October International Break Preview: Do or Die for the Ethniki
I have a confession to make; I missed the first win of the Ethniki’s qualifying campaign. Considering I’ve only seen the 2-minute highlight video UEFA posted on their website, I will try to keep my analysis equally as brief. Bakasetas was instantly rewarded for his frustratingly atypical forward pass to Douvikas with a backheel tee-up for the opening goal; VAR prevented Tzolis’s nice run in behind and assist to Pavlidis from being wrongfully ruled offside; and 2 big saves from the woodwork eventually rendered Quaison’s 80th min. rebound tap-in nothing more than a consolation.
I expected Kulusevski and co. to walk all over us, but to the credit of JVS’s outfit, they defied the odds, defeating the Swedes 2-1. It seems as though this iteration of the Ethniki has a knack for defying the odds. Though this sounds nice and looks nice when we’re getting results against the likes of Sweden and Spain, unfortunately this trend has been a double-edged sword. These 2 positive results have been coupled with 2 very underwhelming draws against Kosovo and upcoming opponents Georgia (Peter got the inside scoop on Georgia during the podcast’s latest episode). These results were preceded by an abysmal Nations League C campaign that had us as favorites for promotion to B.
But back to the present campaign. While each result individually suggesting a tendency to defy the odds, let’s see what the stats say about our current run in qualifiers:
Once again, it seems as though we’re defying the odds. We’re outperforming the metrics at the moment by scoring more than expected and conceding less than expected at the same time. Great for now but frightening for our outlook in this group, especially when you take a look at our biggest threats to qualification. As sample sizes get larger, the trends start to better reflect the odds. This makes the battle for 2nd in Group B seem like more of an uphill battle than it already is. But enough about the table at large, let’s get introspective, shall we?
Why are we expected to concede more than any of our opponents? Is there something wrong with our defense? That can’t be right, I mean, we’re playing our best defenders right? Surely we don’t have better centerbacks than Tzavellas, Papadopoulos, and Stafylidis to choose from, right?
It seems our defensive woes are fairly easy to diagnose. But what seems to be the issue with our attack? Why can’t we be expected to outscore our opponents in group B? Let’s take a deeper look with another wonderful table produced by Gate 7 International’s stat-guru, Ari:
Now this table helps fill in the gaps that xG alone can’t answer. But take a look at the number of shots and shot accuracy. We seem to be in the same ballpark as Sweden and Spain as opposed to Kosovo and Georgia. But if we’re taking just as many shots and getting just as many shots on target, why do Spain and Sweden score more often? Why are they expected to score so much more often?
The issue isn’t quantity, it’s quality. The shots we choose to take and the chances we create are simply not as likely to turn into goals as those of our competitors. The problem is not getting shots on target, it’s creating dangerous shots on target.
In a 4-2-3-1, whose role is it to create opportunities? The 10. The CAM. Call it what you want, but the attacking midfielder who sits in front of our 2 holding midfielders is the center of the attack. Fortunately the Ethniki has plenty of decent options at its disposal in this position. Fortounis has been brilliant in this role for club and country, while Mantalos and Pelkas have been serviceable as well. But who has JVS made the out in out starter at the 10? Who has he given the keys to? Bakasetas. The goal vs. Sweden was nice, but the entirety of the JVS era has proven that forward passes and chance creation from Tassos at the 10 are an outlier, not the trend. The stats have spoken.
So though the offensive problems were harder to diagnose, the disease remains the same so far in this campaign: JVS chooses the wrong people in the most important areas of the pitch match after match, and we are expected to lose ground in the race for 2nd instead of gain it.
Looking forward, we travel to Georgia this Saturday, October 9th, and Sweden on Tuesday, October 12th. At this point, anything less than 6 points will likely see us miss another major tournament. So let’s see if JVS and co. can defy the odds once more and get through this international break unscathed.