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EURO 2020: tactical trends

The UEFA EURO 2020 technical observers reflect on the group stage action.

No team has pressed or had the ball as much as Spain but that did not help them beat Sweden in their opening game
No team has pressed or had the ball as much as Spain but that did not help them beat Sweden in their opening game UEFA via Getty Images

Thirty-six matches played, with 94 goals scored at an average of 2.61 per game. It is a ratio lower than the 2.93 recorded in last season’s UEFA Champions League, yet this is no surprise for the UEFA technical observers analysing the action at UEFA EURO 2020.

Their reflections on the opening fortnight of action point to less risk-taking than in the European club competitions with a tendency towards three centre-backs and low blocks – arguably motivated by the wish to avoid early elimination. As Packie Bonner, the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper in the 1988 finals and now a UEFA technical observer, notes: “The thing about tournament football is, it’s a lot different than the Champions League – it’s about getting through the group stage. I think it will change as we go forward.” Indeed, this was highlighted on Matchday 3 when 39 goals flew in after 28 and then 27 in the previous rounds of fixtures.

UEFA EURO 2020 stats

Here EURO2020.com considers some of early trends identified by the group of experienced coaches from around Europe, who together are helping to produce UEFA’s technical report on UEFA EURO 2020:

Three at the back

Thirteen teams so far have used three at the back at times: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Switzerland and Wales. This has led to a variety of observations. Corinne Diacre considered it as a more defensive ploy to date, for the security the extra centre-back brings.

Teams have gone from five defenders when out of possession to a 3-2-5 shape when attacking and Mixu Paatelainen saw the back three as providing a structure for an offensive approach: Poland, for example, went to a 3-1-6 when chasing a result, while one of Belgium’s three centre-backs, Jason Denayer, could be seen pushing forward and having shots. Indeed, four of the group stage’s top five pressing teams have played with three centre-backs. This set-up also allows for a good balance in the central area, with two midfielders covering the space in front of the defenders for defensive transitions.

Even teams who did not technically set up with a three showed flexibility, with David Moyes citing how “England play with a back four yet build with a back three” with right-back Kyle Walker tucking in when left-back Luke Shaw pushed on.

Regarding sides’ build-up play from the back, there was anecdotal evidence from UEFA’s observers of a greater reluctance to take the risk of playing out from the goalkeeper, with Croatia’s Dominik Livaković and England’s Jordan Pickford both offering examples. This raised the question of whether, with four tickets to the last 16 for third-placed teams, some sides saw it as more important not to lose games at this stage than to go all out for the win. (Caveat: the 94 goals scored was an increase on the 69 in the EURO 2016 group stage.)

Skills Showcase: Best of the group stage
Skills Showcase: Best of the group stage

Pressing matters … for some

No team pressed as frequently as Spain, who recorded a defensive action for every 7.98 opposition passes according to the PPDA metric (Passes allowed Per Defensive Action). Next-best were the Netherlands with 10.75. Italy were particularly effective in winning the ball back on the counter-press, evidenced by the fact they scored three goals from ball recoveries in their attacking third – more than the two of Spain, Portugal and Denmark.

Low blocks

There was a sense from UEFA’s match observers that a noteworthy number of teams have been content to sit in a low block, keeping their shape and letting the other side have the ball (a possible reason for the 13% of goals sourced from shots from outside the box). Wales, for instance, advanced from Group A with an average possession figure of 40% and the second-lowest pressing rate (a PPDA of 22.19). Instead they focused on springing forward from deep. They ended the group stage with a direct speed metric – for how quickly a team advance the ball upfield in metres per second – of 1.75 metres per second (neighbours England registered the lowest/slowest of 0.92).

Another strong example came from Sweden, the unbeaten Group E winners who averaged 36% possession across the group stage. When holding Spain 0-0 in Seville, that figure dropped to 25%, and one interesting footnote is the question of how much Sweden were helped that day by the fact they could introduce five substitutes against a Spain team who famously like to wear their rivals down by making them chase the ball.

Possession no panacea

It remains to be seen whether this tournament follows the lead of EURO 2016 when only four of the 15 knockout matches were won by the side who had more possession. Ginés Meléndez, the UEFA observer in Seville, wondered whether possession was any longer regarded as the panacea that some considered it to be during Spain’s era of domination a decade ago.

If Spain’s approach is the same (so far, they have averaged 69% possession per match), Italy’s has changed somewhat as their average of 45% under Antonio Conte in 2016 has risen to 58% at this EURO under Roberto Mancini. As for France, the reigning world champions, they retain the same largely pragmatic outlook when it comes to possession as five years ago: 52% then and the same now. Ultimately the view of the observers is that possession per se is less significant than what comes of it: crosses, chances created, shots and goals.

Key stats

Goals-per-game ratio: 2.62
Highest possession (average): 69% – Spain
Highest pass completion (average): 90% – Germany
Most open-play goals: 6 – Italy
Most set-play goals: 3 – Spain