The round of last 16 was concluded on Monday evening and so here I am. I originally intended to maybe review it in 2 parts, but the first three games were so dire they made for very little writing material, hence the on-the-go change of plans. Lo and behold.
France 2-1 Ireland
Deschamps reverted to his XI of choice, which includes Pogba and Griezmann. If you recall, both these players had a weak opening game against Romania and were benched against Albania for Coman and Martial respectively.
While Griezmann proved his importance to the side since then, I’ll can’t say the same about Pogba. He has, once again, been fairly anonymous, slow on the ball and directly cost his side by fouling Long in the 2nd minute inside the penalty box. Soon after that he was rattled in a collision (much like Alli against Wales) and disappeared off the radars. Even Deschamps’ switch to a 4-4-2 at half-time did little to increase Pogba’s presence in the game in any meaningful way. Think the French manager should seriously consider dropping Pogba for Cabaye or even Sissoko, however with Kante out of the quarter-finals owing to a second yellow, I wonder whether Didier will want to make two changes to the midfield simultaneously.
Ireland, meanwhile, has to be given huge credit for the way they started the game and even for their effective damage limitation after going a goal and a man down. For the first 45 minutes they did well enough to get in front and stay there. They cracked under pressure in the second and, had it not been for Randolph, could have lost by a greater margin. One of the mistakes the Irish made was not marking Griezmann closely enough, something which cost them dearly in the 2nd half. Antoine was completely free to convert Sagna’s cross in the 58th minute (it’s a bit like when Alexis scores with his head), he was one-on-one three minutes later (admittedly, after great work from Giroud to draw defenders to himself), he was again clean through just 4 minutes later and once again had only Randolph to beat in the dying seconds. Ireland’s marking was so bad Griezmann could have scored 4 and no one would have batted an eyelid.
Arsenal watch: Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud. Our centre-back was once again hardly put to test by less-than-daunting Ireland. Commentators did their best to hype up “Long vs Koscielny” duel, but I do not remember Kos losing control over proceedings, which was, no doubt, due to Ireland retreating in their shells after the opening goal. Olivier, meanwhile, was bereft of service during the first half and so there wasn’t much he could do, however he has been key in both goals and the passage of play that led to a red card by smartly diverting the defenders’ attention and freeing up space for Griezmann. Was subbed off for Gignac late in the game, but should understand he’s France’s number 1 striker for a reason. Good day in the office for Ollie.
Italy 2-0 Spain
Well, what can I say? This game represented a tactical masterclass from Antonio Conte and is easily the best game on the tournament in terms of set-up, beating Italy vs Belgium by some distance (which, in its time, was also the best game on the tournament).
Italy were a joy to watch for the entirety of the match, during the first half especially. Gli Azzurri dominated space and possession during the first 45 minutes, they deservedly went in front, and only De Gea’s heroics kept Spain in the game.
The situation changed during the second half, with Spain looking more the part, but Italy’s organization and defensive shape meant Spain failed to trouble Buffon as often as they should have had with so much of the ball. I don’t know whether Italy really were pushed under the kosh or if they retreated of their own free will, however Conte’s men protected their slender lead brilliantly. Morata disappeared, entirely, taking no shots and even failing to touch the ball inside the opposition box. Nolito did likewise, as did Pedro and Aduriz, though the latter to a lesser extent. Just when it looked like Spain could finally score that equalising goal, Buffon pulled of a magnificent save from Pique’s point-blank shot and Italy made it 2 from the resulting counter-attack. Conte’s men will face Germany in the quarters.
Two things stood out for me in that match: Italy’s pulling it off with few star players in the squad and Spain’s indifference to it all. Think Arseblog summed it up perfectly:
“The Spanish side that look just bored of it all now. Tired of being the best in the world, fed-up of having lots of the ball, weary of controlled possession and pretty triangles. They’ve lost the hunger after such a period of success, that’s obvious. ”
As for my first point, look at Italy’s squad. Can they really boast a load of world-class players? Buffon is obviously world-class and I’m pretty fond of their defense, but that’s it. Now compare it to Spain’s star-studded roster and you’ll see what I mean.
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England 1-2 Iceland
Roy Hodgson made one change to his usual formula, but unfortunately it wasn’t Wilshere for Rooney or Vardy for Kane. It was Sturridge for Lallana, one of England’s better performers during the group stages. It was a change detrimental for all I know, cause Sturridge looked completely lost and useless on the wing.
However England started quite well. Sterling was brought down by Halldórsson in the 3rd minute already, Rooney stepped up and slotted home the penalty. I thought to myself: “Well, now Iceland only need 2 to go through”. 15 minutes later my jaw was scraping the floor, because I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.
Iceland equalised almost immediately after conceding. Their captain, Gunnarsson (almost Gunnersson, can we sign him up?) found Arnason with a long throw, he flicked it on with his head and Sigurdsson (the other one, Ragnar) smashed it past Hart from close range.
It went from bad to worse for a rattled England’s side from there. 12 minutes after conceding, England conceded again. Sigthorsson created space for himself on the edge of the box after a clever interplay from his teammates set him up and fired his shot into the bottom corner. Hart really should have done better to get down to this shot, however that’s not to diminish Iceland’s achievement in the slightest. A shell-shocked England failed to come up with a response before half-time.
And after it too, in all honesty. Wilshere was introduced for Dier at the break (again, one of England’s better performers during this tournament) and then Vardy and Rashford came on for Sterling and Rooney, but it all led to nothing. Moreover, Iceland created two very good goalscoring opportunities. Ragnar Sigurdsson’s overhead kick was parried due to the sheer fact he failed to direct it either side of Hart, while Gunnarsson’s late run ended in a saved shot from Hart.
I was stunned by such a lifeless performance from England against a team they supposedly should be beating comfortably. They had 72 minutes + added time to do something after falling behind, yet they did nothing. The only thing that stands out to me is Kane taking set-pieces, mostly because he was bloody awful at it. Hodgson used the post-game press conference to resign, whether his resignation will have any impact on England’s NT we’ll soon find out. The names of possible replacements thrown around are genuinely terrifying, apart from Eddie Howe and possibly Sean Dyche. And Arsene Wenger of course, but I’m quite sure the Frenchman is going nowhere.
Arsenal watch: Jack Wilshere. Though livier than Dier in the build-up, I do not recall Jack making much of a difference. He looked better than against Slovakia, but then the bar he set against Slovakia was pretty low. On the plus side he’s not injured and is going to have a proper rest and pre-season. Amen to that.
The last word
I haven’t mentioned any of Granit Xhaka, Mesut Ozil or Aaron Ramsey. The former is on his way home, after Switzerland lost to Poland on penalties, with our new signing scything one wide. However judging him on that penalty is ridiculous. He’s been Switzerland top player during the group stages and he’s demonstrated he’s very good at his job. Can’t wait to see him in red and white of a different ilk.
Ozil and Ramsey continue their journey, with Germany and Wales beating Slovakia and Northern Ireland respectively. Both had good games for their NTs, with Ramsey being key in Wales’ narrow win.
Phew, that’s all for now. Back with you for the quarter-finals.