Eight games in three days sent some big teams packing and left a mixture of the familiar and the first-timers in the quarterfinals. We know who is in and who’s out but what else did the first knockout stage teach us?
Organization and tactics trump star names
Italy were supposed to be a side on the wane, lacking any real magic up front and with an Andrea Pirlo-shaped hole at the base of their midfield. Iceland were supposed to be the beneficiaries of an expanded tournament, just happy to make up the numbers in the knockouts. But these two are through while the much-vaunted stars of Spain and England pack their toiletries in see-through plastic bags for the journey home.
What Iceland and Italy have in common is a plan. Antonio Conte and Iceland duo Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrimsson have drilled their sides to play to their strengths, with the team triumphing over the individual. Italy’s three center halves have all been at the top of their game, their midfield is hard working and the pace of Eder and hold-up play of Graziano Pelle is used to full effect on the break. Iceland favor a simple 4-4-2 relying on discipline, set pieces and a direct style that has unsettled sides throughout the tournament.
Unlike their opponents, the players in the Iceland and Italy side appeared to know their jobs and understand how their roles fitted in to the team shape. England’s Roy Hodgson tried to shoehorn Wayne Rooney - a once great player now visibly declining almost week by week - in to his side despite a lack of form and a lack of familiarity with his position, while many of the Spanish old guard, particularly David Silva, looked off the pace.
Big attacking players starting to come to the fore
The group stages were largely defined by defensive displays and late goals but the first round of knockout games has seen some of the tournaments big name attacking players come to fore.
First Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann came to France’s rescue with a well-taken brace to help the hosts squeeze past Ireland. Then Germany’s improvement continued, with Julian Draxler impressing and Mario Gomez scoring for the second match in a row. Perhaps best of all though was Eden Hazard’s swashbuckling display in Belgium’s 4-0 win over Hungary - probably the best individual performance of the tournament and one that suggested he has put a inexplicably poor domestic campaign behind him.
Despite the improved attacking displays, there are still a few players who are yet to hit their straps. Poland will need more from Robert Lewandowksi if they are to find a way past Portugal, while Thomas Müller and Olivier Giroud need to find their scoring boots for Germany and France respectively.
Hosts still struggling to catch fire but have the potential
The Arsenal striker isn’t the only France player struggling though, with the hosts yet to fully convince. The displays of Griezmann and Dmitri Payet - along with moderate opposition - have papered over the cracks for now but Iceland have proved capable of exposing weaknesses in more-fancied teams.
With defender Adil Rami and holding midfielder N’Golo Kante suspended for the next match, coach Didier Deschamps must decide whether the attacking style he employed in the second half against Ireland - when Kante was replaced at half-time by Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman - is the way forward.
Shocks would’ve happened without expansion
Those in favor of the expansion of the championships to 24 teams may point to the presence of Wales and Iceland in the quarterfinals as evidence that expansion has made for a more exciting and unfamiliar line up in the last eight.
But in reality, both these teams would’ve escaped the group stages anyway, with excellent displays and not tokenistic tournament organizing propelling them to first (Wales) and second (Iceland) in their group. Both sides also qualified for the tournament without the need for a play off. Their progression is reward for spirited and skillful displays not for UEFA’s bizarre and unnecessary re-organization of a tournament that already threw up plenty of surprises - Greece or Denmark anyone?
This is Belgium’s biggest chance
Much has been made of the apparently lopsided nature of the draw. While the displays of some of the lesser-rated teams so far should serve as a warning, Belgium should be confident of at least a final berth. A last 16 tie against Hungary, followed by a quarter final against Wales and a potential semifinal date with Portugal or Poland - both largely underwhelming so far - is about as kind a draw as coach Marc Wilmots could have hoped for.
This generation of Belgian talents, with Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Toby Alderweireld to the fore, have so far only delivered a World Cup quarterfinal exit and a failure to qualify for Euro 2012. They won’t get a better chance to win a tournament than this.