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Three at the back and what it meant for No9s at EURO 2020

The UEFA EURO 2020 technical report flagged up a move to a new defensive structure, and a changing role for forwards.

The Dutch back three at EURO 2020: Daley Blind, Stefan de Vrij and Matthijs de Ligt
The Dutch back three at EURO 2020: Daley Blind, Stefan de Vrij and Matthijs de Ligt Getty Images

The shift toward three-man defences, and the corresponding change in the role of the centre-forward, was a key talking point in the UEFA EURO 2020 technical report.

In this extract, UEFA's technical observers give their comments on these stylistic alterations and what they mean for the future of the game.

Numbers at the back

The Dutch and the French were among the 15 teams who, at some stage of the tournament, played with three at the back and provided a glaring contrast with EURO 2016 when this style of architecture was displayed by a minority which included, ironically, Italy. In that tournament, Antonio Conte fielded Andrea Barzagli to form a trio of centre-backs with Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. Wales along with, sporadically, Germany and Northern Ireland adopted similar structures.

At the end of the group stage in 2021, David Moyes remarked: "I think the teams who’ve played 3-4-3 have looked better. We need to be careful about categorising too precisely when systems are versatile and are changing between in possession and out-of-possession play. But I think the teams with wing-backs against 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 are causing problems because of the extra width. I think teams will need to vary their approach."

Germany’s wing-backs positioned high and wide against Portugal
Germany’s wing-backs positioned high and wide against Portugal

Moyes rightly predicted that England might need to switch for their next game against Germany and was not far off the mark when he speculated that EURO 2020 might be the first tournament to be won by a team with three at the back.

Another feature brought in by the tactical winds of change was that, whereas five teams had done so in 2016, Sweden were alone in deploying a classic 4-4-2 – and to great effect. "They operated their out-of-possession play to perfection," Ginés Meléndez commented after watching them hold Spain to a goalless draw. "And the way they defended with a back four should be used as an example on coach education courses."

The perennial question attached to the three-at-the-back label is whether, in practice, the defensive line consists of three or five. "Hungary gave us a clear example of a deep five in their game against Germany," Dušan Fitzel recalled. "Hungary focused on not conceding and looking for the chance to break. Germany dominated. But Hungary were comfortable with that."

Corinne Diacre considered three centre-backs as a more defensive ploy to date, for the security the extra centre-half brings.

Teams moved 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 3-1-6 when chasing a result. Four of the group stage’s top five pressing teams played with three centre-backs. This set-up allows for a good balance in the central area, with two midfielders covering the space in front of the defenders for defensive transitions.

Esteban Cambiasso noted: "Maybe the mentality of the coaches is to be confident with the three centre-backs and to press high. This is different from waiting in a low block. The most important thing is to understand how we must place players on the pitch, the mentality and the approach. It is not the quantity of defenders or the quantity of midfielders. So these teams show us that with five at the back, they are the teams that play with high press."

Steffen Freund quoted Germany's game against France as an example of how back fours can be given headaches by five-man attacking in the other system. "Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández were made to work very hard by the wing-backs Joshua Kimmich and Robin Gosens and, after taking an early lead, France stayed very deep. But their best moments came when they were able to create 3v2 situations in central midfield. That’s the danger area when you’re playing with wing-backs. Toni Kroos sometimes lacked a bit of cover and that made it difficult to defend. But then the wing-backs were decisive in the next game against Portugal’s back four."

Frans Hoek was interested in the direct duels between teams with three or four at the back. "Netherlands played three, whereas Ukraine’s back four really struggled to deal with the wing-back on the opposite side. And I saw exactly the same in Germany vs Portugal."

The final, however, produced conflicting evidence. Initially, England’s wing-backs – and the overloads they helped to create in the wide areas – gave Italy a rough ride. But then, with Jorginho conducting the orchestra, the Azzurri fought back by taking control of that central midfield area, obliging Gareth Southgate to switch to a back four midway through the second half. The jury is out…

The centre-forward: true or false?

Do three centre-backs mean extra headaches for central attackers? The question cues up more conflicting evidence about the impact of Robert Lewandowski, Harry Kane, Ciro Immobile, Romelu Lukaku, Karim Benzema, Christian Poulsen, Kieffer Moore, Haris Seferović, Roman Yaremchuk, Álvaro Morata, Wout Weghorst, Artem Dzyuba et al.

Hoek said: "The fact that we have spoken so much about this indicates that, over the whole tournament, a very limited number of centre-forwards have really made an impact."

"The trend among modern centre-forwards," Moyes observed, "is that they are often converted wide players with more speed and flexibility. I didn’t see many teams playing direct to a target striker, while more attackers are playing in roles that, in days gone by, we called inside-forwards."

"Lewandowski is a classic striker,” 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 Harry Kane. They won the ball every time. So what we saw was the type of central attacker who moved wide or went deep."

The observers reflected at length on the difficulties of finding routes through central areas where three centre-backs were protected by one or two screening midfielders. "Germany played with three attackers rather than a No9," said Freund. "The No9 isn’t dead – he just has to be more flexible, rotate and still appear in the right places to score goals."

Cristiano Ronaldo actions map during the tournament
Cristiano Ronaldo actions map during the tournament

Germany’s attacking options epitomised the trend away from the classic centre-forward. "For me," Diacre reflected, "it was interesting to compare how France used Karim Benzema with how Portugal used Cristiano Ronaldo. Fernando Santos brought Ronaldo in from the wing to use him as a false 9 – and his movements created a lot of space for team-mates to exploit." Moyes agreed: "OK, he was a No9 in terms of goalscoring, but certainly not a No9 in his positional play."

"As a coach," added Fitzel, "you try to find a different solution if you feel you don’t have enough good strikers. Or you use the false 9 as a tactical solution, as we have seen teams like Manchester City and Barcelona doing."

"We’ve seen the false 9 since Johan Cruyff introduced it about 20 years ago," added Hoek. "You need to distract and trouble the centre-backs – especially if there are three of them. Make them decide to come out of their zone or stay."

This point was graphically illustrated by the Denmark vs Belgium game, as Peter Rudbæk explained. "Denmark were 1-0 up and central defender Simon Kjær managed to handle Lukaku well in the first half. At half-time, Roberto Martínez sent Lukaku out to the right and played Kevin De Bruyne through the middle, making runs from everywhere as what I call a ‘free electron’. Kjær didn’t like that. And the left-back didn’t like having Lukaku out there. He delivered assists for both goals and changed the match."

Dani Olmo offers to receive against Italy
Dani Olmo offers to receive against Italy

Mancini and his players admitted that they were made to suffer mightily in the semi-final against Spain. "I think Italy were surprised, as they expected a striker high up the pitch," Aitor Karanka reported. "But Luis Enrique fielded Dani Olmo as a false 9. He appeared everywhere and it was very difficult for Italy’s players to pick him up. On average, Olmo offered to receive the ball behind the midfield line 37 times a game, the second most of any player in the competition, behind Eden Hazard [39]. At the same time, Pedri found a lot of space when Spain were in possession and, as soon as the ball was lost, he picked up Jorginho while Koke shut down Verratti. Italy looked completely lost.”

Statistics confirm that Verratti and Jorginho, who jointly delivered 167 passes in the quarter-final against Belgium and 224 in the final at Wembley, totalled only 65 in the two hours against Spain. "For the coach, it is an interesting topic," Karanka mused. "Maybe most would play a central striker if they had a good one. Olmo as false 9 posed Italy a lot of problems and Spain controlled the game. But they didn’t score until Morata came on as striker. That’s the puzzle you have to solve: if you play a false 9, do you have enough power up front?"

Read the full UEFA EURO 2020 technical report