A particularly interesting, if hipster, school of footballing thought is one that swears by the maxim, “goals are overrated; the beauty is in the struggle”. What if the struggle ceases to be beautiful, though? What if it is just a couple of sides playing kick-about, with goals a byproduct at best? We would think such a thought would be blasphemous in a three match league phase at a major tournament, but at Euro 2016, it is a style a number of sides seem to identify with – from Northern Ireland to Sweden, there have been assorted variants of what has come to be known as “watching paint dry” football.
Over 180 minutes, Sweden’s only shots on target, and their sole goal, have been courtesy Ireland’s Ciaran Clark. It is a common problem for sides depending on a single superstar – they need a bunch of Zlatan Ibrahimovics passing to the Zlatan Ibrahimovic up top. Throughout the 90 minutes, nothing explained Sweden’s particular lack of intent despite significant possession, except the faint hope that they could blockade Italy from scoring and salvage a 0-0 draw, sealing a point that could keep their hopes of qualifying alive.
On the other hand, were Italy, who have made a working model out of such a style of play. Their 87th minute winner came from front man Eder, who did not complete a single pass in the first half. His selection has been widely criticized, having come into this tournament with a solitary goal to his name in six months. Yet, it has been personnel like him, and Emmanuele Giaccherini, who are producing decisive moves and clinical finishes out of nowhere, sealing wins out of drab fixtures filled with sideways passing and slow build-up play.
It is the first time Italy have won two straight group games at a major tournament since Euro 2000, a tournament Conte was part of, as a player. They went far, until France defeated them in the final with a golden goal. At the end of this game, he said, “At the start we had flat tyres; now we are trying to pump them up a bit, game by game.” It is not uncommon for retrospective wisdom to admit such shortcomings, but it is in this acceptance of limitations that he and his men seem to be thriving.
At different points of time, the likes of Antonio Candreva and Graziano Pelle could be seen winning the ball in the box at either end of the field – Candreva heading wicked, spinning crosses from Sweden’s right, calmly to Gianluigi Buffon, while Pelle was running a one-man front line, trying to snatch the ball from Sweden’s goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson. It brought to mind Johan Cruyff’s memorable line, about how, “in my teams, the striker is the first defender”. While far from Total Football and aesthetic delight, it was masochism that never felt self-defeating, despite several Swedish attacks of varying potence.
As happens with such approaches, the mindset was to play dirty whenever the situation warranted it: every other player went about taking one for the team – shirt pulls, yellow cards, slide tackles and time wasting towards the end. Opposition fans and critics will, naturally, have their objections against such methods, even bringing up questions on refereeing being lenient towards such cynical fouls. It is an approach that has been a double-edged sword for Italy over the years, resulting in late goals and leading to exits from tournaments, such as the one at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Why, on another day, superior strike forces in the knockout phase of this tournament could yet disassemble them with ease.
For now, though, Italy are through to the Round of 16 with a game in hand, led by Juventus’ defensive line and an assortment of otherwise off-colour attackers shining up top. Winning through sheer graft and grit might not be everyone’s cuppa, and this is double espresso football made in Turin – distasteful and bitter to some, authentic and rich to others. As they say, the only rule is that it has to work.
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Updated Date: Jun 18, 2016 10:27:07 IST