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Author: Iain Macintosh

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Of all the teams heading to France for the European Championships, Albania have surely the most fascinating back story. They’ve never qualified for a major tournament before. They’ve only ever qualified for two youth tournaments before. The entire team was given the Honour of the National Order, Albania’s most prestigious civilian honour as a reward for qualifying, so what on earth will they be given if they progress from the group stages? Someone in the corridors of Albanian power should start thinking about that now, because there’s a decent chance that they will. In this expanded tournament, it’s possible to reach the knock out stage with just two points.

Others will write about Albania’s political history, its ethnic melting pot and, of course, That Game against Serbia, but what are Albania actually like as a football team? What on earth has Gianni de Biassi done to this team? They had just finished bottom of their Euro 2012 qualifying group when he arrived.
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Image from Wyscout  Match Report

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In short, he’s made them very hard to break down. Albania played Austria in March and it was possible to see both the advantages and drawbacks to their game. Di Biassi’s strategy is not rocket science. He likes his back four to be deeper than Leonard Cohen lyrics and for his midfield to get back and support them. It’s very hard to go through the middle. Though, as we’ll see, it’s not impossible. At the back, the experienced Lorik Cana provides guile and influence, while hulking Cologne defender Mërgim Mavraj offers brute force. Napoli’s Elseid Hysaj adds some class at full back too. They’re no amateur side.

Within that packed midfield are two players very capable of playing quick, long range passes to start counter attacks.

Basle’s Taulent Xhaka, brother of Borussia Monchengladbach’s Granit (and they’ll probably meet in the group stages when Albania play Switzerland), sits deep and tries to orchestrate affairs. He’s likely to be joined by PAOK’s creative, but fiery midfielder Ergys Kaçe, who was once considered a target for Newcastle United, but let’s not hold that against him.

Of course, if they do get through the defence, they still have to beat Etrit Berisha. At 6ft 4, the Lazio goalkeeper is an imposing figure who works his angles well and has the nerve to hold his shape as attackers approach, forcing them to make a decision instead of going down and making life easy for them. But he isn’t first choice in Rome and he is occasionally a little too bold for his own good, as he demonstrated against Sampdoria last December when he replaced the injured Federico Marchetti and promptly darted out of his box to wipe out one of their strikers, giving them a free kick from which they would score.
Where Albania do suffer is in the striking department. Of the three forwards in their last squad, Bekim Balaj has scored only nine goals for Croatian side Rijeka, Sokol Cikalleshi only has five for Istanbul Basaksehir and Armando Sadiku has just five for Liechtensteinian Swiss League outfit Vaduz. Much has been made of Internazionale teenager, Rey Manaj, but he has barely featured for Roberto Mancini this season and this may be too soon, especially given the responsibilities of a striker in this team. For all that, Balaj’s outstanding volleyed finish in the 1-0 win over Portugal should not be ignored.
However, Balaj’s main contribution against Austria was to continually come deep, and indeed wide, to provide air support to the midfield.

This means that Albania can often have all ten outfield players in their own half.

If they stayed there all the time, Albania would never get anywhere. But they don’t. They commit large numbers to their counter-attacks and play the ball quickly to catch the opposition by surprise. Unfortunately, when this goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong.

That’s what happened in the sixth minute against Austria. Balaj dutifully chased a clearance from the back and four Albanian players surged forward. But it was Austria who reached the clearance first, quickly smashing the ball back into the opposition’s half leaving those four Albanians, five if you include Balaj, stranded in front of the ball. Julian Baumgartlinger cleverly turned and played the ball to Zlatko Junuzović who jabbed it quickly to set Marc Janko clear on goal. And just like that, the deep, massed ranks of Di Biassi were breached.
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Austria scored again five minutes later, but if it’s any consolation this was the result of total ineptitude rather than a serious tactical error. No, that’s not much consolation. Austrian goalkeeper Robert Almer punted a back pass high into the air and Mavraj made the cardinal error of allowing it to bounce. Martin Harnik thanked him politely and ran through to score.

But if that all sounds a little dispiriting, don’t be alarmed. This was just a bad day. The gameplan paid off after the break when a quick transition, started by substitute Sokol Cikalleshi, was finished by Nantes’ Ermir Lenjani who ran and ran and kept running before blasting the ball, Geoff Hurst style, into the roof of the net from distance.

They don’t give up easily, Albania. They were 0-2 down to Georgia last November with five minutes to go. They drew 2-2. If they can cut out the silly mistakes, if they can keep their wits about them and if other teams are stupid enough to consider them easy opposition, there’s no reason why they can’t surprise a few people this summer.
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Iain Macintosh
Is a football writer for ESPNFC and the editor of  The Set Pieces

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