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U21 EURO final analysis: How England overcame Spain

UEFA's Technical Observer team have picked out some of the key talking points from England's victory against Spain.

England beat Spain in the U21 EURO final
England beat Spain in the U21 EURO final UEFA via Getty Images

Finals can be cagey affairs and the U21 EURO decider between England and Spain was no different.

It was nonetheless an intriguing match in which two set-pieces decided the destiny of the trophy: the free-kick, struck by Cole Palmer but deflected in by Curtis Jones, which brought England's goal, and the last-gasp Abel Ruiz spot-kick saved by James Trafford.

In this reflection on Saturday's showpiece in Batumi, the UEFA Technical Observer Panel pick out five key tactical points from a contest which ended with Lee Carsley's team celebrating England's first triumph at this level since 1984.

England quick out of the blocks

U21 EURO final tactical analysis: England's quick start

The first video offers examples of the early threat England presented, notably through the speed and movement of Anthony Gordon. In the first clip featured, from the sixth minute of the final, we see him get behind the Spain defence and square the ball for Morgan Gibbs-White who just fails to connect.

Gordon ended the night with the Player of the Tournament award and the menace he brought with the ball at his quick feet is underlined by the fact he was the England player with the most ball carries where he advanced the ball 10m or more towards the opposition goal – five in total.

Spain's high press

U21 EURO final tactical analysis: Spain's high press

A high press was fundamental to the approach of Santi Denia's side and the clip above shows an example of the way they sought to thwart England's attempts to play from deep. At one stage there are six Spain players circled as England look to work the ball out of their box.

David Taylor, an analyst who supported UEFA’s observers throughout the tournament, reflected: "England wanted to play from deep and have a lot of players in that section of the field. Spain were going to use their high press to counteract that and win ball back high."

As the sequence above unfolds, we see Antonio Blanco rob the ball from Emile Smith Rowe and Spain end up producing an attempt on goal through Rodri. It was one of five high turnovers from Spain over the course of the final – and one of two which led to a shot.

"Spain's ability to win the ball back as a team was impressive to see, especially for that age group," added Taylor. "They always had a player pressing an England player so [England] never had that time and space to really create like in some other games. That is why we saw England go slightly more direct from goal-kicks compared to previous games."

If Trafford still went short at times, with Jones and Angel Gomes dropping deep to provide passing options, on other occasions the England goalkeeper played over the high press with balls to the forwards or wide players. Hence where Spain's average build-up progression was 13.5m, for England it was 45.0m.

England control wide areas

U21 EURO final tactical analysis: England control wide areas

One of the principal factors behind England's success in keeping their sixth consecutive clean sheet of the finals was their ability to restrict Spain's attacking threat out wide where Sergio Gómez, Juan Miranda and Rodri had all shone in previous rounds.

To achieve this, Carsley's side dropped deeper than in previous games, giving Spain less space to exploit in behind. The height of England’s defensive line was 35.3m – just lower than the tournament average of 36.7m and considerably lower than Spain’s average of 42.8m.

Taylor said: "England had pressed higher against the likes of Israel, looking to win the ball back higher up the pitch. However, they were happy to allow Spain to have 61% of possession and they sat in a very compact low to mid-block, picking and choosing when to press and get the ball back. This meant there was little space for the Spain wingers and when they did receive it to try to get one vs ones, they always had England players quickly on to them and applying pressure."

The video clip above provides an example of this, with Spain shuffling the ball from one side to another but England responding each time, ensuring every opponent is picked up by a white shirt – and eventually Spain end up giving the ball away.

England's turnovers

U21 EURO final tactical analysis: England's turnovers

A threat on turnovers was another feature of England's play and it provides the focus for this fourth video above. In the first sequence, Gomes wins the ball back and Smith Rowe breaks into space before feeding Gordon who comes in from the left and tests Arnau Tenas, Spain's excellent goalkeeper, with an angled shot.

In the second sequence, Smith Rowe wins the ball and supplies Palmer down the right for a run into the space vacated by Miranda, the attack-minded Spain left-back

As Taylor explains, England sat in a mid-block and were effective at springing forward once they had won the ball in central areas as they had players with speed on the counter – Gordon, Gibbs-White, Palmer and, later in the game, substitute Noni Madueke.

"With the two Spain full-backs pushed high, that did leave space and that's what England tried to do – to drag Spain on to them. and when they were able to do it, they were able to get in behind Spain’s back line and create a number of opportunities," said Taylor.

This was particularly true of the closing stages as Spain, with their full-backs overlapping more frequently, pushed forward in pursuit of an equaliser. The fact England's eight shots all ended on target indicates that when they did break forward, they got into good positions – and this compares favourably to Spain’s ratio of nine shots on target from 21 attempts.

Spain finally connect from wide areas

U21 EURO final tactical analysis: Spain in wide areas

As mentioned above, Spain struggled to find a red shirt with their crosses. Indeed prior to added time at the end of the game only two Sergio Gomez corners, one in each half, actually connected with a team-mate’s head. (This is to discount the Abel Ruiz header that flew past Trafford from a Gómez’s free-kick but was annulled for offside.)

Of their 25 crosses, they had a success ratio of 12% – considerably less than England’s 43% from seven crosses. Carsley's team benefitted from having two centre-backs who won every single aerial duel – five for Levi Colwill and two for Taylor Harwood-Bellis.

Indeed, to underline the point, the only cross from open play that a Spain forward did connect with was the one that brought their penalty. Featured in the video above, it came in the fifth minute of added time as Abel Ruiz made contact with substitute Aimar Oroz's centre from the right and was fouled by Colwill. That he failed to take the ensuing opportunity summed up a night of frustration for Spain.

Coaches' assessments

Lee Carsley, England coach

"I thought the Spain team were very good. It was very similar in some stages to the Portugal [quarter-final] game where we were under a lot of pressure. I thought we could have maybe scored a couple more goals, especially in the first half. We started the game very fast.

"This group of players have showed they can win and they can win in a different way at times. They’ve showed they can build up, they’ve showed they can play through, they’ve also showed they can defend and press from the front."

Santi Denia, Spain coach

"At half-time the message was clear – that if we were going to get the draw it would be through our play. We tried it until the last minute and we’re strong at this – we kept going with a belief in our style of play."

The UEFA analysis unit will produce a detailed technical report of the competition, to be published online later in the summer.