Favorites are out of fashion, minnows are the rage and the low number of goals makes last-minute strikes particularly valuable. DW takes a completely subjective look at what we learned from the first stage of Euro 2016.
Before the tournament, depending on who you asked, Germany, France, Spain and even Belgium were touted as the title favorites. Two weeks in, as expected, all of those teams survived the group stage, but no team laid down a marker that it is the one to beat.
Germany and France have been flat offensively. The normally ever reliable Thomas Müller, for instance, has looked as though he’s taken scoring lessons from Kevin Kuranyi. Meanwhile, Spain and Belgium have been suspect at the back despite fielding two of the most coveted keepers in Europe.
Arguably, it’s Italy that have most impressed, leaving aside their meaningless (for them) loss to the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday. Perhaps part of the reason no one has broken away from the pack is because with 16 out of 24 teams progressing, no one had to.
That, of course, changes when the first knock-out round commences on Saturday. The lopsided draw means that by necessity some of the pre-tournament favorites will be making early exits, and Belgium has a golden chance to go all the way to the final.
Small is the new big
Much has been made of small nations doing well, and it’s tough not to applaud Northern Ireland, Iceland and Hungary for punching above their supposed weight. So what’s been their secret? Is it all down to never-say-die attitude?
Yes and no. Euro 2016’s overachieving underdogs all have one thing in common: the absence of star individuals. They emphasize the collective because they have no other choice, and that goes a long way. Many players are tired from long domestic seasons, and even the top squads are mixtures of men who don’t play together regularly.
Watching Hungary and Iceland against Portugal, or the Republic of Ireland against Sweden, you couldn’t help but think that maybe the outsiders were better off for not having a big name like Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovich. Especially as goals in general have been hard to come by.
More duds than offensive bangers
Defenses in France have been stingy. On average, there have only been 1.92 goals scored per match at Euro 2016, compared with 2.7 at the 2014 World Cup and 2.45 at Euro 2012.
It’s not entirely clear why. One could argue that the presence of eight additional teams in the competition means that some countries are playing without top-quality strikers. But conversely, those teams’ defenses should be yielding more goals. Perhaps the expanded format made teams play more tactically, making sure they at least finished third rather going for wins and potentially enduring the humiliation of being one of only eight teams to crash out after the first round.
Whatever the reason, goals have been relatively scarce. So they’ve been particularly valuable – and especially so, when they’ve come late.
Nearly thirty percent of the goals at Euro 2016 (20 of 69) have been scored in the final fifteen minutes of play or in injury time. The late winner has become something of a motif for the entire event.
Again there’s no pinning down any one particular reason. Maybe it’s fatigue, although the weather in France hasn’t been particularly hot. Maybe it’s down to team strategy, although it’s unclear why teams playing tactically would suddenly go full bore for goals late on.
In any case, the relative scarcity of goals does logically mean that successful strikes will be more significant. There have been very few late goals of the substitute-striker-runs-up-score-on-overmatched-opponents variety and a lot of last-gasp winners, which has been quite entertaining.
Referees deserve credit
And staying on a positive note: it’s hard to recall a major tournament in which the officiating has been as consistently good as Euro 2016. There will be odd complaints from this or that faction, but we’ve been spared the sort of massive blunders that alter the course of matches and even stages as a whole.
Two aspects stand out. Referees are handing out fewer cards, an average of just over 3.5 yellows per game compared with almost 4 at Euro 2012, and play hasn’t been particularly rough. There’s also been little of the crass diving (we’re looking at you, Arjen Robben) that had spectators holding their shaking heads in their hands at past events.
Did someone speak to the teams before the competition and warn them to lay off the funny stuff? Whatever the reason, the players seem better behaved. In that respect, whatever else its faults, Euro 2016 represents a bit of progress.