Each UEFA European Championship has had its tactical benchmarks – and UEFA EURO 2016 will doubtless give us fresh and fascinating insights into the way the modern game is played.
For the first EUROs in the 1960s, the old 2-3-5 formation – featuring two full-backs, two wing-halves, a centre-half, two wingers, two inside-forwards and a centre-forward – was making way for increasingly sophisticated tactics, which sometimes reflected a new defensive-minded philosophy. Rather than focus on scoring goals, there came a new emphasis on not conceding. New systems such as the 4-3-3 (often not featuring a winger), the 4-4-2 or the 4-2-4 came into fashion as the game evolved.
Individual positions also changed. Italy's 1968 champions featured not only the customary solid defence and stealthy attackers, but also a full-back of considerable attacking potential in Giacinto Facchetti who helped redefine his position. Playmakers came into fashion. If the playmaker was able to score goals on a regular basis, either from open play or through deft free-kicks, you were really in business – in 1984, France's Michel Platini finished as leading scorer in the tournament with nine goals in five matches on home soil.
In the 1970s the 'libero' or 'sweeper' was born. This fluid position could feature a purely defensive libero stationed behind his defence to sweep up opposing breakthroughs – and was given a new slant by the elegant Franz Beckenbauer, captain of West Germany's 1972 team. He used his skill and vision to move forward out of defence and kick-start his team's attacks.
The game has become increasingly sophisticated in tactical terms over the years, with defences proving even harder to break down, and these developments have been monitored at recent EUROs by UEFA's technical study group, comprising experienced coaches and technical experts, who identify the prevailing tactical trends every four years.
At EURO '96 in England, the trend was towards strong, almost impregnable defensive blocks, the "flooding" of midfield by teams perhaps playing a 3-5-2 system, and a dearth of wingers which was compensated for by hard-working wide players or overlapping full-backs. Counterattacking, often by strikers with pace, and individual brilliance was needed to destabilise tough defensive blocks. A defensive midfielder also helped contain counterattacks. Goalkeepers needed to become footballers after changes to the backpass rule.
In the Netherlands and Belgium in 2000, the tactical talk was of the diamond formation – a defensive midfielder, two 'normal' midfielders and a central player supporting the strikers. Lone strikers made their mark. A two-man screen of defensive midfielders helped bolster other rearguards against danger and footballers increasingly needed to be complete players – tactically mature, versatile, adaptable, flexible and quick-thinking – as well as phenomenally fit.
By 2004, the marriage of skill and speed was essential as the game became even faster. The collective, massed defensive block held sway, which required opponents to counterattack at speed to outwit their opponents. Slow build-up, combination play and ball circulation proved ineffective against such systems, but there was a welcome resurgence in wing play as teams tried to get around the massed rearguards. Exceptional tactical discipline, organisation and team spirit gave Greece the chance to become unexpected champions.
Reports of the death of creative combination play and ball circulation proved massively premature, however. Four years later Spain arrived in Austria and Switzerland with a decidedly lightweight midfield centred around Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and the shielding Marcos Senna, all standing under 1.77m. Unable to outmuscle opponents they passed them into submission: their tiki-taka never missed a beat.
They honed the art to such an extent over the next four years, that when David Villa was ruled out of UEFA EURO 2012 they opted for the main part to play without a recognised striker. Instead they profited from a false nine, a nominal front man who plays deeper, dragging defenders out of position and creating space for team-mates. On the attack their 4-3-3 became a 3-4-3 as a midfielder dropped into the defence and full-backs pushed forward. Opponents were pulled this way, then that; then open.
The game never stops evolving – what can we expect in France at UEFA EURO 2016?
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