BASEL, Switzerland -- Eight days in and there's plenty of interesting stuff to admire at this European Championship. What struck me most was the tactical diversity on display. In fact, while the quality of the play has been roughly on par with expectations, the coaching has, in my opinion, surpassed them. There really are managers doing new and interesting things.
Slaven Bilic's Croatia is a case study in creating a system to suit the players. Bilic doesn't have a large pool of talent to choose from, he has to play his Best XI and, if it means guys are slightly out of position, so be it: He simply finds a system that works.
Take Niko Kovac. He'll be 37 in October and, obviously, doesn't have the mobility he once had. Bilic sticks him in front of the back four and funnels the opposition toward him, enabling him to avoid chasing opponents. Niko Kranjcar is given a relatively free role, but in exchange, he has to work extremely hard off the ball. Darijo Srna is probably more of a natural wing back than a right-sided midfielder, but he links brilliantly with Vedran Corluka behind him, turning Croatia into a devastating force down the flank. That's what tactical nous is all about: masking your weaknesses and maximizing your strengths.
Marco van Basten has achieved something similar with the Netherlands. He doesn't have outstanding defenders, so he makes sure the back four is protected by the twin destroyers, Orlando Engelaar and Nigel de Jong. Neither is a superstar, but both are intelligent and understand their jobs. And most importantly, when the Netherlands do win the ball, it excels at releasing it quickly to the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, who execute the counterattack as effectively as anyone.
Sneijder and van der Vaart are good case studies because, while they're extremely gifted and creative players, neither is a phenomenal athlete in terms of pace or stamina. And yet they move the ball accurately and intelligently and, crucially, are put into situations and areas where their technical superiority makes all the difference. Dirk Kuyt, by no means a phenom but one of the most tactically astute and hard-working players you'll see at the Euros, also deserves a mention: He's a vital, if unspectactular, cog in this Dutch machine.
Those two teams stand out because of their managers, but it doesn't end there. Romania's Vitor Piturca reads the game as well as anyone and deserves a big chunk of the credit for stopping both World Cup finalists, Italy and France. Cristian Chivu has been magnificent, but the supporting cast has been just as effective, particularly in midfield.
"The Emperor" Fatih Terim has taken Turkey to the knockout phase on the strength of a flexible and innovative tactical system (coupled with his own renowned motivational skills) -- the line of ArdaTuran, Nihat Kahveci and Tuncay Sanli has thrived under Terim, proving to be one of the most unpredictable in the tournament.
By now, we're used to Guus Hiddink overachieving with supposed B-listers (South Korea, Australia) but its worth noting that even without Andrei Arshavin, arguably his best player, and Pavel Pogrebnyak, Russia created three clear-cut chances against Spain and had the upper hand against Greece. The quarterfinals now beckon for Hiddink: another phenomenal achievement.
Luiz Felipe Scolari and Luis Aragonés are hardly up-and-comers, but they, too, deserve a little mention for adding an element of directness to Portugal and Spain, respectively. In the past, both sides showed a tremendous ability to retain possession and outstanding individual skills, but sometimes lacked a cutting edge. Now, both Portugal and Spain use the "Plan B" effectively, hitting it into space (rather than into feet) at the right time and adding a whole other dimension to their game.
David Villa, Luka Modric, Chivu, Sneijder and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo may be the ones making headlines in this tournament, and rightly so -- after all, they're the guys who actually step on to the pitch. But don't forget the men who send them out there -- they're making it happen, too.
As I wrote before, the format of this tournament -- with the two halves being kept apart until the final -- was a major blunder on UEFA's part. Meeting teams you already faced in the group stage just one game after the end of the group stage is not a good idea. And in Group C we've seen exactly why.
We have a bizarre situation where it may be in Holland's interest to lose to Romania. Doing so would knock Italy and France (which, on paper at least, look like more formidable opponents) out of the tournament (and, because of this silly format, the Netherlands would risk facing one or the other in the semifinals).
France boss Raymond Domenech, always the cynic, has already quipped, "Romania is already in the quarterfinals." Fellow conspiracy theorists in Italy and France and even bookmakers all seem to be on the same page: The Dutch will throw the game to Romania because it's in their interest to do so.
Personally, I think the Netherlands have earned the right to do whatever it likes and Italy and France only have themselves to blame. That said, here are five good reasons why I don't think this will happen:
1. Van Basten is a gentleman and he has pride and dignity. If that were to happen, I don't think he could live with himself.
2. The Dutch reserves who come in (and he's bound to rest players, nothing wrong with that) have a lot to play for. They will want to unseat the regulars, especially the likes of Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben.
3. These same Dutch reserves have, in fact, nothing to gain by throwing the match. If they do so, it may help the Netherlands, but it won't do them any favors: They'll still be sitting on the bench behind the starters.
4. Psychologically, it's a lot easier to informally agree a draw when the result benefits both sides (witness the "miraculous" 2-2 result between Denmark and Sweden four years ago) than to let an opponent win.
5. Why would the Netherlands want to lose momentum? Yes, Italy and France may be fearsome on paper, but the Dutch beat them both by a three-goal margin. Wouldn't it make more sense to keep things rolling?