Five reasons Euro 2012 is so great...
Goals are coming at their highest rate for 36 years because skill is being rewarded, strikers protected and teams sitting deeper
April's Manchester derby attracted the highest audience in Sky Sports' 22-year history, just over four million viewers, or around four times the reach of BSkyB's most popular non-sports programmes, Game of Thrones and Hawaii Five-O. Which is why the broadcaster has paid the bulk of the £3bn television deal the Premier League banked this week. Our club game remains the "battering ram" of Rupert Murdoch's pay-TV network. However, England's first match of Euro 2012, despite the Monday tea-time kick-off, pulled in more than 15m viewers for ITV, said to be the channel's biggest audience of the year, and the BBC is likely to have comfortably exceeded that for last night's match with Sweden. The death of international football, despite the derision of such sages as Arsène Wenger, has clearly been exaggerated.
That Euro 2012 is on terrestrial TV, and neither figure includes the pub audience, is obviously a factor but Sky's previous biggest audience (3.9m) was for an England match nine years ago (v Turkey, away) when they had far fewer than their present 10m-plus subscribers. Moreover Spain-Italy drew an average 7.4m for ITV on Sunday, which compares well with the joint ITV/Sky average audience of 8.2m for this year's Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich.
There are similar figures elsewhere in Europe. Ireland's opening match with Croatia drew the country's biggest TV audience for a sporting event since the 1994 World Cup, the Netherlands' defeat to Denmark pulled in an audience shares of 87 per cent and 76 per cent respectively while 27.2m Germans watched their team beat the Dutch.
These figures are likely to increase as Euro 2012 is proving a huge success in terms of the football, if not necessarily the logistics or some supporter behaviour. Matches are usually close, but rarely boring, results hard to predict and goals are flowing at their highest rate for 36 years. There has also been much excellent football. Why is this?
1. Blatter and Platini have let the forwards flourish
Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini are frequently criticised, often with due cause, but the pair deserve credit for the entertaining nature of the tournament. After the dire 1990 World Cup Blatter tasked Platini with finding ways to improve the game, then backed him when he came up with solutions. The most significant were the ban on goalkeepers picking up back passes, and outlawing the tackle from behind. The back-pass ban meant that while pressured defenders could often still roll the ball back to the keeper there was a 50 per cent chance that would lead to losing possession as the keeper would have to kick it.
Gradually defenders improved technically so they could play their way out of trouble, usually in harness with fellow defenders. Goalkeepers also sharpened their kicking skills and increasingly pass the ball out rather than boot it. Both adjustments brought midfielders back into play. The change also meant the ball stayed in play more.
Eliminating the tackle from behind (and cracking down on the use of the elbow) enabled skilful players to operate without fear of being cut down by injury as Marco van Basten was. There was also the widespread adoption of the red card for professional fouls (an idea originally backed by Jimmy Hill) and the six-second limit imposed on goalkeepers holding on to the ball.
More recently the introduction of a period of rest between the end of the club season and the start of tournaments means fewer players (England aside) are either absent through injury, or carrying one into the championship, a factor that especially blighted the 2002 World Cup. And the presence of fifth officials does appear to be reducing the amount of grappling that goes on in the goal area, even if the Italians are finding it as hard to let go of old habits as opponents' shirts.
2. Despite this, the defenders have been striking back
Tactics are a constant battle between attack and defence, with each development in one aspect triggering a response in the other. The law changes, to the dissatisfaction of many an old- school pro, reduced the physicality of the game, allowing smaller players to flourish, as highlighted by the success of Barcelona. They also made the game more fluid. Showing a red card for professional fouls and a yellow to players who broke up counter-attacks with an early trip or shirt tug led to a period when swift transitions were the target for many coaches.
Inevitably, as Wenger noted a few years back, "countering the counter [became] the main trend". Some teams pressed high up the pitch as soon as they lost the ball (notably Barcelona and Spain), but most dropped into a defensive shape like a basketball team (England's current preference).
This appears to have reached a zenith with only a handful of the goals scored in this tournament through counter-attacks (notably three of Russia's against the Czech Republic).
3. But we are still seeing goals, goals, goals...
Few counter-attacks, not many long-shots, yet goals galore. Going into last night's matches there were 39 in 14 games, an average of 2.785, the highest since 1976 with only four teams in the finals. By contrast, in the fondly remembered Euro 96 there were 64 in 31 games (average: 2.06). One reason is the dramatic increase in headed goals. With defences sitting deeper several teams have opted to sling the ball into the box where powerful strikers such as Mario Mandzukic and Nicklas Bendtner have taken advantage. But also, it is much harder to close out games now, in part because of Platini's reforms, in part because there is so little between the teams.
4. In this tournament, there are no passengers
Unlike a World Cup there are no makeweights. The lowly Fifa ranking of Poland and Ukraine has been much commented upon but it is a red herring; the rankings place little weight on friendly games and the co-hosts last played competitive ones in 2009. The only team clearly out of its depth has been Ireland, in an admittedly strong group. Of the first 12 matches not involving Ireland, 11 were drawn or settled by a single goal – the exception was Russia's 4-1 win over the Czech Republic, but even that was 2-1 with 12 minutes to go. Close matches have generated tension, but not stalemates since most games (11 of 14) have enjoyed first-half goals.
The tightness of the competition is clear: whereas in Euro 2008 two teams had been eliminated and four had secured a quarter-final place at this stage, going into last night no one had qualified and only Ireland were out.
5. So make the most of it...
Sadly this will be the last tournament with such a depth of quality, as in 2016 there will be 24 teams. Will including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Estonia, Turkey, Montenegro (the four teams beaten in the play-offs) and Switzerland, Norway, Slovenia and Hungary (the next four Fifa-ranked teams) really make for a better competition? Apart from the diminution in quality it will probably mean a tournament structure of six groups of four with a quartet of third-placed teams qualifying, producing several meaningless matches and an extra round. This tournament is short, taut, and high-class. Enjoy it while you can.
Five best: Goals
Jakub Blaszczykowski, Poland v Russia
A tremendous goal in any context, but the weight of history on the fixture, and the tragic backstory, multiplied the impact as Poland's captain cut in from the right, lashed his shot into the Russian net, and sent Warsaw wild.
Antonio Di Natale, Italy v Spain
A goal crafted and executed by veterans. Andrea Pirlo, 33, ghosts by Sergio Busquets in midfield then slides a superb pass on to a typically clever run by 34-year-old Di Natale. The finish, naturally, is just sublime.
David Silva, Spain v Republic of Ireland
His first touch kills Shay Given's punch at his feet, the second leaves Sean St Ledger on the deck, then there are a couple of shimmies before, in his own time, Silva rolls the ball into goal with two nutmegs.
Robin van Persie, Netherlands v Germany
This may mean Van Persie has refound his touch. Leaving Mats Hummel for dead with a turn, he thumped the ball through Holger Badstuber's legs and past Manuel Neuer from 25 yards.
Alan Dzagoev, Russia v Czech Rep
A classic counter-attack with Dzagoev involved three times as Russia pinch possession and break quickly. Andrei Arshavin's pass is not meant for Dzagoev, but he is rewarded for continuing his run.
Five top: Performers
Poland's coach Franciszek Smuda has a big decision to make tonight, whether to recall Wojciech Szczesny or retain the understudy who saved a penalty with his first touch against Greece as substitute for the dismissed Arsenal goalkeeper, and has kept superbly since. Must be on Premier League clubs' radars.
Theodor Gebre Selassie
It has been a good tournament for attacking right-backs with France's Mathieu Debuchy and Lukasz Piszczek of Poland also impressing. The Czech Republic's Selassie, of Slovan Liberec, is available for €2m (£1.6m), but hurry, Werder Bremen are closing in
Not exactly a new face but the 27-year-old German is confirming his status as the most complete midfielder in Europe, capable of playing wide, deep or advanced. Looks in the mood to make up for his Champions League final shoot-out calamity.
The Dane failed to make an impact in two spells in the Ajax midfield but, converted to an attacking role for his national team, his mobility and finishing punished the Dutch. Was 29 this month so is unlikely to earn another big move from Brondby
Going into last night's games Croatia's big powerful forward was the joint tournament top-scorer with three goals. He is strong in the air, able to play a variety of roles and with an eye for goal. If Stoke are poised to bid for the 27-year-old Wolfsburg striker they can expect strong competition for a player who cost €8m in 2010.
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