As the final whistle blew on Iceland’s 1-1 draw with Portugal — as the roar of 30,000 Icelandic faithful echoed around the beautiful Stade Geoffroy-Guichard; as Cristiano Ronaldo’s shirt remained, for a change, on Cristiano Ronaldo’s back — so did the first round of group stage matches at this year’s European Championship come to a close.
And what have we learned? The goalkeeping has been lackluster, by and large — though against Portugal, Iceland’s Hannes Halldorsson performed like a man intent on singlehandedly turning that sentiment around. The goals, while not pouring down upon us, have certainly been flowing; we’ve yet to see a single scoreless draw in this tournament, and the football itself has been far from staid or prosaic.
In fact, barring several factors confined beyond the boundaries of play — though not too far beyond, as we unfortunately saw Saturday at the Stade Velodrome — these Euros have proved an entertaining, vastly enjoyable affair. And rather than flooding the tournament unworthy sides bereft of quality, the expanded 24-team format has brought an element of unpredictability to proceedings.
Lars Lagerback’s Iceland brought their compact 4-4-2 and Atletico-esque aggression to Saint Etienne against a Portugal side that started Nani(!) at striker and, after a few wobbles only natural for a team showing utter contempt for the very concept of ball possession, gutted out a hugely valuable point. Their groupmates Austria, meanwhile, absolutely stank out the brand spanking Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux against old pals Hungary, hopefully condemning the very concept of the “hipster’s choice” to an eternity in hell.
Italy have gone from no one’s pick to win it all to perhaps the pick of the bunch after a disciplined, smashmouth performance Monday against a Belgium team that barely deserved its distinction as one. Antonio Conte and Marc Wilmots scarcely operate on the same playing field as far as what they bring to the table for their respective sides; the Italians were a joy to watch, the tactical wrinkles in their game tailor-made to wreak havoc on their disheveled, dysfunctional opponents. Belgium now have a tricky path ahead of them; Ireland and Sweden, two clever outfits with armies of support behind them, will not be generous if met with the same lack of will and cohesion.
And why shouldn’t Italy be backed to go all the way? Besides being notoriously shrewd operators when it comes to major tournaments like these, the field is wide open. These bigger, wilder Euros may not be as watered down as anticipated, but they’re definitely not occupied by any world-beating juggernauts — not even Die Weltmeisters themselves, as sharp as they looked against a formidable Ukraine.
That role used to be played by the boys from Spain, who demolished everything before them between 2008 and 2012 but now are older, creakier, and in transition; they’re missing a few of their best mates who have since moved on, and they’re still learning how a couple of the new guys like their coffee. Xavi’s absence, in particular, is what people point to when offering hot takes about “the Death of Tiki-Taka,” but that fails to account for the fact that Spain were never really built on that Guardiola-era Barcelona model, anyway.
The 2008 side that exorcised Spain’s demons of tournaments past and kicked off those four unforgettable years was managed by Luis Aragones, played 4-4-2 and had Marcos Senna sitting next to Xavi in midfield. Sure, that 4-4-2 would often shift to a 4-3-3 in possession (with Iniesta tucking in and David Silva drifting higher), but they had the frightening combo of El Nino Torres and El Guaje Villa doing their work up top — not exactly two guys who liked to stroll around, biding their time while letting the midfield have all day on the ball.
But Vicente Del Bosque is a pragmatist, and if letting Xavi and Iniesta baby-tap their way to 1-0 win after 1-0 win after 1-0 win was the most effective way to go about things — and eventually lift the World Cup in the process — then so it was. That team was constantly evolving as well, of course — Barcelona duo Sergio Busquets and Pedro eventually staked their claim while Torres, after falling off a cliff for his club sides, gradually faded out of view for the national team.
This time, Del Bosque has looked at the assets at his disposal and realized that Alvaro Morata, Aritz Aduriz and Nolito are the best way to go about getting some much-needed goals in his team. The individual numbers back up that assertion; Aduriz just had a career year, scoring 36 goals in 55 games for Athletic Club last season, while Nolito has proven himself as one of La Liga’s most consistent attacking talents over the past three seasons. And nobody is doubting Morata’s talent and potential.
But as Monday’s match against the Czech Republic showed, none of those three are entirely at home playing with these guys — Iniesta, Silva, Busquets et al. — who have won everything with this team and, frankly, appear more than happy to continue putt-putting their way to glory. Spain’s midfield was ridiculously tidy against their admitted parked bus of an opponent, stroking the ball around the center of the park like the Ghost of Xavi had possessed the physical rubber sphere itself.
Yet the required penetration and incision in the final third was lacking all game, and it took an 87th minute header by Gerard Pique, off a peach of a measured cross into the box by Iniesta, to clinch the three points for Spain and save the contest from kicking off the sort of full-blown, “What’s Wrong with Spain?” frenzy that the European media loves to dig into. But it was mission accomplished nonetheless — another textbook 1-0 win for La Roja.
For my money, the defending European champs looked fine — really, really good, in fact. But Del Bosque will have a big choice ahead of Spain’s next game against Turkey on Friday: will he once again tap the likes of Morata and Nolito to hopefully pump some goals into the side, even if that requires a change in approach from what his midfield likely prefers? Or will it be Tiki-Taka’s Last Stand, with the old coach opting instead to let his warhorses do what they do best? The latter could see Fabregas — who started in midfield versus the Czech Republic, and is really more the sort of direct player who’d be comfortable feeding the likes of Morata and Nolito — return to his infamous role spearheading the Spain attack as a false nine.
In any case, it should be fascinating to watch. Here’s to wishing that these Euros remain a beautiful, glorious, jam-packed mess of a football tournament — and one that remains about the football, above all else.