Euro 2016: From France to England to Spain, finding a best XI not so straightforward

Ian Hawkey writes the tinkering, or lack thereof, and it the ensuing results for various teams at these Euros laves little clarity on which strategy actually is for the better.
Spain head coach Vicente Del Bosque shown during his team's loss to Croatia on Tuesday night. Michael Dalder / Reuters / June 21, 2016
Spain head coach Vicente Del Bosque shown during his team's loss to Croatia on Tuesday night. Michael Dalder / Reuters / June 21, 2016

To stick? Or to twist? The choice has been contemplated by a number of head coaches in the tricky denouement to the group phase of Euro 2016, a tournament whose unusual structure has, it turned out, offered as many pitfalls for the so-called elite nations as privileges to the underdogs, with its generous awarding of next-phase berths for third-placed finishers.

In Groups A and B, the first to have their final hierarchies settled ahead of the knockout stages, the top seeded nations fielded line-ups featuring a significant number of changes to their XIs for their last matches. France’s head coach Didier Deschamps kept what we must now regard as his established back five – goalkeeper and the four across the back who have conceded one goal so far – but tinkered a good deal with the rest of the formation ahead of the game against Switzerland.

The French drew 0-0, and though that outcome was enough to secure top place in the group, what the changes did not gain was the momentum Deschamps’ team are badly in need of. They have laboured to win their victories so far.

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That in itself was good cause for looking for alternatives, for, say, trying Paul Pogba in a distinct position in the midfield trio, as Deschamps did against the Swiss. But in resting key men, Deschamps sacrificed individual momentum. Olivier Giroud had scored in six of his previous seven matches; a night on the bench interrupted that buoyant streak. Dimitri Payet had been finding an excellent groove, with goals in his two previous outings. He had just half an hour as a substitute against Switzerland.

Now, this is a summer tournament, and there is almost no international manager who goes into one of these without a keen awareness, backed up by detailed information from his fitness specialists, that the majority of his players have been sapped by a long domestic season. Preservation of energies is a constant part of planning. Rest time is seized upon and valued. But this tournament also has some breathing space. France’s players have a full week between their third match and their fourth: Deschamps was not just giving senior players a desperately needed repose against the Swiss, he was looking around at how good was his Plan B. Not brilliant, was the answer.

Meanwhile, Roy Hodgson, the England manager rang the changes last Monday night. He switched both his full-backs, two of his three midfielders and two of his front three between the XI who beat Wales in matchday two of Group B, and the starting team to play Slovakia, with the top of the group at stake. England also drew 0-0. The dropped points cost them top spot. Hodgson is facing criticism, and some confusion about his objectives for having left out his captain, Wayne Rooney, as well as the right- and left-backs who had performed excellently in the first two games.

Sometimes, radical changes work. Indeed, showing off your strength in depth can resonate forcefully in the middle stages of a tournament. When France last won the Euros in 2000, they fielded almost an entire “second XI” in their third group match, and the boastful question was asked “Are France B the second-best side, behind France A, in this whole tournament?”

They may well have been. And the back-up boys would prove crucial come the final: A substitute, Sylvain Wiltord, scored the equaliser against Italy. Robert Pires and David Trezeguet, both off the bench, combined for the winner.

Spain did the same in their third match of Euro 2008, which they went on to win. They fielded mostly reserves, and were applauded for the important muscle-flexing that came with the proof their reserves were top-class, and for making the back-up players feel they had participated significantly in the chase for a gold medal.

The Spain of 2016 are different. One player, Pedro, has spoken publicly of his disillusionment at being a bit-part player. “I expected a different role coming here,” said the Chelsea winger. “If I don’t see a change in things it’s not worth carrying on with the national team.” Pedro is not known as a complainer.

He looks even more the outsider now. Spain have named an unchanged starting XI – without Pedro in it – in all three matches in France. Head coach Vicente Del Bosque was making a powerful point about his confidence in doing that: Not for a decade had Spain entered a tournament amid so much uncertainty about their style or their best personnel as they did this one. Indeed for 52 previous matches, Spain had never kept the same XI from one game to another.

As it turned out, the most consistent manager of these Euros was not exactly guaranteeing winning ways with his consistency, his faith. Croatia beat Spain on Tuesday night, consigning the defending champions to a much harder-looking knockout phase route-map, starting against Italy on Monday, than had Spain drawn or won against the Croatians.

Del Bosque acknowledged symptoms of fatigue in his team. “They look tired, which is to be expected,” he said.

Spain’s leading footballers have played very full seasons: The Barcelona men were involved in a tight chase for La Liga as well as a full Copa del Rey run, plus the various Super Cups and Fifa Club World Cup commitments that came from their winning the treble in 2015. Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid men had been involved in more Champions League fixtures than anybody between September and May. But there was no rest for any of his first XI.

So, there is no definitive correct way, no neat theory of how best to rotate or not to rotate at all. What Spain now know is that their first XI had better be good, and fast. If they overcome Italy, it may well be Germany after that in the quarter-finals and then perhaps France in the semis.

Defeat put them on what Spanish media labelled “the dark side” of the draw. Whether their shadow squad, the B team, might have guided them to the lighter side, Del Bosque can only wonder.

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Published: June 22, 2016 04:00 AM

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