For me, the most fascinating aspect of big international soccer tournaments is the quest of team managers to determine their best team. It seems odd that a manager wouldn’t know his best team going in, but remember that international teams — e.g., Italy and England — don’t really exist as a unit of players until around three weeks before a big tournament.
During the rest of the year, a collection of 23 players gets together from time to time for international matches. However, for teams like Italy and England, it is never the same 23.
Then, with only a few weeks to prepare, a somewhat different 23 players get together and try to form a team that can compete for the big prize. They play a couple of meaningless warm up matches, and suddenly, it’s on.
In some cases, the manager has no margin for error. A team can be eliminated after two games.
Managers of the better teams usually have a bit more time (but not always — see Spain at the last World Cup). Some make it count. At the last World Cup, Joachim Löw’s German team played the first several matches with Philipp Lahm in defensive midfield, Jerome Boateng at right back, and Per Mertesacker at center back. All three positions were, to some degree, trouble spots. Germany also played at times without a true center forward.
Then, Low moved Lahm to right back (his natural position) and Boateng to center back (his natural position), and inserted the outstanding veteran Sami Khedira in midfield and the lethal Miroslav Klose at center forward. Suddenly, Germany were world beaters. Just ask Brazil.
This year before Euro 2016 began, I flagged the two fullback positions and center forward as big question marks for Germany. Left back turned out to be okay — Jonas Hector had it covered. But Lahm having retired, right back was a problem. Benedikt Höwedes, a natural center back, started the first two games there but was unable to pose an attacking threat down the flank.
Center forward was even more problematic. Low opted again to go with a “false number 9” (an attacking midfielder flitting in and out of the center forward position) in the person of Mario Götze. With no one anchoring the attack, Germany struggled to score.
After the second match, a 0-0 draw against Poland, Low switched to a traditional center forward in Mario Gomez. He also changed right backs, bringing in young Joshua Kimmich.
The moves have paid off. Gomez has scored two goals in two full games and Kimmich has given the team more width on the right. In the Round of 16, Germany crushed Slovakia 3-0.
Has Low figured out his best team? It seems so. But let’s see how things go in Germany’s massive quarterfinal match against Italy.
France’s manager Didier Deschamps still appears to be searching for his best team and, indeed, his best formation. For the most part, he has opted for three in midfield (usually Kante, Matuidi, and Pogba) and three up front (usually Payet, Griezmann, and Giroud). This is the formation, and most of the personnel, that paid dividends at the last World Cup.
In this tournament, it has not served France well. With Giroud in the middle, Griezmann has had to play wide, where he is less effective. And with no natural winger, France has lacked width in attack.
In the second half against Ireland, Deschamps, heeding what must have been a nearly universal cry, switched things up. Kingsley Coman, a talented winger, came on to provide width and Griezmann moved into a central position, playing behind Giroud. Matuidi and Pogba formed a two-man central midfield. Kante came off.
The change yielded immediate results. The French, down 0-1 at the half, quickly scored two goals, both by Griezmann, and never looked back.
But what about the French defense. I flagged the back four as a potential problem area and, to some extent, it has proved to be one. Deschamps, though, hasn’t altered his defense. Sagna, Evra, Koscielny, and Rami have started and finished all four games.
That’s about to change. Rami is suspended for the quarterfinal against Iceland for an accumulation of yellow cards.
This might be a blessing. Rami has been the weakest link. He’s a good defender at the club level but seems a bit slow for international play. Mangala, his likely replacement, is faster, but more mistake prone. If he can play error free, Deschamps may yet stumble into fielding his best team.
Marc Wilmots, the manager of Belgium, was also unable to identify his best team at the outset. He has made two notable changes since his team’s hiding by Italy in the opener. Meunier has come in at right back and Fellaini has been replaced in the attacking midfield role, first by Carrasco and then by Mertens.
These moves have improved the team. As with Germany, though, the current starting unit hasn’t really been tested yet.
Italy’s manager, Antonio Conte, is the exception at this tournament. He figured out his best team before the Euros started. His reward? Convincing victories over two of the top teams in the tourney — Belgium and Spain (but also, unfairly, a quarterfinal face-off against Germany).
Conte’s feat is all the more remarkable because it was far from clear whom he should start in midfield and attack. Giaccherini (who failed to make it with Sunderland), Parolo, Eder, and Pelle were not obvious selections. Yet they turned out to be right ones.
I should add, though, that the idea, so prevalent before the tournament, that this is a mediocre Italian team didn’t made sense to me. Italy has four world class players at the back — Buffon, Bonucci, Chiellini, and Barzagli. The first three are superstars, in my view. And you can add a fifth world class player just in front of the four, in the person of a healthy De Rossi (who is no longer healthy, however, and will miss the big quarterfinal).
A team with five players of this caliber playing up front with six serviceable players behind them (think of some Argentina teams) wouldn’t be considered a favorite at the Euros. But neither would it be deemed mediocre. Why then describe as mediocre a team with five stars at the back and six serviceable players in front of them?
Roy Hodgson of England never figured out his best team. He is now England’s ex-manager.
In fairness, though, let me confess that despite having opinions on virtually all things soccer, I have no idea what England’s best team was either. I’m as clueless as poor Roy.
Maybe sometimes there is no best 11.