Greece 2-2 North Korea: The Analysis
And so the first glimpse of what the Greek national team will look like when it lines up against South Korea on June 12 has been given, with Otto Rehhagel’s men held to a 2-2 draw by a plucky North Korean outfit in Austria (perhaps it would be rather more accurate to say that at times the Greeks escaped with a draw rather than were held to it). Here’s the analysis:
The 4-3-3 implemented by Rehhagel against the Koreans suggests that he'll ditch the disastrous 5-3-2/5-4-1 that the side lined up with in that opening match against Sweden during Euro 2008. Having said that, there was a striking lack of balance in the way the 4-3-3 was deployed this time around, with defence, midfield and attack >lacking understanding within and between themselves. At the heart of the back-line a partnership of Sotiris Kyrgiakos and Vangelis Moras had an almost experimental feel with the latter failing time and time again to stay in line with the former, caught up field and providing the nimble Korean attackers space to exploit in-behind. On this showing Sokratis Papastathopoulos – a more mobile alternative – would surely be a better option against a quick South Korea.
The full back positions were occupied by Nikos Spyropoulos and Loukas Vyntra, though both were quite poor and should give up their starting spots to Vasilis Torosidis and Giourkas Seitaridis assuming the latter are fit to start the tournament. Seitaridis played the entire second half and whilst looking rusty, shut down the right flank where Vyntra was previously being exposed for a lack of pace and inability to get forward. Spyropoulos was meanwhile embarrassed by the impressive Jong Tae-Se as the striker scored his second goal and looked uncomfortable with his defensive duties.
In midfield the lamentable figure of Alexandros Tziolis took his place alongside certain starters Giorgos Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis, the latter producing another non-existent display despite an early goal that should have lifted him. His form for the national team has been poor since, well, Euro 2004 and given he's one player with the energy and ability to shoulder both defensive and attacking duties he'll be crucial in South Africa. Unfortunately, I just can't see him improving too soon, with the subsequent burden on Giorgos Karagounis set to increase. That the classy midfielder was replaced during the second half is an indication that he simply can't do everything (tackle, distribute, shoot) for 90 minutes on his own and to be quite frank, the lumbering Tziolis isn't the answer.
An attacking trio of Georgios Samaras, Theofanis Gekas and Dimitris Salpiggidis looked promising on paper but the layout of the front three was bizzare to say the least. The lack of balance brought about by the positioning of Samaras in-behind a central Gekas and Salpiggidis playing wide right as a virtual winger was conspicuous and the three failed to link up consistently all match.
The approach to the match both on and off the ball weren't particularly encouraging. Whether it was by virtue of the fact that the players were preserving themselves in the knowledge the majority of them won't have to fight for their place in the final squad (a distinct possibility), the decision to sit deep and allow the North Koreans space and time on the ball perilously close to the 18-yard box was bizarre, assuming it will be the tactic employed against South Korea. The logical thing to do would be to step up slightly and press in central areas given our conspicuous physical advantage – surely Rehhagel isn't expecting to force the Koreans to start heaving long balls into the box by sitting in our own penalty area and proving difficult to break down? There were however, fleeting moments where the likes of Karagounis and Katsouranis did indeed harry off the ball but to do so consistently during the opening group game will be quite a different task.
In attack it was a far more direct showing than we were treated to in qualifying with an obvious reliance on set-pieces that does nothing to dispel the stereotype that has followed the national team around rather unfairly since Euro 2004. In any case it was an effective strategy on the day, though it remains totally dependent on the delivery of Karagounis (and that itself might be a danger given his effectiveness tends to fluctuate depending on his energy levels). In open play the chances were limited and when they arrived were forced rather than constructed, with the absence of a driving force out of midfield or even overlapping full backs a major concern.
3. Sotiris Ninis
How can one avoid the name of the Panathinaikos prodigy these days? It is the universal dream of national team fans to see him take his place in the starting line-up for that first match against Korea but given Rehhagel's reliance on the old guard it seems unlikely that he'll make any appearance at all during the tournament. Having said that, perhaps the inept showing in midfield will force the German to look to his most creative outlet for inspiration. Ninis is also the sort of player that will simply add running to a midfield that is incredibly static at the moment.
On and off the ball Ninis might even free-up Giorgos Karagounis to weave his magic in the final third and allow him to use his vast array of attacking skills in areas where they can do damage – for a while now the Greece captain has been forced to track back and win the ball in deep areas, launching attacks rather than being on the end of them. In truth the 20 year probably resembles more Greece's opening-day opponents with his low centre of gravity and pass-and-move style and perhaps that's the strongest case for his inclusion; the balance he will provide and the different headache he'll cause for the Koreans, who will no doubt be focusing all of their energy on nullifying Greece's aerial threat. Ninis' sheer presence would give them something else to think about.
He wasn’t used in this match – presumably as a result of the slight injury cloud that’s surrounding him – but it’s being suggested he’ll enter the first team frame more and more in the lead up to the finals and that in itself is promising.
Despite being only a friendly, there are a number of questions raised by the performance for Rehhagel to answer. Indeed his post-match comments suggest he wasn't impressed and that could be a signal that change is coming, with one report claiming he'll move to a 3-5-2 formation after seeing his defence torn apart by Jong Tas-Se. I'm not entirely sure that's the best move: the only way I can see that shape being employed is if Torosidis and Seitaridis are fully fit, as they are the only players in the squad with the ability and experience to fill the wide roles effectively. Even then it represents a risk given the lack of speed of the back three (Moras, Kyrgiakos and Papastathopoulos) and something tells me it could easily regress to the dreaded 5-3-2 formation if thing's start to go awry – and the last thing we need is a Euro 2008 repeat…
With the next friendly against Paraguay coming up at the weekend it'll be interesting to see whether there are fundamental changes made in terms of personnel and shape. Having said that, those changes – if they arrive – might only represent a separate dress rehearsal for the match against Argentina (I imagine that's the logic behind the decision to play a South American outfit in the build-up to the tournament). It will nonetheless be watched with great interest…
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