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Author: Iain Macintosh

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It has been assumed in some quarters that England have an easy first round group in France. Russia are old, so the argument goes, Wales are too reliant on Gareth Bale and Slovakia are…well…Slovakia. But last weekend, Slovakia beat the world champions Germany 3-1 in Augsburg. Slovakia are dangerous.

There are, it must be said, a number of caveats to this result. This was not a full strength German side. There was no Manuel Neuer, no Mats Hummels, no Toni Kroos, no Thomas Muller, no Mesut Ozil and no Marco Reus. Nor did they play in a conventional shape. Manager Joachim Low experimented with a back three, taking his width from wing-backs Jonas Hector and Sebastian Rudy while Julian Drazler and Mario Gotze played in the middle, in front of holding midfielder Sami Khedira.

Finally, there were the conditions; torrential rains that kept the players inside for 39 minutes at half time and nearly caused a postponement. The match was completed on a surface that looked more like the Florida Wetlands than an international football pitch. And yet for all that, Slovakia were fantastic.

You expect certain things of the less fashionable nations when they qualify for tournaments. You expect defensive solidity, a compact shape and a reliance on a decent out ball to a big and/or quick lone striker. Slovakia laugh in the face of your expectations. They play the ball on the floor, quickly and efficiently. And they can cut you to pieces.
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Image from Wyscout  Match Report

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Key to everything is Marek Hamsik. Manager Jan Kozak has used him all over the front end of the pitch in the last two years, he’s been a lone deep-lying frontman, he’s played at the back of midfield and he’s played the number 10 role. Against Germany, he paired up in the middle with Juraj Kucka, but he was so much more than just another central midfielder.

He was up supporting attacks, he was back helping out the defence, he was out wide covering for flying full back Dusan Svento. Hamsik has been around long enough for descriptions and biographies to be unnecessary, but needless to say his touch is exquisite and he’s always thinking two moves ahead. A handy trait, given the way that Germany pressed.

When Slovakia attack, they bring numbers. They move freely, they exchange positions and they’re prepared to take the ball under pressure. The drawback to all of this is that they can be caught on the break when they commit too many men to an attack and it breaks down. Germany really should have put them down inside the first 30 minutes. The early penalty, converted by Mario Gomez, should have been built upon. But every time Low’s side failed to put down this rebellion, resistance intensified.

Slovakia didn’t panic, they just played the ball out from the back again and again, running, moving, finding space everywhere. They were not intimidated by the German press. They were not intimidated by the terrible conditions.
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Five minutes before half-time, at the end of another intricate passing move, Hamsik found a little space nearly 30 yards from goal. It was all that he needed. He smashed the ball past Bernd Leno. The Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper was beaten again three minutes later, a glancing Michal Duris header from a Vladimir Weiss corner. On both goals, Leno could have done better. But at least he came out of this with more dignity than his half-time replacement, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen.

Six minutes after the break, Kucka slammed a volley into the saturated ground, sending up an enormous splash of muddy water. The ball’s speed and trajectory now altered, Ter Stegen was deceived and it slipped between his legs. For Germany, you can put this one down to experience. A new line-up, a new shape, difficult conditions. These things can happen. But these things did happen because of the way that Slovakia performed.

They are technically excellent, they are intelligent and they are brave. And if  England take them lightly, they’ll regret it.
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Iain Macintosh
Is a football writer for ESPNFC and the editor of  The Set Pieces

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