All the Wrong Moves
By Greg Gavalas
AGONAsport’s Greg Gavalas talks about Greece’s two recent World Cup qualifiers against Belgium and Estonia.
In my preview to this vital week of qualifiers for the Greek National Team I wrote this "Whilst the Estonia game should seem straight forward, I am a little worried because I feel Michael Skibbe's selections have made this game a risky game due to the lack of friendlies and experience."
I was right, in a horrible week for Ethniki purists, the road to the World Cup has taken an ugly turn for the worst. The disaster was really the Estonia match. I can only describe that game as disgraceful as we drew 0-0 and created all but 2 realistic chances in the 90 minutes, none were from open play, which would have been hard given we played at a snail's pace tempo allowing Estonia every chance to park the bus.
Greece would go onto show a much more spirited performance versus Belgium and would nearly take the lead after a trademark Kostas Stafylidis long range shot powered off the post. However, it was not to be and a 2-1 loss means we now need Belgium to not suffer defeat at the hands of Bosnia in the last round of matches.
To rub salt into the wound, the night we drew with Estonia, Cyprus beat Bosnia 3-2... Had we taken care of business that would have put us 4 points clear of Bosnia, instead we are now 3rd with 13 points, one behind Bosnia, who jumped to second with 14 points.
So, what went wrong... firstly as I mentioned in my preview, Michael Skibbe, for me got this wrong from the word go when he picked so many out of form and injured players for these critical games. It showed heavily especially in the 0-0 draw with Estonia.
Against Estonia, the backline was ok but for Panagiotis Retsos at right back... the new signing for Bayern Leverkusen is a center back and has had limited time at right back. He tried, but the reality was he couldn’t get a cross or provide attack on the touch line.
Skibbe picked one right back in injury probe, Vasilis Torosidis, and he was not available for both matches, practically a wasted selection. How you don't pick Michalis Bakakis who's been in great from for AEK, I don’t know...
As a result, we had to play Retsos and Maniatis at right back for both games. Maniatis did ok against Belgium, but he cannot provide the attack a regular right back can.
The biggest down fall though of all this has to be the selection of Alexandros Tziolis – Tzioli's last three seasons feature, playing center back for PAOK in 2015/16, loaned out to Scottish team Hearts in 2016/17, where he played 16 matches and this season, signed with Saudi Arabian club Al Feiha, a team equal last in the Saudi Pro League. It does not get more exciting than that... on top of this, we have not won a game where Tziolis has started for the Ethniki since October 2013!
What does Michael Skibbe do? He starts Tziolis in both games versus Estonia and Belgium! True to form Tziolis game is not great now days, you don’t go from Greece to Scotland to bottom of Saudi Arabia by chance, yet he captains us out versus Estonia, made Zeca look invisible in the same match and offered no midfield avenue to the attacking four ahead of him (Vellios, Mantalos, Fortounis and Donis).
Visibly drained in the Estonia match, Skibbe keeps him on, continues to sub other attacking players for bench players in Anastasios Bakasetas, and a striker for striker swap in Vellios and Diamantakos whilst there is no midfield presence... at the end, Tziolis was making one mistake after another due to fatigue and what does Skibbe proceed to do? He starts him versus Belgium too where Tziolis successfully ends every attacking play he got involved with, with over hit passes, to the point he was booed by the stadium towards the end of the Belgium game.
Be tactics or coincidence but both Zeca and Samaris were horrid next to Tziolis in both games, sitting far too deep resulting in no midfield presence. In the first match this made it easy for the Estonia’s with only Tasos Donis causing any threat.
The son of Georgios Donis was the one big highlight in both games. Against Belgium, he grew another leg, taking on many players and creating space but with a deep midfield and defensive players out wide, many times he had no support but for Fortounis and that wasn't enough. To Donis' credit, he nearly scored early on in a great solo effort.
I just can't put my finger on what Skibbe was watching at this stage. Donis was causing Belgium and Estonia much problems, but what he needed was more support. You had Bouchalakis, Tachtsidis and Gianniotas on the bench, all of which didn’t get a second of action whilst Tziolis lumbered up and down in both games offering little to no support. Vellios had no luck in the Estonia game being marked by 2 to 3 defenders as Greece played a walking pace game.
I have to give credit to Carlos Zeca, the defensive midfielder turned winger for the Belgium game by Skibbe, did a great job, especially in the second half and ran up and down like he was possessed cumulating in our only goal over the two games.
I thought by the time we were battling with Belgium it was very obvious we needed another more attacking midfielder to support our attack. I mentioned three good options before but instead Skibbe substituted Stafylidis on the left wing for another left winger in Charalambos Lykogiannis (which was his debut) – this made no change to our game. If that wasn’t bad enough, no further subs were made until the 85th minute and that was Bakasetas and Vellios for Maniatis and Fortounis... who would have thought, nothing came of it...
To sum it up, we failed miserably against Estonia, we played slow, we had no midfield presence with deep lying Zeca and Tziolis leaving Fortounis, Donis, and Mantalos no room to do anything whilst Vellios got eaten up, up front. Mantalos is not a wide player and Donis is a better central forward, but as usual Skibbe plays them out of position. It was sadly a throwback to Euro 2016 qualification days.
For so long now we make things too difficult for ourselves, 9/10 throw ins for Greece took 1-2 mins to take in both games, allowing Estonia to set up a 9-man defensive wall. With Belgium, we gave away possession 4/5 times with the slow tactics, not good enough for this level but we do it over and over again.
The setup and passion was there for the Belgium game and for me it's a case of what could have been. Skibbe can set up a team well, BUT he fails miserably by calling up the same core group all the time. This group is not in the form of 2 years ago, so many players are getting picked with no form versus good in form players.
Central midfield was a big fail in both games. Tziolis belongs with a bottom league team in Saudi Arabia, not the Ethniki. If you are going to look to the Middle East, there is a guy called Ioannis Fetfatzidis, who has ripped it up in Saudi Arabia, and nearly beat Portugal on his own not long ago with the Ethniki...
Samaris was very disappointing in the Belgium game, but he has not played a game at Benfica... whilst Bouchalakis and Mantalos are doing more than fine for their respective clubs. Sub them on for some go forward whilst you have Donis and Fortounis screaming for support in attack. We even had Panagiotis Tachtsidis sitting there watching on... he provided the assist in Belgium to Mitroglou’s goal – give him a run! His long-range passing is the best in the squad.
It would not kill Skibbe to play wide players out wide either. We beat Holland with Gianniotas out there, you have Lazaros Christodoulopoulos in fine form for AEK, he can play wide and as a striker... what we need!
Dimitris Pelkas is doing well for PAOK and like Lazaros, can play wide and score goals. Thanasis Androutsos is a young attacking midfielder who is in good form for Olympiacos, another good player that could have helped.
Given Skibbe's plan, I actually think Androutsos or Mantalos would have been better suited in the Belgium game as they hold the ball up better than Fortounis. The latter can also be good out wide. So you see, there is a much better Greek team that can be utilized instead of, unfit and out of form bench players. Greece have good attacking players who with a strong midfield, can play ball.
It's clear from this disaster weekend, two things,
- Tziolis, Vellios, Diamantakos, Bakasetas, Maniatis – offer little to nothing for the Ethniki – stop picking them if we want to get better until their club form gets on par.
- Michael Skibbe – how well does he know the better Greek players outside his core selections... picking the above players over Galanopoulos, Christodoulopoulos, Manousos, Pelkas, Fetfatzidis, Androutsos and Bakakis for an injured Torosidis would make more sense and the team so much stronger.
There is no room for error now. Skibbe needs to redeem himself with better and smarter selections, and we need to play better against smaller teams so Cyprus will be a good test.