The best form of attack
After defences ruled at UEFA EURO 2004 and the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, many were expecting another instalment of cagey football in Switzerland and Austria. Instead, the trend has been reversed, with the Netherlands particularly prolific, Russia consistently attacking and Turkey nothing less than explosive. So why exactly does the tactical landscape seem to be shifting? FIFA.com canvassed some of the game's greatest minds to get their take.
As the only unbeaten team still in contention, Spain epitomise perfectly the wind of change sweeping through EURO 2008, having notched up 11 goals in four games on their route to Sunday's final. No one could be happier about that than their coach at Portugal four years ago, Inaki Saez, and the Basque trainer was glad to share his thoughts on the evolution that has taken place since the continent's finest last convened.
"After EURO 2004, we coaches sat down and concluded that players didn't have enough time to recover between the end of their league seasons and the start of international competitions," he said. "We worked with that in mind and, today, the players can express their qualities better. Since the greatest talents can be found in the creative areas on the pitch, we're witnessing a much more attacking style of play. That's the mentality that's dominant today, except for a few teams who still prefer to wait for their opponents to come at them."
The net result is what has so far been an epidemic of offensive football, and those who tried to resist the trend were quickly swept aside. Defending European champions Greece were sent home after three straight defeats and just one goal to show for their ultra-defensive approach, while world champions Italy were caught out by the penalty shoot-out system that served them so well in 2006, and could only manage one win and three goals in four outings. Meanwhile, 2006 runners-up France crashed out with just one point and one strike from three matches, despite a myriad of forward-thinking talents from different generations.
Attacking brio rewarded
At the opposite extreme, the Netherlands, Croatia and Portugal all topped their groups and seduced crowds with their stylish play and positive intentions, only to fall by the wayside in the quarter-finals, perhaps having tired physically. Ironically, the Dutch were beaten by a Russia team even more attack-minded than themselves, after having romped through the group phase with the best goalscoring record in the early stages of the competition. Of their ten strikes, seven came against the most recent FIFA World Cup finalists, but against the Russians a certain reluctance to get forward cost them dearly. Or, as Johan Cruyff put it, they "didn't have enough energy to play their game of short, rapid passes based on availability and movement".
The superb technique and team understanding so central to Russia's success against the Dutch was in large part due to their irreproachable fitness levels, one of the keys to the 'Hiddink method' that Dutch coach Guus Hiddink applied with such stunning results in the Korea Republic hot-seat in 2002. Likewise, the return of Andrei Arshavin from suspension proved crucial to a team that kicked off their campaign with a morale-sapping 4-1 loss to Spain. Arshavin quickly became one of the stars of the tournament, knocking in two goals, contributing an assist and thrilling spectators with his outrageous skill.
Unfortunately for the Russians, however, they came up against Spain again in the semi-finals. For the second time, Luis Aragones's men were able to combine beautiful play with the right result, registering a decisive 3-0 triumph. "Spain possess a characteristic style, one based on combinations and one-touch football," added Inaki Saez. "This identity, which is unique to this team, has led them to victory so far. It's a formula that we're not so used to seeing recently."
Playmakers on parade
Spain's supporters will be hoping it works at least one more time, against Germany in Vienna this weekend. The Germans have until now been a lot less consistent than their upcoming opponents but their mix of pace, power and technique has taken them past some serious obstacles on the road to the showpiece match. Occasionally timid, as they were against Austria and Turkey, and occasionally brilliant, as Poland and Portugal will attest, the Mannschaft have been able to compensate for their faults with a tight defence and genuine attacking menace. "Germany are always a solid team," explained Saez. "And just as they showed against Portugal, they're also very handy when it comes to set-pieces."
The importance of Michael Ballack to Germany cannot be understated either, and the Chelsea man's renaissance in Switzerland and Austria adds to the overriding impression that playmakers can no longer be seen as luxury items in a starting line-up. Arshavin and Croatia's Luka Modric have also pushed that agenda. "I'm loving it because for my first finals as an ordinary spectator I'm getting to watch fantastic matches," commented Zinedine Zidane, recent retiree and leading authority on what makes a great No10.
Speaking to FIFA.com, Zidane's former coach Aime Jacquet also gave his thoughts on the festival of attacking football unravelling at EURO 2008. "There's been an evolution in this area," explained the 1998 FIFA World Cup winner. "Attacks can now start from anywhere. Look at what full-backs do today and the influence they have on the game. In addition, when a team are too static through the middle, they get nowhere. It's not a question of positioning on the pitch but your availability in terms of technique. That's why I think this Spain side will come out on top, because they have a generation of players highly-developed in a technical sense and four midfielders who make an impact going forward."
'Counter the counter-attacks'
What is certain is that the standard of football on display is high and that the spectacle emanating from Switzerland and Austria has enchanted fans everywhere. "It's a very good tournament mixing drama and top quality, all of which goes to make this an impressive EURO," added UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh. "What's more, there have been a lot of goals scored very late on in games where the last quarter of an hour has proved decisive." The former Scotland coach has also been struck by the intensity of some of the matches: "You just have to look at Russia, who have grown stronger and stronger as the tournament has gone on. The best teams have a very high standard in terms of the speed with which they move the ball around, the distances they cover and their sprints."
Meanwhile, Bora Milutinovic, another respected voice courtesy of five FIFA World Cups, noted that, "certain teams play with two players screening the defence to avoid being caught out on the break, which is a real danger in modern football. The aim now is to 'counter the counter-attacks', which often ups the tempo of a game."
Lastly, this EURO - which no one dare look away from for a second - has caught imaginations as far afield as the United States, where American journalist Grant Wahl recently labelled it, "so far the best major soccer tournament since the 1986 World Cup". It has been a genuine joy to behold, and we can only hope Sunday's final continues in the same vein.