EURO 2012: Group A Roundup

Poland 1-1 Greece: Classic ‘game of two halves’

Starting formations and lineups

Poland and Greece both had a man sent off as EURO 2012 kicked off with a draw.

The home side played their regular side in an interesting formation: though they usually play a 4-2-3-1, Maciej Rybus’s narrowness and deep positioning, coupled with the trequartista Ludovic Obraniak and the striker Robert Lewandowski’s proximity, meant that it often looked like a lopsided 4-4-1-1. Jakub ‘Kuba’ Blaszczykowski played high on the right, with Lukas Piszczek’s rampaging runs from deep supporting him. Eugen Polanski and Rafal Murawski played solid, disciplined holding roles in front of the defence.

Greece also set out in their regular formation, with the two ‘-opoulos’es in the centre of defence. The veterans Kostas Katsouranis and Giorgos Karagounis continued in a midfield they have played in for the past decade as a holding midfielder and as a deep-lying playmaker respectively, with Giannis Maniatis the energetic runner looking to link to the forward three. That forward three consisted of Theofanis Gekas supported by a slightly out of position Giorgios Samaras on the left and surprise pick Sotiris Nins on the right.

At times, this was almost a game of clichés. Poland found it harder to play against 10 men than 11, for example, and it was undoubtedly a game with two vastly contrasting halves of football. It was, however, an absorbing, engaging and ultimately entertaining match to start the tournament.

Imbalanced wings

Both sides were playing lopsided, unbalanced formations in terms of the wingers’ behaviour. For example, Poland’s right-winger Kuba was given some license to roam, but generally stuck to the right hand of the pitch, where he combined excellently with Piszczek. On the other flank, Rybus played narrow and deep, almost alongside his holding midfield partners at times, and at others swapping positions with the versatile Obraniak, who floated to both sides of the pitch when Poland had possession. With his left-back Sebastian Boenisch occupied by Ninis, who was playing high up on the flank, Rybus and Greek right-back Vasilis Torosidis fought a good battle all game until the Pole’s removal.

This, whether by design or as a result of Poland’s own lopsidedness – and likely a bit of both – was replicated by the Greeks. Samaras looked uncomfortable playing as a left-winger, and was too lazy and positionally indisciplined when out of possession, aiding Piszczek greatly. Ninis, on the other hand, was often in advance of even the striker, Gekas, and as a result saw little of the ball as Boenisch stuck tightly to him and didn’t let him turn and run.

This plan worked perfectly for Poland in the first half. Kuba and Piszczek had the run of the right flank, with the latter charging past Samaras at will and the former with a huge pace advantage over the outnumbered Holebas. With 40% of Poland’s attacking coming down the right throughout the game, Karagounis, the left-sided midfielder, sometimes tried to drift left and help out. However, the ageing midfielder is now not particularly mobile and couldn’t keep up with the frantic pace of the Poland right flank, particularly when Obraniak drifted right to help overload as well. It was only a matter of time before the home side broke the deadlock, and it predictably came from the right flank. Obraniak overloaded down the right and played in Kuba, who sent over a perfect cross that Lewandowski likely would’ve scored even without the bizarre goalkeeping from Kostas Chalkias in the Greece goal.

Red card and formation changes

After Sokratis Papastathopoulos’ extremely soft couple of yellow cards and Avraam Papadopoulos’ injury, Greece dropped Katsouranis into defence and brought on the third and final member of the ‘defenders whose names end in ‘-opoulos” club, Kyriakos Papadopoulos. After half time, they reshaped to cover the hole left by the red card, with Karagounis and Maniatis forming a bank of four in midfield with Samaras and the substitute Dimitris Salpingidis.

This was actually crucial in getting Greece back into the match. Samaras moved deeper, which helped him to cover the left-back, and Salpingidis similarly played nowhere near as high up the pitch as Ninis did. This allowed him more time on the ball and gave Greece another outlet from midfield. The deep positioning of the two central midfielders also meant that Lewandowski and Obraniak, who had been enjoying plenty of time and space in between the lines due to the inability of Katsouranis to cover enough ground to pick up both of them, suddenly found themselves in a box of four players and found it far harder to both receive the ball and create with it.

Poor goalkeeping

After all the tactical intrigue and individual battles across the pitch, the game was essentially decided by the goalkeepers on either side. Greece have as yet been unable to replace the calming, talismanic presence of the retired Antonios Nikopolidis, and Kostas Chalkias did little to advance his case with a bad decision to come out for the first goal, leaving Lewandowski with an empty net. At the other end of the pitch, Wojciech Szczesny has made his name in the Premier League as a quality, if occasionally erratic keeper, and his ill-judged dive out of his goal to try and cut out a ball into the box left Salpingidis with a similarly gaping net to fire home. Later, with Gekas removed for the young Kostas Fortounis to go to the left and allow Samaras up front, he made another bad mistake, with Fortounis chipping the ball over the top for Salpingidis to break the offside trap. Szczesny went for the ball one on one, missed, brought down the Greek winger and was shown a straight red. Fortunately for Poland, the penalty taker Karagounis continued his poor game and substitute ‘keeper Przemyslaw Tyton made himself a hero to the home crowd with the save. From there, the game fizzled out: both sides were low on stamina after a hard-fought game, and two 4-4-1s meant that the majority of the rest of the game was played in midfield, though Greece kept pushing. In the end, it was a deserved point apiece for two sides who dominated the game at different times, but couldn’t push home the advantage.

 

Russia 4-1 Czech Republic: Lethal counterattacking destroys Czechs

Starting formations and lineups

In the second game of EURO 2012, Russia systematically ripped apart a poor Czech Republic team on the counter.

Russia’s expected 4-3-3 was fielded, minus the injured Igor Akinfeev who was replaced by Vyacheslav Malafeev in goal. Yuri Zhirkov and Alexander Anyukov were fielded on either side of a CSKA Moscow central defence. Igor Denisov sat deep in midfield, with Konstantin Zyryanov and in particular Roman Shirokov running from deep in a fluid central midfield, supporting the attacking band of three that included the experienced Andrey Arshavin and starlet Alan Dzagoev on either side of Aleksandr Kerzhakov.

The Czechs also made only one chance, with Michal Kadlec from the centre of defence to the left, with Roman Hubnik coming in. Jaroslav Plasil played slightly behind Petr Jiracek in the double pivot, giving Tomas Rosicky license to roam and support prima punta Milan Baros.

 

First Russian goal on the counter

The game was relatively quiet in the opening stages, with only a clever interchange between Arshavin and Zhirkov following a corner resulting in any kind of real chance. With both Russian wingers coming into the centre, they found it easy to retain possession and dominate the game, but this allowed the Czechs to defend narrow, and with little thrust coming from the – surprisingly reserved, considering the rampaging runs they make domestically – full-backs, there were few opportunities. On 15 minutes, though, a Czech attack broke down through the centre, and Arshavin released Dzagoev into space down the centre. The young Russian shook off a challenge from two Czech midfielders and spread it wide to Zyryanov, who had made an overlapping run down the right. The centred ball came back off the post from Kerzhakov’s header, and Dzagoev lashed it in to put Russia ahead.

The goal showcased both what Russia are good at, and what they were lacking. The Russian interchange and fluidity on the counter was swift and effective, but the real difference was the presence of Zyryanov, who moved right and provided the missing width for the final ball in. Another chance followed soon after as a Czech attack broke down on the edge of the Russian box, with another counterattack prompted by Arshavin ending with Dzagoev, who had run the length of the pitch, blazing wide following an excellent ball from Kerzhakov.

 

Goals at both ends

The major danger when losing to a counterattacking side is that you can not attack without considerable danger, but nor can you not attack if you want to get back into the game. As such, the more men the Czechs committed forward to attack, the more dangerous the Russians became. Their second goal was another counterattack at pace, with Roman Shirokov making a trademark late run to dink over Cech and into the net.

Eventually, the Czechs got their breakthrough, with a slide rule pass by Jaroslav Plasil opening up the Russian defence for Vaclav Pilar to round Malafeev, but they would have been much further behind were it not for Kerzhakov missing a string of presentable passes. The Zenit frontman’s movement was excellent, however, and his unselfish attitude helped Russia greatly on the counter. The arrival of Tomas Hubschman to anchor the Czech midfield and the removal of Kerzhakov in favour of Roman Pavlyuchenko meant that Russia found it harder to break down the centre of the pitch, but with the Czechs throwing more men forward in an effort to get back into the game such opportunities were more numerous, if not always as successful. Russia’s third goal came from an excellent pass from Pavlyuchenko and an even better finish from the rampant Dzagoev, and then Pavlyuchenko swiftly made it four on the counter (predictably) after cutting inside and lashing a finish inside Cech.

Once they were a goal up, Russia could sit back and wait for Czech mistakes. Every facet of the Russian attack was fluid and interchangable, from midfield to the forward three, all of whom contributed in different ways. Andrey Arshavin had a fantastic game, playing 7 key passes and dictating the game from midfield, with Alan Dzagoev playing a more forward-thinking role, looking to be the one running onto the final pass rather than the man playing it. Kerzhakov, meanwhile, created the space for others to work in, whilst the runs of Shirokov constantly gave the Czech defence another man to worry about late on in attacks.

The Czechs weren’t necessarily bad, but rather were outclassed by a team that could fully play to their strength after 15 minutes and then continued to do so for the rest of the game. There were encouraging signs: Jaroslav Plasil had an excellent game, Tomas Rosicky looked dangerous despite the close marking he received, and Tomas Hubschman’s arrival helped them gain a foothold in midfield again. However, Baros continues to disappoint, and their defence looks worryingly slow. Indeed, the deep positioning of the centre-backs allowed the Russian forward trio huge amounts of room to work in as Plasil and Jiracek tried to press, and only contributed to their downfall.

 

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