When a Surprise Isn’t a Surprise
The biggest surprise relating to Iceland’s 2-1 victory over England at Euro 2016 this week has been the general response that it was a massive upset.
On the face of it the result is astonishing. However, strip away the population comparison and the football heritage of each country and a close match should have been expected.
On current form not a lot separated the teams. Iceland was good enough to beat Holland twice in qualifying and was unbeaten in the tournament. England had impressed in patches in group play but had conceded a late goal to draw with Russia, arguably the poorest team at the tournament.
How Iceland Did it on Match Day
Iceland approached the match with a plan that has served them well. Notably, defend deep and, when attacking, flood players forward.
Iceland also put pressure on Eric Dier, the deepest England midfielder, which resulted in slower ball speed into attack than what England had been capable of earlier in the tournament. This would not have been such a factor if England had a ball playing centre-back capable of making intelligent attacking long passes from a deep position, like Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci, but it didn’t.
The Iceland midfield worked well together, closing down space and being very organised with and without the ball.
Perhaps most importantly Iceland went into the match with assured belief. The squad had confidence that it could beat England and were not overawed by the occasion.
England also went into the match confident in a win but this confidence was misplaced. Ultimately, when it came to a pressure situation the team did not fire individually or collectively. While England started brightly with an early penalty, by the time Iceland had gone ahead in the 18th minute England were already directing much play down the wings and delivering hopeful crosses. The middle of the pitch was blocked.
What it Means
In the wake of the result little credit has been paid to Iceland, with much of the media focus on the newly ex-England manager Roy Hodgson and the players. However, this ignores the fact that Iceland was simply a more organised team than England. Football is a team game and, usually, the better team wins.
The big learning from the match was the value of dreaming big. What Iceland has done over the last decade is nothing short of remarkable. With vision and motivation, anything is possible. This applies to individuals, communities and countries. Belief and desire to achieve can make great things happen.
With limited resources (people, dollars, facilities) Iceland has built a structure that makes them a competitive unit. Most of the Iceland squad that played against England played in secondary leagues across Europe, but they have a committed, combative team.
Resources are over-rated if you have a plan, expertise and committed people. You need some resources but, compared to England, Iceland hasn’t a lot. However, they have been able to make the most of what they do have.
It will be fascinating to see if Iceland can continue its momentum and develop world-class talent over the next ten years.
In the meantime, celebrating a wonderful achievement by a small country is the order of the tournament. By considering the things that Iceland does well, any country can move football to a better place.
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