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Thinking on your feet at EURO 2020

UEFA's technical observers discuss how tactical flexibility and well-timed substitutions were keys to success.

Federico Chiesa is substituted by Italy coach Roberto Mancini during the final
Federico Chiesa is substituted by Italy coach Roberto Mancini during the final Visionhaus/Getty Images

Tactical flexibility and well-timed substitutions were keys to success at the finals according to the UEFA EURO 2020 technical report.

In this extract, UEFA's technical observers consider the frequency of in-game formation changes, and the fine art of reshuffling the pack.

The elastic band

From a coaching perspective, tactical flexibility was one of the salient features at EURO 2020 – not only from match to match but also within individual games. After watching the first 20 minutes of Wales vs Denmark, with Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey running riot, few would have predicted a final score of 0-4. Then Kasper Hjulmand shifted Andreas Christensen from centre-back to midfield, changing his initial 1-3-4-2-1 to a 1-4-3-3. Denmark wrested control from Wales – and kept it – switching to 1-3-5-2 to protect a 2-0 advantage.

Highlights: France 3-3 Switzerland (4-5 pens)
Highlights: France 3-3 Switzerland (4-5 pens)

The injury to centre-back Serhiy Kryvtsov after 35 minutes of Ukraine’s quarter-final against England prompted Andriy Shevchenko to switch from 3-4-3 to 4-3-3 – a change which had a positive effect. Against Switzerland, France started in 3-5-2 formation, yet after 36 minutes Didier Deschamps switched to 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond; after the break it was a flat 4-4-2, paving the way for France’s purple patch of three goals in 19 minutes. “Even though Griezmann moved out to the right instead of working behind the front two, I feel it was the best we saw of France during the tournament,” said Corinne Diacre. “But it left spaces in defence and two goals were conceded using the same formation.”

Willi Ruttensteiner added: ‘’Switzerland made great adaptations within games. During the game in Baku against Wales, the tactical flexibility was so high that you had real difficulty to say whether they were playing with three defenders or four. They displayed high tactical flexibility in different situations of the game and provided a very good example that it is not the system they’re playing in defending or attacking, it’s about the players and the tactical principles that the coach is giving.”

“As a national team coach,” Mixu Paatelainen commented, “you need time to work on the mechanisms of different formations – which you don’t always have. So the players are the key. Do they play those formations at their clubs? If so, and the players are comfortable, it allows the coach to be flexible.”

Changing times

Grealish relishing England spotlight
Grealish relishing England spotlight

The issue of tactical flexibility was interwoven with the option to make five substitutions – or six in the eight games that went to extra time. "Coaches are to be given a lot of credit,” said Packie Bonner, “for their ability to adapt and make changes." They did so in different ways. Roberto Mancini, for example, generally sent fresh legs into middle-to-front positions in preference to tinkering with his team structure. "The fresh legs brought the winning goals with them," Ruttensteiner said after the Italy vs Austria game. "Austria were dominating at that stage, looking fitter than Italy and pressing them hard. So Mancini was right to change and Franco Foda was right not to change. The coach has to be careful that the team does not lose momentum if you make changes."

Gareth Southgate, with riches on the England bench, sometimes made changes to alter the personality of his team rather than the shape. Aitor Karanka cited the match against Germany as an example. "Jack Grealish, when he came on for a winger, made a difference. He plays more in the middle, creating doubts between the wing-back and the central defender. It meant that Luke Shaw had more space to come forward – and that was how the first goal was created."

There was, however, a hard-luck story. Kasper Hjulmand, who used all 31 options in Denmark’s six games, made his sixth change with 15 minutes of extra time remaining in the semi-final against England – only for an injury to Mathias Jensen to leave him a man short when chasing an adverse scoreline.

Read the full UEFA EURO 2020 technical report