After four games, 15 goals and a few pathetic penalties the quarterfinals are over. There will be a first major tournament semifinal for Wales, who are joined by three of the usual suspects. But what else did we learn?
Wales aren’t just a one man team
When a huge star plays for a small nation, there’s a tendency to think the main man is the only man. Wales forward Gareth Bale is among the tournament's top scorers but wasn’t among the goals in their impressive 3-1 victory over Belgium on Friday, when the supporting cast stole the show.
Aaron Ramsey, suspended for the semifinal, put on another midfield masterclass while captain Ashley Williams - an underrated Premier League stalwart - again cajoled and commanded a defense that has exceeded the sum of its parts. Hal Robson-Kanu, recently released by second-tier English side Reading, scored a genuine contender for goal of the tournament in a competition packed with spectacular strikes.
While Bale will remain critical to his nation’s hopes, it should not be forgotten that with Ramsey, Williams and Liverpool’s Joe Allen (who has also shone in France), Wales have more than one way to win.
The suspension format is nonsense
Among the many complaints about the format of this year’s tournament, the impact of the extra round on suspensions has also raised hackles. Iceland started their quarterfinal with nine players walking the tightrope, Italy seven. For Germany, Mats Hummels will miss the semifinal thanks partly to an extremely harsh booking against Slovakia. Wales will miss Ramsey and Ben Davies while Portugal will be without William Carvalho.
There’s a strong case to be made that the two yellow card system is outdated, with players often entering the book for relatively minor infringements. Even if it is to remain, an extra game on the route to the final tips the disciplinary balance in the wrong direction and deprives the tournament of some of its best players. An appeal system wouldn’t go amiss either.
France might be peaking at the right time
Played 5, Won 4, Drawn 1, Lost 0. Goals Scored 11 Goals Against 4. The raw statistics paint a picture of the hosts as a dominant force in their tournament but until Sunday’s win over Iceland they’d impressed only in patches or through individual moments of brilliance.
But their control of the Iceland game, where Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet and Olivier Giroud dovetailed beautifully, serves notice to a Germany side who have plenty of questions to answer of their own after an unconvincing win over Italy.
Griezmann’s performances in particular suggest Atletico Madrid may struggle to hold on to the outrageously talented forward. His wonderful dinked finish for France’s fourth goal on Sunday was worthy of Lionel Messi and moved the 25-year-old to the top of the scoring chart on four goals. With genuine goal scorers few and far between, one of Europe’s wealthier clubs could be tempted to trigger his buyout clause worth a reported 100 million euros.
OK, so there’s to be no fairytale ending but the presence of Iceland in the latter stages of the tournament is refreshing in a sport often criticized as being financially-driven. We’ve all read the numbers but it was on the pitch and in the stands that the tiny island nation really became the story of the tournament.
In each of their five fixtures, they played smart, disciplined football and also brought the long throw back into vogue. What’s not to like? Their win against England wasn’t a fluke, they were the better side in every department and although they were outclassed by the hosts, their future looks bright.
Oh, and they had quite a good chant too.
A top tactician can transform a team
Despite his team exiting the tournament in the last eight, Antonio Conte will be thought of by many as Euro 2016’s most impressive coach. Seemingly short of genuine attacking quality and shorn of starting midfielders Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio before the tournament, then Daniele De Rossi, Thiago Motta and Antonio Candreva during the campaign, Conte found a way to play to Italy’s remaining strengths.
His 3-5-2 formation, built on the Juventus central defensive trio of Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, was paid the ultimate tribute by Germany coach Joachim Löw, who copied it in the last eight clash between the teams - with mixed results. Without Mario Gomez, who Löw seemed to stumble upon as his striker, Germany will need to adapt.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos also deserves credit in this regard. His decision to drop highly-regarded playmaker Joao Moutinho in favor of a second holding midfielder in Adrien Silva after a disappointing group stage may have won Portugal few admirers but it has won them games.