Attacking and scoring goals is the glamorous side of football but so far at Euro 2016 it is the defenders at the other end of the pitch who have been enjoying the better tournament
The expanded Euros seemed set to deliver more teams, more games and more goals but so far in France defenses have been on top while attacks have struggled to click. In the 24 Euro 2016 games that took place before the final round of group matches, only 47 goals were scored - an average of less than two per game. That is in stark comparison to the overall scoring average for the 2012 tournament of 2.45 goals per game and is below the previous low at 16-team tournaments, 2.06 in 1996.
Spain, Italy, Germany and Poland entered their final group matches this time having not conceded a goal while France and Switzerland both escaped Group A losing only one goal - each from the penalty spot. Italy coach Antonio Conte is particularly fortunate as he has simply taken one of the best defenses in club football - Juventus quarter of defenders Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon - and dressed them in the Azzuri blue of the national team.
"Italy are based mostly on the defense, though not only on that," Italy's 1982 World Cup winner Marco Tardelli told Gazzetta dello Sport. "As Conte says, this doesn't mean shutting up shop at the back and countering. It means counting on a certainty that you possess. There's nothing wrong with that."
World Cup champions Germany have also had issues in the defense as Antonio Ruediger was seriously injured before the tournament began and Mats Hummels had to ease his way into the side after his own fitness struggles. Defense is the "most important to win the tournament," Hummels said. "Our attack has enough quality to score at any time. Defensive strength always comes first."
The undisputed leader of the German defensive quartet though is Jerome Boateng who has inspired colleagues with goalline clearances, saving tackles and ferocious rants towards his team-mates when he feels their concentration is slipping.
"We didn't win any one-on-ones up front and the movement was missing," was Boateng's blunt assessment of the goalless draw with Poland. "We must improve our finishing, we play well until the last third, then we can't get past our opponent and aren't dangerous."
The German management and players have no problem with Boateng's aggressive attitude on the pitch but coach Joachim Loew did criticize UEFA's decision to expand the tournament to 24 teams. Defending may be an art but it is not one Loew necessarily appreciates in extremes.
"There are teams playing ultra defensively," he said. "But they do that well. The smaller nations like Albania or Wales are defensively very well schooled."
Slovakia showed against England on Monday that being well-schooled is not always a requirement - great goalkeeping from Matus Kozacik and a slice of luck behind some frantic defending secured the goalless draw despite their opponents dominating possession and having 27 shots over the game. It is not only the smaller countries who work on their defending though - and France coach Didier Deschamps will be relieved that is at least one problem he doesn't have to worry about. He has been criticized for shuffling his team throughout the tournament so far but this has been done in attempt to marshal his attacking options, not strengthen the back line. In the absence of injured Real Madrid star Raphael Varane, the unit of Patrick Evra, Adil Rami, Laurent Koscielny and Bacary Sagna have established them as the first choice four in front of keeper Hugo Lloris.
"I decided not to change the back five because they play together like clockwork and it's very important to have stability defensively," Deschamps said.
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