We all remember the giant killing of Greece in the European Championships of 2004 and now we have a new name to add to that list: Slovakia – World Champions of 2066. What do you mean you don’t remember this?
Well, that’s probably because it all happened on Football Manager 2018.
Cast your minds back to the 2062 World Cup. England romped home to a 3-0 win in the final over Portugal. At this time, Slovakia were 78th in the world, having missed out on qualification for yet another World Cup. Slovakia hadn’t been at a World Cup since 2010 when they knocked out Italy and were then dumped out by Netherlands in the round of 16.
They had only made two European Championship tournaments: group stage exits in 2036 and 2044 without earning a single point.
They would qualify for the tournament against all odds, only dropping points away at Wales. Friendlies in early 2066 pointed to another disappointment: a draw at home to Ecuador and three losses to Italy, USA and Senegal. They were drawn with Netherlands, Japan and Senegal. Enter Richard Kutlik.
Enter the sturdy flat back four. Romulo and Denis Bencik’s line never strayed from their central counterparts in Marek Kubik and Stefan Danko. It was well regimented to the point of suffocating opposition. Marian Hlinka and Daniel Fieber almost acted as fifth and sixth defenders in time of need at the back.
Two anchor men, with Fieber using his superior passing to get the ball out to the flanks. Jozef Meszaros and Tomas Poncak weren’t your ordinary wide men, though. They were set up as defensive wingers. They held their line with Hlinka and Fieber in the midfield. It wasn’t so much a case of two banks of four, more a case of a big impenetrable bank of eight.
When Slovakia would have the ball, as the graphic suggests, you would place them into a 4-2-3-1 system with Matej Ekhardt doing all of the leg work in the middle for Peter Macek up front. Macek was a dying breed of poacher. He stayed on the shoulder of the last defender, wouldn’t dream of pressing the opposition and stuck to within the width of the goalposts.
Ekhardt, Meszaros and Poncak did the work for him.
The reason for why this counter-attacking 8-1-1 come 4-2-3-1 worked in the end was the sheer pace and understanding between the four offensive players.
The world wasn’t going to be shocked by their 2-0 win over Cape Verde and by Kutlik’s high standards, it was a very imperfect performance. Slovakia scraped through with tests against Netherlands and Japan to come. The Via del Mare in Lecce was stunned into silence after 24 minutes. Twenty minutes of ferocious attacking of that Slovakian wall by the Dutch had left them with no reward and the pace of Meszaros down the left had provided two goals with his sheer pace.
The hit and run approach worked. The more the game went on, especially after the Netherlands’ opening draw to Japan, the more they became desperate. And so, naturally, a third Slovakian goal came at the death. Almost a carbon copy happened five days later in the San Siro. Slovakia needed a draw for qualification but instead put three goals past a defensively wobbly Japanese side inside 15 minutes.
Nobody could live with their counter attacking. Although, Russia found a way through their wall in the round of sixteen. Slovakia “believed their hype” too much, claimed Kutlik after the match but would eventually scrape through 3-2 after extra time. They needed to abandon their counter attacking strategy though. The rest of the tournament offered more of what we had come to expect. 1-0 victories over France and Denmark with the same ‘hit and run’ strategy paid off. Slovakia were in a final.
Portugal were hit for four. A victory for counter attacking football in a world of ultra attacking. From 78th in the world to 10th before the tournament and to 1st by the end of the tournament.