The Delayed Transition
AGONAsport’s Ethniki contributor, Greg Gavalas, talks about Greece’s first two matches in the new UEFA Nations League and the changes that need to be made ahead of the next four games in the group.
The UEFA League of Nations kicked off this past week, a confusing yet anticipated new league for Europe’s national teams and Greece, whose group contains Finland, Hungary and Estonia started the tournament with a win away to Estonia and a loss away to Hungary.
The biggest talking point about the Ethniki for arguably the last 12 months has been German coach Michael Skibbe. His player selections have made people question the integrity of the selections and his knowledge of Greek players as well as some tactical migraines.
We have gone through frustrating moments as we covered the whole FIFA World Cup Qualification campaign closely and I wrote much about the many mistakes the German made. Many backed him despite the mistakes, but as the campaign went on, people started to see the inexcusable which have been well highlighted by myself for some time (What is needed in upcoming friendlies, Changes Needed for Euro 2020, All the Wrong Moves).
In one of those blogs (if not more than one), I do say my hope in Skibbe is at a bare minimum and as long as he is coaching the Ethniki, we will not qualify for a major tournament. It was pain staking watching the many repeated mistakes as people still thought Skibbe was the man.
I also said the Nations League should be the German’s judgement tournament to see if he should be at the helm come Euro 2020 qualifying in March 2019 and I continue to stick by that.
So, what did we see... I saw some traditional mistakes, the inclusion of Giorgos Tzavellas and Alexandros Tziolis. I also think Vasilis Torosidis needs to be replaced in the team by more in from right backs like Vasilis Bakakis of AEK Athens (to be fair he was battling an injury).
To my surprise though, Tziolis only saw 15 minutes on the field in the Estonia game as Skibbe started both games with a midfield pairing of Andreas Bouchalakis and Dimitris Kourbelis.
Bouchalakis and Kourbelis have received many mixed reviews for their performances. In truth, there were positives and negatives to take away, but we need to remember something, this was the first time the two started and partnered in the midfielder for Greece. Whilst some passes were poor and need improvement immediately, the two helped Greece play a quicker game which allowed the Ethniki to get forward far more fluently than what we have seen in the last four years.
I then go back to one of my snarling criticisms of Skibbe, not utilizing players like Kourbelis and Bouchalakis well before we got to this.
There were countless games over recent times were Tziolis, Giannis Maniatis, Panagiotis Tachtsidis, and Andreas Samaris were in the lineup, games were these guys did not impress and despite that, Skibbe did not integrate younger and more in-form players. A prime example is Kostas Galanopoulos of AEK, who can play a huge part in this team going forward. It was good to see these players left out this go around and test the waters with Kourbelis and Bouchalakis, two in-form players currently with their clubs.
In the opening 30 minutes against Estonia, Greece played some of the best football in recent memory with fast play, quick 1-2 passes, and plenty of off the ball running which created chances and the opening goal. Kourbelis and Bouchalakis contributed greatly here, however as the game went on, and as we saw in the Hungary game, both players sat too deep. This seems to be a constant tactic with Skibbe’s Greece and it needs fixing if the Ethniki is to cause the opposition more trouble in attack. It is no wonder Greece have not recorded a big win in a qualification tournament since 2013, when Greece defeated Romania in the World Cup qualifying playoffs.
The other issue is playing with one striker. Against Hungary, Greece constantly looked for wide men to put a cross in and the opposition had an easy defensive night by double marking Tasos Donis and Kostas Mitroglou. As a result, Greece did not create many chances despite the 62% possession.
As we can see, there are some tactical issues Skibbe and the team need to work on if Greece are to be more successful going forward.
The other issue is silly player selections. In Estonia, when Mitroglou was subbed off due to injury, Skibbe surprisingly brought on Tasos Bakasetas. The AEK forward has not had a great international run and again, the team looked poor in attack with Bakasetas doing little to add much to the frontline. Likewise Efthymios Koulouris, an average player who has had good success with the Under 21 team, is not at the level needed for a spot in the men's team at this point in his career.
As the Estonia match went on, the more I felt Skibbe’s negative influence on the match. Bakasetas’ substitution did nothing for the team and the addition of Tziolis put the icing on the cake. A rather easy three points became a nail-biter at the end for no reason.
In Hungary, the Tzavellas selection was again, another mistake as the left back lost his man on the first goal. After an overall poor display in the opening half, he was subbed off at halftime for Charalampos Lykogiannis, who also failed to show his better aspects. Skibbe also subbed Donis off at half time for Mitroglou.
With two subs down, the injury to Kostas Manolas meant Greece had no other substitutes to make in a game where tactical adjustments where needed to find the equalizing goal.
Mistakes like this left players like Petros Mantalos on the bench. Mantalos, who could come on and create more opportunities, would be an ideal replacement to a more defensive minded Bouchalakis or Kourbelis when Greece were looking for a goal.
Whilst some chances were created, the Etnniki’s finishing remained poor. Even Marseille hitman, Mitroglou, missed a sitter right in front of goal with a close-ranged header at the end in Budapest, which was a golden opportunity to make it 2:2.
If that is not enough, the once proud defense opened up at will on many occasions and that is worrisome, considering Manolas and Sokratis Papastathopoulos make up the center back duo. Hungary were allowed to take shots at any chance they got, whilst even Estonia got behind the Greek back four at times. The second goal conceded against Hungary is a prime example of Greece’s lapse in defense, where five shots went off in a span of a minute before the winning Hungarian goal was scored at the end of the first half.
There is much work to do. The poor selections need to stop, Skibbe’s tactics need much improvement, and emphasis needs to be placed on finishing.
There is some hope though as we saw a faster national team with two new defensive midfielders while Kostas Fortounis and Dimitris Pelkas started to combine together in the attack which helped Greece move away from that stagnated attacking line we have come to see for so long.
Fortounis played two great games and had a goal and assist to show for it. Lazaros Christodoulopoulos can still do better, but combine him with Bakakis at right back, and a more potent right side for Greece will be seen.
Petros Mantalos is a healthy option as well and also helped create chances in the first match. That being said, it would have been good to see Donis given a shot on the wing.
Giannis Fetfatzidis can offer much more than some current players, Bakasetas for example, and with this playing group, the Olympiacos man can flourish. I would love to see him recalled.
In one month’s' time, the Galanolefki play Hungary again in Athens and days later, group leaders Finland. The reaction to the loss in Hungary brought on some big meltdowns amongst the Greek fans. Although some signs of hope were seen, if Skibbe is going to have any success with Greece, the mistakes mentioned need to be fixed. If changes are made, Greece have a chance to turn things around and win their respective Nations League group.
by Greg Gavalas
Image Source: to10.gr