EURO 2020 technical report: refining the art of scoring and saving
Tuesday, September 14, 2021
The UEFA EURO 2020 technical report covers all the key trends and developments observed during another tournament which broke records, beginning with the number of goals.
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The most prolific UEFA EURO on record was the first where a goalkeeper was crowned player of the tournament. Unravelling this apparent paradox was the role of UEFA's team of technical observers, who witnessed sheer excellence at both ends of the field during a tournament which will be remembered as much for its outstanding attacking as it will for the new benchmarks set in goalkeeping, in particular by Italy's Gianluigi Donnarumma, who stood out from all the players who took to the field throughout 51 pulsating matches.
The scorers of the first goal of the tournament also supplied the last. It was a fitting way to close the circle on a triumph which Italy had called in their opening 3-0 victory over Turkey, and they were not bluffing. The Azzurri entered the tournament off the back of a 27-game unbeaten streak, including a ten-out-of-ten-win qualifying campaign. Even head coach Roberto Mancini would have been considered crazy for predicting, when he picked up the pieces following a failed 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, that he could put them all back together again so perfectly within three years.
Italy were one of the very few teams at EURO 2016 to play with a three-man defence, with Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini forming the foundations upon which Antonio Conte built a side which were eliminated by Germany in the quarter-finals. With the now retired Barzagli this summer taking on a coaching role within the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), Bonucci and Chiellini remained to hold the defensive fort five years later, though the shift under Mancini to a four-man back line was not born out of necessity. With Leonardo Spinazzola and Giovanni Di Lorenzo flanking Juventus' experienced duo, it did not matter that Mancini was effectively ensuring Italy would once again go countertrend with a four-man back line, with no fewer than 15 teams at EURO 2020 deploying a back three – or five – at some stage of the tournament.
The effective use of full-backs in supporting the attacks was one of the features of the title-winning side, with Spinazzola also named in the team of the tournament. Packie Bonner, after watching Spinazzola in action against Austria, noted how he "always threatened to get to the by-line and we saw him twice in the six-yard box. He linked exceptionally well with Lorenzo Insigne, who took Austria's right-back infield to open space."
This ability to combine with forwards and not necessarily always overlap was also discussed as an enhancement to the increased attacking identity of a modern full-back. "This is coming more and more into the game," Mixu Paatelainen remarked. "Full-backs like to come inside as, when they do, they take the opposing winger out of his comfort zone. I see this as a symptom that coaches are working on many ways of unsettling their opponents."
By forcing opponents out of their comfort zones, full-backs or wing-backs were getting into their own to score 16 goals at EURO 2020, including Luke Shaw's early opener in the final, which justified England manager Gareth Southgate's surprise decision to start out with a back five. To conclude Bonner's quote on Spinazzola, he added that Marco Verratti "did a good job of covering any counters on that side."
This was part of a collective defensive strategy which permitted the full-backs to attack without fear of letting the team down by losing possession. "I think Italy, when they lost the ball in the attacking part of the pitch, they broke the possibility [for their opponents] to give passes out wide," said Jean-François Domergue. "They closed the density of the players between 25-40 metres with six or seven players and left Bonucci and Chiellini behind with Jorginho in front. The others do the transitions, and I think Italy are working very well in blocking to keep the ball."
Out to (im)press
This Italian block often occurred in the opposition half, with their high press and counterpress a tactic which also found a prominent place on the technical observers' notepads. After observing Italy in the group stage, Esteban Cambiasso reported back on what had stood out in the Azzurri's game. "If I have to choose one key factor, it's the pressure on opponents in the attacking third," he said. "They press with a lot of players and there's a very short time between them losing the ball and winning it back. It means they don't give too many chances for the opposition to make quick transitions." Five of Italy's regains in the attacking third led to goals.
Faced with this pressure, the deep construction trend observed since the 2019 rule change regarding goal-kicks was somewhat tempered, with teams showing a little more caution when trying to build out from the back. England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, for instance, made 20 long clearances in the semi-final against Denmark and 26 in the final when, as Bonner remarked: "It became difficult for the wing-backs to get into attack mode, while Kane was losing the ball in the air instead of being able to drop deep to receive."
The England captain was not alone in meeting congestion in central areas, with the observers reflecting at length on the trials teams were having in breaking through where three centre-backs were being protected by one or two screening midfielders. This sparked a true or false discussion among the observers on the role of the No9. "Germany played with three attackers rather than a No9," said Steffen Freund. "The No9 isn't dead – he just has to be more flexible, rotate and still appear in the right places to score goals."
"[Robert] Lewandowski is a classic striker," Dušan Fitzel added. "And Patrik Schick had an excellent tournament. But look what happened in the final when England started playing the long ball. Italy's two stoppers dominated Kane. They won the ball every time. So what we saw was the type of central attacker who moved wide or went deep."
This expansion of a forward's competencies was also noted in Belgium's 2-1 win over Denmark. "When Belgium had [Romelu] Lukaku in the middle of the pitch in the first half, Simon Kjær handled him well and then the coach changed, moved [Kevin] de Bruyne into the centre and Lukaku destroyed Denmark out there – Bingo!” said Peter Rudbæk. Belgium coach Roberto Martínez had rightly seen that width was where most of the goals were stemming from, with crosses and cut-backs causing havoc in creating 35% of goals and contributing also to a record number of own goals being scored.
The Golden Boot at EURO 2020 went to Cristiano Ronaldo, but the name engraved on that particular trophy could easily have read 'own goal' with 11 in total – two more than in the previous 15 editions combined. With a further 14 goals coming following a rebound, whipping in crosses was a particularly productive route to goal. "When the cross is outside of the goalkeeper's reach, nine times out of ten it is a goal," said technical observer Frans Hoek, himself a former goalkeeper. "At such a high speed, whoever touches that ball, it will go in."
This is where fast, technically gifted players come into their own, as dribbling came back into fashion. "This is the EURO of dribbling," said Fabio Capello. "Finally, we can see young players going one on one, trying to dribble past their opponents to get to the goal line and cross dangerously." Italy's Federico Chiesa and Insigne, and England's Raheem Sterling showed signs of resuscitating a calibre of player who causes the greatest level of excitement among fans, and strikes the most fear into full-backs.
"In Italy, we are very lucky in this period to have these players," added Capello, who felt Sterling had also "made the difference" for England. "The movement is really important, but so too is that they are taking the risk to dribble," added the former England manager.
These were all among the key takeaways from an event which spanned 11 venues spread across the continent, from Glasgow to Baku and St Petersburg to Sevilla, and are discussed in greater depth in the UEFA EURO 2020 technical report, which will be published to coincide with UEFA's coaching convention in September.