LONDON – In the National Football League they say offense wins games, defense wins championships. The spelling and terminology may be slightly different, but it is a similar story when it comes to the World Cup and European Championship.
A team could play outstanding attacking football in the group stage, but when it comes to the business end of major finals it is the defense, the ability to shut out the opposition that decides the winner.
Spain won Euro 2012, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2008 without conceding a single goal in its 10 sudden-death games.
Current world champion Germany managed two out of four shutouts after the group stage in the 2014 World Cup, though one of the two goals it allowed was to Brazil in a 7-1 rout. In 2006 Italy’s defense was breached just once in four knockout stage matches and while Greece bored the pants off us at Euro 2004, it triumphed with three 1-0 victories after the group stage. Zero is the hero. Nil by goal-mouth.
The pre-tournament spotlight has inevitably focused on the forwards who could light up the next month. In reality, it will be the less heralded players making the difference between reaching the last four and an early flight home.
England opens its Euro 2016 bid against Russia in Marseille on Saturday and Roy Hodgson’s squad probably has the strongest collection of striking talent in France — Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Marcus Rashford plus Wayne Rooney.
However, there are four reasons why England is unlikely to be in the final on July 10 — Kyle Walker, Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill and Danny Rose. England traveled to the finals in the wake of two clean sheets in the last seven matches. In fairness to Hodgson few would dispute the quartet are the best back four available, but time after time the defense has been exposed by opponents’ pace, poor decision making and individual errors.
England cruised through the qualification program and has had mixed results in friendlies over the past season. A common factor, whoever has played in the backline, has been its vulnerability. Smalling has had a generally fine season for Manchester United, but was beaten twice by pace against Crystal Palace in the F.A. Cup final, the second incident saw him sent off as he pulled back Yannick Bolasie.
Cahill has not been a regular choice at Chelsea, while the third option in the center of defense, John Stones, has had a difficult time at Everton.
Hodgson will probably use Eric Dier as the defensive midfielder, the shield in front of the back four, but there remains a worrying lack of quality. It is not difficult to imagine Gareth Bale of Wales using his speed and strength to punish England’s vulnerability when the countries meet on June 16.
Hodgson knows the importance of winning, certainly not losing, the opening game and with this is mind he may opt for the more solid James Milner in midfield instead of the attacking skills of Adam Lallana or Jack Wilshere. The England manager has chosen a positive-looking squad, but he is naturally pragmatic and it remains to be seen how much he is prepared to gamble on the day.
It is also a worry that Hodgson’s best XI, formation and tactical approach are still up in the air. Managers can go to extreme lengths to keep their cards close to their chest, and if Hodgson has known how he will approach the Russia game for a while it has been a well-kept secret.
There is little to suggest England will take Euro 2016 by storm. The display in the 1-0 win over Portugal neither raised hopes nor pulses. At best there is a guarded optimism among England fans based on the attacking gems; there have been too many false dawns, raised hopes followed by the same old story. Quarterfinals and a penalty shootout loss.
Russia does not possess any truly outstanding individuals, but coach Leonid Slutsky, who is also in charge at CSKA Moscow, has taken the tactics that served him well at club level to the national team. Russia’s weakness is a lack of pace in the center of defense, with Sergei Ignashevich turning 38 during the tournament and 33-year-old Vasili Berezutski his partner. Speed merchant Vardy will relish running at the pair.
Before this game, Wales, 26th in the FIFA rankings, plays Slovakia (24th) in Bordeaux. In Bale, Wales has a player who is among the world’s elite, a forward capable of winning games with a genius only a handful of players possess. He rarely fails to deliver when it really matters and in a match that promises to be a dour, defensive battle Bale’s magic could prove to be decisive.
In-form Northern Ireland opens its tournament on Sunday against Poland and Michael O’Neill has worked a footballing miracle to lead his side to its first Euro finals. It won its qualifying group and is unbeaten in 16 months; for Northern Ireland the whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts.
Northern Ireland has a 38-year-old goalkeeper, Roy Carroll, who plays for Notts County of League Two. In defense there is Shane Ferguson of League One’s Millwall and Lee Hodson, who went on loan to Kilmarkock from MK Dons for regular club football. The main goal threat comes from Kyle Lafferty, who spent the last two months of the season on loan from Norwich to Birmingham.
O’Neill said: “Without wanting to use the word, we are going to have to be ‘horrible’ to play against.” The so-called horrible style means disciplined defending by every player. Northern Ireland has continually defied logic over the past two years and the team of no-names arrived in France confident of embarrassing more Goliaths.
The Republic of Ireland plays Sweden on Monday and despite qualifying by the skin of its teeth, Martin O’Neill’s team is capable of causing an upset. Keeping Zlatan Ibrahimovic quiet will be a huge test, but it is not beyond Ireland to finish third in a group that also contains Italy and Belgium.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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