Why have the ‘big’ nations been so boring at EURO2024?

EURO2024, and especially the early group stage match days of the tournament, has presented us with some of the most electrifying games of football in recent memory.

Romania’s 3-0 win over Ukraine caught the eyes of Europe off-guard, with the Tricolorii demonstrating a brand of football far beyond that of their higher profile opponents, capped off with three stellar finishes. 

Türkiye’s 3-1 victory against Georgia was a full game of end-to-end action, stuffed with enough grit, heart and magic that it made these two the teams to watch for the neutral fan. Switzerland, Austria, and even Poland and Albania (who would see themselves sent home early in proceedings) produced the goods for an enjoyable watch.

Why is it, then, that some of the biggest teams in the tournament have been so comparatively dull? England have been the subject of ridicule so far for their conservative approach towards their games, but they are far from the only superstar sides that can’t seem to match the rest of the tournament’s exciting football. 

France, despite their place in the upcoming quarterfinals, are yet to score from open play, so far profiting exclusively from two own-goals and a penalty. Belgium scraped through their group, where all four teams ended on four points. Slovakia and Romania joined them in the knockouts, sending an unlucky Ukraine home in last place on goal difference.

(Photo by Alex Caparros – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

So what is causing this chasm in the excitement provided by the competition’s surprise stars and established favourites?

The most obvious and maligned difference in the squads of these nations is their star power. The idea is that nations with more top level stars will have more egos, or simply more players who are used to competing for the highest accolades of world football. It is a factor that is perhaps over discussed, but there is an undeniable logic to it.

A player who spends their time in a league with less viewership and monetary incentives is, in general, more likely to appreciate the gravity of a major international tournament and give every last breath to their nation’s cause. A player whose trophy cabinets are filled to the brim with the game’s most prestigious awards might be less willing to put it all on the line for one more cup on the pile. 

Putting it down to “they want it more” is ultimately reductive however, and this is just the tip of the iceberg for what is really behind the lacklustre performances of Europe’s international football dynasties. The varying experiences and egos of the squads has a more tangible effect when you dive into the man management of international players. 

When a national team manager has a player of a certain profile, that player, the player’s club, and the nation as a whole, exert a pressure to see that player feature in the tournament. 

The most obvious example of this becoming a problem can be seen with Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham for England. Both players had incredible seasons for certified football giants, and would be obvious choices for practically any international team in the world. However, the role that both players would best suit in Southgate’s England side would be the central advanced midfielder, the ‘10.’ So far at EURO2024, Southgate has favoured Bellingham in this role – but rather than lose a player of Foden’s ability and status, he has played him out of position on the left wing. 

This has been the source of many problems for England’s build up, as Foden drifts towards the centre of the pitch, conceding width and making the side’s play very predictable. To counter this, Southgate allowed Kieran Trippier the attacking licence to progress forward and take up the space on the left flank which the left winger would usually occupy. This gave the side the width that they needed, but sacrificed a defender to do so, allowing Slovakia to break against a weakened defence and put themselves in the lead.

(Photo by Alexander Scheuber – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Whilst not as recognised or decorated on the global stage as Foden, one wonders whether Anthony Gordon would better fit the role required of a Southgate left winger. He is more comfortable holding the team’s width by playing along the sideline, creating more space through the middle for Harry Kane to finally make his mark at the tournament. Gordon also has the pace in behind that gives England’s attack a new dimension, opening opportunities for fast breaks and long balls beyond the opponents’ defence. He seems like a no-brainer, but Foden’s profile precedes him, gifting him a place regardless of what’s in the best interests of the team.

It is no surprise that the biggest teams to live up to their billing so far in the tournament have been the sides with managers who are willing to make bold selection decisions. Spain have been incredible at EURO2024, thanks in part to Luis de la Fuente’s consistent selection of Marc Cucurella over Alejandro Grimaldo. It was a decision that turned heads early in the tournament before being immediately vindicated through Cucurella being one of the standout full backs of the competition thus far.

Julian Nagelsmann has generally favoured Stuttgart’s Maximilian Mittelstädt over RB Leipzig’s David Raum, and has brought on players from TSG Hoffenheim and Union Berlin in place of his superstars if he has deemed it the best decision for the team. Compare these managerial performances to Roberto Martinez’ showing in Portugal’s 0-0 result over 120 minutes against Slovenia, where the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo cost his team with his insistence on being the star of Portugal’s attack, enabled by Martinez’ inaction in the face of CR7’s stardom.

This is rarely an issue that befalls teams with no or very few big names in their squads. Switzerland manage to build around their biggest stars such as Manuel Akanji and Granit Xhaka, with manager Murat Yakin demonstrating a willingness to shift the rest of the team around to provide the best option for every game. Kwadwo Duah of the Bulgarian First League was handed the start in Switzerland’s first game of the competition over stars such as Breel Embolo of Monaco and Noah Okafor of AC Milan. The decision paid dividends almost immediately, with Duah handing his side the lead just 12 minutes in.

To understand how ‘smaller’ teams get the best out of their more coherent and balanced squads, we must examine the psychology of different teams entering a major tournament. 

Put yourselves in the shoes of the manager of an international giant. The expectation is knockout football, anything else is a total failure. You have technical superiority thanks to your talented squad, and so are most vulnerable from fast counterattacks that create overloads for the opposition. The safest way to play when you have the better squad is to control the game. If you can control possession, reduce the opportunities for your opponent to counter with numbers by not overcommitting forward, and eventually break through thanks to your attacking talent, you have a recipe for a boring but efficient game of football. This is the mindset of England, France and the Netherlands.

(Photo by Alexander Scheuber – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Less technical sides don’t have the luxury of slowing the game down. Against strong opposition, a smaller team’s best chance is to disrupt the opposition’s build up and win possession as often as possible to produce counters. This is a frenetic and entertaining style of play, focused around ferocious and direct attacks that punish the opposition before they have time to settle into their defensive structure, but behind the chaos is an emphasis on defensive rigidity and well drilled pressing. To keep out the likes of Portugal and Germany requires extreme discipline, something that can only be found in a team in which every player is fully committed to the others. 

Teams such as Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia have a lack of superstars, so no one player is built around. Instead, the squad is built entirely around enacting a system. Slovakia displayed a disciplined mid-block against England which made it hard for them to progress between their defensive and midfield lines, essentially locking them in their own half with their centre-backs passing to each other in perpetuity as they waited and waited for an opening. The positional discipline of the opposition made these openings rare, heavily limiting their attacking opportunities. When Slovakia won the ball back their advanced line went from a defensive blockade to a moving wall of attackers, ensuring that any ball carrier had multiple options on the attack.

Georgia favoured a lower block, falling back to their own box where their solid defensive structure limited good opportunities, whilst sucking their opponents onto them, often drawing the other team’s defenders well into the Georgian half of the pitch. When the defence inevitably won the ball they looked immediately forward, where the wingers were already sprinting towards the halfway line and the few lone defenders that stayed that far back. Technical ball carriers like Khvicha Kvaratskhelia could produce opportunities even from these numerical disadvantages, and allowed Georgia to always present a threat even when they appeared to be desperately clinging on.

Big names are dismantling their teams’ potential, not through deliberate bad attitude, but by reputations so impressive that they are accommodated before the needs of the team. The key to an impressive showing at EURO2024 is putting the badge before any one man, drilling defensive structures and progressive patterns of play that utilise the skill sets of your most suitable players, not necessarily your ‘best’ or highest profile ones. Confidence in a system and everyone’s individual role within it is the only thing that can open the opportunity for teams to play aggressively, where players can fall back into trained routines rather than floundering and attempting to chase down possession as an individual.

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