Football Features

‘Tickled by 1,000 feathers’ – Five things we learned as Slovakia take early control of Group E

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:27, 14 June 2021

Euro 2020 Group E got underway on Monday with Spain, Poland, Slovakia and Sweden all in action St Petersburg and Sevilla.

Slovakia have taken early control of the group thanks to their 2-1 win over Poland, with Spain and Sweden playing out a goalless draw to keep things very open.


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Across the two games there was a lot for all four managers to ponder ahead of the next round of fixtures on Friday and Saturday, but what was there for us to learn?

1. The New Spanish Problem

There was a moment of sad realisation for some when Spain announced their 24-man squad for Euro 2020 – a major tournament roster missing Sergio Ramos for the first time since 2004. It was a realisation that Spain aren’t what they used to be. Of course, we’ve known that for some time, with the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi, David Villa, Carles Puyol, Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas calling time on their international careers long ago. But it still crept up on you.

And without those players, it’s feels there’s something missing. In the first two thirds of the pitch, Spain are excellent, and reminiscent of the team that won three consecutive major tournaments between 2008 and 2012. They are, as expected, excellent at moving the ball around, passing patiently and waiting for the right moment to open up their opponents. It’s not the most exciting football to watch, especially in a tournament that has already brought corkers in Netherlands vs Ukraine and Austria vs North Macedonia, but it has got the job done for Spain in the past.

But it’s not getting the job done at the moment. For all their dominance on the ball, Spain just aren’t killing their opponents as they used to. ‘Death by 1,000 cuts’ is now ‘tickled by 1,000 feathers’. Their flank use was excellent, especially with Marcos Llorente pushing so far up the pitch, but when it came to doing something with the ball in those areas, Spain faltered.

Spain’s 85.1% possession, 830 passes completed and 90.51% pass accuracy brought 17 shots, five on target and, most importantly, zero goals.

Even Enrique’s changes were uninspired. When needing a goal he looked to Thiago and Pablo Sarabia before Gerard Moreno, whose goals helped Villarreal win the Europa League. When Moreno did come on, it was with 15 minutes remaining against a Swedish defence that looked comfortable and ready to fight for their clean sheet. Moreno did get a couple of chances, but he couldn’t find a goal, and the damage was done.

2. Slovakia aren’t making up the numbers

When the Group E line up was complete, a lot of people would have made early assumptions as to how it would end. Spain top, with Sweden and Poland likely joining them as runners-up and a possible best-placed-third side. Slovakia were there to make up the numbers.

However, Slovakia have proven that they certainly aren’t at Euro 2020 to make up the numbers, opening Group E with an excellent win against Poland. Slovakia were brilliant against Poland, particularly in the first half. They overran Poland in midfield, with Marek Hamsik and Ondrej Duda particularly on top, controlling how Slovakia played when keeping their opponents off the ball. Their first-half lead was a deserved one, and it came by beautiful means.

Robert Mak picked the ball up on the right flank, but had two defenders between himself and the Poland box. That didn’t faze him, as Mak took the ball past both of his opponents, with a nutmeg on Bartosz Bereszynski and fired a shot low into the bottom right corner. Via a deflection it came off the post but bounced back in off of Wojciech Szczesny’s arm. Mak deserved the goal for his excellent play, but it was awarded to the Polish goalkeeper.

Slovakia were a lot shakier in the second half, especially when Poland equalised 30 seconds after the break, but they rode the storm and eventually got the winner once Poland had been reduced to 10 men. Overall, it was a deserved win for Slovakia and they are already in a good position to reach the knockout stages for the second-consecutive European Championship.

3. The sky’s the limit for Alexander Isak

The aftermath of Spain’s game with Sweden will be all about La Roja and their failures in front of goal. Or how Sweden’s defence managed to deal with them/rode their luck at times (depending on how you’re feeling). But a special mention on the Sweden side should go to Alexander Isak.

It can’t have been easy for Isak in Seville, playing for a team so intent on defending that they had less than 15% possession. Isak was severely isolated up front, even with a strike partner in Marcus Berg, and it showed in the numbers with the Real Sociedad forward having just 20 touches in his 69 minutes on the pitch. But boy did he use those 20 touches well.

Sweden had two really good opportunities to hit Spain with a sucker punch, both of which came through Isak and his excellent footwork. The 21-year-old is not your average centre forward, there purely to score goals, he has excellent close ball control, able to beat opposition defenders in the tightest of spaces.

One such moment of neat footwork in the first half saw Isak have Sweden’s best chance, one he fashioned himself, only to see his effort well met by the Spanish defence. In the second half, his footwork was even better inside the Spanish box as Isak had the better of the defence and set the ball across goal for Berg. Unfortunately, Berg missed his opportunity from inside the six-yard box and Sweden saw their chance of a big win flash before their eyes.

Isak has already caught the eye of many potential suitors for his performances with Real Sociedad, but the 21-year-old used his European stage to showcase his abilities even more.

Tomorrow’s big game at Euro 2020:

  • France vs Germany (8pm UK time)
  • The last two World Cup winners go head-to-head on their quest to conquer Europe.
  • France were losing finalists in 2016, while Germany are the joint-most successful nation in European Championship history.
  • Euro 2020 will be Joachim Low’s final tournament as Germany manager. Can he bow out on a high?
  • Or will France take a big step towards winning back-to-back major tournaments?

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4. Poland let themselves down

On the other side of Slovakia’s win was a very poor Poland side who can only have themselves to blame for starting the group in defeat. There was no organisation from the team in the first half and their midfield was virtually non-existent when compared to Hamsik and Duda.

While Szczesny was unlucky with the rebound for Slovakia’s opener, having covered his post practically perfectly, fingers have to be pointed at the defending in the build up to that goal. For all of Mak’s magic, Poland’s defence should not have been beaten that easily. They had the 30-year-old in the perfect position, on the wing with his back towards goal.

Poland also failed to make the most of their improvements after half-time. Paulo Sousa did his work wonderfully at the break, as Emma Hayes noted on commentary, pushing his midfield and defensive unit 10 yards further up the pitch to suffocate Slovakia. Once Poland had got their goal, you could only see them going on to win it, especially with Robert Lewandowski still there to pounce on anything that fell his way.

But just 15 minutes after their equaliser, Poland handed control of the game back over to their opponents with Grzegorz Krychowiak’s red card. The former Paris Saint-Germain and West Bromwich Albion midfielder had picked up a yellow card for a silly foul in the first half, and he repeated that feat just after the hour mark, a needless challenge that would ultimately cost his side.

Now, Poland need a positive result in their next game against Spain to keep their last-16 hopes alive. And they will need to do it without the suspended Krychowiak in midfield.

5. A poor day for the big names

While Isak was impressing (albeit without scoring) against Spain, Monday was a poor afternoon for the centre-forwards, particularly the two biggest names on display.

In the group’s opening game, Lewandowski had an afternoon to forget – which is fitting because you could have easily forgotten he was playing for Poland against Slovakia. The Bayern Munich man was isolated at the head of the Poland attack, starved of the quality service he had en route to scoring 41 Bundesliga goals last season. Although he managed five shots, three were blocked, and the two that made it passed the opposition defence failed to trouble the goalkeeper or even hit the target.

But while Lewandowski may have been forgotten, Morata unfortunately won’t be, for all the wrong reasons. The Spaniard had another tough evening leading the line for Spain, with a performance that summed up his recent career. Morata missed a golden opportunity to put Spain ahead in the first half when a defensive error played him in one-on-one with Robin Olsen in the Swedish goal. However, the Juventus man curled his shot wide of the net – the first of two shots off target (plus one blocked). Just moments later, he brought a promising Spanish attack to an end after being caught offside. The story of Morata’s life.

Only one of these men was expected to be key to anything their team achieves at Euro 2020, but they will both need to step up in the next round of fixtures.