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Rear gunners: how defenders got creative at EURO 2020

Goals came from plenty of unexpected sources at UEFA EURO 2020; what does it mean?

England's Luke Shaw opens the scoring against Italy in the final
England's Luke Shaw opens the scoring against Italy in the final Visionhaus/Getty Images

The fact that plenty of goals at UEFA EURO 2020 were created by nominal defenders was an interesting trend picked up in the UEFA EURO 2020 technical report.

In this extract, UEFA's technical observers discuss how creative play is evolving.

Wing-back or wing-front?

At EURO 2020 full-backs or wing-backs scored 16 goals. OK, you could discount Ezgjan Alioski’s goal for North Macedonia against Ukraine as it was a rebound from a penalty. On the other hand, although Spain’s quarter-final goal against Switzerland went into the record books as an own goal, it was a deflected shot by left-back Jordi Alba to culminate an interior run. So 16 is a decent ball-park figure to work on. At EURO 2016, the grand total was one, by Wales left-back Neil Taylor against Russia, to be precise.

In addition to the striking stat, discussion focused on the graphic showing where the wide defenders had scored from. It blurred the traditional image of the overlapping full-back who runs towards the corner flag and sends in a high cross.

At EURO 2020, the wing-backs’ job descriptions included internal runs into scoring positions and a willingness to get ahead of the ball epitomised by the sight, for example, of Croatia winger Ivan Perišić playing a forward pass to left-back Joško Gvardiol. Interestingly, 12 of those 16 goals were scored against opponents who were, at the time, defending with a back four.

Denzel Dumfries’ infield runs from the right wing-back position were a feature of the tournament
Denzel Dumfries’ infield runs from the right wing-back position were a feature of the tournament

Frans Hoek’s comment about Ukraine’s defence struggling to cope with the wing-back on the opposite flank was borne out by a goal for Dutch right wing-back Denzel Dumfries, who was also on the scoresheet against Austria. Likewise, Luke Shaw’s early opener in the final, when Giovanni Di Lorenzo tucked in beside Italy’s centre-backs and England’s left wing-back sneaked into a critical area deep inside the box. Shaw’s goal was one of seven which opened the scoring and changed the complexion of a match.

"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 ways of getting opponents away from their comfort zones."

During the tournament, this type of defender was not exclusive to three-at-the-back systems – as vividly illustrated by Italy left-back Leonardo Spinazzola. Packie Bonner, after watching Spinazzola in action against Austria, noted: "He always threatened to get to the byline 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. And Verratti did a good job of covering any counters on that side."

While sightings of change-footed wingers have become commonplace in major competitions – think Sterling, Yarmolenko, Insigne, Oyarzabal, Bale, Perišić – Spinazzola was among the examples at EURO 2020 of a proliferating species: the inverted full-back. The Italian was joined by right-footed left-backs such as Jan Bořil (Czech Republic), Tomáš Hubočan (Slovakia), Kieran Trippier (England) and Joakim Mæhle, who weighed in with two goals – one with his left, one with his right – at a finals where he appeared on both flanks of the Denmark defence. "He’s good with both feet," Peter Rudbæk said, "and there was an example against the Czechs of how he can deliver a good cross from the left with the outside of his right foot."

Methods of delivery

Contributions by full-backs and wingers provided a cue for debate on the changing face of crossing. "The increasing use of inverted wingers and full-backs might be an invitation to cut inside and deliver inswinging crosses, rather than penetrate on the outside," David Moyes reflected.

Assist locations of crosses and cut-backs
Assist locations of crosses and cut-backs

The trend towards three centre-backs protected by one or two central midfielders gave extra relevance to wing play – and its end product. As Paatelainen said, "We saw wingers and full-backs who, when they got near the box, had their heads high and tried to deliver a pass. It’s much more about passes inside the box, low crosses or cut-backs. So we were looking at the type of winger or full-back who tried to deliver an accurate pass rather than the hopeful high cross."

The topic of crossing interlocks with other aspects, such as the inward runs by inverted wide players into areas where their delivery can, in statistical terms, be on the borderline between the cross and final pass categories. It also interlocks with playing styles. Given the effectiveness of Robert Lewandowski, it was no surprise that Poland – excluding set plays – averaged 25 crosses per game, compared with eight by Belgium, Sweden and champions Italy or even five by Hungary, reflecting their preference for direct counterattacking through the inside channels. Spain, whose figures were inflated by three periods of extra time and extensive far-post crossing against Croatia, averaged 18.

The topic also chimes with the total of 11 own goals (only nine had been recorded in 15 previous tournaments). This record-breaking figure can be partly explained by a change of criteria; and partly by goalkeeping errors or misfortune. However, the commonest denominator was a low cross driven across the face of goal from a departure point within the confines of the penalty area. "It’s incredibly difficult to defend," Hoek admitted. "There is so much pressure in front of goal and, if a defender gets to the ball, it’s a corner or an own goal."

The press kit

The perennial question attached to three-centre-back formations is whether they are offensive or defensive. "This is an issue related to the increased number of goals," Ginés Meléndez believed. "At the two previous EUROs, the default structure was a 1-4-2-3-1. At this one, there was a clear trend towards three attackers – either in 4-3-3 or in 3-4-3. Of the semi-finalists, Spain and Italy played 4-3-3; Denmark 3-4-3; and England alternated between the two. The main point here is that having three attackers makes it easier to press high, create more passes from the wings and score more goals."

Italy pressure map against Switzerland
Italy pressure map against Switzerland

After watching Italy in the group stage, Esteban Cambiasso reported: "OK, they have quality; they play good football; they attack; and they score goals. But if I have to choose one key factor, it’s the pressure on opponents in the attacking third. 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 offensive transitions." Five of Italy’s regains in the attacking third led to goals.

The final four teams, triggered by their front threes, were equipped for collective high pressing. Spain pursued ball-carriers relentlessly, converting 27 of their regains in the attacking third into goal attempts. England were more intermittent but defended with a high line and pressed efficiently when operating with wing-backs against Germany and for the first half-hour against Italy. Denmark’s front three were supported by the two nearest midfielders when they opted to press high – notably during their first half against Belgium. Among the other teams, the Netherlands – also counting on cooperation from advanced wing-backs – were efficient in regaining possession in opposition territory.

As a knock-on effect of high pressing, some teams developed a risk-management edginess about playing out from the back. England keeper Jordan Pickford, for instance, attempted 22 long passes in the semi-final against Denmark and 24 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."

Similarly, the Czechs short-circuited Dutch construction work by forcing Maarten Stekelenburg to play 31 long passes (out of 37) of which six reached team-mates. As Hoek observed, "The Czechs were taking up in-between positions, ready to spring into the high press."

"They took the Dutch out of their comfort zone," Dušan Fitzel noted. "Unable to build up, they were forced to play long and the Czechs were winning a lot of second balls. The Netherlands started 1-3-4-1-2 in that game and you could see it was easier for the Czechs to build from the back with only two strikers to disturb them."

By contrast, Spain keeper Unai Simón had remained unfazed by Italy’s high press, making only 11 long passes in his total of 49 during a semi-final that could be used in coach education to illustrate the levels of technique required to play out of aggressive high pressing. "I remember the first time, as a coach, I encountered opponents with three pressing up front. I thought it would be easy to play through and get superiority in midfield," Aitor Karanka admitted. "But I soon realised that a well-organised front line of three could make it more or less impossible."

At EURO 2020, high pressing was not, of course, universal. Teams like France and Germany generally preferred to defend with a mid-block, giving themselves space for counterattacks. Hungary, drawn into a group with three former champions, were at the other end of the rainbow, relying on very deep, resolute defending and energetic counterattacking. Teams’ overall defensive behaviour in terms of their ball-winning ambitions can be gauged by the PPDA (Passes allowed per defensive action in the opposition third and middle third of the pitch) table showing how many passes they permitted opponents before regaining possession.

The playmaker

"The No10 shirt is more about the history attached to it than its significance in the modern game." This comment by Rudbæk sparked discussion on whether the time has come to stop identifying the 'playmaker' with the No10 shirt – or position. "In the old days," he added, "No10 defined the type of player and his position. Now it’s more about the ability to dictate tempo and make a pass towards the final third for another team-mate to supply the final pass."

2020/21 Player of the Year - Jorginho

"The playmaker is no longer the No10," Fabio Capello concurred. "It’s the organiser in front of the back line."

"I totally agree," said Willi Ruttensteiner. "If we look at Jorginho, what he did was to balance and lead the midfield. He could find space where the team needed him and he was a leading figure. For example, when Italy were trying to find a way out of a high press, he would often make himself available and then quickly switch play to the other wing."

As Capello pointed out, "Jorginho and Busquets, for example, didn’t play many important attacking passes. It’s completely different. Their role is all about balance and, mostly, short passes."

Bonner, after watching Croatia in Glasgow, observed how Luka Modrić often dropped deep into the right-back area to find space to exercise his passing skills. Meléndez reflected: "I saw two good examples when Spain played Switzerland, Sergio Busquets and Granit Xhaka. Different personalities, but they balance their teams. Spain can play a basically horizontal game but Busquets gives the team a different sense of how to play the game. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg was fundamental for Denmark in this role. Otherwise, in middle-to-front play we are talking about hardworking linking players rather than playmakers. In forward play, Pedri caught the eye – clearly the best young player in the tournament with a lot in common with Andrés Iniesta."

Aymeric Laporte steps in and breaks the opposition lines with a forward pass
Aymeric Laporte steps in and breaks the opposition lines with a forward pass

Germany’s Toni Kroos, like Modrić, was prepared to drop close to his centre-backs to exercise his playmaking skills in terms of delivering telling passes. Over the tournament, short passes accounted for only 16% of his repertoire and, from the deeper position, he completed more line-breaking passes than any other player in the tournament with an average of 46.7 per 90 minutes.

The creative centre-back

Harry Maguire breaks the opposition lines to create a chance for team-mate Harry Kane
Harry Maguire breaks the opposition lines to create a chance for team-mate Harry Kane

Significantly, second place behind Kroos in that particular ranking went to Daley Blind. In the match against Czech Republic, the Netherlands centre-back was cited by Fitzel as a "creative defender" – an opinion borne out by the fact that he successfully delivered 15 passes to main striker Memphis Depay and some telling diagonals into the path of right wing-back Dumfries.

Blind underlined the importance, in the centre-back’s job description, of the ability to read the game, step into midfield when appropriate and launch attacks. Bonucci topped the rankings for centre-backs who attempted passes through two opposition lines with an average of 52 per 90 minutes, followed by Spain’s Aymeric Laporte (44) and Belgium’s Jan Vertonghen (30) – the former posting the highest number (41) of successful step-ins (deliberate attempts to progress with the ball into space past an opponent). Harry Maguire, when he returned to the England line-up, also made his presence felt with 27 line-breaking passes per 90 minutes.

Read the full UEFA EURO 2020 technical report