It’s felt like forever, but finally, this summer, the football world will turn its head back to the pain and glory of a major international tournament! International breaks throughout the domestic season can feel mundane and trivial at times, but the build-up to an event like the Euros or the World Cup is unmatched in the sport. The five-year gap between tournaments is the longest there has ever been in the history of the competition. For the nations that missed out on the World Cup in Russia (Looking at you, Italy!), this will be their chance to reignite their country’s passion for national success. A deep, memorable run at the Euro’s for a smaller nation will ensure that they are immortalized not only in the history of the sport but in the annals of their country’s proudest achievements. Think Wales in 16’, or Greece in 04’, Denmark in 92’! These are teams and tournaments that will never be forgotten by any football fan, let alone those from those countries.
So, no more time-wasting; there will be enough of that come June; let’s get into the preview of Group A. If you are a peasant North American, like meI, you call the sport soccer and are looking for a team to cheer for this summer, look no further than these previews! I am going to ask and answer three simple questions for every team. Are they good? Are they fun? And lastly, are they underdogs? And yes, a team can be none of these things. We’ll look at some of the exciting young talents in each group, do some thrilling statistical analysis, and even make predictions that we can laugh at in 3 months! Let’s go.
Group A – Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Wales
Group A could be one of the more enthralling groups as all four nations are inside FIFA’s top 30 when it comes to world rankings. How much that means is up for debate, but each team is flawed, even the preemptive favourites to win the group, Italy.
Italy – Are they good?
To answer this question, I’m going to compare the Italian national team to pizza, it is Italy after all. Italy is like the low-end pizza place you order when you can’t be asked to go out or pay the extra money for good pizza. It’s still pizza, it still tastes great and has some solid qualities, but it’s not the upper echelon of pizza. You can just tell when you’re eating it that there are some key ingredients still missing. And that is Italy, they have some excellent players, they have a manager who won titles in England and Italy, but they aren’t in the same class as France, England or even Belgium for that matter. Looking more analytically at the strengths of the team, it is upfront and in midfield.
The forward line of Federico Chiesa, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile could cause severe problems for defenders, especially if they are getting the service from that oh-so-talented midfield. Chiesa had some considered a breakout season for Juventus, scoring eight times and assisting nine. Critically, he seems to have improved his decision-making. This was previously tipped to be what would stop him from becoming the player he has the potential to be. His ability to drive into space with the ball and make runs in behind without it could be a perfect match with Insigne’s ability to pass and create. Insigne ranked fifth in Serie A in expected assists during the 20-21 season showcasing his playmaking ability. Per FBref, the diminutive forward is also in the 92nd percentile of wingers in the top five leagues in terms of shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, generating 4.68 SCA. Insigne has a unique talent of picking out teammates with passes that nobody on the pitch could have foreseen but him. Add Immobile into the mix, the man who has scored 96 non-penalty goals in his last 176 league matches, and I’d say you have a pretty potent frontline. Three forwards, with three different profiles, and each of those profiles potentially blending beautifully could make for some good football.
The relationship between the midfield and defence will be interesting. As amazing and as lovely a footballer Marco Verratti is, he can get caught out defensively sometimes, which leads to him making silly tackles and racking up yellow cards. He will need to be the rock at the base of Italy’s 4-3-3 as Italy’s back four will need protecting. Mancini has used a 3-5-2 sparingly over his reign as manager, but I can’t see him abandoning the tried and true 4-3-3 when the real action kicks off. He does have a decision to make in the middle of his defensive unit, as the tried and true partnership of Bonnuci and Chiellini could make way for 22-year-old Alessandro Bastoni, who is coming off a Scudetto winning season with Inter and Lazio defender Francesco Acerbi who had a brilliant 19/20 campaign. Having options is never a bad thing, but Mancini shouldn’t fall into the trap of picking the former partnership just based on experience. One thing Italy does have going for them is that their keeping is considered a strength. Gigi Donnarumma was fourth in Serie A in Post-Shot Expected Goals minus Goals Allowed per 90 this season which shows his above-average ability to stop shots. Combine that with his exceptional height and how strong he is at coming for and claiming crosses, and he should and will be relied upon to help Italy’s defence.
Italy’s biggest weakness is its wingbacks. Having your best fullbacks be Alessandro Florenzi and Emerson doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. In modern football, to be a top team, you need to have wingbacks that are more than just a net-zero. They need to have a positive impact on the game. This, as well as Italy’s lack of attacking talent besides their front three, will be their most significant issues. Players like Federico Bernadeschi and Andrea Belotti cannot be relied upon anymore to provide anything substantial off the bench. In international tournaments, you need to have substitutes that can change a game. To be fair to Italy, they haven’t lost in a competitive match since September of 2018, and they didn’t drop points at all during their qualifying process. Yes, they are good, but they lack the overall squad depth and firepower to be considered a top top team.
Are they fun?
Italy, surprisingly, could potentially be one of the more fun teams to watch this summer. I mean, it all depends on how manager Roberto Mancini decides to pick and play his starting eleven. But a midfield mix of Marco Verratti, Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Gaetano Castrovilli sounds like it would be a joy to watch. Italy could choose to fall back on their old ways and play defensive football, although I think that would be a mistake. They scored 33 goals in their ten qualifying games, and their defence could be susceptible to counterattacks, which means high-scoring, high-event matches, and who doesn’t love those? If they end up just playing a bunch of one nils, I will be bitterly disappointed. Also, if the injured Nicolo Zaniolo were healthy, he’d make the team much more enjoyable. I miss you, Nicolo.
Are they underdogs?
Certainly not. If you cheer for Italy and aren’t Italian, I seriously question your life choices. There are so many better options it’s not even funny, not to mention that most Italian’s probably don’t even want non-Italian fans to cheer for their country. Even missing out on the last World Cup couldn’t make them more endearing. If anything, it should make you dislike them even more. How can an Italian national team miss out on a World Cup with all those resources!?!?
Switzerland – Are they good?
Define “good.” When it comes to teams like Switzerland, it’s hard to classify them as good, because well, they aren’t. But they made the Round of 16 in the last World Cup and the latest Euro’s, so I can’t outright say that they aren’t at the very least decent. Their captain, Granit Xhaka, encapsulates Switzerland as a team. Is Granit Xhaka good? Well, most football fans, such as I, would argue no, he has some talent, yes, but overall, his deficiencies outweigh his ability to strike a football. However, Mr. Xhaka still plays for Arsenal football club and is a Premier League player, so he can’t be outright terrible, right? Switzerland’s biggest strength is through the middle of their team; the three centre backs and the midfield keep the unit stable.
Nico Elvedi, Manuel Akanji and Ricardo Rodriguez combine to make a strong back three, specifically Akanji and Elvedi. The two young Bundesliga standouts mesh brilliantly. Elvedi is the stronger of the two defensively and aerially, ranking in the 75th percentile in aerials won p90 of all centre backs across Europe’s top five leagues. In contrast, Akanji takes more of the distribution responsibilities. Akanji can pass and carry the ball out from the back, ranking in the 89th in progressive passes p90 and in the 97th percentile in progressive carries p90. Again across all the CB’s in Europe’s top five leagues, according to FBref.
In the middle of the park, the unsung hero of the Swiss team is Remo Freuler. The all-action midfielder has been a vital part of the Atalanta teams that took the footballing world by storm a couple of years ago and had a strong 20/21 campaign.
Freuler, Xhaka and the exciting Denis Zakaria will most likely rotate between the two central midfield spots in Vladimir Petkovic’s 3-4-1- 2. Switzerland’s attack looks to be the area that will hurt them the most. Xherdan Shaqiri has barely played for Liverpool this season, and he can be inconsistent at the best of times, and Breel Embolo has scored just five times for Gladbach this season, failing to keep up his solid form during the 19/20 season.
One bright spot for the Swiss is the play of Haris Seferovic. The 29-year-old has enjoyed the second-best season of his career for Benfica this year, scoring twenty times and assisting seven more goals. However, there are questions over whether he can keep that form up when playing better competition on a bigger stage. Coming back to the original question, or are they good? I think I’ve landed somewhere in between; they are better than average but not exactly good. Maybe this is the year they break through to truly good status!
Are they fun?
Probably not. Here’s how I’ll put it, if Denis Zakaria is playing, I’d tune in. If not, be prepared for a monotonous 90 minutes. They just don’t score a lot! Their style of play usually leaves them relying on a moment of individual brilliance or set pieces to win games, and I don’t enjoy that style of football personally.
Are they underdogs?
I’d say no, not quite. All their players are from Europe’s top leagues, and they have been a mainstay in the knockouts of international tournaments for too long now to be considered underdogs. They could be regarded as dark horses, though, for a run to the quarterfinals!
Wales- Are they good?
To be completely honest with you, I have no idea how Wales is ranked 17th in the FIFA rankings. A team with Daniel James as a nailed-on starter should not be top twenty in anything. The team that made the semi-finals in 2016 had Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale in the prime of their careers, along with a manager who knew how to get the best out of his squad and keep the team stable.
The state of the managerial position right now could not possibly be less steady. Ryan Giggs will not take charge of Wales at this summer’s European Championship after being charged with assaulting his ex-girlfriend and coercive control, leaving Rob Page to pick up the pieces as caretaker manager. It will be difficult for Page to make the impact he’d like on the squad in such a short period, and key players like Ramsey and David Brooks have both struggled to stay fit throughout the past few months.
As good as Bale has looked since the turn of the year, it would be asking a lot of the former Galactico to carry Wales through to the knockouts on his own. The defence has more questions than answers too. Presumed leader at the back Joe Rodon has barely played for Spurs since his move in January, and when he has, he’s looked less than convincing. Ethan Ampadu has been seen as a player with talent, but his performances this season looked as uninspired as the rest of his Sheffield Utd teammates.
I’m reasonably confident in my verdict that Wales are not good, but that shouldn’t rule them out when it comes to picking a team to cheer for; sometimes, the mediocre teams are the most enchanting!
Are they fun?
I am cautiously optimistic that they will be! If I’m Rob Page, I am telling the lads to go out and just play freely. There is a lot of negativity around the squad right now thanks to the disgraceful actions of Ryan Giggs, but the Euro’s is a chance to cheer up a nation that desperately needs cheering up. And it’s not like they don’t have the players to play some creative, attacking football. Gareth Bale has genuinely turned back the clock with eight goals and an assist in his last ten Premier League appearances, and his game always steps up a level when he plays for the national team. David Brooks is a lovely young player who thrives in a system where he can roam around the attacking third and pick the ball up wherever he’d like. And Aaron Ramsey surely still has some quality, right… right?! I could be wrong, but I choose to be optimistic and hope that every team decides to play high-event football.
Are they underdogs?
This I can answer unequivocally and say yes, for sure, no doubt about it. Wales has a population of just over three million people! And they have a caretaker manager! Who doesn’t love a good “interim coach brings his team to glory” story? Any nation in Britain other than England can be considered underdogs in my book.
Turkey- Are they good?
Turkey could be of the more sneaky solid teams in this tournament. They have three young, commanding centre-backs in Ozan Kabak, who plays for Liverpool; Caglar Soyuncu, a Leicester player; and Merih Demiral, who plays for Juventus. All three players can be prone to silly mistakes and brain farts, but Turkey could certainly do worse. Right-back Zeki Celik has been a crucial part of Lille’s Ligue 1 team, one game away from beating out PSG for the league title. Celik flies up and down the flank and is a fantastic dribbler, and he’ll be critical to Turkey’s attack.
Another player that will be key to Turkey’s attack is Hakan Calhanoglu, who has enjoyed a bit of a career renaissance over the past two years. This season, Calhanoglu led the Serie A in key passes, shot-creating actions, and third in xA. He’s terrific at set-pieces, and Turkey will be a team that will need to capitalize on corners if they want to go far in the tournament.
Calhanoglu will be expected to use his elite playmaking skills to provide chances for the Lille duo of Burak Yilmaz and Yusuf Yazici. The two scored 22 goals combined this season for Lille and will lead the line for Turkey. Yilmaz isn’t exactly a fleet-footed centre forward, but he’s good in the air, and he’s smart. Yazici is a player that likes to have the ball at his feet, a little bit too much at times as he can be a bit selfish, but he’s a talented player.
A player I hope we see as much as possible is 20-year-old midfielder Orkun Kokcu. Kokcu is almost certainly going to move to the Premier League this summer, and for good reason. The young Turk is technically gifted, a lovely ball striker and is a ball progression machine. He’s in the 92nd percentile in Europe for progressive passes and the 98th percentile for passes into the penalty area. The kid is a line-breaking machine who needs to play for Turkey.
Are they fun?
They very well could be. I’m not familiar with how manager Senol Gunes likes to set up his teams, but they have the personnel to be a fun team to watch. Admittedly they play a 4-4-2, which is usually seen as a mundane formation, but teams like Southampton are proving that 4-4-2’s can be used to play energetic, frenetic football. Turkey will, at the very least, be a team I keep my eye on.
Are they underdogs?
I mean, it’s Turkey. They don’t have a lot of qualities that one would consider underdog worthy. They aren’t always the easiest to cheer for either. There are so many better teams to pick. Just, hold on!
Most Valuable Player of the Group: Lorenzo Insigne
U-23 Players to look out for: Orkun Kokcu, David Brooks, Ridvan Yilmaz, and Alessandro Bastoni
Group B later this week!