At the Euros 2004 in Portugal, the Greek national team finished second in their group and won the last three matches of the tournament with 1-0 victories to clinch the trophy. And so began Europe's love affair with an arguably catenaccio-type philosophy. Jose Mourinho did it best, and his out-sized persona did well to mask an often unexciting preference in tactics. Even the proclaimed purveyor of the eye-pleasing passing game, Arsene Wenger, unabashedly used a 4-5-1 that was blessed with the mercurial tendencies of Thierry Henry in his prime, but still uncharacteristically defensive.
While Greece failed to impose themselves and exited early, Italy were made to look even more old and tired than they are by a peppy, attack-minded Dutch side that have been the delight of the tournament so far. France has greater problems, as offense is inconsistent in thought and execution by the aged remains of the 1998 and an unproven youth movement. It begs the question, however, whether the reign of defensive-minded, counterattacking style has reached the end of it's usefulness, at least in it's latest popularity.
Doubtless, we'll still see this ethos carried forward. After all, the quarterfinals of any tournament seem more possible with a defensive mentality, especially when your there's a lack of creativity in your squad, rather then getting sliced apart and knocked out early. But it's hard to ignore what may be the demise of this successful but difficult-to-watch in what the optimism of the Dutch offer.
It is true that we're faced with a very special Dutch side, but their success is not guaranteed. The strength of the Netherlands is that they seized the advantage early enough, got into a creative rhythm early and find themselves in an enviable position. It is true that the Dutch field a greater ball-playing, pass-and-move side than the Italians, but the Roberto Donadoni will forever get stick for playing it cautious in the beginning, especially when the most dynamic players on the squad didn't start the tournament.
The lesson learned here is a reminder that you may be able to grab a goal and hold it for the rest of the match in a larger tournament, but perhaps not in one of this ilk. In the World Cup, and even the Champions League, there are more teams of varying quality to dispatch, resulting in varying ways of achieving a result. You don't always have an opportunity to settle in and get warmed up, as Italy and France have found out.
A few games do not signal a perceptible change in the direction of European football, nor its reliance on defensive midfields and lone men up front, but I certainly hope the Dutch continue to entertain and become that team to rattle the continent out of it. Thankfully they are not alone, as Portugal and Spain have succeeded with the same spirit of dynamism and guile. Let's hope it wins out this time.