The learning curve
"Congratulations to Switzerland, not only for the result but the style of play and some of the players they had on show. We didn’t play to the level we can do - that’s youth development. You have highs and lows and everything’s a learning opportunity." The sentiment expressed by England manager Steve Cooper after the 1-0 defeat on the final matchday of Group A might easily have been echoed by many of his coaching colleagues.
The hosts fought against first-night nerves and compact deep defending to earn a 2-1 opening victory against Israel and then needed to dig equally deep to come from behind to beat Italy by the same scoreline – the visitors’ aggressive high pressing yielding the interception of a square pass and a powerful finish by Alessio Riccardi. Unable to sustain their high-calorie pressing, Italy conceded twice in the second half. But, having beaten a nervous Switzerland 2-0 in their opener, they clinched top spot in the group with the same score against Israel, whose efforts against England left them short of resources. Switzerland had stayed alive by defeating the Israelis 3-0 with nicely-worked goals and then produced an outstanding collective effort to beat England 1-0. Had their added-time chance hit the net, the hosts would have been eliminated on the goal differences between three sides who finished level on six points.
Norway raised eyebrows by holding the 2016 champions, Portugal, to a goalless draw when Group B kicked-off. Alone in deploying three centre-backs, Gunnar Halle’s team made an edgy start but, with fast transitions to 1-5-3-2 defending and staying compact in central areas, they stemmed the flow of Portuguese attacking movements and enjoyed the better of the second half. Despite conceding an early goal, Norway then coped with a more direct attacking style in the Nordic derby against Sweden, winning second-balls and attacking patiently to claim a 2-1 win. They clinched top spot with a 2-0 win against Slovenia, made comfortable by the 20th-minute dismissal of the opposition’s captain. It was a third successive defeat for the Slovenians, who set out to play a neat passing game but found it difficult to cope with the intensity of the competition. The sting in the tail came when Sweden then defeated Portugal 1-0 with a solid collective effort against rivals who, as they had demonstrated against Norway, struggled to find penetration routes in the final third.
Group C, by contrast, had a sting in the head. On the opening day, Denmark were good value for their 1-0 half-time lead against a passive Bosnia and Herzegovina side. But Zoran Erbez’s half-time talk evidently worked wonders. A confident, more aggressive and passionate side came back to win 3-2. Shell-shocked Denmark struggled with their passing against the Republic of Ireland to lose 1-0 and completed a hat-trick of defeats against Belgium. Thierry Siquet’s side, with solid technique and tactical awareness, qualified with a game to spare by beating the Irish and putting four goals past a Bosnia and Herzegovina side that paid a toll for their efforts against the Danes. The Irish, needing only a draw against them in the final game, won 2-0 thanks to a direct free-kick and a second goal with the last kick of the game.
The tournament’s ‘group of death’, featuring Germany, Serbia, the Netherlands and Spain, opened with a clear 3-0 victory for a Dutch side that impressed with tactical variations, quick transitions and direct passing into the final third. Less comfortable against a Spanish side who carved clear chances in the second half, Kees van Wonderen’s side – despite six changes – capitalised on defensive slip-ups to post a 2-0 win. Spain had been taken to the limit in their first game, beating a strong, competitive Serbia thanks to a late set play. Serbia, like other teams, paid a price for their opening-day endeavours and were 3-0 down to Germany in 37 minutes – and stayed that way until the final whistle. A 2-0 defeat against the Dutch sent them home without scoring a goal. The group’s climax was a do-or-tie confrontation between Germany and Spain, with the latter obliged to win. They did so with unexpected ease, slicing through the German midfield and defence to deliver a series of cut-backs and scoring chances. Santi Denia’s players scored all six goals in their 5-1 win – Germany’s consolation coming from a long-range shot re-directed by a defender.
After 40 minutes of the quarter-final, Belgium seemed destined to become the next victim of the defending champions’ exuberant high-tempo combination game. But, during the interval, Thierry Siquet reminded his players that, despite being clearly second-best, they were only 1-0 down. He made a shrewd tactical adjustment by injecting attacking midfielder Halim Timassi; sending Jamie Yayi Mpie from the left flank to the apex of the attack; and encouraging his players to press higher and more aggressively. Within a minute Belgium had equalised and, when Yayi Mpie charged down a clearance by the keeper eight minutes later to take the lead, they then controlled, with a degree of comfort, attempted reactions by a flagging Spanish team.
After conceding in the 4th minute, Sweden gradually worked their way back into the quarter-final against Italy – to the extent that, with an equaliser on the cards, Alessandro Russo saved a penalty just before half-time. Roger Franzén’s team, the epitome of collective endeavour, chased the game after the break, creating chances and threatening to overwhelm their opponents – but lacking the finishing touch. Substitutions altered the shape to 1-3-4-3. Despite going a man down later in the game, they still pushed hard, prompting Italy, despite their numerical advantage, to resort to a back five to protect the 1-0 scoreline during the closing seven minutes.
Before a sizeable crowd in Burton, England pitted their 1-4-2-3-1 against Norway’s 1-3-5-2 and kept the wingers wide to pose questions to the Norwegian wing-backs, with both full-backs also engaging in attacking moves. Although frequently defending with ten behind the ball, Norway gradually eased forward yet struggled to create chances in open play, generating local anxiety only from dead-ball situations. After a cross from the left and a header had put the hosts in the driving seat, a second by Xavier Amaechi early in the second half clinched victory against a compact, hardworking team that had played an impressive tournament.
The Dutch, favourites to defeat the Republic of Ireland, nevertheless struggled to find solutions against deep, resolute 1-4-5-1 defending and had to wait until a corner and a header broke the deadlock in the 62nd minute. Maybe breathing a sigh of relief, they took their eye off the ball and allowed Colin O’Brien’s team to equalise within a matter of seconds – a crossfield pass; a lofted diagonal from the left; a neat one-two in the box; and a cool finish by Troy Parrott. Ireland missed the first penalty of the shoot-out but seemed to have thrown themselves a lifeline when James Corcoran saved the 10th from Dutch captain Daishawn Redan. But the Irish keeper, already yellow-carded, was deemed to have encroached. The second yellow spelt dismissal and defender Oisin McEntee, donning the keeper’s jersey, was unable to stop the re-taken spot kick. The Dutch, by the slimmest of margins were through to a semi-final against England.
In Chesterfield, there was a similar dénouement to a very different story. With Thomas Doyle injured and the suspensions of Ethan Laird and Xavier Amaechi adding to the list of absentees, the England line-up was at variance with early-tournament teamsheets. But the pace, the technique and the athletic condition remained unadulterated as they took the game to the Dutch who, again, permuted their starters. In particular, the presence of Brian Brobbey provided a reference point for long back-to-front deliveries, while top scorer Daishawn Redan bobbed around in his wake. Both sides enjoyed spells of domination during an end-to-end contest – the Dutch finishing strongly after Brobbey had been withdrawn and Mohammed Ihatteren switched to the right flank. The match had plenty of attractive facets – but no goals. Once again, it was down to a penalty shoot-out and, once again, the celebrations were Dutch, Joey Koorevaar saving the 12th spot-kick.
Earlier in the day, Belgium had started against Italy as they had started against Spain. Struggling to play their way through the opponents’ high pressing and frequently finding that their 1-4-2-3-1 generated numerical inferiority in the middle of the park against Italy’s midfield diamond of four, they found it hard to penetrate into the final third. But, as against Spain, they headed for the dressing-rooms no more than a single goal adrift at half-time – a high ball-win setting up a nice combination on the left, with full-back Giorgio Brogni hitting a long cross neatly turned in from beyond the far post Emmanuel Gyabuaa, who had invested calories in a high-speed run from midfield.
As against Spain, Belgium rebounded after the break. Nicolas Raskin, latching on to the ball near the halfway line, outran holding midfielder Giuseppe Leone and his pass was relayed to Yorbe Vertessen who, from the right corner of the box, hit a cross-shot into the far corner. This time, however, there was to be no happy ending for the Belgians. Central striker Edoardo Vergani, thwarted in a couple of 1 v 1 situations by goalkeeper Nick Shinton, finally beat him with a powerful long-range strike. This time, there was no reply. Carmine Nunziata’s team would return to Rotherham three days later to dispute the title with the Dutch.