Euro 2016 is the tournament of late goals, a dozen now coming in the 87th minute or later, a remarkable number in just 21 fixtures so far. Is it mere coincidence, or us there something else at work here, another shift in the nature of the game?
Euro 2016 Diary: More Late Goals As Violence Flares Up Again
By Dave Bowler
I wonder if it is the latter, and a consequence of the greater fitness and athleticism of footballers year after year. If you think about it, it’s odd that we still play the game on a pitch that has roughly the same dimensions that we started out with in the 19th century when people were shorter, slower, less physically robust than the athletes of today.
Look at the way world records tumble in Olympics after Olympics and, even when you take the drug cheats out, you will see that sportsmen and women are simply faster and stronger than they ever were.
If you look at the stats churned out in game after game, they’ll tell you how far each player has run and, if you dig deeper, how fast, how many sprints and so on. If you could get such stats for, say, the 1966 World Cup, you would find that players now are covering a huge amount of extra ground in games.
Players are physically capable of doing more and so, in harness with the development of tactics and defensive organisation over the years, we come to the point that pundit after pundit, coach after coach, player after player constantly makes about the modern game – there is less and less space on the field, in part because players can cover more ground more quickly than they could 50 or 100 years ago. And if there is less space, there is less opportunity to create.
And while players are, generally speaking, better athletes than half a century ago, there is another advantage that the coaches have up their sleeves – substitutes. So if a player has all but literally run himself into the ground, he and two more of his mates can be replaced, bringing on the all important fresh legs. And there we have perhaps the perfect storm for all these late goals.
For while these footballers are super humans, they are not superhuman, they are not comic book heroes that can run on indefinitely, powered by the heat of perpetual motion. Even the fittest and best prepared will, at some stage, see some drop off in performance when fatigue sets in and, obviously enough, that’s going to happen after exertion. Physically and mentally, it’s impossible to be as fresh in the 88th minute as you were in the eighth.
Defensive players are especially susceptible because they tend to do more running than the short, sharp attackers, while it also tends to be the attacking players that get substituted and so tiring defenders, having denied an opponent space for well over an hour, are suddenly faced with a fresh problem which perhaps accounts for the number of substitutes who have made major impacts from the bench in the tournament.
The Italian win over Sweden conformed to type on both fronts in that the goal came in the 88th minute and involved Zaza who had come on a sub on the hour mark. It gave just about the right result for, after a poor first half, Italy were much brighter in the second period as Sweden continued to be the Nordic version of Wales – if not Ibrahimovic (Bale) then who?
Again, Italy’s three central defenders, working with Buffon organising from behind, looked very strong and another clean sheet posted underlines how hard they are going to be to beat. Given the manager’s roots, it’s inevitable that the Buffon, Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci axis is pivotal to the side, but going forward, even if the personnel is different, this Italy still reeks of Conte’s Juventus.
During his three years in Turin, they had an indomitable belief that no matter how long it took, in the end they would win and he has charged his current, rather more limited squad, with that same belief. Able to rest players in the final game – vital with the threat of suspension hanging over a few – they are emerging as a real threat.
Croatia won’t have that luxury after throwing away a 2-0 lead to draw with the Czech Republic on a day which promised so much but which ended with a sour taste for reasons on and off the field. The Croatians were utterly dominant and cantering to the win when they went 2-0 up just shy of the hour.
They were in such control they were even able to raise a smile when Modric went off with a slight injury three minutes later, but such is the way that he orchestrates a game that almost immediately, the balance of power started to subtly shift and though it was still a surprise when Skoda drove his header in past some more dodgy goalkeeping, it was game on.
It might be game off for Croatia in future because there was trouble among their fans again. The reasons are more complex than the simple hooliganism we’ve seen elsewhere but the impact is the same.
A dozen flares were hurled onto the pitch, then fighting broke out among the Croatian fans, the inevitable UEFA investigation to follow tomorrow, but the consequences were more immediate for the distress amongst the Croatian players was plain to see. A Czech equaliser through a penalty wasn’t long in coming and had the game gone on five minutes more, they might well have won it.
While Croatia can’t finish lower than third, they need to get something from Spain to ensure automatic qualification. In this mood, and apparently without the injured Modric, that might be tough.
Spain, meanwhile, albeit against a dismal Turkish team, are looking much more like the side that has won the last two Euros, all the more so with Morata now emerging as an international goalscorer.
With Iniesta the heartbeat of it all, once they got in front, they tortured the Turks who gave it up all too easily, and played some beautiful football. With confidence growing and the football flowing, they, like Italy, are putting down a real marker for when the competition really starts.