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How coaching was difference for Italy & Iceland v Spain & England

euro-2016

It was at the end of the first half between Italy and Spain when aging midfield hard-man Daniele De Rossi, just 50-minutes fit, nutmegged Andres Iniesta and made it clear that this wasn’t going to be any ordinary day at the European Championships.

Several hours later, we’d have the full picture: In Italy’s thundering triumph over holders Spain, we saw the best performance of the tournament. In England’s second ignominious exit from Europe in just five days, we saw Iceland’s greatest-ever footballing day.

They were very different games – the first a traditional clash of the titans, the second an age-old David vs. Goliath story – but together, they told a similar tale: Coaching, chemistry, and spirit can and will overcome talent, no matter the stage.

Said the great Italy center-back Leonardo Bonnuci after his team exacted revenge upon Spain for the heartbreak of 2008 and 2012, “We are a group without great individual talent, so we don’t really have a choice here. We had to become a team with a very defined way of playing. And we had to put the system first.”

It’s been Italy’s modus operandi the entire tournament, starting two weeks ago with an upset win against Belgium in Lyon similar right down to the clinching stoppage-time volley from Graziano Pelle.

SEE MORE: Schedule of Euro 2016 schedule on US TV and streaming

It wasn’t hard to see this one coming. Spain, rarely incisive in the last two years, couldn’t handle Italy’s power or clarity of purpose.

From the first moment, the Italians seized control of the game. David de Gea made several excellent early saves, but the Azzurri jumped on his first mistake in fitting fashion – Giorgio Chiellini stuffing in a rebound on an Italian bulrush after Eder’s free kick was saved but not cleared by the Spanish goalkeeper.

That’s not to say that Italy’s effort was at all brutish. In fact, until the last stage of the game, the Italians possessed the ball at a clip comparative with Spain – a feat that, in and of itself, was no small accomplishment.

Chiellini said after the game that his team “wanted it more” due to the recent history between the two sides, but Italy’s blood and thunder mentality would have meant little without Conte’s meticulous planning.

It was the manager who designed the free-kick routine that led to the first goal, with Italian players lining up in the wall and crashing for rebounds, and the manager who has gotten the most out of pedestrian players like forwards Pelle and Eder and midfielders Giaccherini and Florenzi with a coherent, effective system.

Gianluigi Buffon came up with a huge save Gerard Pique late, and soon thereafter, Pelle would seal the victory with a strike that sent Conte leaping onto the frame of his dugout in the most memorable celebration of the tournament.

Vicente del Bosque, who may be at the end of his managerial career, had few answers. His team didn’t adjust tactically or emotionally to Italy’s challenge, crucially unable to link its midfield trio of Busquets, Fabregas, and Iniesta.

Spain’s run has been over since they were humiliated at the World Cup. Italy’s, you feel, is a one-off: A special manager leading a rag-tag group of players in front of a famous backline that believes it can beat any team in the world.

Speaking of belief: Iceland was behind after just four minutes against England in Nice on Monday night, after Wayne Rooney buried an early penalty. It didn’t matter. The minnows kept going, and, within ten minutes, were amazingly in front behind goals from a pair of Sigurdssons.

Using the same exact lineup that started all three of their group stage games, Iceland played with composure and confidence. England, more and more as the game went on, couldn’t locate either trait.

The game finished 2-1 – a shock heard around the world, England’s worst defeat since they lost to a squad of amateurs from the United States at the 1950 World Cup in Belo Horizonte.

It’d be easy to fall into cliché here, but the narrative of tiny Iceland – a country the size of Rhode Island – hanging on against mighty England doesn’t really tell the tale. This was, it’s fair to suggest, Iceland’s easiest game of the tournament.

Certainly, England dominated territorially. But if anything, Iceland had the better chances – even after they went 2-1 up. Unlike in their first three games, they weren’t truly made to sweat.

Said the goal-scoring center-back Ragnar Sigurdsson, “It went well. We didn’t feel that they created any chances. We were just heading away long balls. I wasn’t stressed in the second half.”

Added co-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, “I was more relaxed than during the game against Austria.”

When they were dumped out of the 2014 World Cup after just two games, England played with plenty of vigor. It was the reason Hodgson kept his job. This time, however, England went out in a pitiful, hand-ringing, self-pitying haze.

The “neurosis,” as several put it, extended to – and, perhaps, came from – the bench. England, in stark contrast to their opponents, looked totally devoid of tactical instruction, with Roy Hodgson offering his players zero by way of encouragement or more substantial direction.

That Hodgson inexplicably delayed the entrance of Marcus Rashford for some fifteen minutes down the stretch spoke to a greater paralysis of leadership. England’s problems were psychological, but they were also more tangible.

The manager never figured out his best team, he never sorted out the set piece problems on both ends of the field, and he deserved to lose his job. The other potential leaders – namely Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart – both had shockers.

England was in this tournament, just as it has been so many times before, a pretender. Good teams don’t need exaggerated pre-match walks to show the world how relaxed they are.

But while the Three Lions’ early exit isn’t surprising — the country hasn’t won a knockout game at a major tournament in a decade — the manner of defeat here was remarkable. In truth, any proper footballing team would have beaten England on Monday night.

That’s not to say Iceland didn’t play well. They most certainly did. Their captain Aron Gunnarsson outplayed Rooney, and their fans — the 8% of the total population that travelled to France for the tournament, along with many of the 99% of those remaining at home that watched on TV — had the pleasure of slow-clapping England out of the tournament.

Iceland’s reward is a date with France just outside of Paris at the weekend. They’ll keep dreaming – the French aren’t the English, but they’re also not the Germans – and enjoy their new reality.

If we can take anything away from these European Championships so far, it’s that individual players don’t win games. Teams do. Iceland and Italy have proven that – and they may go on proving it for quite a while to come.

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