It is easy to point fingers while overlooking the real issues with the Ethniki (part 1 of 3)
AGONAsport’s Sarantos Kaperonis talks about the ease of finger pointing with the Ethniki while avoiding the real issues that surround and plague our national team in part one of a three-part blog series.
Once again, the Ethniki has hit crisis point. There is no debating that. In a UEFA Nations League group with mediocre opponents (Hungary, Finland, Estonia), Greece have only recorded two wins and two defeats while sitting in second place behind the undefeated Finns, who have all but secured top spot in the group. The results against this opposition are already bad enough, but performances on the pitch have really sent the alarm bells ringing, especially in the recent matches at home to Hungary and away to Finland.
Greece’s dismal showings have rekindled memories of the tragic UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying campaign where the team finished last in the group and lost to the amateur Faroe Islands on two occasions. A sense of stability was brought back during the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification process in which Greece finished second in their group behind World Cup semi-finalists, Belgium, and lost in a two-legged playoff to finalists, Croatia. Great football was not played by Greece but two worthy opponents (as we saw in Russia) ultimately prevented the Ethniki Omada from registering their third straight World Cup appearance.
The ultimate mission was not accomplished in 2018, but the positivity was a major takeaway from the campaign ahead of the UEFA Nations League and UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying. Mainly for that reason, highly criticized coach Michael Skibbe was handed a two-year contract extension to lead Greece through the Nations League and Euro qualifiers. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but when looking back, it really was an awful decision by the Hellenic Football Federation (EPO) and president Evangelos Grammenos. While others wanted to get rid of Skibbe and his old guard (i.e Tziolis, Tzavellas), some (including myself) were willing to give him a second chance to transform Greece into a respectable opponent once again.
Although Skibbe is a major reason for Greece’s poor displays, is he the only one to blame? What about the old timers, Alexandros Tziolis, Georgios Tzavellas, etc.? That combination has surely driven Greece back to a Euro 2016 qualifying era. Well, it has to a substantial degree at least, however it’s all too easy to point fingers at the coach and certain players. In Greece, we do it on a weekly basis. Certain figures become scapegoats for fans and reporters. Are they the underlying issue, or are those in charge of the national team and Greek football culpable even more? Well, bear with me during this long three-part series and make your assumptions...
Scapegoat Tziolis is the reason for Greece’s poor performances
For those that are not familiar with Greek football, one would think Alexandros Tziolis is the plague that surrounds the national team. Not just Tziolis, but other old timers like Georgios Tzavellas, Vasilis Torosidis, Orestis Karnezis... but for this article, I will focus on Tziolis. The 33-year old veteran, who was singled out by many for Greece’s miserable matches against Hungary and Finland, is an easy target and has been for a long time. He is an older player, does not play for a big Greek club (i.e. he doesn't have support from “other sources”), and plays with a click slower than the rest of the players on the pitch...
Would it be good if Tziolis hung up his boots from the Ethniki? Possibly. Tziolis is past his prime, no questions there, but he is a player with valuable experience with appearances at Euro 2008 and two World Cups in 2010 and 2014, more than any other player involved with the national team. He adds height to the midfield, boasts a thunderous shot in his locker, and can string accurate passes together. To blame the Ethniki’s shocking performances on just Tziolis is childish and a so-called ‘simple’ solution to the problem.
The argument heard is that the aging Tziolis takes up a national team spot for a better, younger midfielder. Really? Panagiotis Tachtsidis and Andreas Bouchalakis have similar playing styles like Tziolis, slower but good passers of the ball. Both have fallen out of form with their respective clubs. Let us not forget Bouchalakis got the nod to start away to Hungary where Greece lost 2:1. Andreas Samaris has not played with Benfica since last season and Giannis Maniatis is in the same boat with his club in Turkey. There is also Aris’ Manolis Siopis who could be worthy of a call-up, but given that he’s currently in the process of rebuilding his career in Thessaloniki, he’s not ready for the international level at this point.
The exception is AEK’s prospect, Kostas Galanopoulos, who deserves to be summoned to the Ethniki after some brilliant showings with the reigning Greek champions, in particular in the UEFA Champions League duel against Bayern Munich. But again, he is simply a prospect and needs to be integrated into the team slowly. Dimitris Kourbelis was a starter against Hungary at the Olympic Stadium (ahead of Tziolis) and put together a sloppy display. Skibbe took action at half-time, put Tziolis on the pitch in place of the Panathinaikos captain, and he was one of the better players in the second stanza. It was only logical to give Tziolis the start with the Finns after his solid play a few days prior. Why would he leave him out of the starting line-up against Finland? That would have been illogical.
Tziolis receives too much unfair abuse from the fan base, and as silly as it may sound, is the victim of internet bullying. He is not the first, nor will be the last, victim of this toxin that surrounds the national team in times of distress. It is not a coincidence that Kostas Katsouranis, who was scolded during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, posted on Twitter in favor of Tziolis knowing his situation. Must I remind the ridiculous Facebook group that was made during the 2014 World Cup “No Katsouranis against Costa Rica” where I assume many of the people that “liked” that group are the same now targeting Tziolis? I think it was clear why players of Katsouranis’ calibre and experience were still with the national team despite their aging bodies and incompetent cries for them to retire. When players like Katsouranis left, their absence was felt both on the pitch, but more importantly, in the locker rooms. The result? Greece’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
Don’t get me wrong, it may be time for Tziolis to move on. That is not our decision to make. It is Skibbe’s replacement, Angelos Anastasiadis, who will make that call and us looking from the outside in cannot make that judgment. The new boss will weigh his talents but in the case of Tziolis, his experience will be valued more than anything in a time where the Ethniki is crying out for leaders in the locker room.
Let’s face it, Greece does not produce midfielders like Zagorakis, Basinas, Karagounis, Katsouranis, Zikos and Stoltidis anymore, so it might be wise to understand that the problem is the lack of up and coming Greek midfielders, and not the Tziolis factor.
Skibbe is to blame, but he is not the only one
There is no doubt former Ethniki coach, Michael Skibbe, is to blame for Greece’s disappointing displays. He is rightfully criticized for his selections (to a degree) but mainly for his tactics. Tactics that follow no sort of game plan, but rather an incohesive unit of 11 players playing unorthodox football.
I will be the first to say I was in favour of Skibbe remaining with the national team after failing to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. The UEFA Nations League provided a great second chance for him to show his worth after picking up the scraps of a team that was embarrassed by the Faroe Islands twice just a year before. He managed to lead the team to the qualifying playoffs, before falling to eventual finalists Croatia. It was a respectable effort despite not playing the best football. But, to be honest, when has Greece played impressive, entertaining football, even during the “glory days” from 2004-2014? That is another topic of its own...
The Nations League answered many questions about Skibbe’s abilities (or lack of thereof) to take the team to the next level. The answer? He can’t. In retrospect, he was the right guy to get the team back on track after Euro 2016 qualifying, but he is not the man that can take Greece to another major competition. He was given the chance - which I think he deserved - and couldn’t take advantage. It’s time to move on.
His monotony tactical approach didn’t work, something which was blatantly evident in the recent games against Hungary and Finland. Two crucial, must-win matches in which the Ethniki created a maximum of three chances in 180 minutes! Simply inexcusable. Before the home match against Hungary, Skibbe stated in his press conference that “You all will see a new Ethniki on Friday”, and we did… possibly the poorest Ethniki match since Skibbe took charge, before an even worse display against Finland.
There was no plan. No organization on the pitch. Set plays, which was Greece’s strong point, went to waste as if they were not worked on in training. Once again, we saw three playmakers in attack without the support of a naturally positioned winger, a common mistake of Skibbe during his three-year spell. The Greek attack was predictable (as stated by Finland’s Robin Lod) without creativity, while the backbone of the Greek team over the years - defence - was amateurish despite housing one of the best centre-back duos in Europe. Sadly, Skibbe does not possess the magic recipe for success, and it became clear both on the pitch and in his pre/post game quotes from both matches.
That being said, the German boss was also unlucky. Skibbe had a great group of players at his disposal (Manolas, Sokratis, Fortounis, Mitroglou), but he was crying out for the backing of a federation that doesn’t have the Ethniki on top of their priority list (that’s the focus of part two). He lacked players like Zagorakis, Dellas, Karagounis, or Katsouranis that can take on the role of leader in the dressing room. He was never given a worthy technical director in Zisis Vryzas that can handle many off the field matters as Takis Fyssas once did when he held the position under Fernando Santos and Otto Rehhagel. All these factors hindered Skibbe’s already limited abilities to coach the Greek national team.
In Greece, we are used to pointing fingers at the coach when results are not going our way. Like Tziolis, it is an easy target to overlook the real issues. It is a relief that Skibbe has officially been sacked, but I wish he was the only problem which exists with the Ethniki. Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Trust me, I wish they were. Bringing in a new boss might solve some issues, but the real issue lies with the EPO and the current members’ lack of interest in the national team.
That is the focus of part two… bear with me and stay tuned!