How Euro 2016's blundering coaches ruined a tournament full of superstars
The was acres of talent on the pitch at Euro 2016, writes Alex Hess, but the floundering managers in the dugouts wasted almost all of it.
“Pretty dull, pretty boring,” was Alan Shearer’s verdict on Euro 2016, offered at half-time on Sunday night.
It’s doubtful the BBC’s executives will have appreciated their summer’s chief attraction denounced with such scathing honesty but the truth is that it was a pretty fair appraisal of a tournament where, by the very nature of its newly expanded format, mediocrity was more prevalent than ever before.
Low quality needn’t necessarily mean low entertainment but the two things do tend to dovetail, and so it proved in France as the competition crept through its latter stages with only the hosts’ semi-final against Germany – itself hardly an all-time classic – delivering on both counts.
Much of this was due to the players themselves. In hindsight, the sheer number of glitzy names that failed to match their billing is faintly astonishing: Pogba, Rooney, Muller, Lewandowski, Hazard, Ibrahimovic, even arguably Ronaldo.
But much was also down to their managers. Looking back on Euro 2016, it’s hard not to conclude that the coaching on show was notable mainly for its failings.
Roy Hodgson and Marc Wilmots are the chief culprits here, and by some distance. Both were figureheads of doomed set-ups whose dysfunction extends some way beyond the identity of the coach, yet both will ultimately – and quite correctly – be remembered for their blundering construction of teams which fell laughably and inexplicably short of the sum of their parts.
Hodgson arrived without a plan, showed himself to be dumbly in thrall to a few out-of-form A-listers, and was out of a job before you could say thunderclap. Wilmots’ Belgium took a marginally less slapstick approach to failure than England, but fail they did, confirming en route the suspicions that they’re a band of tetchy individualists with little regard for their manager.
Both Hodgson and Wilmots entered the tournament with more pedigree on their respective benches than most coaches had in their first XIs, and both departed with their managerial stock in freefall after abject defeats at the hands of high-punching minnows.
Belgium head coach Marc WilmotsReuters
“These things happen,” was the England coach’s reasoning behind his side’s clueless display against Iceland; “I gave him my opinion in the dressing room,” was all Thibaut Courtois would say on the future of his own coach in the wake of Belgium’s exit. “He has to make his own decision.” Of all modern-era international sides, perhaps only England’s recently departed golden generation could match Wilmots’ Belgium for the disparity between team-sheet and performance.
Meanwhile, Marcel Koller’s Austria, a nation quietly enjoying their own golden generation (a label that seems to be more curse than compliment) and many people’s pre-tournament dark horses, managed to get themselves knocked out of an overly accommodating group stage, ending their week-long stay in France bottom of Group F with one goal and three desperately forgettable performances to show for their visit.
Even the two eminent superpowers of European football seemed hindered by managerial shortfalls this time around. Neither Vicente del Bosque and Joachim Löw, at the helms of Spain and Germany respectively, succeeded in translating well-grooved possession play into the only currency that counts – wins – and neither were able to reshuffle their extravagant resources to redress a slight lack of cutting edge up front. Both were nullified by an Italy side with a fraction of their ability, and Germany were lucky to get past them on penalties.
De Sciglio - Italy-Spain - Euro 2016 Eurosport
And while it may seem harsh to cast a manager whose side came so close to winning the trophy as a failure, the reality is that France’s wins were largely founded on individual flashes of excellence rather than the more sustained, collective displays that suggest sound training-ground work. Ultimately, Didier Deschamps sent his team out to contest a potentially era-defining final with their best player shackled, their attack blunted and the collective mentality of a rabbit staring blankly at an onrushing pickup truck.
Of course, this all neglects to mention the tournament’s notable coaching successes. Chief among these is Chris Coleman, whose ability to turn Wales into a team with a togetherness and resilience resembling that of a club side was rewarded with their historic jaunt to the last four. Likewise, Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson’s feat in crafting Iceland’s band of low-level misfits into a muscular, assured and wholly entertaining team merits serious praise.
And while Fernando Santos’s Portugal made for an undeniably grim spectacle much of the time, their capacity to reduce any game to a knife-edge contest, regardless of the opposition, speaks to expertly pragmatic coaching – not least because it proved the surest path to the trophy.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Fernando SantosImago
But these were the exceptions. Antonio Conte’s Italy marauded onto the scene with life-affirming style and tenacity but were ultimately too timid to go for the win against an underwhelming Germany and will look back on this summer with regrets. Poland seemed a slick side at times, but one wholly unable to exploit the talents of their star player; Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could be argued to have punched above their weight, but both owed their presence in the knockout stages to the faintly ludicrous new rule allowing third-placed teams to qualify from a four-team group, and neither survived beyond the last 16.
At the heart of the issue is the changing dynamic between club and international football – specifically, the way power and prestige is now constantly tilting towards the former. It’s telling that of the 24 managers at the Euros, only Conte would be recognised as an elite coach in the prime of his career. (Compare that with Euro 88, when the eight managers at the tournament included Bobby Robson, Rinus Michels, Valeri Lobanovsky and Franz Beckenbauer.)
The fact that Deschamps and Hodgson have both spent four years in charge of major international sides despite delivering constant low-level disappointment, and with middling club-level CVs doing little to help their case, again speaks to the difficulty in attracting the world’s best coaches away from the profile, prestige and pay packets of top-tier club football.
Certainly the administrators whose decision it was to bloat this year’s tournament were guilty of willingly diluting the fun, and the mass-failure of high-end players to replicate their club form did little to redeem the situation.
But if Euro 2016 was ultimately a demonstration of the dwindling status of international football, it was probably best epitomised by the identity, and the floundering, of the men in the dugout.