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Shane Keegan's tactical preview: How the Euros will be won and lost

An in-depth look at the major tactical dilemmas teams will face at both ends of the field.

WITH THE 2020 European Championships kicking off later today, Shane Keegan takes a look at the major tactical dilemmas teams will face at both ends of the field.

The Defensive Third – Back three or back four?

Long gone are the tournaments of the nineties and early noughties where any side employing anything other than a traditional back four was seen as outlier.

Close on half of the teams at Euro 2020 are expected to roll out a back three for at least one of their group games, but most will do so without fully committing to it for the duration of the competition.

netherlands-v-england-nations-league-semi-final-estadio-d-alfonso-henriques England defensive pair Kyle Walker and John Stones. Source: Mike Egerton

This, in itself, represents a departure from the norm. Previously, tactical tinkering from game to game was expected in the final third, and maybe even in midfield, but at the back it was all about having a consistent settled unit. But this tournament will see sides bouncing between defensive systems depending on their opponents’ set-ups.

The best case in point is England. In Kyle Walker, they have a player who is equally comfortable thrusting forward from right-back or playing more conservatively on the right of a back three, leaving the marauding runs down that flank to La Liga victor Kieran Trappier or Champions League winner Reece James.

Harry Maguire and John Stones, the other centre back starters irrespective of formation, come into the tournament on the back of strong domestic campaigns.

They are both comfortable in possession and will prompt England’s attacks. Maguire was ranked in the top 5 defenders in the Premier League this season for ‘most successful passes completed’ and Stones did likewise for ‘percentages of passes successfully completed’.

But can they defend well enough on a consistent basis to win a tournament?

Two sides that offer an interesting contrast between defensive approaches are Italy and Belgium. The similarities in terms of experience are obvious. For Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bunucci, 207 caps between them, read Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, who have 233 caps.

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The two Robertos though, intend to use their defensive stalwarts in a vastly different manner. Italy’s Mancini will allow his back four to sit deep and remain compact, biding their time before taking the ball from opponents and then keeping it for sustained periods.

Martinez, on the other hand, playing with a back three featuring his elder statesmen on the sides, will play much higher up the pitch and look to press aggressively. The benefits for his team are obvious in terms of turning the ball over quickly, then using their wealth of attacking options to strike fast. How they intend to deal with defending the spaces down the sides and in behind though is a concern.

The Netherlands, another side who can move between a back three or four, head into the tournament without Virgil van Dijk, undoubtedly the best player in the world in the defensive third of the pitch in the 2019/210 season.

On the plus side, the fact that they have known that this would be the case for so long has given them plenty of time to devise a Plan B. Inter Milan’s Stefan de Vrij will come in as an able deputy and partner Matthijs de Ligt but without the athletic monster that is Van Dijk, they will be reluctant to give up too much space around them.

For some managers, the decision on a defensive formation is based more on the players at their disposal than a personal preference for a system. This is certainly the case with Steve Clarke’s Scotland who are unfortunate to find that their two truly outstanding players, Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson, are both left-backs.

scotland-v-faroe-islands-fifa-world-cup-2022-european-qualifying-group-f-hampden-park A general view of the Scotland team. Source: PA

By opting for the wing back system, the two players will be given the opportunity to flourish in tandem down that side of the field, with Liverpool’s Robertson playing the more advanced role.

Spain head into a major tournament for the first time in 17 years without the dominating presence of Real Madrid Sergio Ramos at the back. Ramos may not quite be the force of old but his exclusion from the squad was still a big call by boss Luis Enrique and the effect his absence has on a Spanish backline where he has been an almost ever present at major tournaments will be a big question mark.

Enrique’s decision was made a lot easier by Aymeric Laporte’s decision to switch his international allegiance from France to Spain just a few weeks ago. The Manchester City centre-back has had an injury hit season but a return to his 2020 form could see him step seamlessly into the breach.

The Attacking Third – Strength in depth likely to be key

Something that is easy to overlook coming into this tournament is the potential impact of teams being allowed to make five substitutions in 90 minutes, or six if the game goes to extra time. This will give opportunity for the better stocked attacking sides to wield their full artillery.

In that sense, Germany look to be in a good position. Thomas Muller has returned to the fold and scored while playing at centre-forward last week against Latvia.

In that game he was flanked by Serge Gnabry and Kai Havertz who were then replaced at half time by Leroy Sane and Timo Werner, both of whom went on to score in the second half.

This is exactly the trend I would expect to see at this year’s tournament, with three to four changes being made in the final third before the hour-mark has even been reached. The knock-on effect will be more winning goals scored by players who started the game on the bench.

England are likely to do similar. Harry Kane will unquestionably be the focal point of their attack and will remain on the field for as long as their important games still hang in the balance, but around him will be an ever-changing carousel of young attacking talent.
Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount may all start, only to find themselves watching from the bench in the second half as Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford combine to set up Kane for the match-winning goal.

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friendly-portugal-vs-israel Ronaldo and Fernandes will be massive for Portugal. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Like England, Portugal and Belgium also have nailed on proven goal scorers at centre forward who their sides attacking units will revolve around, but in quite different ways. Cristiano Ronaldo will be backed up centrally by Bruno Fernandes, one of the few out-and-out number tens in this year’s tournament. Further creativity and goal threat is added by Bernardo Silva and Diego Jota respectively, making this one of the most cohesive attacking quartets in the tournament.

Belgium though, are not quite as settled on how to get the most from their attacking riches. Eden Hazard has suffered with injuries and a loss of form but will surely still command a starting jersey if fully fit. This would see Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco both miss out on a start in their usual 3-4-2-1 system unless Martinez decides to use Kevin De Bruyne in a deeper role. Getting the most from the peerless Manchester City star though must surely remain the priority.

There are no such headaches at centre-forward for Martinez. Romelu Lukaku has returned a remarkable 22 goals in his last 20 international appearances and will be eyeing the golden boot.

The Netherlands, on the other hand, who in the recent past have boasted clinical finishers such as van Nistlerooy, van Persie and Kluivert, remarkably look likely to start a centre-forward who is yet to score at international level. Wolfsburg’s Wout Weghorst is 6ft 5 and full of running and will act as a bettering ram to create room for the sides real goal scoring threat Memphis Depay, who will operate from an inside channel position in a 4-3-3.

This approach will be mirrored by Wales, with Cardiff’s Keifer Moore working as a similar foil for the talents of Garth Bale and Daniel James.

international-friendly-match-france-and-wales-nice Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe are three who should light the tournament up. Source: Niviere David/ABACAPRESS.COM

Last, but certainly not least, are current world champions France. In Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe they boast three of the top eight players in the betting market for the Golden Boot award.

The only question mark for Didier Deschamps, and it’s an exceedingly small one at that, is what configuration gets the most out of them. Against Belgium last week, he went with the most obvious option using the latter two either side of Benzema in a 4-3-3.

Intriguingly though, a week previous he rolled out a 4-4-2 diamond against Wales, allowing Griezmann to roam around centrally with Benzema and Mbappe operating as an out-and-out front two. Both games yielded 3-0 victories, thus making them equally appealing options.

It’s hard not to get the sense that if any team can hold those three scoreless, they will most likely be walking away with the Henri Delaunay Trophy.

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Shane Keegan

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