Euro 2016 has just been and gone, and I’ve written a tactical analysis of every single one of the 51 games that took place at the tournament in France. Due to the sheer size of this I’ve split it down into three parts: one for the games in Groups A, B and C, one for those in Groups D, E and F, and one to cover all the fixtures from the knockout rounds of the competition. This is the first part.
10/06/16, Saint-Denis – France 2-1 Romania – Giroud 57, Payet 89; Stancu 65 (p)
As hosts, and favourites, France opened the tournament at the Stade de France in a match against Romania which they were widely expected to win comfortably. Didier Deschamps opted to go with his preferred 4-3-3 shape for the game, fielding a commanding midfield trio of N'Golo Kanté, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba behind a narrow attacking triumvirate. Romania set-up in a 4-2-3-1, with Nicolae Stanciu playing just off Florin Andone at the front of their side, although for the majority of the 90 minutes it played out more as a defensive, compact 4-4-1-1.
Olivier Giroud was the designated striker out of the French attackers, with Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann on the left and right respectively, but it was rare that they stuck to these positions – Payet buzzing all over the pitch while Griezmann constantly tried to push centrally to provide support to Giroud. The movements were a pain for Romania to keep track of in the final third in periods of the game, while clever rotational patterns from the midfielders meant that France had dominance of the ball and could use that to their advantage by looking to feed those three as regularly as possible.
That switching between the midfielders was particularly prominent in the build-up phase, all three taking turns to drop, receive the ball and move it quickly. When attacking there was a more consistent structure about them though, with Matuidi pushing forward into the left half-spaces and Pogba doing the same on the right (leaving Kanté to hold). These wider positions meant they could find gaps away from areas that Romania were looking to congest, and could also link-up with Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna when they pushed forward from the full-back areas.
Those were the areas that France generated their best chances from, Payet and Pogba in particular demonstrating some delightful distribution to work the ball into the wide zones of the pitch in the first place. A high standard of crossing helped with that too, and the aerial prowess of Giroud – who scored France’s first with a header – and Griezmann was a constant threat. They were probably a little too dependent on those deliveries into the box when they got to the final third actually, which Romania deserve credit for limiting them to defensively, although as mentioned their build-up play was promising at the same time.
Romania didn’t offer much in open play themselves, the attacks being mostly individualistic and typically falling apart through isolation or a lack of support. From set-pieces they caused France a lot of trouble however, some nice corner routines and near post flick-ons causing havoc, most notably in the first-half, while their equalising goal came from Bogdan Stancu’s penalty kick after a clumsy foul from Evra. So defensive issues were certainly something that France needed to be aiming to address in the aftermath of this match. And in the end it nearly cost them the win.
But fortunately for them a moment of sheer individual brilliance by the best player on the pitch, Payet, in the 89th minute proved to be enough to secure three points for the hosts. Which, in reality, was the most important thing for Les Bleus in their opening game.
11/06/16, Lens – Albania 0-1 Switzerland – Schär 5
A game most built up for the meeting of the two Xhaka brothers on opposite sides, Taulant and Granit, it was the latter who came out on top in the second match of Euro 2016. He played a big role in his side’s victory, operating at the heart of the Swiss midfield alongside Valon Behrami in their 4-2-3-1 system, while Gianni De Biasi initially set Albania up in a 4-3-3.
It wasn’t that way for long though, two instances of Albania slightly shooting themselves in the foot being what cost them from getting anything from this game. First, a sloppy error of judgement from the otherwise excellent goalkeeper Etrit Berisha allowed Fabian Schär to get his name on the scoresheet from a corner, and then Lorik Cana got himself sent off for receiving two yellow cards – the second being for a quite bizarre handball on the edge of his own box in the 36th minute. That, of course, meant playing with 10 men for the majority of the game.
Regardless of all that, De Biasi’s side actually put in a very good performance. When they had the ball they progressed it nicely, playing at a quick tempo and avoiding Switzerland’s attempts to pressure them, while defensively their 4-4-1 shape (after the red card) worked well in limiting their opponents to too many good shooting opportunities. Right-back Elseid Hysaj and the left-sided midfielder, Ermir Lenjani, were probably their two best outfield performers on the day, and they forced Yann Sommer into making some big saves at the other end of the field.
Switzerland, even if they didn’t make use of Albania’s man disadvantage, weren’t bad either. They had a decent base to build their possession off from the back, Schär and Xhaka being two very good players with the ball in deep areas, and the attacking qualities of Ricardo Rodríguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner from full-back provided good width to their shape. The problem for them in that regard, however, was that other than Xhaka they lacked the speed and verticality which Albania were playing at. On multiple occasions there were too many touches being taken and spacing between players was too small on top of that.
When those things didn’t happen they were effective though, Blerim Džemaili and Haris Seferović consistently making clever attacking movements in the final third. Seferovic especially made some brilliant runs into the half-spaces, often peeling towards the left and exploiting the gaps there, although not for the first time in his career (nor the last time in this tournament) it was his finishing inside the box that let him down. Admir Mehmedi and Xherdan Shaqiri, the two wider attackers in their 4-2-3-1, weren’t quite as dangerous as they could’ve been but they both combined well with their respective full-backs and helped overload the centre by drifting inside.
The header from Schär was enough for the Swiss though, giving them a good three points out of three to work with going forwards. Albania would’ve been relatively happy themselves even with the defeat – regarded as possibly the weakest side in the whole tournament, it was an impressive performance from them against a side with lots of good individuals.
15/06/16, Paris – Romania 1-1 Switzerland – Stancu 18 (p); Mehmedi 57
Off the back of their win over Albania, Vladimir Petkovic opted to not make any changes to Switzerland’s team for this one. They stayed in their 4-2-3-1, and so did Romania, although unlike their opponents they made four changes from their late defeat against France in the competition’s curtain raiser; involving Andone and Stanciu dropping out of the side and Stancu moving over into the number 10 area.
While France’s individual talent had meant that they still had some attacking joy against them, Romania put in a strong defensive performance in their first game. They showed good elements of structure and compactness, on top of some good counter-pressing when France were trying to attack at speed, and they demonstrated that organisation here against Switzerland for the most part. That was especially the case after they took the lead, Stancu scoring a penalty again in the 18th minute (following a foul from Lichtsteiner).
Before that Shaqiri and Seferović had enjoyed some space in the middle, the former creating a decent chance for the latter to run through on goal in the half-space, but with Romania able to sit back and counter a little more now the central overloading of Switzerland’s two wide attackers and Džemaili became less effective. The build-up shape in deeper zones was a little predictable for them too – Xhaka and Behrami constantly dropping between the centre-backs was easy for Romania to read and adapt to.
As things went on Switzerland mixed things up though, and rather than receiving so deep off the goalkeeper and centre-backs they got the two midfielders on the ball higher up the pitch and slightly wider. Getting possession in the half-spaces meant better passing angles could open up, increasing Xhaka’s ability to move the ball through the lines, and it encouraged more width from the full-backs, demonstrated by the link-up between Xhaka and Rodríguez on the left.
Even with those tweaks they still didn’t manage to create an abundance of chances, poor play in the final third by Shaqiri often being a reason for that, although Seferović did have a few shots which he failed to convert after good movement (again). It was instead down to a spectacular volley from Mehmedi in the early stages of the second-half to bring them level: another goal of pure brilliance for Romania to be unfortunate enough to concede.
Breel Embolo came on for Seferović shortly after the hour mark as Switzerland pushed to try and win the game, the youngster’s pace and power being a threat around the Romanian defence now that they had less reason to sit quite as deep. Xhaka found him with some good long passes on three occasions, maintaining their control of the game and putting the pressure on, but none of those turned into goals – leaving the match to finish 1-1. A good point for Romania, and not a bad one for the Swiss considering they won their first game, but despite having lots of the ball it was again relatively unconvincing from Petkovic’s men.
15/06/16, Marseille – France 2-0 Albania – Griezmann 90, Payet 90+6
The big surprise in the team selection for France’s second game revolved around the manager’s choice to not start Griezmann and Pogba: arguably the two biggest names, and talents, in his squad. Neither had put in overly special performances against Romania but it was still a shock, and in came Coman and Martial in their place as Les Bleus switched from a narrow 4-3-3 shape to a wider 4-2-3-1. Those two quick young attackers became the wide men, with Payet moving central and operating ahead of a midfield pair of Kanté and Matuidi.
Whatever the reason behind the switches (political, rotational or tactical), Deschamps was not vindicated in his decision. While both of those midfielders in the double-pivot are decent technically, their main strengths are more based around either breaking up play or carrying the ball forward through dribbling. There was a lack of incisive, vertical passing without Pogba, and with the circulation of possession being so low tempo it meant that Albania had plenty of time to adjust their defensive shape in reaction to wherever the ball went.
Playing in a very deep 4-5-1 without possession, or a 4-3-3 with it, Albania limited space behind their defence and effectively plugged the gaps between the lines. Their good ball-orientation also made it very difficult for Coman and Martial to get into any one-on-one situations out wide – Albania quickly doubling up on them when they gained possession and punishing France for their slow movement of the ball. As a result, those two had very little, if any, influence on the first-half. Certainly not what Deschamps envisaged with his personnel changes.
So Pogba being brought on at half-time for Martial was a standard move to make, and from then on they reverted to their set-up from the first game. That saw Coman and Payet take narrower positions on the flanks, implementing central overloads which drew Albania further infield and thus made space out wide for the unmarked full-backs Evra and Sagna to push up the pitch into from deep. It was particularly effective on the left, Payet’s own game benefitting from having a more common movement pattern which allowed him to get on the ball in dangerous areas, with Evra also using the adjustment to great effect in order to surge forward and cross to create a headed chance for Giroud (who guided his effort onto the post).
It was from a ball played in from the right where the game was ultimately won though; Griezmann, having been brought on in the 68th minute for Coman, converting a floated cross from Rami with a beautifully cushioned header in the final minute of normal time. Heartbreak for Albania after holding out for so long, but after a much improved second-half following Deschamps’ changes it was a well-deserved goal for France.
Payet then grabbed his second of the tournament even later on, with another excellently taken finish on the counter-attack deep into injury time, and added some gloss to the final result. It was also enough to ensure they were through to the next round. But overall it certainly wasn’t as comfortable a win as most people expected it to be for the hosts.
19/06/16, Lyon – Romania 0-1 Albania – Sadiku 43
Even though it was now impossible for Albania to finish second and Romania were heavily reliant on a favour from France to be able to do the same, the tournament’s expansion to 24 teams meant that finishing third in the group had the possibility to be enough for either of these two sides to progress. So this game had a lot riding on it for the pair of them.
Both sides lined up as expected. Anghel Iordanescu set Romania up in a 4-2-3-1 (Stanciu back into the side as the number 10) and Albania were in the 4-3-3 that they used in both of their other games, the energetic striker Armando Sadiku leading the line for them. Having both been the underdogs in their other two matches, where realistically a point would’ve kept them content, here at least one of the teams would be placed in a somewhat unfamiliar position of having to take the initiative. And it ended up being Romania who did that.
They took control early on, pinning Albania back and moving the ball pretty nicely. Good occupation of the advanced midfield areas helped with that, Adrian Popa, Stanciu and Stancu all taking up some clever positions in those zones and offering vertical passing options for the defence and deeper part of their midfield. In regular possession phases, they definitely had more of a cutting edge than De Biasi’s team. At times the gaps between the two sections of the teams were too large though, because of Ovidiu Hoban and Andrei Prepeliţa, the pair in the double-pivot, being too deep, making isolation upon receiving passes a problem for their attackers.
Albania reacted to those kinds of passes quickly as well, enhancing that issue, quickly pressing and limiting the opportunities for those players to turn when getting the ball to feet. So as a result Romania either lost too much of their attacking momentum by holding the ball up and recycling backwards, or gave possession away. That gave Albania opportunities to then counter and get at Romania in the transition phase, and they exploited it effectively by having lots of vertical runners to support whoever the ball-carrier was. Their goal against the flow of the game, through Sadiku after an error by goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu on the stroke of half-time, then made it even tougher for Iordanescu’s team.
He did make changes to help address their problems though. First the 36-year-old Lucian Sânmartean came on at the start of the second-half, replacing Prepeliţa and offering a more controlling influence on the midfield, while Gabriel Torje (a tricky, direct wide player) and Florin Andone (who hit the bar in the 76th minute) were introduced as the game went on. They definitely had the better of the rest of the game, continuing to force Albania to sit back defensively and limiting them from breaking out, however they failed to create enough to get the goal they needed.
Arlind Ajeti deserves some special credit for Albania holding out, having stepped in for Cana at the heart of the defence in the last two games and he played extremely well. As mentioned it was also a result which gave Albania a chance of going through as one of the best third-placed teams; though the situation in the other groups meant they didn’t get through in the end. Even qualifying for the tournament was a big achievement for them, saying that.
19/06/16, Lille – Switzerland 0-0 France
With the hosts already through and Switzerland only needing a point to guarantee qualification, regardless of the other game that was being played simultaneously, the feeling going into this one was that neither side had a particularly great incentive to push for the win; a draw would be mutually beneficial for all involved. And that was reflected in both the game’s result and its tone, a 0-0 mostly played at quite a low intensity with very few noteworthy scoring opportunities.
France’s rotated team selection similarly showed that. André-Pierre Gignac began the game up front, after coming off the bench in their previous match against Albania, while Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko also got their first starts of the tournament in midfield as Deschamps reverted back to his 4-3-3. Switzerland on the other hand put out a pretty much full strength side – a 4-2-3-1 with Embolo leading the line, as opposed to the goal-shy Seferović.
Of the more established players in France’s line-up, it was Pogba who benefitted the most from Deschamps’ changes. Playing on the left of the midfield three in the absence of Matuidi, he was able to adopt some of the slightly more natural positions that he takes up for Juventus on that side of the pitch. He was the best player on the park in the first-half, while Sissoko also played well and demonstrated his ability in transitions with some powerful runs down the right at points in the match. Griezmann had one or two good moments too on his return to the starting eleven, demonstrating why trying to enable him to move centrally should be a key aim of France’s attacking play.
While France heavily dominated the ball in their previous two matches, here Switzerland actually had quite a lot more possession. A fair amount of it was sterile, even if Behrami and, to a greater extent, Xhaka, were still distributing it nicely, part of the reason for that being France’s man-marking in their 4-5-1 defensive system which forced the pair to receive the ball deeper in order to avoid pressure. Having Džemaili as the somewhat makeshift number 10 ahead of them again contributed to that a little here as well, in the sense that he didn’t make himself an available option often enough, even if he did put in a decent performance overall.
Their shape was slightly asymmetrical, with Mehmedi occupying much wider positions on the left than Shaqiri was doing on the opposite side. Shaqiri’s narrow positioning let Lichtsteiner push forward up the line outside of him, although the Stoke winger’s inconsistencies were way too prominent. They also failed to get the most out of Embolo’s pace and movement, which followed a similar pattern to the movements that Seferović had made in Switzerland’s previous matches but failed to yield the shooting opportunities that it had against Albania and Romania.
Beyond Pogba, France didn’t do much with the ball in standard phases of possession either. It was the toothless ball usage by Switzerland that made their opportunities instead, the numbers they pushed forward opening up parts of the field for the French to attack on the counter; as mentioned, Sissoko had the most joy in this regard. He almost got an assist for the substitute Payet after a great run and cross down the right late on, but Payet’s shot hit the bar and in the end neither scored. That left France top of the group, and Switzerland were similarly content to go through behind the hosts in second.
11/06/16, Bordeaux – Wales 2-1 Slovakia – Bale 10, Robson-Kanu 81; Duda 61
One of the benefits of the extended tournament structure is that nations who may not have typically qualified for the European Championships in the past now had a greater opportunity to do so, and the first game of Group B gave us a chance to witness the meeting of two debutants in the competition. But not only was this a big historical occasion for both Wales and Slovakia, it was also a chance for one of them to really get into contention for qualification through to the knockout rounds.
Chris Coleman’s Wales played in what was defensively a 5-3-2, although the advanced positions of Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor in the wing-back areas meant that in attack it played out as more of a 3-5-2. The most advanced two were Gareth Bale and Jonathan Williams, Bale playing slightly higher up the field than Williams. As for Slovakia, Ján Kozák set them up 4-5-1, Marek Hamšík being their star name in the centre of the midfield. There was quite a frantic beginning to the match initially though, neither nation showing much structure to their play until things slowed down a little more.
It was two moments of brilliance from the two best individuals on the pitch that stood out during that lively start – the first being a smooth solo run and shot from Hamšík, the other a sweetly-struck free-kick by Bale from some distance out. The difference, however, was that Hamšík's effort was quite magnificently cleared off the line by Ben Davies; whereas Bale’s set-piece attempt flew straight into the back of the net. And against a side like Slovakia, whose biggest strength is their ability to break intelligently at pace, that was a big advantage for Wales to have.
After the early goal things stayed at quite a high tempo but it was Wales who had the better of things. In Joe Allen they had a controlling midfielder who could help to dictate play and pulled off a number of effective diagonal switches to Gunter and Taylor, and Aaron Ramsey’s ability as a box-to-box player often led to him pushing forward with the ball to get closer to his side’s front two. Wales also pressed quite effectively, a feature of that similarly revolving around Ramsey moving up on the left to be in the same line as Bale and Williams: a position from which he could help to slow Slovakia’s ball circulation before dropping deeper into the midfield again afterwards.
That good performance from Wales meant that Slovakia really struggled to create anything of note in the first-half, but the introduction of two new attacking players (Ondrej Duda and Adam Nemec) and a switch to more of a 4-2-3-1 shape around the hour mark helped to very quickly change that. It was Duda who got the equaliser almost straight away, his more permanent occupation of the number 10 position being beneficial and allowing Hamšík's deeper starting position next to Juraj Kucka to be more effective.
Wales’ reaction to that, having lacked an effective outlet and thus suffered a drop in performance during this period, was to make their own substitution – Hal Robson-Kanu, a more natural striker, replacing Williams. He offered an ability to take up more advanced areas and create space behind him for the likes of Bale and Ramsey to enjoy, and after Ramsey found some in that area the ball eventually fell to Robson-Kanu for him to slot home. With that the game ended 2-1, meaning Wales got a win from a tricky game and now had a great foundation to work with for the rest of their tournament.
11/06/16, Marseille – England 1-1 Russia – Dier 73; Berezutski 90+2
How England would line-up for their first game of Euro 2016 was the source of huge debate prior to the competition, and in the end Roy Hodgson opted for a 4-3-3; leaving the midfield diamond behind in favour of having three in midfield and two wingers, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling, either side of Harry Kane. Russia, meanwhile, plagued by a string of midfield injuries in the weeks building up to the Euros, opted for a 4-2-3-1 that had Artem Dzyuba as the main attacking outlet.
The match started quite openly at first, however it wasn’t long until a clear pattern developed and England took strong control. It was expected that Leonid Slutsky’s side would be content to sit deep, defend in a low block and try to counter, though there wasn’t much ambition for the final stage of that and they found it hard to break and provide support to Dzyuba. They were penned in and didn’t really press at all, letting England dictate things and inviting them to break them down.
How England attempted to do that was interesting, and pretty effective too. Their 4-3-3 had elements of an asymmetric shape about it, Sterling (who had the beating of Igor Smolnikov) playing much wider on the left than Lallana was on the right, the Liverpool man drifting into the half-spaces, finding gaps between the lines and showing his ability as a talented ‘needle player’. Him coming inside also gave room for Kyle Walker to push forward unmarked from right-back, the two combining very well.
Further back in midfield Eric Dier did a good job of snuffing out any small Russian attempts to attack, giving Dele Alli freedom to push forward and Wayne Rooney the chance to dictate things. A common feature of Rooney’s game was switches of play wide to Walker, meaning the right-back kept being brought into the game, a useful way to change the direction of England’s attack when used in moderation. Although in this game the passes were often too floated and exaggerated which then meant Russia could shuffle themselves over in response, and there were too many of these sideways balls in comparison to vertical ones through the midfield.
It was the final ball which let England down more than those passes though – and they regularly got into very promising positions before showing poor technical execution on shots and crosses. Sterling was a threat but he was particularly guilty of that, as were Alli, Lallana and the two full-backs on a lesser scale, while Kane didn’t get himself involved in these good situations anywhere near enough. They took the lead anyway in the 73rd minute, thanks to a great free-kick from Dier, but not scoring another came back to haunt them when Vasili Berezutski bundled a messy equaliser home in injury time.
Having really struggled to build possession and move the ball at any speed, due to both good England pressing and a lack of ball-playing ability from their deeper players, to say it was a lucky goal for Russia would be something of an understatement. England’s performance wasn’t perfect by any means, though in reality it was much better than the end result showed – leaving lots of reason for optimism despite the dropped points.
15/06/16, Paris – Russia 1-2 Slovakia – Glushakov 80; Weiss 32, Hamšík 45
Russia may have been the nation best positioned for qualifying of these two at this point, having grabbed a point at the death in their game against England, but it was Slovakia who had far more reason for optimism after their decent showing in the other match versus Wales. That wasn’t reflected too much in the team selections, though, Russia remaining completely unchanged and Slovakia making three switches. One saw the young attacking midfielder Duda come in as an unorthodox striker for Michal Ďuris, the others included the experienced Tomás Hubocan and Viktor Pecovský being brought in at left-back and the centre of midfield respectively.
Despite having been happy to cede possession in their opener, Russia ended up holding a lot of the ball in this game. With a pair of centre-backs that aren’t very good on a technical level, though, and Roman Neustädter as the deeper of the two midfielders in their 4-2-3-1, they had real problems doing anything effective with it. When they tried to play it short their inability to make effective vertical passes meant that Slovakia could comfortably press and cut off any potentially threatening openings, and when they ended up going long towards Dzyuba he was often too isolated to do anything with it. There was a real lack of structure overall.
It said quite a lot about them that Sergei Ignashevich to Berezutski (32), and vice versa (26), were by some distance the most common passing combinations in the game. And while they were moving the ball slowly and aimlessly, Slovakia were doing the opposite – making use of any opportunity to transition at speed in order to attack the central spaces that Russia were leaving hugely unoccupied. It was unsurprising to see Hamšík at the heart of that, although Kucka and Vladimír Weiss also played important roles in their own ways.
Their opening goal, which was nicely taken by Weiss but made by Hamšík, really demonstrated that desire to move the ball at pace; Napoli’s midfielder playing an exquisite long pass with his ‘weaker’ foot to set his winger through on goal. He then doubled the lead just before half-time himself, a result of another piece of solo brilliance, and with a poor Russia side now really needing to commit players forward against this well-drilled, pacey Slovakia team there was potential for it to get quite messy.
Fortunately for Russia that didn’t happen, and two positive changes during the interval helped to have an effect on that. Denis Glushakov and Pavel Mamaev came on, replacing the ineffective (albeit talented) Aleksandr Golovin and Neustädter in the double-pivot, giving them a little more control and energy in the middle. The game remained somewhat sloppy, possession regularly changing hands, although Slutsky’s team eventually got the better of things and broke Slovakia’s good defensive structure down. Glushakov was the scorer after some great work on the left for Oleg Shatov, and that led to a tense final 10 minutes or so for both sides.
Slovakia managed to hold on against the pressure though, and with three points in the bag and a couple of decent performances they were now in a pretty good position to qualify going into their final game against England. There was still some hope for Russia too but, even in the second-half, which was by far their best 45 minutes of football up to this point, they didn’t do anything to particularly impress. And there wasn’t much reason to believe that they would be much better against Wales either.
16/06/16, Lens – England 2-1 Wales – Vardy 56, Sturridge 90+2; Bale 42
Following a strong performance in their opening game against Russia, despite the poor result, England set out with exactly the same side and shape for their second game. Coleman saw a bit more reason to change the Welsh team though, keeping a similar basic 3-5-2 system with the wing-backs but opting to start Robson-Kanu alongside Bale upfront. Wayne Hennessey and Joe Ledley also came back into the starting eleven after being deemed fit to start.
Where Wales had utilised the width of Gunter and Taylor very well in the first match, getting them or anyone else forward here was certainly not a priority here. Instead of attacking, their wide positioning was more important in limiting the effectiveness of England’s own full-backs who were a big outlet versus Russia. Danny Rose and Walker still got on the ball a fair amount, Lallana again moving infield to give some more space to the latter on the right, although their positions of receiving possession in the first place were a fair amount deeper than they were against Russia.
Along a similar theme, England’s centre-backs (and Dier, dropping in between them) were also given plenty of time on the ball in deeper zones. As was Rooney, who was playing very much towards the left of the midfield. When they progressed the ball higher there weren’t any significant chances created though, other than one which Kane and Lallana helped to make for Sterling in transition, Wales sitting deep and coping with the pressure well to ensure they didn’t let England’s control turn into dominance. It got even better for the Welsh in the 42nd minute, Bale scoring his second free-kick in two games and giving them the lead going into half-time.
England needed to react to that, something which Hodgson was clearly aware of. And after being rather harshly slated for ‘defensive-minded’ substitutions in the game against Russia, especially given his reputation as a pragmatic manager, that certainly wasn’t a criticism you could level at the manager here. Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy both came on at half-time to replace Kane and Sterling, leaving a very attacking side on the field. It didn’t appear as if there was any real structural basis to the changes, more just a case of throwing everything at a Wales side who would likely be more than happy to continue to sit back, absorb pressure and force England to break them down.
That was how it played out – although despite the apparent lack of innovation put into the choice of subs the pace of Sturridge (often drifting to the right to get the ball and then moving inside) and Vardy did help push Wales back even further. That gave Rose and Walker more space to push forward into and better positions to play crosses in from, as well as giving the whole team a higher platform to base their combination play off.
Hodgson’s heavily attack-orientated mentality was reinforced yet further when Marcus Rashford came on for Lallana in the 73rd minute, the score being 1-1 at that point after Vardy equalised earlier, leaving four strikers on the pitch at once if you include Rooney. It was a move that again had a feeling of desperation and hopefulness about it: but it’s not as if England cared a damn about that when Sturridge scored in the dying seconds of the match to give them three points. A less convincing performance for them then against Russia overall, as well as similar signs of an issue with breaking down low blocks, but it was three (pretty deserved) points nonetheless.
20/06/16, Toulouse – Russia 0-3 Wales – Ramsey 11, Taylor 20, Bale 67
Both coming into their third match off the back of rather disappointing 2-1 defeats, the chances were that Russia and Wales each needed a win here to keep their hopes of qualifying alive. Slutsky made a few personnel switches in the hope of doing just that, including Shatov being moved to the bench and Glushakov and Mamaev starting in the midfield together after they helped to change the game in the second-half against Slovakia. For Wales there was just one new player included, Sam Vokes starting alongside Bale – now the third different player to partner him in just three games.
Wales certainly didn’t show any bad feelings from their defeat against England though, and they recovered from that late goal to put in one of the real standout performances of the group stages in this match. They were particularly brilliant in the first-half, even if they dominated the rest of the game too, the most effective feature of their play being quick counter-attacks and clever runs towards the heart of the slow Russian backline (who were also holding a higher line than they had in their other two games).
The inclusion of Vokes often helped to enable that movement for the players around him by occupying one of the opposing centre-backs, and with the Russian midfield being quite open when they lost the ball there was always room for the likes of Allen, Bale and Ramsey to make use of. For Allen that meant chances to play vertical passes and spread the play while for Bale and Ramsey it gave them acres of space to run into at speed; the pace and well-timed nature of the movements proving far too much for their opposition to cope with.
Scoring a goal from one of their first chances to attack in such a manner was also beneficial, with Allen assisting Ramsey for the opener in the 11th minute when the Arsenal midfielder delicately lofted a dink over goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. That kind of forced Russia to attack them a little more, rather than giving them an excuse to move deeper and absorb pressure, and the pattern of that was just constant throughout the game as Wales got chance after chance to extend their lead.
Wales’ two other goals were also scored in transitions like that one, Taylor somewhat fortunately doubling the lead shortly after Ramsey scored and Bale then fittingly completed the scoring in the middle of the second-half. Their good defensive shape in that 5-3-2 of theirs is similarly deserving of a mention, though, and they utilised that structure excellently both when pressing and when sitting off to ensure that Russia had very few chances to even pull one back.
It was a very convincing win from Coleman’s side, overall. And not only were the three points enough to guarantee them qualification into the knockout stages, it also proved to be a victory which saw them top the group after England’s inability to beat Slovakia in the other game that was being played simultaneously.
20/06/16, Saint-Étienne – Slovakia 0-0 England
Having experienced a bitter low and a tremendous high already, England went into their final group game pretty much guaranteed to go through but most probably needing three points to finish top of Group B (with Wales winning against Russia that proved to be the case). For Slovakia, with a win and a defeat up until now, it was likely that a draw would be enough to see them through as one of the best third-placed sides.
Slovakia didn’t switch anything up about their side from their last match, sticking with the 4-5-1 system, and England also stuck with a 4-3-3. Unlike Kozák, though, Hodgson made six changes to his team. Out went both full-backs, as well as four out of the six who’d started in the midfield and attack in the two games prior to this, Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere joining the ever-present Dier in midfield. Ahead of them it was Lallana, Sturridge and Vardy who formed the attacking trio.
Much like England’s other two group matches, it was a case of them trying to break down a team who had set out to defend and counter. Slovakia weren’t actually sitting that deep for a significant period of the game though, and that enabled England to show some good variation in their attacking play. Dier and Henderson made a number of progressive, vertical passes through the centre, while smart movement and the vacation of space by Lallana and Sturridge out wide meant that Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne could push into threatening wide areas from full-back. Vardy also had a couple of opportunities to run in behind.
The high positioning of Bertrand and Clyne was a good way for England to maintain control due to the fact that it kept Pecovský and Weiss, the latter being one of Slovakia’s biggest counter-attacking outlets, pinned back and having to give support to their own full-backs. It still wasn’t uncommon for England to get beyond them however, as a result of overloads in the wide areas that were supported by Henderson and Lallana. Those two and Clyne helped to form a well-worked Liverpool triangle on the right, even if ultimately nothing came from it.
By the hour mark both Lallana and Wilshere had gone off with England still chasing a goal though, for Alli and Rooney respectively. The Spurs man almost gave England the lead instantly, his first touch being a shot which was cleared off the line, but otherwise the two did very little to influence the game. Slovakia’s defence reacting and dropping notably deeper around that time was part of the reason for that, limiting the effectiveness of passes behind their backline and ensuring gaps weren’t as apparent between the lines. The other factor was simply that the two slowed ball progression, and despite Dier continuing to show good circulation on his own the tempo was slower and the game somewhat fizzled out into nothing.
An inability to score meant that in the end a frustrated England side, despite being the strongest team in the group, could only finish second behind Wales. That saw them go into what ended up being the more difficult half of the draw, a side which Slovakia would join them in after this point proved to be enough to take them through as one of the best third-placed sides.
12/06/16, Nice – Poland 1-0 Northern Ireland – Milik 51
Group C’s opener saw Poland take on Northern Ireland, a meeting of two very well organised sides – albeit with quite a significant talent difference between them. The former shaped up in a 4-2-3-1, the young and now highly sought-after striker Arkadiusz Milik sitting slightly deeper than Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski in their attack, while the latter opted for a much more defensive 5-4-1. Their aim was very much orientated towards holding their structure and resisting pressure for large periods of the game.
It was a plan that had worked quite effectively in qualifying, especially when combined with good utilisation of set-pieces at the other end of the pitch, and it went alright for them in the first-half here too. By congesting the middle of the pitch they largely restricted Poland to attacking in wide areas, forcing them to rely on inefficient, low percentage crosses or cutbacks in their attempts to find a breakthrough. Artur Jedrzejczyk and Bartosz Kapustka combined well on the left, as did Łukasz Piszczek and Jakub Błaszczykowski on the opposite side, but without much central penetration the possession became somewhat stagnant and hopeful.
Northern Ireland had almost no kind of outlet from the pressure themselves though, Kyle Lafferty unsurprisingly having the least touches of anyone on the pitch in the first-half. A large portion of that was down to the lack of attacking intent which they showed with their team selection, although a strong performance from Grzegorz Krychowiak in midfield, both with regards to retaining the ball and for limiting the threat of any rare, potential breakaways, similarly played a part.
Being quite so heavily dependent on holding out without conceding to get anything, then, was always likely to be a risky game for Michael O'Neill’s team. Especially against a side with lots of good individual quality. And though a number of Poland’s offensive problems persisted in the second-half, there were solutions found to them on enough occasions to ease any concerns they may have held: Błaszczykowski (as he did to assist Milik’s goal) and Kapustka getting into narrower positions where they could have greater influence on a more common basis.
The star man, Lewandowski, was someone that Northern Ireland still managed to keep quiet, saying that. Being the most advanced player against three opposing centre-backs was bound to make it a challenging game for him, though from here he did help to increase Milik's involvement as the game went on by pushing up and giving him a bit more space to operate in. That showed in his goal, and even if he arguably wasn’t quite as clinical as he should’ve been the 22-year-old was one of the liveliest players on the pitch as a result of Lewandowski’s help.
He, Kapustka and Krychowiak were all strong contenders for man of the match by the end, in what was a dominant if not extremely convincing performance from Adam Nawałka’s Poland. Having to break down such a deep defensive unit was a very unique scenario for them in this competition though – while for Northern Ireland it was something which you could be sure that they would employ throughout. Their hope in the aftermath of this game, of course, would be to add some genuine attacking threat in to help balance it out.
12/06/16, Lille – Germany 2-0 Ukraine – Mustafi 19, Schweinsteiger 90+2
While France were regarded as the favourites for the competition, Germany, the winners of the World Cup in 2014, weren’t at all far behind them in the betting markets. Player by player they probably had the strongest squad in the competition, and they kicked off their search for European glory against a Ukraine side who didn’t look to be anything special but had potential to cause them real problems on the counter-attack. Both sides lined up in similar 4-2-3-1 systems, although Mario Götze was the unorthodox striker selected by Joachim Löw.
Ukraine didn’t opt to sit overly deep from the off in this match when they were without possession, but at the same time they didn’t really close down too much until Germany brought the ball into their half either. The reason for that perhaps revolved around the ball-playing qualities of Jérôme Boateng and Toni Kroos (and even Manuel Neuer) from deep, and how they’d likely punish any form of inefficient press, while also wanting to try and ensure that Mesut Özil’s ability to create space in the number 10 area was kept under control. With time to play when he received the ball, though, Kroos put in a masterful controlling performance and ran the game from midfield.
Good attacking rotation from Germany was an aspect of their play which helped him to do this. Özil’s drifting opened up pockets that Ukraine weren’t quick enough to close, whether for Götze to drop inside or for Sami Khedira to push up into, while Julian Draxler’s movement towards the middle helped to open up the potential of long diagonals towards the often advanced left-back, Jonas Hector. On the other side, Thomas Müller moving around also meant that Benedikt Höwedes was at times available for such switches of play too.
It was fitting that Kroos got the assist for Germany’s first goal – a perfectly placed free-kick from the right flank which Shkodran Mustafi headed home from close range in the 19th minute. They didn’t have things all their own way in the first-half though, their dominance of possession becoming imbalanced by the threat of players like Yevhen Konoplyanka on the break. Only a bizarrely brilliant clearance off the line from Boateng prevented them from conceding an equaliser, actually, and from half-time onwards they learnt their lesson from that by playing in a less offensive but still controlling manner.
A slower usage of possession in comparison to before the interval contributed towards that, helping their general structure with the ball to become more organised and thus increasing the potency of their counter-press. It was something which they executed to great effect in that second-half, either slowing down Ukraine’s attempts to transition or helping to win the ball back for themselves to keep again.
And Germany executed a brilliant break of their own in the dying minutes of the game, winning the ball on the edge of the box from a defensive corner and moving it up the pitch at speed. Kroos dribbled forward with it on the left first before playing a vertical pass up the line for Özil – who took it a little further himself, then whipped in a perfectly weighted cross for the late substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger to sweep home on the half-volley. With that, he secured a winning start for Germany.
16/06/16 Lyon – Ukraine 0-2 Northern Ireland – McAuley 49, McGinn 90+6
Following a loss in each of their opening games the meeting of these two teams represented something big for the pair of them. With Germany and Poland undoubtedly the two strongest sides in the group, getting something here would be key to achieving any aspirations of going through, most likely as one of the best third-placed sides. Mykhaylo Fomenko used the same 4-2-3-1 formation as he did in the first game, the only change being Yevhen Seleznyov replacing Roman Zozulya upfront. Their opposition, meanwhile, went for a much more drastic set of switches.
Northern Ireland swapped five players around, and perhaps most notably changed their system too, going for a 4-5-1 shape which had the more mobile Connor Washington leading the line instead of Lafferty. Their defensive structure had worked effectively against Poland, but having more of an attacking edge to it was crucial as the lack of an outlet invited far too much pressure. And they showed much more intent in the early stages in Lyon, still being on the back foot though attacking at pace and giving Ukraine something to think about in defence.
Their play was quite largely orientated towards the left, partly because of Washington’s runs almost always being towards that side but also because of a slightly lop-sidedness in defence. Stuart Dallas on the left wing was more advanced than Jamie Ward on the right, looking to take players on more than anyone else on his team, while Ward was typically deeper. That may have been part of a ploy to nullify Konoplyanka, Ukraine’s best player, and Vyacheslav Shevchuk at left-back. Whether that was the aim or not, though, it worked.
The Sevilla man did look threatening at times, when he and Shevchuk were able to combine or be in close proximity to each other anyway, however much like Poland’s wide players the influence of him and Andriy Yarmolenko was restricted. Hopeful, poorly executed crosses and shots from long distance were all that Ukraine could muster in their attempts to break down a stern Northern Ireland defence, particularly so after Gareth McAuley headed his side into the lead early in the second-half.
It was a lead that gave O'Neill’s team something to cling onto and, in truth, they never looked like losing it from then onwards. Good ball-orientation and doubling-up in those wider positions to prevent one-on-ones was a big factor in that, as was the blocking of central zones which they maintained. From a Ukraine perspective it was frustrating, slow and sterile possession, their dominance of the ball resulting in nothing beyond those low percentage attempts.
If that was irritating for them, then substitute Niall McGinn’s goal late in injury time to kill the game was even more so – this one coming from open play, as opposed to the set-pieces which Northern Ireland were so clinical with in qualifying (and for McAuley’s earlier goal). Cue scenes of mass celebrations from the Northern Irish as the final whistle went shortly afterwards, and with that they had a crucial three points. A very deserved three, at that.
16/06/16, Saint-Denis – Germany 0-0 Poland
Neither Germany nor Poland had much reason to change things for this game on the back of their decent performances prior to this, the meeting of the two strongest teams in Group C. So unsurprisingly the managers didn’t make many adjustments, Löw simply swapping Mustafi out in place for Mats Hummels, Nawałka changing Kapustka (who was unfortunate to miss out) and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny with Kamil Grosicki and Łukasz Fabianski respectively. Their formations, both 4-2-3-1, remained largely the same as a result.
The game started well for Germany with the ball, perhaps the main reason for that being a lack of proper horizontal compactness from Poland. Błaszczykowski and Grosicki on the wings seemed to be torn on whether to cover the half-spaces or be more man-orientated towards the advanced opposition full-backs, while Milik sometimes positioning himself poorly when marking Khedira meant that coverage across the length of the pitch was either too narrow or too stretched from their line of four midfielders. And with nobody really stepping out to pressurise Kroos enough, as well as Boateng and Hummels being able to play around Lewandowski pretty easily, they had a good superiority in the build-up phase established.
Those three deeper players were enjoying the variety of options they had. Sometimes the long switches to Hector and Höwedes were open, at other times penetrative passes through the half-spaces could be made, or even just dribbling the ball up the pitch a bit further was another action they could make. Germany’s big problem, though, came in the phases after that: receiving possession in the final third and doing anything with it was considerably tougher here than it was against Ukraine.
Poland’s better vertical shape was what ultimately prevented Germany making use of those situations – when gaps appeared between their defence and midfield line, they were very proactive in closing them and ensuring that players didn’t have time to turn or combine effectively with each other. The partnership of Krychowiak and Krzysztof Mączyński did a nice job of that, in particular. Having no proper striker to mix up their attacking options and movements (until Mario Gomez came off the bench in the 71st minute) also didn’t help. As such the Germans had no shots on target in the first-half, and only managed three in the whole game overall.
It was still three more than Poland managed, however. They did at least show greater threat than that stat suggests, and actually had the best chances of the game even without forcing Neuer into a proper save, but Milik, despite playing pretty well offensively and helping to link things together in that number 10 zone again, didn’t convert them. Him only having one goal at this point was a pretty unfair reflection on the quality of his performances, really.
Luckily for Poland those couple of misses didn’t come back to bite them too much in this match, and in the end a point in a fairly uninspiring 0-0 draw was a pretty good result for both them and Germany. That meant each had four points from two games, leaving them pretty much certain to qualify and in the position to compete for top place in the group during the final matchday.
21/06/16, Marseille – Ukraine 0-1 Poland – Błaszczykowski 54
Because of the goalless draw between Germany and Poland, Ukraine became the first team to officially be eliminated from Euro 2016. That meant they had nothing to play for other than pride here against their fellow hosts of the previous edition of the tournament, so them making five changes was no surprise, whereas Poland were still well in contention to finish ahead of Germany at the top of the group. They were dependent on bettering their rivals’ result to do so, though, and they also made four personnel switches themselves.
At first it seemed like it had the potential to be one of those games where the team that has nothing to play for weren’t too bothered, first Milik and then Lewandowski having two good chances to give Poland an early lead in the opening five minutes or so, but Ukraine quickly gained momentum and grew into the game after that. They were the better side for quite some time, in fact, Ruslan Rotan putting in a very efficient display of ball retention alongside Taras Stepanenko in midfield and helping to keep Poland pushed back.
Oleksandr Zinchenko looked lively in the number 10 area too, a zone of the pitch which Ukraine hadn’t used at all effectively until this game. His ability to open up his body when receiving the ball and then accelerate quickly caused Poland a few problems, the resulting movements enabling Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko to get involved to a greater extent (albeit still sporadically). In order to try and cope with the spells of possession that Poland were having, it was quite common to see Milik dropping into the midfield line rather than staying high to press.
When Poland did get the ball in the first-half, which surprisingly was quite a rarity, for the most part they didn’t look particularly threatening. Their attacking shape was generally a bit off, partly a result of Milik being deeper in the defensive phase and having to cover more ground to get involved, and also because of Kapustka and Piotr Zieliński being kept quiet. The two switching positions every so often seemed to be more of a hindrance to Poland’s structure than anything. Błaszczykowski replacing the latter at half-time, then, was a fair move by Nawałka.
His introduction provided them with some more natural width, what with Kapustka and Zieliński both being players who showed a constant tendency to start wide before moving infield, and it didn’t take long for him to have a significant impact. A well-worked corner routine helped Milik to find Błaszczykowski in space on the right side of the box, and he cut inside onto his weaker left foot before firing home to give Poland a 1-0 lead.
From then the game returned to a similar tone as it had in the first-half, Ukraine controlling the ball and continuing to probe, but Poland sat a bit deeper, had some opportunities to counter at pace, and their defence held firm. Kind of like when they went into a deficit against Northern Ireland, a lack of ingenuity and ability to break down a low block cost Ukraine. It was a disappointing tournament for them, picking up no points and going home much earlier than they’d have hoped, while Poland were through to the knockout stages.
21/06/16, Paris – Northern Ireland 0-1 Germany – Gomez 30
Germany didn’t know it at the time, but Poland winning 1-0 in the other game of the final matchday meant that all they needed to do was win by any margin in order to top the group. Löw didn’t make any drastic changes to his side, only two from the last match, although the ones he did make were interesting – Joshua Kimmich being started at right-back and Gomez chosen upfront in their 4-2-3-1. Their opposition, Northern Ireland, kept their side exactly the same as it was in their excellent win against Ukraine.
O’Neill’s team still had aspirations of finishing as one the best third-placed sides, only really needing to avoid a heavy defeat to keep those alive. And even though they did manage to achieve that in the end here, quite how they conceded just one goal was something of a miracle. Germany put the pressure on from the off until the final whistle, forcing Northern Ireland’s 4-5-1 to become more of a 6-3-1, moving the ball smoothly and creating numerous chances throughout.
The very advanced positioning of Hector and especially Kimmich on the wings was what pushed Dallas and Ward (the two wide midfielders) back, and that opened up a greater amount of space in the middle of the pitch. In turn that meant Germany’s standard phases of possession could bring them well into the opposition’s half with ease, and the combination of excellent width and strong central access allowed them to circulate possession at pace and probe for openings.
Some of their link-up play in the final third was poorly executed on a technical basis or cut out because of the sheer number of players that were back defending against them, although whenever Northern Ireland were stretched – whether due to a turnover or just bad shape – the revolving movements of Götze, Müller and Özil around Gomez were quick to exploit that. Some of Özil’s passes in those zones were, as usual, truly sublime, and similarly Kroos’ distribution was smooth like it had been in all their other games until then.
Gomez’s goal in the 30th minute was a great demonstration of that quality they possess. After an interception in midfield by Kimmich, who often drifted inside from that right flank to good effect when deeper, Özil was set free and able to run forward with the ball. He then played a penetrative pass into Gomez, the striker flicking a ball round the corner to Müller’s run behind the defence, and just like that Germany were in on goal. How it was finished made the goal look slightly sloppy, but really it was a move full of fluidity and a real indication of how good Germany can be when they turn it on.
Again, how they didn’t manage to score more than one in this game was quite a mystery. On another day they could’ve easily had three or four. This was by quite some distance Northern Ireland’s worst defensive display of the tournament, but crucially they kept their goal difference down and that proved to be enough to see them through to the knockout rounds. And Germany finished top as well, so it was a win-win situation for both of them in the end.