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@ the Euros – Group Stages, Round 1

June 12, 2012

POLAND’S DORTMUND CONNECTION

Co-hosts Poland got Euro 2012 off to the desired atmospheric start with a stellar opening half-hour against Greece. They could, and perhaps should, have been as much as three goals ahead as an exciting display full of attacking verve and energy helped whip the crowd into a frenzy and saw their Greek opponents struggling to stay in touch. Central to this impressive start were a triumvirate of Borussia Dortmund players – right-back Łukasz Piszczek, right-midfielder Jakub Błaszczykowski, and striker Robert Lewandowski. Off the back of stellar league campaigns (a domestic league and cup double, with the latter bagging thirty goals), much of Poland’s best play in the early stages came down their right flank through their Dortmund connection.

Their understanding was exceptional – Piszczek knew when to overlap Błaszczykowski, the latter knew when through-balls to run on to were coming, one-twos were accurate and snappy, and with Lewandowski as a recognised, in-tune and on-form central focus, a target was regularly sought and located. A Piszczek-Błaszczykowski one-two saw the former attack the bye-line and flash a cross just inches from the reach of Lewandowski, before, sure enough, Poland’s deserved opening goal came from another searing right-flank run from Blaszczykowski, with his cross met by the head of the on-rushing Lewandowski. It was fitting, and the least they deserved.

Although Poland were to fade as the game progressed – some of their players were ‘paralysed by the pressure’ of the occasion according to coach Franciszek Smuda, although post-red card reshuffles also took their toll – there were undoubted positives to be taken from their opening performance, not least the display of their Dortmund trio. They feature against Russia later today in what is likely to be a fiercely contested and hugely competitive encounter, one which could well dictate the likelihood of progressing beyond the group stages. Piszczek, Błaszczykowski and Lewandowski will be central to their chances.

RUSSIA LOOK TO ZENIT AS ARSHAVIN CATCHES THE EYE

Russia look set to embark on a profitable Euro 2012 campaign after a hugely impressive opening game saw them send four goals past the Czech Republic. There were two notable elements in this dismantling – firstly a core of Zenit St. Petersburg players, and secondly the rejuvenated attacking verve of Andrei Arshavin.

There was a delightful cohesion to much of Russia’s play, both offensive and defensive, which in many ways was aided by the fact that five of their six starting midfield/attackers play together at club level for Zenit (the exception being Alan Dzagoev). The control of possession, particularly through the midfield trio of Denisov, Zyryanov and Shirokov, was notable, with the former two the game’s two most prolific passers, and the latter two knowing which one should push forward and when (as epitomised by Shirokov’s run for Russia’s second goal).

The key player in the four-goal haul was Andrei Arshavin. Whilst he floundered at Arsenal of late, a stint back in Russia has clearly done him the world of good, as he returned to the sort of form that caught the eye during the last European Championships. On Friday he made the most passes in the final third amongst all Russians (18/23) and created a game-high seven chances (a figure only better twice so far this tournament) as he pulled the strings in Russia’s attacks. Two assists were to follow, although further evidence of a return to his jinking free-running best was displayed in winning a game-high 3/6 take-ons.

With such cohesive and intuitive organisation in their ranks, and with Arshavin returning near to his best form, Russia look well placed to top their group and progress to the quarter-finals. There they will meet the runner up from the ‘group of death’ (GER HOL POR DEN), although on such form it is not unthinkable that they might spring a surprise there.

DANES DEFEAT DUTCH, DESPITE SNEIJDER’S BEST EFFORTS

It took just three games to get the first shock of Euro 2012, with a surprisingly underrated Denmark side (they topped a qualifying group featuring Portugal and Norway) triumphing over the widely-tipped Netherlands outfit. The Dutch did not play badly – they were especially dominant in the first half – but they failed to take their chances (all thirty-two of them!), despite the best creative efforts of Wesley Sneijder (a gameweek high ten chances were created by the attacking-midfielder, who was also the game’s top passer with 62/71). Allying Sneijder’s creativity to the fine finishing form of Robin van Persie (37 goals last season) and/or Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (48 goals) will be central to getting the points they require from their testing remaining group games against Germany and Portugal.

If we ignore the doubts that surround the quality of the Dutch defence (their most significant and longest-standing issue), part of the trouble that Holland current have lies in the structure of their midfield. In short, fielding two holding midfielders (Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel) as they did against Denmark can be perceived as being too negative, and consequently unlikely to see them progress with the sort of football required to win this tournament (although such defensive pragmatism worked wonders for Greece in 2004!). The Dutch play a similar system to the Germans (who have Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger as a midfield two), but Schweinsteiger offers far more mobility and creativity than either de Jong or van Bommel and is consequently far better suited to the system.

A quick glance at de Jong and van Bommel’s pass dashboards below shows just how frequently their passes were lateral/horizontal, as opposed to offering any vertical thrust or, indeed, threat. De Jong contributed nothing in attack, and although van Bommel tried his best by having three speculative efforts from range and creating two chances (albeit out wide to Arjen Robben, who still had plenty of work to do), the duo lack the mobility or creativity to convince fans that the system will work whilst both performing the same role defensively.

An alternative to one of the two (such as 22-year-old Kevin Strootman) would be preferable, but coach Bert van Marwijk is unlikely to remove either de Jong or van Bommel with the dynamic Germans as their next opponents, favouring experience and conservatism in the hope of getting a draw or sneaking a win. However, by the time Portugal arrive in their final group game, the Dutch might already be out.

More to follow, including a look at Italy-Spain and England-France

Get the Euro 2012 Football Stats Zone, from FourFourTwo & Opta via this link

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