We caught up with UEFA's lead technical observer Fabio Capello and his colleagues to assess UEFA EURO 2020 so far.
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"The EURO of dribbling." Thus Fabio Capello summed up the essence of UEFA EURO 2020 for him when UEFA's team of technical observers sat down to analyse the action from the knockout rounds so far.
Reflecting on a tournament in which almost a third of the 135 goals scored so far have come from crosses, Capello, leader of the observers' group, said that wide players – both wingers and full-backs – have left a notable imprint.
"For me this is the EURO – young players, one on one, trying to dribble," Capello said. "It's not only the right-back and left-back, but also the wingers." Citing specific examples, he added: "[Raheem] Sterling made the difference always. In Italy, in this period, we're lucky to have players like [Federico] Chiesa and [Leonardo] Spinazzola."
The importance of wing play is just one of the trends that UEFA's observers have identified. Others include the use of inverted full-backs, three central defenders, and teams' in-game tactical flexibility. EURO2020.com listened in on their latest meeting to find out more.
One question was why 29% of the goals had come from crosses and the view among UEFA's observers was that teams were seeking routes to goal out wide because of the opponents defending in "narrow, compact" shapes. With the prevalence of teams with three central defenders and defensive midfielders staying close to the centre-backs, the lack of room inside means they look for space out wide.
As Capello indicated, this width comes both wide forwards and full-backs or wing-backs. Ginés Meléndez pointed to the fact all four semi-finalists play with three forwards: 4-3-3 in the case of Spain and Italy; 3-4-3 with Denmark; and, with England, a 4-2-3-1 shifting to 4-3-3. "Teams playing with three forwards means more goals and crosses," he said.
Pedri praise from Fabio Capello
"I didn't see a player so young, so strong with personality, without fear, he is fantastic. I saw Messi when he was 17 and thought, 'This is a player who will be a genius'. As a midfielder Pedri for me is something completely different to the other players."
As a by-product of the rise in the number of goals from crosses, 20% of all goals scored so far have been headers. "I think it's a big part of football and I enjoy seeing crosses and goals scored," said David Moyes who pointed to the role of inverted wingers and full-backs coming inside and delivering inswinging balls. To offer examples, Jan Bořil (Czech Republic), Joakim Mæhle (Denmark), Kieran Trippier (England), Spinazzola (Italy) and Tomáš Hubočan (Slovakia) all operated as inverted full-backs or wing-backs in one game or more.
Another example, cited by Mixu Paatelainen, was Belgium wing-back Leandro Trossard, who moved infield while Jérémy Doku, the right-sided forward ahead of him, went wide. Paatelainen explained: "The full-back is likely to go inside as he takes the opposition winger out of their comfort zone and wingers, as we know, aren't often good defenders."
Back threes and flexibility
There were 13 teams in the group stage who deployed a back three, and that number rose in the knockout rounds with both France and England starting their last-16 ties with three central defenders. In the case of France, the system was a response to injuries to their two left-backs but coach Didier Deschamps switched back to a four during their eventual defeat by Switzerland.
For France, a back four is the traditional template and Jean-François Domergue highlighted the space found between their three central defenders and how Switzerland were able to "play triangles" around the right-sided centre-back Raphaël Varane. Corinne Diacre added that the two holding midfielders, Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kanté, allowed too much "space between them and Switzerland could also play behind them".
Capello's Swiss surprise
"Switzerland were a surprise for me, for their style. They defended well but when they had the ball, they played with confidence. This is the most important thing when a manager puts himself in the team. I saw leadership, at every moment [Vladimir Petković] was calm with good ideas."
England had more success with their 3-4-3 against Germany according to UEFA's observers. "England defended high and pressed well," said Aitor Karanka, albeit noting that with each side's rival wing-backs cancelling each other out, it was substitute Jack Grealish who opened things up. "He went inside and created doubt between the wing-backs and central defenders," Karanka explained, and this allowed Luke Shaw space to exploit.
According to Moyes, when a team press with three forwards, it can be very difficult for the opposition to build from the back and Capello, once the England manager himself, praised the overall pressing strategy of Gareth Southgate's side. "Southgate surprised me with the style in which they're now defending," he said, observing that previously "the style was the back four not pressing the people that receive the ball, but going back to their goal to defend the line, Now they press immediately and it's really difficult [for the opposition] to get to the keeper."
Citing Declan Rice, Capello continued: "He's a really, really important player. Rice and Phillips are the most difficult midfielders to play against because they run a lot. When you have the ball it's good and the balance of England depends on these two players."
Finally, UEFA's observers pointed also to the capacity showed by teams to change their approach during matches. Belgium did this in their last-16 contest with Portugal, for instance, when, after dominating the ball in the first half, the loss of Kevin De Bruyne to injury meant they played on the counter in the second period with long passes to Romelu Lukaku.
Denmark, meanwhile, offered an impressive example of their adaptability in their match against Wales in the group stage when Andreas Christensen stepped out of the three-man defence after the opening 20 minutes to act as a screening midfielder in a switch from 3-4-2-1 to 4-3-3. Coach Kasper Hjulmand later made a second change, ending the game in a 3-5-2 set-up as the Danes defended their lead.Who are UEFA's technical observers?