distorted by a whole host of events. Technical decisions based on tactical readings of the player’s themselves are the best bet as games get tighter and the likelihood of conservatism takes over. Chances are often at a premium in deeply tactical games and that’s why the moments that define them tend to be very iconic.

These attitudes give major international tournaments their unique appeal and make them an enduring watch