For many, the jury is still out on Michael Skibbe. The German coach, who was handed the highly unenviable task of captaining the good ship Greece and steadying its course, has done a reasonable job of leading the team towards somewhat calmer waters, but with qualification to the 2018 World Cup still not secure, there are plenty of critics out there, more than happy to fire their booming salvos towards him.
Do they have a point? Well, that depends on how you look at things. If you’re still on the side of those who argue that Greece should somehow discover the secret elixir that grants Greek players the ability to play creative, flowing football, then yes, the national team under Skibbe has been somewhat subdued, somewhat afraid to come out of itself and take games by the scruff of the neck. If, on the other hand you are slightly more pragmatic, then you can’t help but recognise that he has done a respectable job presenting a national team that shares some of the elements from the Rehagel and Santos era.
The side’s defeat to Belgium was their first in two years and the first with Skibbe in charge, which is a feat in itself. This is, after all, a side that managed to lose to the Faroe Islands both home and away during the qualifying phase of Euro 2016. On top of that, Belgium are not just a better side than Greece at the moment, they are arguably one of the foremost teams in world football, boasting a dazzling selection of talent that is clicking together as a unit and firing on all cylinders. Their exploits in Group H have been nothing sort of terrifying, with Lukaku, Hazard and co, blasting past any and all opponents, thus easily explaining their position as runaway leaders of the group. Against this footballing avalanche of a team, Skibbe’s side has managed a draw in Belgium and only lost in Greece, after a late goal by the bulldozing Romelu Lukaku settled the tie. Hardly a shambolic set of displays against the group leaders.
Currently, Greece sit third in group H, biting at the heels of Bosnia, who managed to leapfrog to second place after Greece’s Lukaku-led defeat at the Karaiskakis stadium. While the hunt for second place is still wide open, Skibbe’s players now must wait for the Bosnians to stumble in their remaining games, provided of course that they themselves gain maximum points out of a possible six in their last two matches against Malta and Cyprus.
So, ultimately, do his critics have any valid points? Is Skibbe to blame for qualification no longer being in Greece’s hands?
Well naturally, Skibbe has to take part of the blame, mainly due to his tactical slip-ups at times, but if we’re being honest with the status of Greek football and its lack of game-changing talent, then what the true issue is has little to do with the coach. With Kostas Mitroglou missing through injury for the games against Estonia and Belgium, Greece lacked their vital spearhead, a natural goalscorer that can snatch a goal out of half-chance or a misplaced pass, something that the rather clunky and old-school centre-forward play of Apostolos Vellios cannot hope to replicate. On top of that, the performance of Kostas Fortounis in both these fixtures was mediocre to say the least, with the Olympiakos playmaker lethargically ghosting about the pitch, with no hope of influencing a match, or providing valuable sparks of creativity.
Without his vital front two firing or even available and with no real alternative solutions of equal quality, it would seem logical for Skibbe to struggle to chart a way past the much ‘softer’ Estonian defence, let alone the fortress like Belgian back three, led by the premier league duo of Alderweireld and Vertonghen.
He didn’t of course help his case by insisting on players that are clearly not up to the challenge in the match against Belgium, like the inexplicably ever-present Alexandros Tziolis and the hugely limited Andreas Samaris, or by allowing the Estonians of the hook by sticking Petros Mantalos on the right wing (who has shown to really not like the role both with AEK Athens and the national team) and slotting in Panagiotis Retsos behind him at right back. The young defender who recently completed his multi-million Euro switch from Olympiakos to Leverkusen is a natural central defender, whose skillset is not really suited for the usually high octane right back role. In effect he nullified the attacking threat of the entire right side of his team, providing the Estonians with one less headache to worry about.
All this leaves Greece stuck in third place and anxiously looking above them for some vital qualification ‘scraps’ to fall off of the Russia 2018 dinner table. Should they fail to qualify for the World Cup, the knives will be very much be out for Skibbe, although I fear that providing him with his marching orders will not be a step in the right direction. While relatively limited in his coaching talents, Skibbe must be commended for rebuilding the Greek team piece by piece and injecting some form, structure, and much needed confidence back into the side. Being a German, he will always be judged next to the form of Otto Rehagel, a comparison that will always end up with him as second best. It is a situation that is both extremely unfair on Skibbe and magnificently short-sighted. Michael Skibbe never said he was anything more than he is: a low-key, reasonably pragmatic coach, looking to build a new footballing story with some often ill-fitting materials. To expect miracles is to shout that one knows very little about the sport of football.
Besides, there are a few games left to go. Let’s save the panic and the outrage – if indeed there is need for either – till after they’re done shall we?