It used to be pretty simple: The brief, round-robin formats of the group stages of the World Cup and European Championships were tailor-made for strategizing of the kind generally unknown in American sports. Conventional wisdom held that the opening games of tournaments were cagey affairs. Neither team wanted to give up the first goal, both teams exercised some degree of caution and, more often than not, you would end up with wars of attrition until someone somehow scored the opening goal.
Once the ice was broken, teams would have no choice but to attack. It was the old soccer truism: Goals beget goals. Not surprisingly, 62% of the 166 goals scored in opening-round games at the World Cup and Euros since 2000 came in the second half once teams either tired or reacted to earlier scoring. Statistically, overall scoring in soccer is pretty evenly distributed between the two halves, with slightly more goals coming in the final 15 minutes of each.
That may have been true in the past. But the first four games of the 2012 Euro suggest the old way of thinking is dead and buried. Three of the four games offered plenty of attacking and risk-taking from the outset. The one exception, perhaps, was Germany vs. Portugal, which saw the Portuguese play more conservatively until late in the game, when they fell behind.
On the surface, it’s not hard to see why a team would want to be cautious in its opening game. There’s the cliché of not starting out on the wrong foot. There’s the fact that if you get through the opening game unscathed, you have a decent shot at advancing to the next round. And then there’s the psychological aspect. When you first step on to the pitch, you’re extremely aware of the big stage. Then, as the match goes on, the adrenaline flows, and it almost becomes just another game, freeing you up to go all out as you normally do.
It’s classic game theory. Neither team wants to lose the opener more than either team wants to win it. And so they play with fear of not making a mistake—which, in the past, has led to fairly dull games.
In some ways, it’s the correct strategy. Of the 38 teams that drew their opener in the last three World Cups and Euros, 53% advanced to the next round. Better than fifty-fifty odds? You’ll take the tie! By the same token, those that lost their first game saw their chances of advancing shrink to 21%. Of course, the flip side is that 77% of the teams that won on their debut advanced—so going for it makes sense, too.
It’s tough to say why things went differently this time around, though it’s pretty clear that they did.
Greece has had success in the past with stout defending, a formula that helped the country to its stunning Euro win in 2004. Facing host Poland, Greece was open and expansive in a 1-1 draw, even after going down to 10 men. The Czech Republic went for it against Russia early on but was beat 4-1 by an opponent that simply played at a higher pace. Netherlands vs. Denmark was one-way traffic for much of the game in favor of the Dutch, but not because of Danish conservatism. Morten Olsen, the Danish boss, put out a lineup that included a center forward, two wingers who remained high up the pitch and an attacking midfielder—and ended up with 47% of the possession.
Germany and Portugal did follow the old script, with the favored Germans controlling the game and the Portuguese looking to hit on the counter. But in this case, they were simply playing the percentages. On paper, Germany was the favorite to advance from the group, with Portugal and the Netherlands likely to fight it out for second place and the Danes bringing up the rear.
But Portugal took to the pitch knowing that Denmark had scored the upset. This meant there was less need to gamble against the Germans, since a draw would be an excellent result. They assumed that Portugal would beat Denmark and the Netherlands would lose or tie Germany—meaning that a final-match draw would be enough for Portugal to advance.
Four games, obviously, aren’t enough to constitute any kind of trend. But there is certainly a sense that teams are less willing to simply show up and try to grind out results the way they might in a longer league format or in the knockout phase. In a three-game round robin, there is little margin for error—but there’s still some.
The idea that teams can go for it and still live to fight another day appears to be catching on. Which is only good news for the neutral looking to be entertained.
—Gabriele Marcotti is the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a regular broadcaster for the BBC.