Euro 2016: Ireland v Italy

Euro 2016: Republic of Ireland v Italy

Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille

“The atmosphere inside the stadium was fabulous in spite of UEFA’s attempt to sanitise it to better fit their purported ethos of inclusivity. Allow football fans to create atmosphere organically and they do it fantastically well.”

It is said that the Irish are ‘lucky’.  Licking their wounds from a Bordeaux-based Belgian beating, their army of fans traversed the country to Lille more in hope than expectation. That Italy had already won the group and were able to field the reserves could be classed as lucky but the performance of the team, whose intensity was only matched by the delirium in the stands, was anything but.  Ireland overcame their deficiencies in technical ability through hunger, persistence and playing to their strengths.  It will be a night long remembered by everybody, including some non-Irish like me, who was there and millions who were not.

Do you want a cheek en?
Do you want a cheek en?

How did you get a ticket?

At every stage of the ticket sale process, I dutifully applied for tickets. Tickets for games in Lille and Lens (both less than 2 hours drive from my house), then individual matches, ticking the ‘I’m willing to pay the next category up’ box but to no avail. I have never been awarded a ticket in a UEFA lottery.  Maybe I should change my email address to ‘michelplatinisbigbrownenvelope@gmail.com’ and see if that works?   A guy I met in a pub next to the stadium said he won his ticket in a raffle. It’s an interesting raffle prize – kind of obliges you to take time off work, organise flights and hotels etc.

However, in this instance, I simply refreshed the ticket portal a few days beforehand and found that two tickets were available for the match, so I bought one. All official, easily picked up at the stadium (although be sure to take your passport/National ID card along).  Parking at the stadium can also be booked although at 15€, I did feel a little bit stung.  I was searched as I collected my ticket to be welcomed by an army of bored staff and volunteers. This was the first of three searches undergone pre-match.

Epolortem Ellil
Epolortem Ellil

Pre-Match – Around the Stadium

The area around the stadium has clearly evolved to cater to a different clientele. Rather depressingly, lots of nice bars with interesting wine lists and trappist beers were only selling sponsored products – Carlsberg and Coca-Cola products. Coke has even bought naming rights to the WIFI in the area! Although an exercise in extreme global capitalism, this paradoxically produces the choice and homogeneity one would expect in a communist state.

One guy actually asked the barman for a half-pint of Grimbergen – very common in France – and was told he could only be sold pints of Carlsberg.  He attributed this to this arrival of the Irish but it seemed more like an imposition from The Man.

The atmosphere around these bars in the concourse adjacent to the stadium is how I remember International Tournament Football (as well as distantly, being Scottish) – not the images Lille town centre had experiences the week before and Marseille a few days previously. I wish more of this made the news.

That suit used to fit him
That suit used to fit him
Mixed crowds. No segregation
Mixed crowds. No segregation

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It was very warm when the sun peeked out from between the clouds, causing the Irish boys to seek shade in the bars while the Italians milled around the terrace in what was more people reverting to stereotype than any kind of segregation.  Another point of note was the number of fans wearing other teams outfits – Portuguese, Belgian, German fans were numerous enough to be noticed.

Whilst watching the Hungary v Portugal match on TV in a bar, these two characters at the bar were commenting on the aesthetic ‘quality’ of the bar staff.  This led to them starting a rendition of “French girls on fire; Irish girls are terrified.”  Had you seen these two mammies boys at the bar, it would’ve only added to the humour of the situation.  They were two forty-something tubby little ginger hobbits from Limerick, both called Eoin. I’m not making this up!

Anyway, just before the 6pm games finished, I made my way to enter the stadium. There was a queue for checking the tickets (in addition to a barcode reader which checked them again), a queue to be patted down and another guy who checked your bags etc.  This whole process did take around twenty minutes although nobody minds because of the purpose it serves.

Pre-match – In The Stadium

Cue: UEFA Grumbling 

Once through the security checks, you are presented with the great corporate monoculture. Selling exclusively non-alcoholic beer is just lame. I understand the reasons why but when you can drink for 12 hours before the game should you really want to, I don’t think banning beer in the stadium is the way to go. It makes fans binge beforehand and wait until the last minute before entering the stadium, causing delays. It’s excessive drinking in a short space of time that is problematic, not beer at football matches.

Anyway, you would be relieved of six euros for a pint of pretend beer, in addition to 6.50€ for merguez and some reheated chips. Actually, LOSC have a reasonable buvette for snacks and drinks and generally sell better than this.

Having advanced past this to my rather good seat, I was overcome by the damp smell in the stadium. It reminded me of when I used to wash my rugby kit and not dry it for a few days. However, this was just ‘in the air’ as opposed to emanating from a poorly-laundered fan in the vicinity.  I was intrigued to see the roof closed (a step taken to prevent the pitch becoming even heavier) but then the sprinklers turned on. I’m no horticulturist but this seems counterintuitive.  The stadium was also very warm with the roof shut.

One part of the pre-match ritual I usually enjoy is the announcement of the teams, where the fans reply with the player’s surname. However, doing this a full hour before the match when the stadium is only about quarter full is just rubbish.  It’d be like Blur sound checking with Song 2 and then not playing it during the set.  This was followed by UEFA Karaoke, where the ‘Fields of Anthenry’ was played at a pedestrian pace and the fans that had arrived couldn’t sing it that slowly.

All this Superbowlification of football is not required, nor is it desirable. It all seemed to be aimed at people who don’t go to football matches, dreamt up by a marketing consultant who only goes to the football for the prawn sandwiches.  The organic atmosphere created by the fans was fabulous and this ‘forced fun’ reminded me of a student Nursery Teacher who tries to teach one-year olds Frère Jacques,  despite the fact half of them can’t speak, and carries on regardless of the feedback received.

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The atmosphere inside the stadium was fabulous in spite of UEFAs attempt to sanitise it to better fit their purported ethos of inclusivity. Allow football fans to create atmosphere organically and they do it fantastically well.  Ireland don’t have many songs, and Italy have even less, but they do belt them out with gusto and joy.

The Match

Ireland’s selection, Shane Long excepted, seemed to have been made on the basis of height: Duffy, Keogh, Murphy et al were not picked because of their passing ability. However, Ireland’s challenge would be to get the best out of these players in a way that they failed to do against Belgium. Italy really did field a reserve XI and, if nothing else, that was cause for a little optimism.  However, I don’t think even the most optimistic fan would have expected such a spirited, intense and accomplished performance.

The first half was one of frustration for Ireland. Despite completely dominating the match, they didn’t have many clear cut chances.  Again, Italy’s shape forced them into some of the ‘negative-U’ passing that Belgium did in their first match.  However, Ireland generally don’t have 50 pass build ups, meaning that their directness kept Italy on their toes. Indeed, Italy had James McClean off of his toes and onto the ground with a very clumsy-looking challenge that the referee deemed to be acceptable. Ireland had been unlucky, but had lacked that bit of guile or class to unlock Italy.

Some of the Italian players should have been out to impress their coach but few will have done. Zaza was a no-no, Thiago Motta barely broke sweat and Barzagli and Ogbonna seemed intent on racing to the first yellow card.

The introduction of Hoolahan and McGeady had the feel of desperation about it but it did change things a little. Hoolahan has a glorious chance to score when everyone seemed to think play had stopped, but shot straight at Sirigu.  McGeady did what he does, dribble nicely then play an ineffective cross or off-target shot. However, when the breakthrough finally came, even the Italians applauded and agreed that it was deserved. Robbie Brady had spent the whole second half moaning at Ward for not hitting him early with throw-ins and hadn’t done much else but became the hero after 84 minutes when he unconvincingly headed past an off-balance Sirigu.

Lille had exploded into shouts of joy, relief and disbelief. Now all they had to do was hold on. Despite substitute Insigne’s wasp-like movement in Ireland’s half, he was unable to sting and ended up embodying everything that is annoying about a Vespa.  In injury time, a whistle was blown and Irish substitutes and coaching staff ran on to the pitch, only to realise it was a free kick. D’oh! However, there was no way they were going to give up what they had fought so hard for all night. When the final whistle was finally blown, the Irish fans descended into delirium.

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As much as I was enjoying the celebrations, I did have work the following morning and had to get back to the car, get out of Lille and get home.  This was easier said than done. All the stairs were blocked with dancing Irish. I had my sweaty head kissed twice by total strangers, before finally leaving the party early.

Just outside the ground, the party was kicking off and was set to extend well into the wee hours. I heard one guy on his phone just outside the stadium saying ‘look, I’ll book the hotel, you get train tickets and we’ll come up with some bullshit story for the wives and work’. I’d suggest he wasn’t the only one having these thoughts.  Maybe these are the Irish girls Eoin said were terrified.

Whether or not they’ll get past the French seems irrelevant – Ireland have already somehow won. Looking on as a lonely Scot, it occurred to me that all three teams who qualified from Scotland’s group are in the last 16: Germany, Poland and Ireland. Lyon will be the next city whose pubs will be in profit.  I’m looking forward to a few days excitement, with O’Neill being diplomatic and Roy Keane saying how Pogba wasn’t fit to clean his boots etc.

 

 

What is Wrong with Belgium?

“You get the impression that if Wilmots was on a game show, with Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough on his team, he’d choose a question from the ‘Sport’ category, because that’s what he feels he knows”

It seems that just about everybody else can see what Belgium coach Marc Wilmots cannot see, or at least, pretends not to see.  The Red Devils’ difficulties against Italy were not unfamiliar to armchair fans. Same old same old.  However, more worrying for me is his refusal to accept that Italy, despite ceding much territory and possession, outplayed and outsmarted Belgium.  What’s more, it was all so painfully predictable and Wilmots’ XI continue to play with the handbrake on. (Belgium at the Euros Preview)

Why were Belgium so Disappointing? 

It is important to acknowledge that, for all that Belgium were disappointing, Italy played them like a Stradivarius.  They were everything Belgium were not: fluid in attack, compact (sometimes ruthlessly cynical) in defence and, for all that they played a counter-attacking game, they could have easily won by more.

Luca Vialli mentioned in the build up to the match that he felt perhaps Belgium had “too much freedom and not enough discipline on the pitch”.  While I understand this assessment, I believe that the opposite is true.  Belgium were frequently rigid and lacked any fluidity.  Their dynamism, as a result, is stunted.  Marc Wilmots seems to have found a template and he is applying it, no matter what.  Even Martin Keown was able to ascertain within 25 minutes that Belgium’s game was too slow and made reasonable comparisons with Van Gaal’s Manchester United. Normally these attempts to frame everything through the lens of England and the Premier League frustrate me but this was spot on.

The lack of urgency of the midfield coupled with the reluctance of the defence to go long to Lukaku who, despite being woefully poor, was frequently isolated, was a key issue.  Belgium have this system where they control the game, high up the pitch but fail to support the centre forward.  Every time Eden Hazard or Kevin de Bruyne picked up the ball, they were in more or less the same wide position and tried to cut inside to find three centre backs waiting for them.  In support, Italy’s midfield arrived to defend the non-existent runs of Witsel and Nainngolan into the box. Instead the two Belgian midfielders were restricted to taking errant pot-shots from outside the box, seldom troubling Buffon.

Hazard, for his part, gave everything but his final pass eluded him. His dribbling was actually very good but this is like shadow boxing unless it hurts teams and is done in and around the penalty box.  Kevin de Bruyne, who is the darling of the Belgian media, was simply awful.  While I accept that he was not in his preferred position, his passing was dreadful.  Wilmots actually lacked backbone by not substituting a misfiring de Bruyne.  As we’ve seen so many times before, the substitutions became increasingly desperate.

The static and deep nature of the midfield three has to be addressed as well.  That Fellaini was the best of them says a lot.  Defensively, he and Witsel worked hard and were fairly effective but this was a game to select players who could be the difference. Nainngolan and Witsel simply lurked around the box once the handbrake was applied to Belgium’s attacks. At no time did they run beyond the ball carrier or Lukaku.  Italy knew this would be the case and were prepared to let them shoot from 30 metres.  Witsel seems to be in a protected role as Wilmots’ “chouchou” and needs to either play differently (I’m not sure he can) or be dropped.  He personifies Belgium’s one-paced game at the moment and unless he is playing instead of Nainngolan, there is no room for him.

Belgium’s shape meant that players were just jogging back into position as soon as possible, as though they had a high-tension bungee cord attached to them.  It’s as though the message is “pass and then return to formation.”

Who is at risk of missing out against Ireland?

Well, who is at risk and who should be at risk are two different things.  Wilmots spoke after the match that he might switch from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 but, in reality, these are the same thing for Belgium and is like saying that you’re going to wear a scarlet dress instead of a red one.  What Wilmots calls a 4-3-3 turns out to be a 4-2-3-1, where the one cuts a lonely, often disconsolate figure.

Defensively, I would not be surprised to see Alderweireld, who was very poor, moved to full back.  Completely outmuscled by Pelle in the box and beaten by a defensive clearance for Italy’s opening goal, he looked ill at ease all game.  His movement to full back would mean  possible inclusions for Denayer or Jordan Lukaku, moving Vertonghen to centre back to accommodate the latter.  Ciman did his best at full-back but continues to look like a centre-back filling in.

Wilmots had special words of praise for ‘le retour d’un grand Thomas Vermaelen’.  This suggests that Vermaelen will continue to play and he was certainly better than Alderweireld.

I’d expect one of the midfield trio to make way for Carrasco or Mertens against Ireland.  Both looked lively when they came on and their directness should be exploited.  I’d expect Nainngolan or Fellaini to make way.  Eden Hazard, as captain, and Kevin de Bruyne are ‘undroppable’ in the coach’s eyes but what of Romelu Lukaku?  He is not as highly regarded in Belgium as he is in England and the swell of disaffection towards him has surely grown in light of his lethargic performance.  Divock Origi came on and ran around a lot but really ought to have made more of his chances.  You always get the feeling that Origi never really has the ball under control and I don’t see how he can be fully relied upon.

Michy Batshuyai has a very different profile to Lukaku in that he is happy to play with his back to goal – a prerequisite with Belgium’s  current stylistic preferences – and may be the alternative Hazard and De Bruyne need.  This is a change Wilmots may have the courage to make as he has never settled on a preferred option up front.

Whether or not Wilmots acknowledges privately that Belgium need to do something differently remains unknown but he is publicly defiant and defending his players.  While results continue to disappoint, he can expect to find his decisions met with increasing scrutiny.  You get the impression that if Wilmots was on a game show with Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough on his team, he’d choose a question from the ‘Sport’ category, because that’s what he knows.  Ireland will present a different challenge from Italy so ‘more of the same’ shouldn’t be an option for Wilmots.

I expect that, come Saturday, the Belgian fans will turn out in their numbers expecting a series of ‘quite-near’ misses from the Red Devils.  While I don’t expect Ireland to be as slick or smart as Italy, I don’t think for a second that O’Neill et al won’t have a particular plan for playing Belgium and based on their records to date, it’s a tough match to call and a must-win for both.

 

 

Belgium at the Euros: Match 1

“The frustration is only heightened when one looks at the abundance of attacking flair, pace and talent Wilmots has available.  He has taken the engines and metal from four Ferraris and moulded them into a minibus.”

History only repeats itself when we don’t learn lessons from the past. Just ask Marseille bar owners who didn’t buy plastic glasses. The echoes of the 2014 World Cup are whistling through Belgium right now, from the red, yellow and black aisles of Carrefour to the slightly homo-erotic Jupiler adverts and the emblazoning of the ‘Red Devils’ brand on everything from pasta to wing-mirror sleeves.  The build up seems so reminiscent of 2014 as to be almost formulaic.

However, as expectations of Belgium’s gifted squad inflate, what has Marc Wilmots done to ensure progression, or evolution, from 2014? It should be remembered that, while Belgium reached the Quarter Finals of the World Cup, the performances in Brazil were less than inspiring: Fellaini to the rescue against Algeria, a late winner against Russia and an extra-time victory against the USA were the oases of joy in a desert of square passes.  When up against a genuine contender in Argentina, Belgium came up so short that Romelu Lukaku resembled Verne Troyer.

So what has changed since 2014? Well, not a lot.  Belgium still play a very slow, patient, possession-based game. They still play in the same formation. They still have the same lack of quality at full back. They still need around twenty chances before scoring.  They still have a positional and equilibrium problem with Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard.

Yet some things have changed. The emergence of Yannick Carrasco as a genuine match-winner is exciting, Radja Nainggolan has emerged as the preferred anchor to the midfield and is a better ball-winner than any other option and Jason Denayer is emerging into the natural heir to Vincent Kompany, both at Manchester City and for Belgium. And Romelu Lukaku appears to have usurped Benteke as the centre forward of choice, with Batshuyai also leapfrogging the Liverpool forward in the pecking order.

However, the dogmatic adherence to a possession based 4-3-3 is, at best, prohibitive in lieu of the players available to Wilmots.  The lack of options at full back – Meunier and Jordan Lukaku are both good players in Belgium but even domestically they are considered to be defensively suspect – coupled with the injuries to Lombaerts and Kompany could have provided Wilmots the perfect platform to experiment with three centre backs in the friendly matches.  Vertonghen and Alderweireld either side of Jason Denayer sounds like an excellent defensive base.  However, the near religious devotion to having a ‘number 6, a number 8 and a number 10’ means that Belgium, for all their individual creativity, end up predictable and easy to defend against.

I find Marc Wilmots likeable but I remain unconvinced that he is getting the best out of a ‘Golden Generation’ of players. The sight of Toby Alderweireld, one of the best centre backs in the Premier League, marauding down the right-wing acting as the major provider and creative force leaves me frustrated, leaving a past-his-best Thomas Vermaelen gesticulating to Jason Denayer (who he cannot talk to due to the language barrier) in central defence.  Denayer was also tried at right back against Finland and looked uncomfortable, unconvincing and like an ill-fitting suit.

A three-man defence may have proven very effective, it may have been a disaster but, in a friendly match, why not try things out? At the moment, Belgium’s plan B is to hook off a defender and put on another forward and hoof the ball up for Fellaini in support.

On Monday night, Belgium’s first opponents are Italy. A recent article in Het Laatste Nieuws outlined the differences in approaches to training Belgium and Italy have. One key point was that Italy do far more tactical and video analysis than Belgium. With this in mind as well as stylistic stereotypes, I’d be surprised if Italy, of all nations, lack the clairvoyance to know how Belgium will play.

The frustration is only heightened when one looks at the abundance of attacking flair, pace and talent Wilmots has available.  He has taken the engines and metal from four Ferraris and moulded them into a minibus.  His anointment of Eden Hazard as captain in order to make him take more responsibility seems counterintuitive, although I understand the logic therein.  It was reported that Vertonghen, who has previously captained his country seven times and exudes authority and leadership, was far from happy.  It seems like a move lifted directly from the Van Gaal playbook.

Which leads us to the wild card in the squad. King of the Cranial Pubis, Prince of the Flying Elbow, Lord of the Late Tackle: Marouane Fellaini.  Love him or loathe him, the big man is something of a Talisman and has a knack of bundling home decisive goals.  He was Belgium’s top goalscorer in qualifying and, while I face-plant as I write this, he needs to start against Italy, assuming Wilmots reverts to type with the formation.  He may look like a malfunctioning assembly of spare parts but he adds a level of unpredictability that Italy may struggle to deal with.

If the match pans out as most Belgium matches in recent years have, the Red Devils will be camped in the Italian half against a deep-lying defence.  There will be little space which leads to floated crosses into a crowded box.  In which case, Fellaini is your man.  However, at whose expense is also a big question.  Wilmots usually finds a way of playing his best players, even if they are out of position (e.g. De Bruyne on the wing).  In order to play Fellaini, and stick to his 4-3-3, he’ll need to drop Witsel (having Fellaini as a central midfielder alongside Nainngolan) or play Fellaini further forward, shifting De Bruyne wide, meaning Carrasco (or Origi or Mertens) will be dropped.

Wilmots’ loyalty is laudable although, perhaps like Jogi Löw, may be his undoing and I’d expect him to start Fellaini against Italy, despite all of his defensive shortcomings.  Witsel hasn’t looked particularly sharp in the friendlies and may be sacrificed as Wilmots looks to have De Bruyne, Hazard and Carrasco in behind Lukaku.  Carrasco’s form in big matches for Atletico should make him a shoo-in to start, although Wilmots may have seen his impact as a sub in the Champions League Semi-Final and Final and decide to use him that way if Plan-Fellaini doesn’t come off.  The presence of Witsel, irrespective of form, is almost a universal constant in the Belgium XI,  and Wilmots may take comfort in having him as a defensive ‘axle’ along Nainngolan.

I’d love to see a swashbuckling, pacy and courageous performance from Belgium on Monday but I don’t expect it.  A low-scoring caper, perhaps decided by set-pieces, is more likely.  When all is said and done, once Wilmots’ white shirt is starched and pressed and Fellaini’s blow-dry has set, let’s hope that when Belgium’s fans ask ‘Waar is dat Feestje?’ on Monday night, those lucky enough to be at the new Stade de Lyon will reply ‘Hier is dat Feestje’, and school kids across this so-often divided country will be wakened by the united celebrations and endless car horns into the small hours.

Expected line-up (4-3-3): Courtois; Alderweireld, Denayer, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Nainngolan, Witsel, Fellaini; Hazard, De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku.

My Preferred line-up (3-5-2): Courtois; Alderweireld, Denayer, Vertonghen; Carrasco, Nainngolan, De Bruyne, Dembele, Jordan Lukaku; Romelu Lukaku, Batshuyai. (Yes, no Eden Hazard – he’d be an impact sub alongside Fellaini or Origi).