Euro 2012 wrap up

Euro 2012 is now over after 23 days, 76 goals, and countless memories. Spain successfully defended the crown as champions of Europe, completing an unprecedented treble of a World Cup triumph sandwiched by two continental championships. Here are some thoughts on this Spanish side and a “best of” compilation.

“Boring” Spain?

Critics of the Spanish side complained the team was “boring,” opting for a 4-6-0 formation that went without an out-and-out striker. Dubbed a “false No. 9,” the role ordinary played by a striker is occupied by an attacking midfielder, in this case Cesc Fabregas.

But what the critics fail to realize is how much this side has missed David Villa, who broke his leg playing for Barcelona in December. Had Villa been fully fit and able to play, it’s doubtful manager Vicente del Bosque would have trotted out a team that played with six of the best midfielders in the world. (That’s no exaggeration: Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, David Silva are top class, while Sergio Busquets and Fabregas are certainly nothing to sneeze at.)

To say they are “boring” is disingenuous, and actually not true statistically. Spain averaged 2 goals per game – joint highest with Germany – and averaged 9.7 attempts on target – second only to Italy at 10.2.

The beauty of many of the goals Spain scored stands on its own. Take Silva’s goal in the final against Italy as an example. The buildup play was excellent, consisting of sublime passing, good movement, and a great header from the Manchester City winger.

And what makes this Spain a joy to watch is that passing ability. Spain had ridiculous passing stats all tournament, including averaging 626.3 passes per game (compared to Ireland, which had the worst at 221.3). The team also completed more passes in the final third than any other country.

Spain was also very sound tactically and defensively – something that’s actually underrated about this team. When you could get actually sniff of the ball, Spain as a unit would get it right back off of you, pressing high up the pitch and immediately putting teams under pressure.

Maybe it’s “boring” to watch the same team win again and again, but from a footballing perspective, Spain are a unique side to watch.

So is Spain the greatest international team of all time?

In short no, but only because it’s too difficult to compare different eras of football and different generations of players. Spain has achieved what no other team has done, winning three straight major tournaments and hardly conceding any goals along the way. Three major trophies in just four years is a simply remarkable accomplishment. Whether you like them or hate them, they are a truly special footballing side and something we might never see again.

But that doesn’t necessarily make them the greatest team of all time, nor is that a fair argument to make either for or against Spain. International football is littered with some tremendous sides. Uruguay in the 1920s and 30s, for example, won two Olympic Gold Medals on European soil before hosting and winning the first-ever World Cup in 1930. (The Olympics decided world champions before the invention of the World Cup.) La Celeste dominated the era and pretty much set the gold standard for internationals by both their achievements and playing ability, essentially playing an attacking 2-3-5 formation.

There’s also Brazil in the late 50s and early 60s and again in the 90s and early 2000s. Brazil in 58 and 62 won back-to-back World Cups. Its 1970 squad was simply remarkable, going 6-0-0 en route to winning it all and playing a truly special brand of football. In more recent times, Brazil won the World Cup in 1994, reached the final in 1998, and won again in 2002, making three straight appearances in the final of the World Cup. In-between at the Copa America (South American continental championship), they were finalists in 1995 and winners in 1997 and 1999.

Germany in the 70s are also a great shout and the only European team that came close to matching Spain’s achievement. European champions in 1972 and World Cup winners in 1974, West Germany fell just short of sandwiching their World Cup triumph by being runners-up at Euro 1976 after losing on penalties to Czechoslovakia – thanks to Antonin Panenka’s famous chip.

But the debate over the greatest team of all time misses the point. Each of the above mentioned teams brought something special and different to the game beyond trophies. Cherish each team for what has made each special and appreciate the beauty that each brought to the game at different times.

Best XI

*Yep, going with a false No. 9

GK Iker Casillas (ESP) – Casillas was tremendous, conceding only one goal during Euro 2012. Another outstanding tournament for the Real Madrid keeper.

RB Gebre Selassie (CZR) – Selassie surprised quite a few pundits with his play for the Czech Republic. Solid defensively, Selassie was very good going forward and attacking from a deep position.

CB Mats Hummels (DEU) – The Borussia Dortmund man put in great performances for Germany, playing a huge part defensively against Portugal to open the country’s group play. At 23, Hummels should become a mainstay for Die Mannschaft.

CB Daniel Agger (DEN) – Somehow Agger slipped by most people’s team of the tournament (including UEFA’s official team of the tournament), but the Denmark captain was the unsung hero of his country’s side. “Dagger,” as Liverpool fans call him, made 21 interceptions during group play – more than any other player. Not bad considering the quality attack Germany, Portugal, and the Netherlands have.

LB Jordi Alba (ESP) – Alba might have been the brightest young player at Euro 2012, impressing on both sides of the ball. The run he made on his goal vs Italy in the final was excellent, and he was a joy to watch all tournament.

DM Andrea Pirlo (ITA) – The legendary Italian was pivotal in his country’s run to the final. Very few can strike a ball as well and as beautifully as Pirlo, and his calmness on the ball coupled with his range of passing were excellent. He scored a peach of a penalty vs England (a la Panenka) and picked up 3 MOTM awards.

CM Xavi Hernandez (ESP) – The Pass Master, Xavi had a simply outstanding tournament once again. His passing ability is second to none and his influence in the middle of the pitch cannot be underestimated. It’s simple, he makes Spain – and club Barcelona – tick.

CM Sami Khedira (DEU) – Despite the presence of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil, I felt Khedira had an excellent tournament for Germany, especially once the chains were loosened and he was free to crash box-to-box. A good tournament for the Real Madrid man and a deserved spot in UEFA’s official team.

RW Andres Iniesta (ESP) – The player of the tournament, Iniesta received joint most MOTM awards with Pirlo and was a dynamo playing LW for Spain. Did he score lots of goals? No, but he didn’t need to given how instrumental he was for Spain. If you didn’t have him in your Best XI, shame!

LW Cristiano Ronaldo (POR) – Despite his goal-scoring record at club, many had criticized Ronaldo for a lack of production internationally. Those criticisms were answered this tournament with three crucial goals: two vs the Netherlands and a header vs the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals.

AM Cesc Fabregas (ESP) – He might not be a striker, but Fabregas played very well as the “false No. 9” for Spain. He dropped deep to get the ball and defend, held the ball well, and contributed in a big way for Spain all tournament, including an equalizer vs Italy in group play, an assist in the final, and the winning penalty vs Portugal.

Honorable mentions: David Silva (ESP), Xabi Alonso (ESP), Sergio Ramos (ESP), Steven Gerrard (ENG), Pepe (POR), Mesut Ozil (DEU), Philip Lahm (DEU), Mario Balotelli (ITA), Gianluigi Buffon (ITA), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE).

Best goal: Jakub Blaszczykowski vs Russia

A brilliant opposite foot strike, what makes Kuba’s goal for Poland special was that it gave the co-host nation a boost against a rival. Listen to the noise and the reaction in the crowd and that tells you how big a goal it was.

Best moment: Republic of Ireland supporters vs Spain

Down 3-0 to the eventual champs, the fans of Ireland covered themselves in glory by being the loudest supporters in the stadium. This rendition of “Fields of Athenry” in Gdansk is special not only because of its volume, but because of the support being shown despite defeat. Instead of booing the team, the Ireland supporters stood behind their team, continuing to sing well passed the final whistle. A wonderful moment for the game.