11 June 2021 was a turning point for the Turkish international team. They arrived at Euro 2020 as one of the tournament dark horses after an impressive spell of just three defeats in Şenol Güneş’ opening 26 matches of his second tenure as Turkish coach. Then the tournament began.
A 3-0 hammering in Rome against Italy in the opening match of the tournament wasn’t the start they’d imagined. It only got worse. Turkey lost all three group stage games with a goal difference of -7, scoring their only goal as a consolation in a 3-1 defeat to Switzerland with 28 minutes of their tournament remaining. Alongside North Macedonia they were the only team to lose all three of their group stage matches, and even then, Turkey had a worse goal difference than them.
Güneş survived despite their poor showing, with the 2022 World Cup qualifiers only three months after the European Championship horror show. He was to last just three more games. After a draw with Montenegro and a 3-0 win versus UEFA minnows Gibraltar in a game they were never going to lose, a heavy 6-1 defeat away in the Netherlands in September 2021 was the final straw and Güneş was sacked.
In came German U21 manager Stefan Kuntz and with it a sense of cautious optimism again.
Kuntz has overseen a strong World Cup qualification campaign, picking up the slack from the previous coach and his poor start, by finishing second in their group and qualifying for a play-off berth for Qatar 2022. They were to eventually lose out 3-1 to Portugal, but had Burak Yılmaz not sent an 85th-minute penalty over the bar to level the scores at 2-2 in Porto, things could have been very different and their German coach would have been lauded a hero.
A strong 2021-22 UEFA Nations League followed for Kuntz and his Turkish side, albeit against lower-calibre opponents in the form of Luxembourg, Lithuania and the Faroe Islands. They topped the group and were already guaranteed of first place before a shock 2-1 defeat away in the Faroes in their final match.
Decent friendly wins over Scotland and Czech Republic in November have set Turkey up nicely ahead of hopeful Euro 2024 qualification, but what can people expect from them in this campaign?
Some pressure is already off, as Turkey are guaranteed of at least a play-off place following their successful UEFA Nations League performance. But on paper, many would think Turkey should be expected to pick up one of the two automatic qualification spots after being placed alongside Croatia, Wales, Armenia and Latvia in Group D.
Can Kuntz take Turkey to Euro 2024 in his home nation of Germany next summer? We look at the key stories ahead of their opening qualifier in Armenia on Saturday.
Perhaps Turkish fans had been too optimistic to think that they had the goalkeeping spot covered for the foreseeable future with potential stars Uğurcan Çakır and Altay Bayındır staking a claim to be Turkey’s first reliable long-term option between the posts since Rüştü Reçber across the 1990s and into the 2010s. Volkan Demirel could also be considered a strong option, but he last played for Turkey in 2014.
Now both in their mid-20s, both Çakır and Bayındır fuelled the hopes of their national team futures with excellent domestic form in 2021-22, but neither keeper has performed at the superhuman levels of last season in 2022-23 so far.
That’s not to say this season has been disastrous – they’ve been performing at expected levels. But fans have become accustomed to previously exceptional form from this duo.
Across 2021-22, only Mateusz Lis (17.0) and Arijanet Muric (11.3) posted better goals prevented totals in the Turkish top-flight than Trabzonspor’s Çakır and Bayındır of Fenerbahçe (both 11.1).
Goals prevented rate is the number of goals that a goalkeeper is expected to concede as a proportion of the number of goals they concede in reality. Bayındır, in particular, was in exceptional form last season, with his goals prevented rate at 1.55. Put simply, for every two goals he was conceding, the average goalkeeper would have been expected to concede three from the quality of shots from opponents.
Whilst this season has seen them stop the opposition from scoring at near the exact the expected rate, performances haven’t been as eye-catching. Mert Günok – the other goalkeeper in the squad – has slightly outperformed them both, with a goals prevented tally of 1.0, while both Çakır and Bayındır have seen their save percentage fall below 70%.
Issues in Central Defence
A few years back, many Turkish fans were excited with their potential central defensive options in years to come. Çağlar Söyüncü was among the Premier League elites, Merih Demiral was partnering the likes of Bonucci and Chiellini at Juventus while Ozan Kabak was one of the best youngsters in Bundesliga.
2022-23 has been a poor season for all three, with Söyüncü massively out of favour at Leicester City and Demiral also making irregular appearances in Serie A with Atalanta. Kabak is getting much more regular playing time in the Bundesliga, but at struggling Hoffenheim, where they have lost 12 of their last 15 league games and currently find themselves in 15th and just a point above the relegation zone.
Kuntz has began to bring through new defensive talent for Turkey, however. Of their 11 recognised defenders in the squad for the qualifiers against Armenia and Croatia, five are aged 23 or under, while seven have fewer than eight caps for the senior national team.
Evolving with Young Talent
It could be argued that the only Turkish talent to make big waves in the major European leagues over the last decade has been current captain Hakan Çalhanoğlu, but there are signs there could be a new kid on the block.
Fenerbahçe’s Arda Güler made his senior debut for Turkey against the Czech Republic in November before he turned 18 years old in late February. There’s been a cry for Güler to play more often at his club side, but minutes have been limited so far. Strangely, he’s played more minutes in the UEFA Europa League (237) than Süper Lig (207) so far in 2022-23, but he has been impressive regardless.
Of players to have played at least 600 minutes of competitive action for Fenerbahçe this season, Arda Güler has the highest expected assists per 90 average (0.24) and has created more chances than any team-mate on a per 90 basis (2.4), while no player has averaged more successful passes in the opposition half (28.1). He might be a teenager, but he shows no fear.
His team-mate Ferdi Kadıoğlu is one of the best wing-backs in the Turkish league, and is equally happy in a more advanced winger position and can play on either side.
The 23-year-old has progressed the ball upfield further than any other player via ball carries in the Süper Lig than any other player in 2022-23 (3,681m), while his total of 164 ball carries of 10 metres of more is another league-high. He’s created more chances from open play than any other Fenerbahçe player in the league this season (29), while also firing in a team-high 59 open play crosses.
However, chess pieces mean nothing if you can’t place them in correct squares and have them make the right moves. Kuntz will have to figure out how to create a balance between having best players available and integrating newcomers.
Who Replaces Burak Yılmaz?
With long-time servant Burak Yılmaz retiring from international stage, Enes Ünal seems like the main hope of goals in this squad.
Always expected to become a top striker by Turkish fans, his early success on loan from Man City at FC Twente in 2016-17 wasn’t followed in the following four years within LaLiga, where he struggled to force his way into the starting XI at various clubs.
However, Ünal began to blossom as he began to mature and find his physical peak and the last two seasons at Getafe have witnessed a big shift in goalscoring returns.
While only Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowski (15) has more LaLiga goals than his total of 13 this season, Enes has scored 29 goals since 2021-22 and outscored his xG total (19.9) by just over nine goals – the highest positive difference in LaLiga since then.
Achieving this with a team like Getafe, who aren’t regular scorers, is incredibly valuable. Over that span since 2021-22, Getafe have scored 60 goals – the fifth fewest among the ever-present sides across those two seasons. Enes has netted 49% of that total, which is the highest share in the Spanish top-flight.
Coach Kuntz is a former striker himself with six international goals for Germany and 179 goals in the Bundesliga across his career. There’s little doubt that he’s a man who could help turn Ünal into an even more rounded striker. The Turkish will hope that’s the case.