Euro 2020 Journal- Entry 6: Marco Verratti. Italy’s Best Player, Hidden in Plain Sight.

Despite the chatter of a new, progressive Italy, the emphasis on certain positions remains. Italy’s last two major international triumphs possessed world-class goalkeeping. Buffon in 06′ and Donnarumma today. A center-back pairing peaking at the right moment. Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi in 06′, Bonucci and Chiellini today. And an underrated, world class, ball playing midfielder. Pirlo in 06′, and Verratti today. And while Donnarumma, Bonucci and Chiellini have captured hearts, and rightly so, Marco Verratti hummed along as Italy’s best player.

Maybe it’s because he missed two matches. Maybe it’s because he didn’t score any goals, or pick up any red cards, but Marco Verratti Euro 2020 performances hid out right in front of us.

Consider, despite his treadmill mouth and stick-in-the-spokes tackling, he picked up only one card (a yellow). He completed 401 out of 425 passes, good for 9th in the tournament. His pass completion finished at a 93% clip. He created three assists. Impressive for a midfielder who at times was playing so deep, he was initiating build ups next Bonucci. He recovered 30 balls. Led the tournament with 30 tackles. Finished second with 8 tackles won, and also first in tackles lost with 22 (haha). Talk about getting stuck in. He also covered 49.9 km.

But statistics are limited. How do you measure cool? How can you measure composure? How is courage to receive the ball in the tightest of spaces, under the harshest pressure tallied? It’s Verratti’s trait of calm that helped Italy whether Spain’s press and control possession in midfield in every other match.

Locatelli’s brace was an early tournament highlight. Jorginho is rightfully in the Ballon d’or conversation. Spinzzola (before injury), deserves his newfound admirers, and Donnarumma must be the best keeper on the planet. But don’t forget Marco Verratti. His midfield play throughout Euro 2020 was a performance for the ages.

Euro 2020 Journal- Entry 5: Between matches. Where Karl Ove Knansgaard Intertwines Diego Maradona and Virginia Woolf

Home and Away is an underrated football book. It’s the rare football book not written by an ex-pro or football journalist. Instead, it’s two friends, two writers, Karl Ove Knansgaard and Fredrik Ekelund, corresponding during the 2014 World Cup.

Between exchanges on fatherhood, immigration, writing, feminism, and reading there’s the football, and what it means to each of them. And while these letters were sent via email, their tone brings back the days of pen-pals and ink stained stationary.

One passage in particular struck me. In an entry marked Glemmingebro, 18 June, Knansgaard intertwines Diego Maradona and Virginia Woolf’s generational talents. He concludes that unless you’ve tried over and over to play in midfield, to play the perfect pass, or control the ball under pressure, or labored for years over words and sentences and bringing characters to life, that it can be difficult to appreciate how amazing Maradona’s and Woolf’s feats are.

What is it about Maradona? Why does he merit our admiration? After all, he was only a footballer. Perhaps you have to grow up with football to understand, go through all the stages, perhaps it is not possible to understand how liberating it can be, how impossible something is if you yourself don’t physically know the ground rules, the framework and its limits? It is a little like writing. Only the person who has written a lot, really tried to form words and sentences for many years, with total dedication, can actually understand and admire the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which I have chosen as an example because of the theme, because only someone who has tried themselves will be able to appreciate how extremely difficult it is to breathe life into a character as Woolf does, not only that, into a whole era, milieu and culture, and render it in such fresh, vigorous, indeed such uniquely precise terms. If you have run around the midfield for many years and hit passes to teammates, simple, unspectacular passes, if you have chested balls, laid on crosses and shot at goal, you know in yourself how magical and impossible, original and amazingly unexpected Maradona’s play was. I can’t think of anyone who has even been close.

But why admire that?

It is only football after all.

It won’t lead anywhere, change anything or create anything either, for the moment something is done it has also disappeared. Nothing lasts in football.

The counter question is why not?

It is a game. It is anti-seriousness. Anti-meaning. Anti-intellectual.

It is the kitten chasing after the ball of wool, it is the horse running alongside the fence snorting, it is the falcon gliding on the wind, it is the otter sliding down the snow-covered mountain on its back, it is that which has no meaning, it is only fun. It is a sparkle.

And no one had more of that sparkle than Maradona.

Euro 2020 Journal- Entry 4: The Raumdeuter Lives!

Joshua Kimmich at wing back? I’m not convinced. Wouldn’t a 4-3-3 be ideal for this Germany? Gnabry and Sane on the wings. Müller up top, through the middle. A midfield of three of Kimmich, Kroos and Gündogan sounds useful, balanced even. Hell, you could swap out Gündogan with Goretzka and be on your way.

The back four? Ok, yikes. This is where the quarters roll into the storm drain. A centerback pairing of Robin Kotch and Hummels, or Hummels and Rudiger is serviceable at best.

The fullbacks? Admittingly a sparse selection. Lukas Klosterman at rightback and Gosen on the left? Could this work? DFB do you need an intern?

Portugal v. Germany from Munich. The lineups are in.

Ok, changed my mind. Stick with this wingback system and a back three. What a ball by Kimmich to Gosen. Wingback to wingback. But remember, Müller’s slide tackle nudge pass kept the buildup alive.

Kimmich also drifted centrally and played a great one-two on the edge of the box with Müller who played in the irresistible Gosen for the goal.

Another Taylor Twellman yarn: Apparently after a Juventus v Atalanta match Gosen asked Ronaldo to switch shirts. Ronaldo said no. Maybe after today’s match?

I tracked Thomas Müller for the last 20 minutes or so of the match. Easy to do with his pink Adidas boots. My conclusion from this close read? The Raumdeuter lives!

In one sequence he popped up on the right during the build up in Germany’s attacking third. Minutes later he dropped into left midfield to block an attempted crossfield ball. Then he appeared around the edge of the 18 and played as a 10. With and without the ball, Müller would appear in the best patch of space to help Germany attack or defend.

The Raumdeuter lives!

Some players dazzle with their grace on the ball. Some enthrall with their passing (See Paul Pogba). Others amaze with their power in the tackle. But few enchant with their movement off the ball. Müller is one of those few.

Euro 2020 Journal- Entry 3: Memphis matters and Frankie de Jong, NBA point guard.

Netherlands v Ukraine from Johan Cruijff Arena, Amsterdam. The lineups are in.

Floodlights shine down on the Johan Cruijff arena. The Dutch king and queen look on. The classic orange kits glimmer. With the Netherlands kicking off at last, Euro 2020 feels real.

Frank de Boer arrives after being lambasted all week for unleashing his team in a 3-5-2 formation. Planes with tactical instructions took to the sky.

Frankie de Jong, an NBA point guard wearing Nike boots, continually picks up the ball between Ukraine’s forwards. His head swivels as he dribbles past them into midfield.

Wout Weghorst (for the Netherlands) and Roman Yaremchuk (for Ukraine) score. Both add evidence to my “Euro 2020 is a striker’s tournament” theory.

Still this match, even with the incredible Ukraine comeback, is a about one player.

Memphis Depay.

He didn’t score or provide an assist. Not even a hockey assist. But Depay is a rare species in modern football. A genuine maverick, a #10. Sure, he lines up as a striker for the Netherlands, and scored 20 league goals for Lyon. But his style of play reveals the truth. He’s a #10.

With the ball he mesmerizes. The constant controls with the sole of his foot. The through balls between the centerback and the fullback no one else spots. The stoicism to physical defending. Using the defender’s momentum against himself, and then executing his signature drag back spin move. Football Akido.

Without the ball he mesmerizes. He struts across the pitch, socks sagged around his shins as we await magic to swish from his Under Armour boots.

He’ll start on the left and drift into #10 spaces. Collecting the ball a foot or two near the d. His back to goal, he’ll turn. Maybe play a one-two, try a nutmeg, or a clever chip over the top.

Today nothing came off for Depay. But whenever he receives the ball he’s a thriller novel, a page tuner. He always leaves you feeling something special will happen.

Don’t look away.

Euro 2020 Journal- Entry 2: Strikers, Strikers, Strikers

Sad day. Christian Eriksen collapsing shocked the world. Thankfully reports are coming out that he’s stabilized and even speaking with team mates. Our prayers continue for a full a recovery.

Wales v Switzerland from Baku. The lineups are in.

In the past I’d have skipped this match. But I no longer take international tournaments for granted. I no longer take supporters in the stadium for granted. I don’t even take hearing Seven Nation Army over and over again for granted. I’m determined to cherish every minute of this Euros.

So what’s to cherish here?

Strikers scoring goals.

Wales’ Keiffer Moore and Switzerland’s Breel Embolo bagged one each.

My theory is proving correct, this is a strikers tournament. Besides Moore and Embolo, Ciro Immobile scored. Union Berlin’s #9, Joel Pohjanpalo snagged one. Lukaku plundered a pair.

Nearly all were poachers takes too. Opportunistic finishes around the penalty spot.

Only Lukaku’s late goal running onto a Meunier thread could be considered a build-up goal.

Let’s hope this trend continues.

Euro 2020 Journal- Entry 1: The Legend of Domenico Berardi

We’ve all missed tournament football. I’ve missed it. You’ve missed it.

Italy v Turkey from Rome. The lineups are in.

Match commentators: Jon Champion and Taylor Twellman.

One Turkish player perks my interest, Okay Yokuslu. Along with The West Brom midfielder’s extraordinary first name, I’m also a sucker for defensive midfielders. I don’t have an inkling how he plays. Is he cultured steering wheel of a holding mid? Or is he an ankle biting Mako Shark of a holding mid?

(Post match conclusion: Okay was neither a steering wheel or a Mako Shark. While his passing was tidy in spells, he was taken off at minute 65.)

A cool Domenico Berardi origin story from Taylor Twellman. Legend is, scouts discovered Berardi playing in a 5v5 tournament. He hadn’t played academy football to that point.

Ciro Immobile scores in the 66th minute. It’s a true strikers goal too. Immobile loiters around the penalty spot until a rebound drops in front of him after Cakir’s initial save. Immobile side foots it in with his right foot. Clean.

Hopefully this an omen for a high scoring tournament. It’s satisfying when your strikers score. The tournament feels proper that way. Think Totò Schillaci in Italia 90 or Ronaldo in Korea/Japan 2002. Is the first of a clutch of Immobile goals on way to the golden boot?

The possibilities!