Time to continue building with Skibbe in charge (Part 2 of 2)
by Sarantos Kaperonis
AGONAsport’s Sarantos Kaperonis finishes his two-part opinion piece with his outlook on the future of the Greek National Team, which needs to continue building off of this World Cup qualifying campaign with Skibbe as head coach.
In part one of my blog about the national team, I summarized what was at fault in the World Cup qualifying playoffs, which saw Greece bow out hands down 4-1 on aggregate to the Croatians. World Cup qualifying is now a thing of the past and all attention now turns to the new UEFA Nations League and EURO 2020 qualifiers.
Greece’s new goal is simple: qualify for EURO 2020. Anything short of this will be an absolute failure. The primary mission of team rebuilding was accomplished over this last campaign. It was repeatedly stated by players and coaches throughout the last year
Leadership by Skibbe, as well as Papastathopoulos and Torosidis in the locker-rooms, helped mark this success. Their turning point was last year’s trip to Australia where Skibbe sat down with the captains and the players to discuss and find solutions to the problems created during the 2014-2016 horror period. This simple act monumentally changed the course of the team.
Yet, lets be clear. No more excuses! Greece must be at EURO 2020. Both team leaders, Papastathopoulos and Torosidis, have given chilling interviews after the second leg match against Croatia that set the stage for the next two years. The Borussia Dortmund man even mentioned he would retire if Greece does not qualifying for EURO 2020, a strong statement to say the least, as he is only 29 years old. The two also mentioned (reading between the lines) that their time with the Ethniki is almost up and they will prepare the next generation to help lead the team when it is their time to depart, something the Ethniki lacked after Katsouranis and Karagounis retired after the 2014 World Cup.
SKIBBE CHANGED THE ETHNIKI MYKONOU TO ETHNIKI ELLADOS
We cannot use Euro 2016 qualifying as the benchmark to judge the Ethniki’s success, as Greece is not a San Marino of Europe. In fact, the Ethniki ranks as a respectable European national team that has appeared at most major tournaments in the last 12 years. Thankfully, World Cup qualifying brought back “normality” to the national team, even though the Ethniki just missed out on Russia 2018 and it is because of Michael Skibbe.
The 52-year old boss quickly implemented his strict German rules which set the tone for the then Ethniki Mykonou, and allowed us to be competitive in World Cup Qualifying. These changes were seen quickly and were quickly translated on the pitch when Tzavellas was the first to celebrate with Giannis Maniatis when he scored from half-field in a friendly against Australia (the two players where then not on good terms). While these examples may appear minute, the help illustrate the bigger picture.
Skibbe led the team to a perfect 3 for 3 start in qualifying with wins over Gibraltar, Cyprus, and Estonia. Neither of the three wins were convincing, but Greece grabbed nine important points, and for a Greek team that started from scratch, that is all that mattered. In Greece’s first real test at home against Bosnia, the Galanolefki salvaged a point thanks to fantastic strike from Georgios Tzavellas, in a match Greece should have lost. From that match, Skibbe had five months to prepare for Greece’s two toughest tests in qualifying, away matches in Belgium and Bosnia. There, Greece put together two very good gutsy, showings which really showed Greece’s ability to play at a respectable level once again. It was a classic Greek display: stubborn defense in the back and a lethal counter-attack. At this point, Greece looked to be in complete control of second place and could hit first with some luck.
However, the tides turned on Skibbe in a goalless draw against Estonia which almost proved to be a fatal blow to Greece’s fight for second place. The German boss was criticized for horrendous squad selections and tactics, which were brilliantly pointed out by AGONAsport’s Greg Gavalas, in a game where three key players, Torosidis, Papastathopoulos, and Mitroglou were unavailable. The result left fans frustrated, but unfortunately these gaffes do occur in qualifying. Nonetheless, the blame was rightfully put on Skibbe for poor tactics and his squad selections as in-form players were left out (ex. Bakakis). Three days later, the Ethniki responded with a very good display (one of the best in the campaign) against Belgium, where Greece fought, but fell 1-2 at the Karaiskakis Stadium.
The end of qualifying group play ended with another disappointing performance in Nicosia against Cyprus, in a match where Greece prevailed 1-2, and an easy 4-0 thumping of Gibraltar. Little can be said about Greece’s match against Gibraltar, while the match in Nicosia was played out like a friendly rather than an official match. Although there were some hiccups in the road, Skibbe led Greece to a playoff just two years after Greece finished last in Euro 2016 qualifying, and let’s not forget that it was behind the Faroe Islands.
WHY GIVE SKIBBE ANOTHER CHANCE
Greece accomplished a lot in World Cup qualifying and the national team must continue building on this as they prepare for EURO 2020 qualifying. Keeping the man in charge that helped re-build Greece is key. Did Skibbe make mistakes? Of course. Where they costly? Against Estonia and Croatia they were. Are they unforgivable as my good friend and colleague Greg Gavalas wrote? Yes, as he is the man that brought Greece back to a respectable and competitive level from rock bottom.
Let’s be honest. Skibbe’s squad selections were faulty. Calling up and starting players like Tziolis is simply incomprehensible. Explanations for this seem to be lacking and the German’s stubbornness on players like Tziolis, Vellios, and Diamantakos is worrisome for the future. I am confident that Skibbe’s squad selections will improve for EURO 2020 qualifying. Some new faces that have been brought to the national team have been quite a success.
Skibbe was the first to bring on Tasos Donis, Greece’s most hopeful attacking threat for the future. The youngster came on for the first time in Greece’s trip to Zenica and changed the game. He was a real threat against Belgium (replaced an injured Mitroglou) and proved that he houses the ability to lead Greece’s attacking line in the next few years, either as a striker or on the wings. Skibbe also called up Panagiotis Retsos, the 19-year old defender who ranks amongst the best teenagers in the game. Both were obvious choices for Greece, and there was no hesitation to include them in qualifying.
Other players brought on were Panathinaikos’ Kourbelis and Panionios’ Siopis, both of who did not make an appearance in qualifying. Should they have been given a chance? Of course, when you see an out-of form Samaris and past-his-prime Tziolis in the midfield. There is no doubt that it is difficult to adapt to the international level, however these youngsters should have been given chances in matches throughout qualifying. Unfortunately there are no “easy” matches in qualifying (as we saw against Estonia) and it is difficult to test players in official qualifiers, but EPO’s fault of not scheduling friendlies hindered Skibbe’s ability to test these options out.
Furthermore, let’s not forget Skibbe’s call-up of Carlos Zeca, the Portuguese born player and former captain of Panathinaikos. The midfielder proved to be Greece’s biggest asset in the middle of the field and despite being Portuguese, he gave more heart on the field than most of the Greek players in the qualifying campaign.
Another criticism of Skibbe is his starting lineups and playing players out of position, particularly on the wings. Mantalos, Zeca, Bakasetas, and Stafylidis are not wingers, yet we saw many of these players placed out on the right or left wings throughout qualifying. Yes, Greece lacks wingers, however valuable options like Gianniotas were ignored. However, with
Christodoulopoulos and Donis providing valuable options on the flanks, I believe Skibbe will use the two in the future. He did play Lazaros in the return playoff leg against Croatia and he put Donis on the wing in Zenica, where he made an immediate impact. Skibbe’s willingness to use these players this go-around are a positive look into the next two years.
Reinstating the Defensive Tactics
The biggest complaint of Greek fans is the Galanolefki’s defensive game style. This has been a complaint for many years and fans wonder if Greece can play attacking football. When Ranieri was appointed Greece’s head coach in 2014, he wanted to implement an attacking game style for the national team. I think we all saw how that turned when Greece fell to the “fisherman” of the Faroe Islands. Let’s play to our strengths, which is clearly our defense.
Skibbe did this. He reinstated a defense mindset to the national team that was so successful over the last 12 years. As consequence, a lack of creativity and an attacking play in the final third of the field followed throughout the entire qualifying campaign. These tactics worked brilliantly in Brussels, where Belgium were shut out for 89 minutes, but failed miserable against Estonia, where Greece failed to create a chance in the 90 minutes of play. If Skibbe remains in charge, this is something he will surely need to figure out, as tactics and squad selections will play a key role in resolving this issue. Greece houses attacking threats like Donis, Mitroglou, Mantalos (if played in position), Fortounis (if in-form), and an upcoming attacking-minded U21 side, which may provide the opportunity to make Greece an offensive threat.
Another take home point from Skibbe, is reinstating the closed club philosophy which was extremely successful from 2002-2014 with the National Team. This tactic is important in keeping stability within a national team. Ranieri came on in 2014 and veered away from this and began calling up many different players to the Ethniki and by the end of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, 55 players were called up between Ranieri, Tsanas,and Makarian. Chaos to say the least. The “closed club” is key to success, as long as key, in-form players are not disregarded and out-of-form players are left off. Fernando Santos executed this perfectly while keeping a “closed-club”, but calling up and using players that were playing with their clubs. Skibbe needs to continue his closed-club mentality but needs to be tweak this as he continues on with Greece and gets to know his players and Greek football.
Vote of Confidence from the Captains
After Greece’s second leg against Croatia, both of Greece's leaders, Vasilis Torosidis and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, came out and said that they hope Skibbe stays on with the Greek team. Their vote of confidence is worth more than any outside opinions. The players experience the team from the inside while we are mere spectators.
One can argue that the players want Skibbe to remain in to secure their place with the team. This could be the case if Tziolis or Maniatis stated this. However, when a vote of confidence for Skibbe comes from Greece’s leaders, it is safe to say that they may have some insight as to what is best for the team.
Let’s be honest. Skibbe has not had the most successful coaching career. At most past coaching positions, he has had bad spells and was eventually sacked from the job. With Greece, he was awarded his first national team coaching job with hopes of putting his past aside. There is no doubt that his head coaching position at the Ethniki has been his most successful to date and the German boss is determined to build off of what he has accomplished with Greece.
He is hungry for success and that can be a lethal weapon to have. Skibbe clearly stated he wants to remain with the National Team and is willing to do so with even a 30% pay-cut, which is respectable to say the least. He is also very involved in Greek football and attends many matches in the Superleague and Cup play. He has taken the initiative to meet with the Superleague’s coaches and teams to help better Greek football, something that cannot be overlooked and must be respected.
RISKS WITH KEEPING SKIBBE
Yet, there are many risks that come with keeping Skibbe in charge of Greece. Questions must continually be asked: Can he lead us to EURO 2020? Can he take us to the next level? With many reports of Skibbe staying on, the answers will be given in a short time. Skibbe could prove to be the guy that re-made Greece a team, but was not the man that could lead Greece to a major tournament or the knockout stages of a major tournament. This is worrisome.
Under Skibbe, however, Greece managed to draw both Belgium and Bosnia on the road and put together a very competitive display in a loss against Belgium at the Karaiskakis Stadium. These matches give me hope that Skibbe has what it takes to lead the National Team while some of the poor performances make us question once again (Estonia at home, Croatia away). But let’s not forget, Greece has never been a “wow” team. In qualifying, bad performances are to be expected and dropped points are inevitable, it happens to the best. Under Santos, Greece came up with many narrow, nail-biting 1-0 wins (including against Liechtenstein on the road), but he led us to two major tournaments where Greece scrambled into the knockout stages at both events. Then, Santos was highly criticized for his defensive tactics while people overlooked the good results that came with his “boring, anti-football” tactics.
While many uncertainties still exist, there are far less than if a new coach is appointed, who will likely be Greek. Greece’s failure to qualify for the World Cup did not provide economic relief for the Hellenic Football Federation and the signing of a decent foreign manager is out of the question. There is simply not enough money for that.
This forces EPO to turn to the Greek market with Traianos Dellas looking to be the favorite if things do not work out with Skibbe. The Dellas option does not seem to be a bad one, as he is well aware of the situation regarding Greek football and the National Team. He has had a decent coaching career with AEK and Atromitos and is a Euro 2004 veteran. Yet, many uncertainties remain. Can he adapt to coaching international football? Does he have the coaching ability to lead the Greek National Team? I love the idea of getting Euro 2004 players involved, and it is shame these heroes have not been used to their greatest potential. When Takis Fyssas worked with Santos, it was nothing but an excellent partnership and when Fyssas departed, his absence was clearly felt.
The new UEFA Nations League, which begins next September, could work as an advantage for Greece. This competition, which will decide four tickets to EURO 2020, should be taken seriously by the Greek players but also by the 52-year old manager. The federation should use the Nations League as Skibbe’s second chance. If he continues to improve the Greek National Team, corrects his mistakes from the past, gets good results, and secures a place in the UEFA Nations League Final-4, then keep him on for the EURO 2020 qualifiers in March 2019.
If Greece remains stagnant, move on and thank Skibbe for making the Ethniki a team again. At that point, a new boss will have ample time, six months, to prepare for the EURO 2020 qualifiers.
In the meantime, Skibbe has earned another year to build a better Greek team before the Nations League begins. He should demand friendlies from EPO in March and the summertime to test new things out before official matches begin in September 2018. Judgement day will come in November 2018 when the UEFA Nations League concludes. Until then, Skibbe will continue to have support.