Per usual, every pundit believed that England was a better team than Iceland, and potentially a favorite. We’re pretty high on their young core, and they’ll be back in force come World Cup qualifiers. Everyone used words like "disaster," "calamity," and "inexplicable" to describe the Three Lions' 2-1 loss to Iceland in the Euro Round of 16. Here’s the thing about that, though: Iceland is actually just good.
The majority of the discourse around Iceland has been about the fact that their population is microscopic relative to other European nations, that their massive investment in youth development has made them a delightful underdog whose good fortune would certainly run out when faced with players of England’s quality. We all find it adorable that their future head coach is a part-time dentist, or that their starting keeper directs music videos for a living. We all enjoy Iceland’s charming underdog story, our voices dripping with condescension. It’s the knockout stage, lads; time to let the big boys play.
That type of fairy tale judgment belies the fact that this is actually a pretty complete team. Consider Iceland’s starting XI. Star midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson is a big reason why Swansea City emerged as a consistently threatening presence in the Premier League. Sigurðsson gets the headlines, but he’s not the only squad member with quality. Striker Kolbeinn Sigþórsson is a regular at FC Nantes. Super-sub Alfreð Finnbogason features for FC Augsburg. Center back Ragnar Sigurðsson and midfielder Birkir Bjarnason both compete in the Champions League and Europa League with Krasnodar and FC Basel, respectively. These guys can ball.
The results bear that out. Iceland beat Turkey, the Netherlands (twice), and Czech Republic convincingly in qualifying to take second place in their group. Sigurðsson bagged six goals, finishing as the group's top scorer. Most thought that a final tournament group that included Austria and Portugal would leave Iceland fighting for a third-place berth. They then went undefeated, drawing Portugal and defeating Austria. Add England to their list of scalps, and we can no longer trifle with this team anymore.
Head coach Lars Lagerbäck -- who guided Sweden to qualification for five straight major tournaments, by the way -- doesn't merely rely on his players providing just enough quality to fill out a compact, sit-deep-and-counter-or-get-a-set-piece style that international minnows tend to lean on. The England game demonstrates that amply. Iceland put the Three Lions on their heels, forcing them to make decisions in the midfield and keeping their back line uncomfortable. Sure, Iceland's two goals came on Kyle Walker's bad set piece marking and Joe Hart's howler, but England wouldn't have been forced into those mistakes without the cohesive, consistent pressure Iceland put them under. Both teams' xG maps demonstrate that while England had the lion's share of possession, out-shot them 18-8, and out-passed them in the final third 72 percent to 50 percent, Iceland's organization prevented any real threat in front of their own goal.
xG map for #ENG-#ISL. For most of the match #ENG were abject and incoherent. And #ISL defended well, took advantage. pic.twitter.com/xczxStL9ql— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) June 27, 2016
Iceland may only have 330,000 people, and it’s cute that they have so many UEFA-licensed coaches within their borders, but their strategy is actually paying dividends. They have quality players, they have a tactically savvy head coach, and they push teams to the brink. France should be able to put them away easily in the quarterfinals, but how many times have we said that in the last two years? Iceland is making a statement in European football, and it’s high time we stop treating them as a novelty and more a legitimate contender.