Football NewsSunday 10th July 2016

Guillem Balague exclusive: Few things we learnt at Euro 2016

Guillem Balague exclusive: Few things we learnt at Euro 2016

1. This is the end of an era for Spain

Spain owes a huge debt to the achievements of both Vicente del Bosque and his predecessor, the late, great Luis Aragones who over the past eight years made Spain the envy of the football world.

But now it’s over; it’s back to the drawing board.

Both men would be the first to tell you that the football that made the world gasp was largely due to a generation of players that they managed to mould into a side the likes of which Spain had never seen before and will probably not see again in the foreseeable future.

That, however, is a million miles away from saying that Spain is not blessed with supremely talented players ready to step up to the plate and be competitive. The jury is still out on who is going to fill the ample boots of del Bosque and Aragones but the Spanish FA will be wise to think long and hard before making an appointment.

The ability to be a manager of men (more on that later) will be as important as the coaching skills required to do the job. Any sign of an indecent haste to place a new man at the helm would be foolhardy.

The front runner at the moment would seem to be the much travelled Joaquin Caparrós, until recently the manager of Granada, a man who in a 35-year managerial career has had more clubs than Rory McIlroy, and a man who I am not convinced is necessarily the Spanish FA’s best option.

2. Let’s look beyond English football’s psychological problem and development issues

To say England underachieved at this tournament is something of an understatement, but it’s not all doom and gloom and in the words of Dad’s Army’s, Corporal Jones, “Don’t Panic”.

England may well have technical, tactical and psychological issues, and I am paradoxically glad people are discussing it openly, which is the start of sorting things out as long as lessons have been learnt.

What would be really worrying is to see so much negativity floating around from the fans and the media create a knee jerk reaction from the FA.

The constant reminder of ’50 years of hurt’ is a yoke around the neck of a side so frightened to fail that, at times, they looked too scared to try to succeed.

The pressure that sometimes looks like it’s squeezing the creative life out of this England side masks the reality that this is a country that has some of the best young players in the world (notice the word young, they are not mature, they are not consistent talent yet, they might or might not become so). Those players can form the backbone of the national side for years to come if released of pressure and we allow them to enjoy themselves.

That’s the good news but it is, unfortunately, a long way from saying that this will stop the ‘years of hurt’ English fans and sections of the media constantly go on about while conveniently ignoring the fact that only one side can win a competition. Nobody has the right to win them or have the obligation to do so.

What it does bring to the table is a pathway, a route map that guarantees that you will be competitive for years to come. England should not change their plan and they should – no, must – keep the focus on bringing on young players. And they should choose a national coach that can make them play together in an enjoyable environment.

The likes of Luke Shaw, Smalling and Marcus Rashford will now be coached by Jose Mourinho; Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose will continue under the tutelage of Mauricio Pochettino, and Pep Guardiola will be looking to get the very best out of players like Raheem Sterling and, very probably, also John Stones.

So far, the FA is heading in the right direction and players are getting technically better and better. Now is the time to be brave and not throw the baby – or babies – out with the bathwater but rather celebrate the fact that what looks like the basis of the England side to come is under the guidance of some of the best coaches in the world

3. A team is often greater than the sum of all its players

Both on and off the pitch Wales and Iceland were unquestionably the shining lights of this championship and living proof of the old maxim that despite the importance of individual brilliance in any side there truly is no ‘I’ in the team.

Much of this has to do with the personality of the nation. A low level of expectation certainly helps not least because every success is considered a bonus. One can only imagine just how Wales would have celebrated their homecoming had they actually contrived to win the tournament. What matters above everything else, however, is if the leaders of that team, both on and off the pitch give priority to the team as opposed to themselves.

Wales’ ‘Band of Brothers’ and Iceland’s warriors have shown that in spades and so to a slightly lesser, although still impressive extent, did Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland and Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland.

Countries that showed us one of the great lessons, namely that in football as in life, the harder and more united you work together, then the further you get.

But ultimately to win this tournament you need to have that little something extra. Italy without any real superstars showed the strength of team spirit and unity but ultimately fell short. Portugal, almost unbelievably, found themselves in a final after a group stage that might have seen them sent home after three games with a side containing four players from its Under 21 runners-up side. Also with a very good team spirit. Ultimately, however, what made the difference was the man,‘the moment’ – Ronaldo (more on him later).

4. Sometimes you don’t have to be that good all the time to get through

Luck can play a huge part in determining your fortunes. Back to Portugal who looked dreadful as they stumbled out of arguably the weakest group of the tournament and into the last 16 without so much as winning a game and then proceeded to look even worse as they just edged past Croatia with an extra-time winner following a match, the highlights of which would not have filled a 30 second commercial. A penalty shootout win over Poland meant they had made the semi-finals with just one actual victory and without having won a game in 90 minutes throughout the entire tournament.

Had qualification from the group stages taken into account the number of games won rather than goal difference as a means of deciding who should stay and who should go, then Portugal as the only third place finisher without a victory would have been heading back to Lisbon rather than preparing for Paris.

Back to penalties and the one between Germany and Italy looked like something that had been choreographed by Monty Python and it’s fairly safe to say that it will not go down as either of the country’s finest hours. It has to be said that since the system was introduced many of the final winners have had to go through the lottery of penalties on their way to the title.

Spain’s shootout win over Italy in 2008 was the springboard on which their great success was built. On the back of such occasions history is often written; sometimes it’s just your day.

5. People are at long last agreeing with what I have been saying about Cristiano Ronaldo for the past year

For more than a year now I have been saying that Cristiano Ronaldo is not the player that he was. I have never said – as some people are trying to claim – that he is finished, merely that he is different, that he has physically peaked.

Now after this tournament, people are finally beginning to agree with me.

CR is still incredibly high maintenance and his area of influence has been reduced. These days he has finally accepted the limitations his own body is now putting on him.

Against Austria, he tried to go back to a marauding role on the left before it became obvious that was not the way ahead and Portugal reverted to the 4-4-2 system against Hungary that saw him steal the show as a ‘man of moments’

He can no longer have the influence he used to have in games other than as a strike player as he showed against both Hungary and Wales. Other leaderships are now in place in this Portugal side with the likes of Renato Sanches and Pepe, Nani and even Quaresma.

With the disappearance of the certain areas of authority on the pitch, other powers and authority he exerted on the side have also vanished. Effectively what we are saying that Portugal became during the tournament a group of players almost forced into becoming a team. That said, a team with the player who I believe is still the greatest striker in the world, the best goalscorer ever. But not the player he used to be and that clearly has disappointed many during the Euros to the point of saying he has had a disappointing competition. Really? He has scored, created chances, appeared in key moments. Even before the semis, I saw a Ronaldo that was one of the key players of this Euros.

6. It is a myth that national sides lack the time to work together tactically, but the best coaches do not usually become international managers

For a long time now people have been saying that international coaches lack the time to be able to work tactically with their players in a major tournament.

Germany showed when they adapted to playing in different ways in different situations as they did when they went with three defenders, showed that, actually, you can as long as you choose the right players that have the ability to be versatile.

The problem is that frequently national coaches are chosen on the basis that they will not ‘tinker’, alter the main game plan or the status quo but rather concentrate their efforts on the managing of egos. Or that they will not charge much the respective federation.

The truth is that there is enough time to work together especially if the players you have available to you have been coached by good people.

What we don’t get in most cases are the best coaches at tournaments like these and effectively what you have is, with a few notable exceptions, the best possible players being run by mediocre coaches. Conte showed that you could work on the side to get the best from it. His solution to guaranteeing versatile, strong defence was blisteringly simple; bring in the Juventus back three of Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini, plus, for good measure the club’s goalkeeper and captain Buffon – job done.

7. The much-criticised, increased number of teams format was a great success.

I loved the new 24 team format although it was from perfect. With only eight teams going home after the group stages even the Albanian fans managed an extra three days of partying before results and rules contrived to send them home.

Far too often in the past, we have heard – with some justification – about how football is being taken away from the fans. France 2016 will certainly not go down as the greatest tournament ever but it will at least be remembered as the one when the fans regained control of the game they love. To see both sets of Irish fans enrich the tournament with a contagious joie de vivre was joyous and ditto the Welsh and Icelandic fans.

Unfortunately, a by-product of that was a more conservative, survival mode, safety-first approach to the game; fewer risks taken by (mediocre) coaches scared to death of suffering the ignominy of early elimination

The stats show that there was an average of 2.14 goals scored per match in this tournament as opposed to 2.45 in 2012. But boring, as some have said? Try telling that to the Iceland supporters who won through to the knock-out stages with victory over Austria, Northern Ireland that saved the day against Ukraine and the Republic of Ireland who produced one of the major shocks of the competition with a last-gasp goal against Italy to set up a last 16 tie against France.

This format is almost certainly here to stay and a little too much caution shown as a result is, on balance, a price worth paying

8. Iceland showed the world the value of building in an extensive coaching system from the bottom up and reaped the benefits at these championships.

Iceland has a population of around 329,000, which according to 2016 statistics is around 19,000 less than Coventry. Although unlike Coventry, it does not have a single professional club, it boasts 639 UEFA B licence coaches and 196 UEFA A licence coaches

These coaches are responsible for the development of around 21,500 registered footballers, which is probably about the same number of players as registered in somewhere like Bedfordshire. Put another way that equates to one top class coach for approximately every 25 players.

With that kind of player/coach ratio, the real shock would be if they did not improve.

And not merely because it takes you to the quarter-finals of a European Championship but rather because coaching is the best way to maximise your potential; a system where top class coaching is put in place and used as the basis to make the players the very best they can be.

Iceland are living proof of that and I salute them.