"The formation is not that relevant. We have a tradition in 4-3-3 with good wingers, but Dutch football has become well known and some people would say that it makes us easy to play against. So the principle is to play good football and to be less predictable."
The comment was made by Kees van Wonderen, one of five coaches who had been in technical areas at the previous final tournament in Azerbaijan, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina's Sakib Malkocević, England's Steve Cooper, Scotland's Scot Gemmill and Spain's Santi Denia. The Dutch succeeded in being less predictable, with significant positional changes of personnel from game to game and, in the quarter-final against Germany, a switch to a 1-4-4-2 formation.
The Dutch illustrated the tactical parameters of a tournament in which only Bosnia and Herzegovina adhered to a 1-4-2-3-1 structure throughout their three group matches, while Italy remained faithful to a classical 1-4-4-2, albeit with considerable changes of personnel.
All of the other 14 teams made structural adjustments at some stage, with Serbia alone in operating mostly with three at the back. "The system itself is not that important," France coach Lionel Rouxel concurred. "I'm more concerned with the players' knowledge of the game, their tactical awareness – their ability to adapt to the mechanisms of systems that might be different to the ones they are used to at their clubs."
In terms of identifying default settings, seven teams could be said to operate 1-4-2-3-1; five in 1-4-3-3 formation; three in 1-4-4-2; and, as mentioned before, Serbia in 1-3-5-2, although they also set themselves up in 1-4-1-4-1 formation for the game against the Republic of Ireland. In other words, it was a tournament which refused to be reduced to a simple numbers game and in which the players, despite their youth, were well-versed in more than one playing system.
As Van Wonderen and Rouxel maintained, there was greater emphasis on principles than on systems. Hungary coach Zoltán Szélesi said: "We focused on how we wanted to play – keeping the ball on the floor, playing combinations in the wide areas."
The low ball game
The concept of keeping the ball on the floor highlighted one of the salient features of the tournament: only nine of the record number of goals were headers, five of them from set plays and three of those – Turkey's third against Croatia; Scotland's equaliser against France; Spain's added-time equaliser in the final – stemmed from corners. Another was a close-range nod-in from a rebound that gave Germany a fifth goal against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The lack of headed goals in open play prompted reflections. "On the one hand," said UEFA technical observer Dany Ryser, "you could have no doubts about aerial skills in defensive play. But you can also ask whether heading ability in attack is an area that is worked on enough in training."
"In the matches I saw," Dusan Fitzel added, "you could detect a trend towards the cut-back rather than the traditional high cross from the wide areas."
This interlocked with several other observations on the use of the wide areas during a tournament where wing play was the source of a high percentage of the goals but where successful deliveries were generally nearer feet than heads and many were low cut-backs from areas near the byline.
One of the contributing factors was the marked trend towards the use of changed-foot wingers, with England providing a striking example of the tendency via the right-footed Jadon Sancho on the left and the left-footed Phil Foden on the right. Serbia and the Netherlands regularly fielded 'wrong-footed' wingers, while Hungary and Ukraine were among those who switched wingers during games to mix the change-footed and orthodox approaches. Turkey did likewise, with the variation that both wingers were left-footed.
The ins and outs
The Turkish formula showcased the implications of the change-footed winger on the team's modus operandi. The left-footer operating on the right was the one most likely to cut inside from a wide starting position. The prevalence of the wingers prepared to run into the interior channels opened up spaces for full-backs to exploit – and the tournament was rich in examples of full-backs prepared to make deep high-speed runs right through to the byline and deliver crosses or cut-backs.
Game situations evidently provided conditioning factors but it would be legitimate to say that ten teams consistently relied on powerful runs and combination moves by their full-backs as an important weapon in the team's attacking armoury.
Without filling screens with an exhaustive list, some of the relationships were noteworthy. France right-back Vincent Collet offered prime examples of aggressive running along the touchline, allowing right-winger Yacine Adli to transfer his dribbling skills to the inside channels – sometimes on the other flank – or to probe the opposition from a central playmaking position. Much the same could be said of England right-back Timothy Eyoma, whose upfield runs allowed Phil Foden to drift inside and operate across a broad section of the attacking front.
At the same time, semi-final opponents Germany and Spain provided benchmark examples of fluid relationships which went beyond the traditional overlapping by full-backs.
Striking examples are offered by clips of the goals which allowed Denia's team to come back from 1-0 down against France in the quarter-finals. Firstly, right-back Mateu Morey produced a high-speed 'underlapping' run to gain space for a left-footed shot. Minutes later, his FC Barcelona team-mate Juan Miranda embarked on an almost identical underlapping run on the left to earn the penalty that put his side 2-1 ahead.
Morey then burst through the inside channel again to equalise with another left-footed finish during the final against England.
Attacking defenders and defending attackers
The tournament not only showcased the attacking qualities of defenders but also the defensive qualities required of today's attackers. Spain captain Abel Ruíz and Turkey's three front men (striker Malik Karaahmet and the two wingers) were unstinting in efforts to disturb the opponents' build-up while team-mates completed their transitions to the defensive block.
The offensive vocation of full-backs offered counterattacking opportunities through the wide areas – and the top teams were adept at pre-empting penetration along the wings. In the construction phase, the norm was for a controlling midfielder to drop into the area between the spread centre-backs while the full-backs advanced. Centre-backs rarely made upfield runs – the notable exceptions being Germany's Jan Boller and Spain's Víctor Chust, always ready to surge forward into midfield.
Many of the coaches in Croatia commented that a high percentage of their work was dedicated to improving defensive skills in response to the parameters of national championships that are often dominated by a handful of clubs and, in consequence, offer a limited number of truly competitive matches.
Spain coach Denia remarked "if a team regularly runs up scores of something like 8-0, there's a temptation to neglect defensive aspects of the game".
Ukraine coach Sergii Popov said "my players suffered from lack of experience against opponents of such high quality, such as England and Netherlands".
"One of the concepts that I work on," added Rouxel, "is the need to be clinical in front of both goals and to convince ."
The Dutch address this issue by placing value on interaction with club coaches. "We realised that some struggled to appreciate what is needed at international level," said Kees van Wonderen, "so we invite them to spend a week or so with us at an international tournament and sample it for themselves."
Them or us?
"It was an adult tournament in terms of tactics, ball circulation and creating spaces," Fitzel commented. "And resources." He was referring to levels of support staff including psychologists, sport scientists and, above all, analysts. The coaches, however, stressed the importance of filtering the amount of information about opponents and focusing exclusively on the key elements or 'hot spots' as England coach Cooper put it. He summed up the general attitude by commenting that "we looked at our opponents but only to see how best we could play our own football".
The ultimate goal
Although the coaches worked on defensive mechanisms, the tournament was not marked by defensive attitudes. The record number of goals was at odds with the cautious approaches adopted at previous tournaments when FIFA World Cup places were at stake – as the statistics from 2013 and 2015 demonstrate.
"There was a more attacking philosophy," Ryser commented, "because national associations realise that this is an important stage in longer-term educational plans."
"For the coach, it's easier to focus on defending on the training ground," Fitzel added, "but this tournament suggested that there is now a greater emphasis on creativity."
The technical team cited similar reasons for the noteworthy increase in the number of comebacks from 1-0 down. Croatia yielded five (16%) compared with two (6.45%) in Azerbaijan. In Bulgaria in 2015, no team had recovered from 1-0 down to win. In 2017, 73% of the games were won by the side scoring first, compared with 79% in 2016.
"I would say that, in general, one team scoring a goal didn't necessarily change game plans," commented Ryser. "There was still a willingness to take risks rather than an effort to 'kill off the game' – something which is positive at this stage of player development."
The trend towards ambitious winning attitudes was supported by statistics. Only five matches ended in draws (three of them involving Spain) and the only goalless game was the penultimate of the 32 – the semi-final between Spain and Germany. Spain's outstanding mental resilience was illustrated by four comebacks in six games: twice to draw and twice to win, including a rebound from 2-0 to beat Turkey 3-2.
*Additional matches excluded
Goals and goalkeepers
To an outsider, the record number of goals might hint at dubious levels of goalkeeping. "Far from it," opined Fitzel. "What we saw in Croatia was confirmation that the job description has changed, with a much greater emphasis on the keeper's work with his feet."
"In the past," added Ryser, "the Dutch excelled. But goalkeeper education has changed. In Croatia we saw teams who didn't hesitate to use the keeper to pass the ball. And keepers are increasingly integrated into training sessions rather than sent to one end to practise on their own."
"The general level of shot saving was competent," Fitzel remarked. "At first, the lack of physical stature was a bit of a surprise and you could ask if the goalkeepers were good at commanding the goal area. But I think that this is a topic that you can link with the downturn in the number of teams who relied on high crosses."
For the record
The record number of goals averaged out at 3.16 per game – the highest since the 15-match final round in 2005. But Croatia was a tournament of two halves with two 7-0 scorelines boosting the group-stage tally to 82 goals at 3.42 per match. Only 16 were scored during seven highly competitive knockout fixtures.
The 23 goals scored from dead-ball situations (nine of them penalties) signified 23% of the total, compared with 19.7% the previous year. Tournament stats of six successful corners (five in the group stage; one in the final) from a total of 252 at a ratio of 1:42 (1:49 in 2016 and it would have been identical in Croatia but for Spain's added-time equaliser in the final) might raise questions about the value of time spent on the training ground. However, the numbers don't tell the whole truth.
To put the record straight, other goals classified differently also had their origins in corners: the own goal that put Norway 1-0 up against England; the cross that allowed Netherlands to take a 1-0 lead v Norway was a follow-up to a corner; the own goal by Hungary that spelled defeat against Turkey in the quarter-finals resulted from a corner; in their opening match, Turkey scored against Spain via a counterattack following a Spanish corner; and England's second goal in the final was a long-range finish after a corner had been partially cleared.
Of the goals attributable to corners, seven provided the crucial opening goal of the game; two shaped the course of the final; one allowed Scotland to equalise versus France; and the other put Turkey 3-1 ahead against the hosts. Technical observer Patricia González commented "it's curious that all but one of the goals from corners were scored at the near post".
Hungary provided a prime example of thorough preparation of corners, offering spectators five variations on the theme during a single match. "Set plays are very important in modern football," said coach Szélesi. "Our team was not so tall, so we rehearsed for 20-30 minutes at the end of every training session, telling them exactly what to do, correcting body positions and so on."
Turkey coach Mehmet Hacioğlu commented "on the day before a match, sometimes we worked exclusively on set pieces". Serbia's only two goals both resulted from dead-ball situations.
Defending against set plays took diverse forms, with a majority of coaches – all but four, to be precise – opting for a cocktail of zonal and man-to-man marking. Croatia, Turkey, Ukraine and Netherlands preferred a zonal approach, with Van Wonderen commenting "as long as you make sure your best headers of the ball are in the right place, I believe this is the best way".
On some occasions, teams such as England and Scotland used mixed marking at corners but zonal against free-kicks – depending, evidently, on the position of the dead ball.
How the goals were scored
As in the previous year, 36% of the open-play goals had their origin in deliveries from the wide areas. However, the startling contrast between 2016 and 2017 was the huge increase in goals derived from combination play: from three to 15, with England's slick combinations in the final third accounting for five of their goals – more than the overall total from the 2016 tournament.
England's opener in their semi-final against Turkey showcased the ability by Cooper's team to capitalise on high ball-winning to deliver cobra-like strikes while the opposition was easing into attacking mode. The technical observers debated the exact definition of a counterattack and set about separating England-style transitions after high ball-winning from fast breaks launched from the back. A total of 15 goals stemmed from possession gained in opposing territory and 17 when the counter was launched from their own half – four of them stemming from a set play in favour of the opposition.
Overall, 40 of the open-play goals were one-touch finishes; 16 two-touch; 11 after three or more touches; and the remainder were headers.
Strikers accounted for 36 goals; wide players 26; central support attackers (from what the technical observers described as the No10 position) 11; central midfielders 14; full-backs 4; and centre-backs 3, all from set plays – two corners and a free-kick, to be precise. The remainder were own goals.
Nacho Díaz's dramatic equaliser in the final brought the number of goals by substitutes to (only) eight. Finishes inside the penalty area accounted for 87% of the open-play goals.
|SET PLAYS||Corners||Direct from/following a corner||6|
|Free-kicks (direct)||Direct from a free-kick||5|
|Free-kicks (indirect)||Following a free-kick||3|
|Penalties||Spot kick (or follow-up from a penalty)||9|
|Throw-ins||Following a throw-in||0|
|OPEN PLAY||Combinations||Wall pass/combination move||15|
|Crosses||Cross from the wing||16|
|Cut-backs||Pass back from the byline||11|
|Diagonals||Diagonal pass into the penalty box||3|
|Running with the ball||Dribble and close-range shot/dribble and pass||7|
|Long-range shots||Direct shot/shot and rebound||7|
|Forward passes||Through pass or pass over the defence||10|
|Defensive errors||Bad back pass/mistake by the goalkeeper||3|
|Own goals||Goal by the opponent||4|
Unusually, the goals were evenly split between the two halves, although 21% of them were scored after the 70th minute – partly because of the extended periods of added time.
Hitting the target
The 2017 tournament positioned itself in a sandwich between the previous two in terms of goal attempts: 650 in Croatia compared with 635 in Azerbaijan and 745 in Bulgaria.
A record number of goals from a moderate number of attempts spoke highly of finishing efficiency. Germany excelled, scoring one goal per 3.65; Spain needed 4.9; England 5.4. The tournament average, including the World Cup play-off game, was one goal per 6.57 – a far cry from the one in 12.63 in 2015. France, however, top the stats – their total inflated by 25 attempts against the Faroe Islands. The table sorts the participants on the basis of goal attempts per game:
|Team||On target||Off target||Blocked||Woodwork||Total||Average||Goals|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||11||9||7||0||27||9.00||2|
|Republic of Ireland||6||17||7||1||30||7.50||2|
Note: attempts striking the woodwork are included in the on-target total if deflected by goalkeeper or defender and in the off-target total if the attempt strikes the woodwork directly.