Originally published in Give Me Sport – 28 June, 2016
This year’s European Championship saw the introduction of an extra eight teams – jumping from 16 to 24. The addition of more teams needed a new format and that came in the guise of four, best third-place teams also leaving the group stage, along with the usual top two.
The format is fun, granted. It gives smaller teams more of a chance and freshens up the knockout stages with appearances from Northern Ireland and Iceland, for example. The issue, however, is that three points could mean progression and so smaller teams naturally sit deep and hold out for either a draw, or a counter-attack.
There is nothing wrong with counter-attacking football – Leicester City won the Premier League with it – and the variety of football is great to see. The potential problems arise when you pit this style of play against an England side that hasn’t got the sharpest attack.
It is as much of a criticism, therefore, of the England squad, as it is the tournament’s format – but there’s been enough criticism levelled at the Three Lions to last a lifetime.
Russia, Wales, and Slovakia chose to sit deep against Roy Hodgson’s side and either defend a lead, as was the case with Wales when they went 1-0 up, or hope to hold out for a goalless draw, as was the aim with the other two competitors.
Russia failed to prevent England from scoring, but they did steal a goal at the death and thus achieve their draw – again, a criticism more aimed at the team and Hodgson’s tactical inadequacies.
With England sailing through qualifying, it was then a bit of a shock to the system when they came up against solid, well-drilled defences that refused to keel over and let them walk all over them.
England failed to kill off games and gain any real momentum, making it through the group stages without yet hitting top gear. So, when they came up against Iceland, they still hadn’t really been tested and took the opposition for granted – conceding mere minutes after Wayne Rooney’s opener.
So where does the format come into this? If the top third-place teams didn’t go through – or if the tournament still only hosted 16 teams – Slovakia would have been forced to try and win their game against the Three Lions, knowing that a draw would have seen them back on the plane home.
Arguably, and obviously, England should have won their games anyway. There are no excuses in that respect as other teams, such as Germany and Spain, managed to break down tough opponents. England are used to being favourites, but not so much so that other teams are drawn to defend, they usually go toe-to-toe, and that favours England’s style of play.
Hodgson did well to teach his boys to dominate games, but maybe that was to the side’s detriment.
Perhaps an idea for future tournaments would be to drop the number back to 16. It’s what we’re used to and it does still throw up the chance for surprise – look to Denmark (1992) and Greece (2004) for example.
Alternatively, up the numbers to 32. It’s only an extra eight teams and that would see the return of common faces Denmark, Netherlands, Greece, and other established teams like Serbia and Scotland.
It also gives the possibility of seeing new nations such as Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Israel.
A 32-team format would provide variety and entertainment whilst eradicating the stifling nature of the best third-place team spot – part of the reason there have been so many late 1-0 wins.
The old format may have seen England top the group and come up against less defensively-minded opponents; likewise, playing better would have done that also.
There are no excuses for the Three Lions and their manager, but there is validity in saying teams set up defensively because of the third-place being more important.