Following on from part one of my tactical analysis of every single game at Euro 2016, where I covered the ones that took place in Groups A, B and C, this second part covers all the other group stage matches – this time from Groups D, E and F.
12/06/16, Paris – Turkey 0-1 Croatia – Modrić 41
The meeting of Turkey and Croatia in Paris was the first game of Group D, featuring two rather talented but somewhat under the radar sides – especially the latter, who quite arguably have one of the best midfields in international football. Milan Badelj and Luka Modrić and made up the double-pivot in their 4-2-3-1, which also had Ivan Rakitić playing as the more advanced playmaker just ahead of them, while Turkey went for a 4-1-4-1 based system.
It started off as quite a scrappy affair first of all, with lots of turnovers and poor execution of the riskier passes that both teams attempted, but as things eventually settled down during the first-half it was clear that Croatia were the better side in a fair number of ways. Turkey experienced quite a few connectivity problems, Hakan Çalhanoğlu being unable to get particularly involved on the right side and the lack of somebody to attack the number 10 area consistently (both Oğuzhan Özyakup and Ozan Tufan only pushed there on the odd occasion) meant that Ante Čačić's side never had too much of a threat between the lines to watch out for.
Meanwhile, more intelligent movement and better technical ability from Croatia enabled them to utilise those zones on a noticeably better basis. The midfield duo of Badelj and Modrić did a nice job of controlling things and circulating the ball, with Rakitić offering himself as a route to move possession forward and also then orientating his movements to the channels in order to support play whenever the ball was on the wing. Mario Mandžukić did the same, not staying centrally but instead ensuring that whoever had the ball was never too isolated.
On Croatia’s left, aided by that support, Ivan Perišić was a real threat. There were numerous occasions where he also managed to get himself into one-on-ones with the Turkish right-back, Gökhan Gönül, and with space to run into his powerful, direct running style caused all sorts of problems. Similarly, they used their width well on the opposite side, although that was down to the constant overlapping runs of Darijo Srna from right-back on the outside of Marcelo Brozovic, who’s more familiar with a central midfield role.
They didn’t properly test Volkan Babacan in the Turkish goal for some time, saying that, despite their control. Putting in a very high volume of hopeful crosses towards Mandžukic, rather than probing a bit more in the final third, certainly didn’t help. A brilliant volley from Modric on the edge of the box gave them the lead though, and they were unfortunate not to extend that throughout the second-half when they were more penetrative in a less direct fashion and hit the crossbar three times.
Turkey made a few changes to try and get back into the game, most notably the ineffectual Arda Turan and Cenk Tosun going off for two attackers, Burak Yilmaz and Emre Mor, in quick succession. Those switches didn’t have any notable impact, though, Fatih Terim’s side having a decent amount of the ball but those problems of linking everything together persisted throughout. So the game finished 1-0 to Croatia, giving them a great start which began to make a lot more people talk about them as having the potential to go a long way.
13/06/16, Toulouse – Spain 1-0 Czech Republic – Piqué 87
If Croatia’s midfield is only ‘one of the best’ around, Spain are undoubtedly amongst the very few sides who can claim to have a stronger one than them. La Roja were considered one of the big favourites going into the Euros, a large reason for that being the talent of players like Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta that were at their disposal, and alongside Cesc Fàbregas they formed a very good, controlling trio at the heart of their 4-3-3 system for their first game.
Most of the interest on their side though was directed towards how the front three ahead of them of Álvaro Morata, Nolito and David Silva would work. Especially when the first two of those thrive best when there’s space to run into behind, something which they didn’t have against a Czech Republic team (in a 4-2-3-1 system) who were happy to give up possession and sit deep without pressing for the most part. It was quite telling of their preferred way of playing actually that, of the seven offsides to happen throughout, six of them came from Morata and Nolito.
Because of the differing styles of their wide players, a mix of a winger and a playmaker mould that Vicente del Bosque has liked for quite some time, there was something rather asymmetric about Spain’s shape on the ball. While Nolito remained in what was mostly an advanced position near the touchline, Silva would come inside a lot more – giving Juanfran space to push up the line – and contribute to things in the middle of the pitch. With him and Iniesta drifting to occupy those positions in the half-space, the passes placed between the full-back and centre-back that they love so much were constantly searched for, albeit after they were made there was mixed success in those zones.
It was more a result of poor execution in the final third, rather than any notable issue with their ball circulation (even if Fàbregas was slowing that down at times) or build-up play, which caused their failure to score until late on. Morata had a few decent chances that he didn’t convert, playing well overall even with his back to goal where he couldn’t make his preferred runs, while the Czech Republic were doing a good job of putting their bodies on the line whenever Spain looked to pull the trigger.
Defending against such a precise and intricate style can be extremely fatiguing though. Not only physically, but mentally. And though Pavel Vrba’s team showed lots of discipline for the most part, they eventually succumbed to the pressure in the 87th minute; Gerard Piqué the goalscorer after the excellent Iniesta had a bit of time and space to pick out a perfect cross for him. Pain for the Czechs, after holding out for so long, but delight for the Spanish.
In terms of things to work on going forward, Spain’s utilisation of the wing areas was something which they needed to look to improve. Encouraging more combination play and overlaps, particularly on the left side with Jordi Alba and Nolito, could only be beneficial to them. Especially as the wider shape would help to stretch opponents and give their best midfielders more space in central zones. But in general, on top of the three points which they earned, things were off to a good start for them.
17/06/16, Saint-Étienne – Czech Republic 2-2 Croatia – Škoda 76, Necid 89 (p); Perišić 37, Rakitić 59
After securing a good win against Turkey in their opening game it was quite reasonable that Ante Čačić opted to go with an unchanged line-up for Croatia’s second match, meaning their strong midfield core, fortunately for neutrals, remained intact. The Czech Republic made two changes themselves, Jirí Skalák replacing Theodor Gebre Selassie (the full-back having played in a midfield position against Spain) and David Lafata being chosen ahead of Tomás Necid upfront. That meant both sides were playing in a 4-2-3-1 shape.
While Croatia had played well before, in this game they managed to draw yet more attention to themselves with an even better, improved performance. One of the big reasons for that was down to Rakitic. He had done well previously, despite being somewhat overshadowed by Modrić's controlling showing deeper on the pitch, but here he was their main attacking player – with a greater portion of their play in the final third going through him. Signs of more verticality were evident too, with him often dropping deeper before turning and running with the ball, as well as attempting a number of more ambitious passes in an attempt to break through the Czech Republic’s defensive unit centrally.
It wasn’t just him who put in a more dynamic performance. As mentioned, the whole Croatia side did. And the Czechs were massively overwhelmed by them, their defensive frailties in transitions clear after they were quite hidden by the low block which they employed against Spain; their inability to move the ball well exploited by Croatia’s good quality of closing down. Perišić's goal in the 37th minute came in the aftermath of a turnover in midfield, and Rakitić's similarly did too, courtesy of pressing following a short goal-kick – at 2-0 by the hour mark, this game seemed over.
Quite how the Czech Republic got back into the game after showing no signs of doing so, then, is something of a mystery. By the time Rakitic dinked it over Petr Čech, Vrba’s team had only managed one shot on target, and Croatia were dominant by far. They did take their foot off the gas a bit though, while Modrić going off in the 62nd minute for Mateo Kovačić certainly didn’t help them due to the absence of the former’s calming influence with possession.
Some credit does have to go to Vrba, seeing as it was two of the substitutes he brought on that scored their two goals. Milan Škoda (on for Lafata) grabbed the first, with an excellent header following a trivela cross from Tomás Rosický, and then Necid got the second to equalise from the penalty spot right at the end which meant that both sides would share a point.
After playing well for the vast majority of the game, it was a shame that a significant portion of the discussion afterwards was dominated by Croatia’s collapse. It was also marred by crowd disturbances from their own fans, involving flares being thrown onto the field when it was 2-1 and things having to be halted for a time. That was hardly beneficial for them while trying to hold the lead, either, and may well have had a psychological influence. But aside from that, at least, Croatia had good reason to be positive about how they played on the day.
17/06/16, Nice – Spain 3-0 Turkey – Morata 34, 48, Nolito 37
On the back of a good performance which wasn’t really reflected by the one-goal winning margin in their last game, Del Bosque’s strong preference for his core group of players shone through as he again selected the same eleven players to start against Turkey. They similarly only swapped one thing around for their game in Nice, despite being a little disappointing a few days earlier, Yilmaz coming in for Tosun to lead the line.
Just like in their first match, here Spain were tasked with breaking down an opponent who dropped into a low block. And Turkey did that well initially, their central midfield three of Selçuk İnan, Özyakup and Tufan all doing a good job of limiting Spain’s ability to be penetrative in the middle of the pitch. The trio were all mostly zone-orientated, İnan as the slightly deeper one to a greater extent, though the other two would sometimes push up to specifically pressure Iniesta and (when he moved infield) Silva. As a result they not only had less time on the ball, but picking out men between the lines, because of good vertical compactness, was more challenging.
Across the pitch Turkey’s shape wasn’t quite so effective, though, and it was when Spain started to do things to exploit that where they looked more dangerous. Whenever they moved the ball out to the flanks, Çalhanoğlu and Turan, the two midfielders on the outside of Turkey’s five, would be quick to step out, shift wider and pressure – which is fine if someone covers the central areas which they vacated when doing so. However, they didn’t close them properly, or at least not quickly enough anyway, and that was an absolute dream for the Spanish midfielders as they could then push up and exploit the gaps that appeared in the half-spaces.
They particularly enjoyed success in that regard on the left due to combinations between Alba, Nolito and one of the others (both Fàbregas and Iniesta operated regularly in that left half-space), the triangles which they made enabling them to play through Turkey with ease. It was a movement pattern which helped to create their first goal, scored by Morata in the 34th minute after a wonderful cross by Nolito, and after that it looked like the floodgates had opened when the winger got a goal for himself just a few minutes later.
Luckily for Turkey, Morata’s second and Spain’s third, just after half-time, proved to be the end of the goals. It was a tremendously well-worked team goal though, Iniesta unsurprisingly at the heart of it like he was for everything good that his side did. It involved fast tempo building of possession in the middle, a switch to the flanks to disorientate the opposition, and the ball then coming central again before the cutting pass through the defence was made – a perfect demonstration of all the things this Spanish side can do with the ball when they’re at their best.
From then on they pretty much strolled through the rest of the game: still moving the ball smoothly in a similar fashion, but having no real need to search for more goals. Turkey had seemed to recognise that the contest was somewhat over at half-time themselves, Nuri Şahin being brought on for Çalhanoğlu in a defensive-minded substitution which suggested either damage limitation or wanting to at least give them a bit more security in the centre of the field. And if Terim did think it was settled by then, he was proved right – Spain coming out the victors in a dominant 3-0 win, in turn securing guaranteed progression through to the next round.
21/06/16, Lens – Czech Republic 0-2 Turkey – Yilmaz 10, Tufan 65
Turkey’s inability to pick up any points in either of their first two matches, as well as getting a heavily negative goal difference in the process, meant that their hopes of qualifying as one of the top four third-placed sides were fairly slim going into their final game. It was dependent on them picking up a win of at least two goals, which would also require them to score significantly more than the zero which they’d managed up to now, and then hoping a few other things elsewhere went their way. So in reality this game seemed to be more about the Czech Republic.
Because of the situation in three other groups having been finalised by this point, the Czechs knew that three points would’ve been enough to guarantee them to go through – and quite possibly in second ahead of Croatia (depending on their result against Spain). In the absence of the injured Rosický they opted for a 4-3-3 shape, while Turkey went to a 4-2-3-1, Çalhanoğlu being left out and Turan coming infield as the player behind Yilmaz.
Yet despite how things looked for Turkey, it was them who took an early lead. The goal was created by Mor on the right, who Borussia Dortmund had completed a deal to sign just before the start of the tournament, and it was his run into space and cutback on the right that set Yilmaz up in the middle to tuck home. In a somewhat surprisingly open game they were far better equipped to make use of the gaps that appeared, with Mor, Turan and Volkan Şen all playing off Yilmaz and causing problems for the opposition’s defence whenever they had the chance to break with speed. Although, while individually good, in the final third they didn’t necessarily connect too well during more regular phases of their possession.
The Czech Republic had more both more of the ball and attempted shots overall but, while Turkey looked quite vulnerable defensively as they had in all their other games, partly because of a sizeable gap between their defence and midfield line, they didn’t really have the tools to fully capitalise on it. Vladimír Darida put in a strong performance in the centre of the pitch, pushing forward and distributing the ball in a positive fashion, but beyond him (and Jaroslav Plašil at times) there was very limited reason to believe that they could get back in the game as it went on.
It wasn’t a huge surprise to see them struggling in such a manner when they now had to take a game to their opponents. They’d been, even if understandably, pretty conservative in the two previous matches they played in, lacking creativity and even the pace on the break that you’d expect to see from a side who had a clear plan of sitting deep. Rosický, because of his vision, technical ability and experience of breaking down defences, was sorely missed here against Turkey. Particularly when they were leaving that aforementioned space between the lines that he’d have thrived in.
Even if they may’ve still held some hopes when they were only 1-0 down, Tufan doubling Turkey’s lead from a set-piece in the middle of the second-half signalled the end of them. Crucially for Terim and his own side that gave Turkey the chance of progression that they were looking for, however in the end it didn’t prove to be enough. So ultimately a disappointing tournament for both of these saw them both go home at the end of the group stage.
21/06/16, Bordeaux – Croatia 2-1 Spain – Kalinić 45, Perišić 87; Morata 7
Regardless of how things went in the other game played on the third matchday of the group, Croatia and Spain were already through. Which one of them would finish top, however, was still to be decided, the former side needing a win while a draw would be enough for Spain to secure it. They kept things exactly the same once again, maintaining their 4-3-3, although Croatia made a number of changes – the most notable of which was their key player, Modrić, being left out due to his injury.
One thing they didn’t adjust, though, was the intensity they played at. Spain have shown vulnerability to high pressing, counter-attacking sides before, most famously in the 2014 World Cup against the Netherlands and Chile, and that was the approach that Croatia took here. They picked a risky but ultimately rewarding proactive defensive style, Rakitić often pushing up to man-mark Busquets and Nikola Kalinić (who started in place of the usual striker, Mandžukić) playing the role of blocking passing lanes or pressing the centre-backs. There were also looser man-orientations performed on Fàbregas and Iniesta by the deeper Croatian midfielders.
The dangers of leaving space to move up the field and pressure players became evident quite early on, when Čačić's team conceded in the 7th minute. It was a goal which originated from Spain getting Busquets free in the space behind the first line of Croatian pressure, and a couple of passes later they were through on goal thanks to a sumptuous reverse-ball by Silva when he cut in from the right flank. He played well, although once again because of his constant drifting infield there was definitely a noticeable focus towards the left side when Spain were attacking.
Regardless of a few of those instances where Spain got between the lines, Croatia held firm and stuck to their plan of limiting their opponents’ ball progression for the most part (although there were phases throughout where, presumably for the sake of energy conservation, they sat deeper) and looking to break. It yielded many opportunities for counter-attacks on a number of occasions, Perisic’s late winner being a prime example of such a chance, while other benefits were summed up when Rakitić hit the bar early on following a mistake by David De Gea when being closed down.
They did a great job of exploiting Spain’s surprisingly poor ability to defend transitions. Marko Pjaca, making his first start of the Euros, and Perišić were big beneficiaries of that in the wider areas, due to those being zones which Spain couldn’t keep covered effectively with their full-backs often high up. Credit should also be directed to Kalinić, his side’s other goalscorer, who ran a lot off the ball in these attacking situations, as well as on top of his contributions when Croatia didn’t have possession.
If not for Sergio Ramos missing a penalty when the score was at 1-1, however, the result could’ve been very different. Spain didn’t create too many great chances, aside from the spot-kick and Morata’s early goal, but they didn’t play badly by any means. It was pretty even overall, in fact. A point each perhaps would’ve been fairer. Though ultimately Croatia won it, finishing top of the group and completing a trio of three very strong performances from them.
13/06/16, Saint-Denis – Republic of Ireland 1-1 Sweden – Hoolahan 48; Clark 71 (og)
After both managing to finish bottom of their groups at Euro 2012, the Republic of Ireland and Sweden will have held hopes of improving on that this time round; especially with finishing third and still getting into the knockout rounds being a very distinct possibility. Seeing as Belgium and Italy were the other two teams in their group, representing two very tough games, there was a lot of pressure here on the opening match of Group E. Not only to win it, but also not to lose.
Martin O'Neill set his Irish side up in a narrow 4-3-1-2 shape, which had a real reliance on Robbie Brady and Seamus Coleman to push forward from the full-back areas in order to provide width and stretch the game. Their opponents also went with two upfront, including a certain Zlatan Ibrahimović as the star player, although Erik Hamrén had them in a more orthodox, flatter 4-4-2. Out of Brady and Coleman, it was Brady who was the more threatening in attack for Ireland. He pushed forward a lot, a movement which was often helped by their left-sided central midfielder, Jeff Hendrick, who at times adopted wider starting positions before then moving infield to allow the overlap.
The midfielder had a strong first-half in particular, hitting the bar and also rotating nicely with the lively Wes Hoolahan ahead of him, as Ireland were the better side by some distance in the opening 45 minutes. They didn’t create a ton of opportunities while having the better of things, saying that, unable to get Shane Long and Jon Walters too involved, but they took the lead just after the interval – Hoolahan scoring a lovely half-volley from inside the box after a cross by Coleman.
How Ireland reacted to taking the lead, though, having been on top beforehand, was weird. They started to sit deeper and deeper, a very sudden momentum shift in the favour of Sweden occurring as they began to put the pressure on. They’d done very little before then, not doing anything to test Darren Randolph in the opposing goal and finding combination play between their midfield and two strikers tough to execute. Ibrahimović's contribution had been limited to wider, deeper areas, and Marcus Berg had been practically non-existent.
Yet, as mentioned, things changed after the goal. John Guidetti replaced Berg, although the predominant reason for their situation improving was down to the left-back, Martin Olsson. Similar to Ireland they were quite focused on their left flank, and with Emil Forsberg playing a relatively narrow role (and with O’Neill’s side deep) there was acres of space for Olsson to push into. And even though he wasn’t involved in the goal, their equaliser came from some great combination play on that side.
Sweden didn’t actually have any shots on target, something that will have made conceding all the more irritating for Ireland. Especially for Ciaran Clark, who was the one that diverted the ball into his own net after Ibrahimović's cross. But having sat so deep, absorbing pressure for quite some time, the goal felt like it was coming in some way or another. Neither side managed to score again in the twenty minutes that followed, meaning a rather unsatisfactory point for each.
13/06/16, Lyon – Belgium 0-2 Italy – Giaccherini 32, Pellè 90+3
Quite possibly the most appealing match of all the group games took place in Lyon as a strong Belgium side, who many were tipping for success in the tournament, took on an extremely well-coached Italy. To many, Belgium are in their ‘golden generation’; whereas this Italian team was seen as one of their worst for years. Yet with Antonio Conte probably being the only world class manager at the tournament, and Wilmots regarded as one of the most underwhelming, Italy’s perceived disadvantage on a talent basis was completely swung the other way as they put in an excellent tactical display here.
Marc Wilmots set his side up in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel at the base of a strong midfield behind Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini and Kevin De Bruyne. Italy had a more unorthodox approach, in comparison to how most nations at the Euros were playing anyway, Conte picking the 3-5-2 system which he’s had so much success with in the past at Juventus. It was off the ball where they most showed cohesion, Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian being the wing-backs who played a key role in that, on top of their provision of attacking width.
Those two often dropped in line with Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini to form a back five, giving Italy great coverage both in the centre of the field (making Romelu Lukaku inaccessible for the Belgian midfield) and in the half-spaces. They’d often step up whenever the ball was played very wide, being covered by whoever the closest centre-back to them was, ensuring that whoever received possession didn’t have space to push forward and force Italy back. A mixture of zonal and man-marking in the middle ahead of the defence, including flexible positions from the midfielders who at times pushed up into the most advanced line to press, also really limited Belgium’s ability to move the ball through the midfield.
In attack, the extremely wide positions of Candreva and Darmian caused lots of problems for a while. If Belgium went out to mark them then the areas infield were left far too open for the intelligent, direct runs of Éder and Emanuele Giaccherini, and if not then they were free to get possession in space – something aided by the quality distribution of Italy’s centre-backs, who were often given time and space on the ball. Wilmots’ side were too open, and couldn’t find any of the defensive unity which their opponents could.
Bonucci used that space to set up Giaccherini for the opener with a quite exquisite long pass; the touch and finish were pretty impressive too. Their direct, vertical (not long balls, just quick ball movement) approach in attack was again demonstrated for their second on the counter-attack in injury time at the end of the game, scored by Graziano Pellè. Being so precise and clinical was certainly something Belgium could’ve done with on the ball and, though they did manage to craft some decent chances, for the most part their laboured, wing-orientated possession was pretty ineffective.
Having De Bruyne wide, and Fellaini as the number 10, was undoubtedly something that hurt their connectivity. Fellaini has his uses: playing in those areas against such a good defensive unit is not one of them. He was moved deep later on by Wilmots, when Dries Mertens was brought on for Nainggolan, however they were, even then, unable to do enough. It was the perfect start for Italy, and three points against their biggest rivals in the group put them in a strong position to go through.
17/06/16, Toulouse – Italy 1-0 Sweden – Éder 88
That superb showing against Belgium meant that Conte had little reason to change things around in their second game. As a result there was only one switch made, Alessandro Florenzi replacing Darmian as one of the wing-backs, and the 3-5-2 remained. Sweden had more reason to not keep things the same following a disappointing opening match though, Guidetti joining Ibrahimović up top as part of three changes they made.
In strong contrast for Italy though, their performance in Toulouse was a long, long way off the one they put in during the previous match. They conceded very few chances (Sweden again didn’t manage a shot on target), but they also created little of note too – a big disconnect forming in the midfield zones. The three centre-backs and Daniele De Rossi were considerably deeper than Giaccherini and Marco Parolo, the latter two often pushed far too high up and not staggered enough, leaving the centre relatively unoccupied and easy to block off.
As a result large periods of Italian possession involved them simply passing it around between the four deepest players, long passes and the wing-backs providing some outlet at times but they were largely ineffective. If anything they maybe resorted to building wide too often, making it easy for Sweden to make ball-orientated shifts to the side of play and quickly cut things out. A Marco Verratti figure (who missed out on the Euros through injury) to drop deeper near De Rossi and play on the turn in midfield was sorely missed here.
Even if Sweden were largely helped defensively by Italy’s own faults, it would be unfair not to give them any credit for maintaining their shape well. Their 4-4-2 covered the pitch well, Guidetti and Ibrahimović stopping the Italian defenders from having too much time on the ball despite being outnumbered, something which Belgium didn’t do. Further back, Albin Ekdal and Kim Källström did a good job of blocking possible passing lanes in midfield while the wider midfielders reacted quickly to the long diagonals that were played towards Candreva and Florenzi.
Like mentioned before, Sweden also failed to create anything of real note. They had similar issues with the ball to Conte’s side, their midfield occupation being a bit better in terms of the distances between their lines of players but a ‘U’ shape being formed when they tried circulating the ball. Neither Källström, nor Ekdal, were able to provide enough support to the front two either, even though Ibrahimovic was dropping closer to them to try and make things happen.
It was down to a moment of individual brilliance to settle things then, and that came courtesy of Éder in the 88th minute. A long throw on the left from Chiellini was flicked on by Simone Zaza into the path of his fellow striker, who picked up the ball, cut inside into the gap between Sweden’s defence and midfield, then struck the ball home from the edge of the box. A rather dull game, but Italy didn’t care a damn. With six points out of six they were now certainties to go through.
18/06/16, Bordeaux – Belgium 3-0 Republic of Ireland – Lukaku 48, 70, Witsel 61
Wilmots made three changes to his side from the disappointing game against Italy, shuffling the midfield around by taking Fellaini and Nainggolan out. That saw Mousa Dembélé and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco come into the side, with De Bruyne now taking up a more central role, while Thomas Meunier starting at right-back was the other new player in the starting eleven. Ireland only made one personnel switch themselves, left-back Stephen Ward replacing Walters, with Brady moving forward to the left midfield position of what was basically a 4-4-1-1.
One of the reasons behind Ireland swapping to that more defensive shape was presumably, as well as just because they’d want to be less attacking in general against superior opponents, due to Belgium’s threat in wide areas. They really struggled to cope with Olsson’s forays forward down Sweden’s left in the last game, and not having someone to permanently occupy those defensive zones in front of the full-backs against the likes of Hazard and Carrasco would pretty much be setting themselves up to lose before the game even started.
Even if it seemed like the right thing to do, though, the changes only had a mixed effect for them. At times it blocked off the centre of the pitch well, helping to make ball progression through those zones tougher for their opponents to execute, but when Belgium managed to bypass the first defensive line of Long and Hoolahan they were often able to move it further up the pitch and get De Bruyne involved. And if that didn’t happen, Belgium were very happy to focus play more towards the wings as they had more success in those areas than Ireland should have allowed them.
Some of that was simply because of the difference in quality, other times because of poor reaction to the movement of the ball by the Irish. Vertonghen and Meunier made themselves available on a number of occasions, and with Hazard and Carrasco making clever attacking movements they helped to open up space for them to push up into. Those runs often revolved around De Bruyne, the trio of attackers behind Lukaku showing lots of fluidity in the attacking midfield zones, although Ireland managed to stop them fully utilising those positions until the game got closer to the end.
When the space did open up for Belgium, they were far more clinical. With lots of fast, powerful players who can thus thrive in transitions, being able to counter is by some distance their most effective attacking weapon. One such instance of that was their first goal, Carrasco, De Bruyne and Lukaku combining to help the latter score in the aftermath of an Irish free-kick, and their third goal (Lukaku’s second) was eerily similar to that in the manner it occurred.
A Witsel goal in the middle of those following a cross from Meunier on the right side, where he and Carrasco had far too much time to create an opportunity for an accurate ball in, was the other goal they scored. They weren’t amazing by any means, not quite as good as a 3-0 win may suggest they were, anyway, but it was an improvement on the previous match and the points were fully deserved against an Irish side who didn’t manage a shot on target.
22/06/16, Lille – Italy 0-1 Republic of Ireland – Brady 85
With Italy not only guaranteed to progress but also to top the group because of their head-to-head advantage over Belgium, this match had absolutely nothing riding on it for them. They made wholesale changes, eight new faces coming in from their previous match as Conte took the opportunity to rest most of his starters, while for Ireland things couldn’t have been much more important – they had to win to stand a chance. They made four changes, switching shape again to what was a quite lopsided 4-3-3 shape.
Understandably, the Azzurri lacked any real cohesiveness in this match compared to what they can do. Such faults were mostly evident in possession, poor occupation of the midfield being a problem again, where they failed to retain the ball with any real purpose and didn’t cause any significant problems for Ireland in the final third. During the first-half they didn’t have a single shot until on the brink of half-time, and overall they had just one attempt on target. The performance bore far more resemblance to the Sweden one than the Belgium one.
Ireland, meanwhile, looked considerably improved. There was a really nice, high intensity about their play, not only in how they were moving the ball but in how they closed Italy down when they were out of possession. Long was a nuisance as ever, his pace being a real asset when it comes to being in the first phase of pressing, and that was supported by the majority of the team. James McCarthy and Hendrick in midfield deserve a special mention, as do the wider players for coping with Italy’s wing-backs when the ball was moved to the flanks.
Against a full strength Italian side it may not have worked quite so well, the structural issues of their clearly weakened opponents playing into Irish hands, but there shouldn’t be too much taken away from them for that. And as mentioned they utilised the ball effectively too, Hendrick and Brady, this time in a central role for his third different position of the tournament, probably being their two best players overall. Those two took up any chance they had to drive forward from midfield.
It seemed as if for all the pressure that they put on, O’Neill’s team weren’t going to get the goal they needed. Especially when substitute Hoolahan, brought on to add some more spark in the final third, missed a golden chance to stick one past Salvatore Sirigu in the 84th minute after good pressing high up the pitch saw a turnover. But just a minute later they finally got what they were looking for, Hoolahan not dwelling on his failure to score by putting in a superb cross from deep on the right for Brady to head home.
And they held on until the final whistle after that, the resulting three points being enough to see them through to the first knockout round. Italy would of course join them there, this loss being irrelevant for them in the grand scheme of things. Hell, Gianluigi Buffon even joined in with the celebrations of the side they just lost to. But for Ireland, as that showed, it was huge.
22/06/16, Nice – Sweden 0-1 Belgium – Nainggolan 84
Played simultaneously to the Ireland vs. Italy game, unlike that match the meeting between Sweden and Belgium had a meaning to it for both sides. The former knew that only a win would do, whereas Wilmots’ side simply needed to avoid defeat in order to guarantee progression. Each of the teams only changed one player, Berg starting upfront ahead of Guidetti for Sweden; Nainggolan preferred in midfield over Dembélé for the designated away side.
Belgium were certainly the most talented side out of the pair, even if they hadn’t really convinced in comparison to their expectations until now, but while they generally had the better of things here they again didn’t really turn their control into full dominance. They were surprisingly open without the ball, showing few signs of compactness and organisation which allowed a pretty toothless Swedish side the ability to create some decent chances. Having not had a single shot on target prior to this match, they managed four here.
In a similar way to the second-half of the Ireland game, their best route of attacking came down the left. Olsson didn’t have quite as much of an influence from left-back, sitting a little deeper than before, although Forsberg did well and managed to find some space between the lines whenever he got involved. It wasn’t uncommon to see Ibrahimovic dropping into those areas as well to find space and drag players around, particularly in the second-half when they had a greater percentage the ball and began to push more for the win that they needed.
Meanwhile, Belgium had the same old issues. Again, Nainggolan and Witsel offered minimal progression of the ball through the centre, play in turn being directed towards the wings. Vertonghen was the more advanced of the full-backs, their attacking being orientated ever so slightly more towards the left, but their inability to fully utilise that width and stretch Sweden meant that they played a surprising number of (ineffective) crosses into the box.
With Sweden going more attacking as the game went into the second 45 minutes however, it gave Belgium the chance to utilise their most dangerous weapon. They may have been poor in normal possession phases, but at least they didn’t disappoint on the break. De Bruyne was at the heart of most of that, enjoying the space that he was now gifted, and they forced Andreas Isaksson into a number of saves as he attempted to keep his side in the game.
There was nothing he could do about Nainggolan’s superb strike late on though, a goal which meant Sweden were ultimately unable to improve on their performance in the same competition from four years ago. It also meant that Belgium went through in second behind Italy on their head-to-head record, despite being rather underwhelming, and giving them time to improve things ahead of the knockout round.
14/06/16, Bordeaux – Austria 0-2 Hungary – Szalai 62, Stieber 87
Group F’s opening match took place in Bordeaux, where Austria faced Hungary. The former were considered as one of the potential dark horses of the tournament by many people, and with a first-choice midfield of David Alaba, Julian Baumgartlinger and Zlatko Junuzović it wasn’t hard to see why. They started all three of those as part of their 4-2-3-1 system, a shape that was matched by a Hungary side who came into this group as outsiders.
With a lot of the smaller nations being more content to sit deep and absorb pressure in this tournament, though, Hungary really stood out from the crowd. Bernd Storck’s team, somewhat surprisingly, took a much more expansive approach, selecting a very technically gifted midfield trio of their own. The experienced Zoltán Gera joined his much younger Ferencváros teammate Ádám Nagy at the base of it, Nagy being the slightly deeper of the pair, while László Kleinheisler operated as the playmaker higher up the field. As a result, they were able to not only retain the ball and use that as an outlet from pressure, but to also control the game for quite some time.
They also had a tricky, pacey threat in the wide area to complement their good central play too, allowing them to stretch the play and take up wide shapes with good spacing. That came in the form of Balázs Dzsudzsák on the right who caused problems when he had the ball, and over on the opposite side of the pitch Krisztián Németh, naturally a striker, did a nice job of getting involved too.
While Hungary were circulating the ball smoothly, Austria generally weren’t. Things had almost got off to the perfect start for them when Alaba strode forward and smashed a vicious strike against the post early on, but things slowly deteriorated for them as Alaba’s influence waned in value. At times he probably tried to do too much, actually, providing more good runs but forcing vertical passes which didn’t pay off. Marc Janko’s own limitations as a striker also showed, and without service into him he was largely ineffectual.
Ádám Szalai gave Hungary a deserved lead in the 62nd minute and it got even worse for Austria shortly after, Aleksandar Dragović getting a second yellow card and being forced to leave the field. That meant they had to play with a man less, hardly ideal when you’re chasing a game and especially not against a Hungary side who were using the ball so nicely.
Quite unsurprisingly in the context of the game, then, Hungary managed to double their lead before the end. Zoltán Stieber, who replaced the excellent Kleinheisler with about ten minutes remaining, scored it, and that secured a magnificent three points for them. For Austria, it was the worst possible start – and they’d need to recover from it quickly if they wanted to match the expectations placed upon them.
14/06/16, Saint-Étienne – Portugal 1-1 Iceland – Nani 31; Bjarnason 50
Despite having Cristiano Ronaldo and a number of other talented players in their ranks, Portugal came into this edition of the Euros with the expectations around them relatively low. Fernando Santos’ side certainly didn’t display the fluidity that’s typically associated with the country’s national team during qualifying, but they did at least demonstrate real defensive solidity and the ability to play as a team off the ball – something that not enough sides at this level are truly capable of.
Funnily enough, their first game took place against one of the few that similarly pride themselves on that. Iceland were the fairy tale of international football going into this tournament, having enjoyed a meteoric rise in their standings during the last few years, and how they coped with their first major competition was sure to be of real interest. They set-up in a rather basic 4-4-2 shape, while Portugal were in what was effectively a 4-1-3-2. Defensively that flattened out to become more of a 4-4-2, but how they were off the ball wasn’t something that was seen too regularly during this match.
Portugal dominated possession for the majority of the game, showing some really nice movement patterns on the flanks and in the half-spaces to progress the ball, as well as to open up spaces for Raphaël Guerreiro and Vierinha to bomb forward from the full-back areas. That typically orientated around André Gomes and João Mario moving infield from wider starting positions, although the varied drifting of Nani and Ronaldo upfront in tandem with that made it even more complicated for Iceland to deal with. Other than Danilo Pereira at the base of the midfield, everyone had lots of freedom in the first-half.
An excellently worked goal on the right side between André Gomes and Vierinha was indicative of that, and their ability to break through Iceland’s defensive structure. Lars Lagerbäck’s team on the other hand really struggled to get on the ball throughout, being too passive to force turnovers and often then just giving it away cheaply in the instances they had it. That was partly because of a plan to be deliberately direct though, utilising knockdowns and direct runs from midfield, and they managed to equalise through such a method just after half-time.
On top of the obvious benefits of scoring, Iceland’s defensive play was notably better in that second-half – the shape was perhaps a bit less rigid, but there was encouragement to press Portugal now and that helped to notably reduce the effectiveness of their possession game. They still had a high number of attempts at goal, the vast majority being courtesy of a determined but clearly frustrated Ronaldo, though a greater portion of them came from less dangerous zones outside of the box now.
That inability to create too much (and ultimately, score) against the improved Iceland meant that it wasn’t just Ronaldo who was annoyed at the end of the game from a Portuguese perspective. Getting only a point after mostly dominating was a pretty unfair reflection of their performance, which will have given lots of positives for Santos to work with, although for Iceland it was without question a fantastic result on their debut of the competition.
18/06/16, Marseille – Iceland 1-1 Hungary – Sigurðsson 40 (p); Sævarsson 88 (og)
Lagerbäck was happy enough to keep things exactly the same for Iceland’s second game, his side having had a considerably better second-half against Portugal and shown a real cohesiveness about them as a team. They faced Hungary here, who managed to get off to an even more impressive start, and they made three changes to before. One of those was in defence, which saw Ádám Lang moving from centre-back to right-back as a result, and the other two saw Szalai and Németh drop out of the side.
This was a meeting of two very different teams, even if the expectations surrounding both were similar. Where Iceland’s best aspect was their organisation and defensive acumen, Hungary’s was their ability to build play and circulate the ball nicely – and this match pretty much followed that basic theme from start to finish. Hungary dominated possession and tried to tactfully break down their opponents, although in contrast to the Austria game for the most part they struggled here and Iceland held firm in their 4-4-2.
Jón Daði Böðvarsson and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson played a key part in enabling their plan to work, the two strikers not only offering outlets for their direct attacking method but also pressing excellently and slowing Hungary’s build-up play down. By blocking the route into the midfield of Gera and Nagy it forced their opponents to build play in wider zones initially, as shown by the amount of touches that the full-backs (Tamás Kádár and Lang) had in comparison to everyone else on their team. There were also some excellent ball-orientated shifts of movement from the midfield too.
When Hungary circulated the ball from one side to another, Iceland would follow. Aron Gunnarsson and Gylfi Sigurðsson plugged the midfield well and either side of them the wider midfielders, Birkir Bjarnason and Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, were quick to push up whenever the full-backs tried to advance with the ball. In combination with the strikers they helped to form elements of pressing traps, forcing play wide before then closing it off with the aid of the touchline. They never really won the ball directly from these scenarios, but Iceland made Hungary work very hard to create the few chances which they crafted.
Iceland didn’t really turn more defensive after Sigurðsson gave them the lead from the penalty spot in the first-half, following a foul from goalkeeper Gábor Király, but naturally they slowly dropped deeper and became easier to bypass the more the game went on. Against the low block Hungary resorted to crosses to a greater extent, albeit certainly not to the point of going over the top with them like most sides, and it was a ball into the box from a wider position which ultimately forced Birkir Már Sævarsson to score a late own goal and get Hungary a point.
Typically of their style, though, it wasn’t really a cross – more just good link-up play around the right half-space before squaring the ball across the face of goal. It was the kind of thing that Iceland hadn’t enabled them to do for most of the game, putting in a very good defensive display, but Hungary’s technical ability shone through there. And with that point secured, added onto the three they got in their first match, the situation elsewhere meant that Hungary were quite incredibly guaranteed to go through ahead of their last match against Portugal.
18/06/16, Paris – Portugal 0-0 Austria
Following a good performance but disappointing result against Iceland, Santos made two changes to his starting line-up for the game against Austria. They saw Danilo and João Mário taken out and replaced by William Carvalho and Ricardo Quaresma. For Austria it was just a straight up awful way to open the tournament, frankly, and it was worsened by them having to make two forced changes here – one being Dragović due to his suspension, of course, the other being Junuzović after picking up a knock to his knee. Janko was also dropped from the side, replaced upfront by the talented youngster Marcel Sabitzer.
As part of their changes, Alaba was pushed up from his deeper role in midfield to become the playmaker behind Sabitzer. The player who usually operates at left-back at club level is possibly the most versatile in world football, having shown capabilities of performing in that zone numerous times under Pep Guardiola, but having him start this high in this game ultimately just left him very isolated behind the Portuguese midfield. Baumgartlinger and Stefan Ilsanker were unable to progress the ball effectively enough to make him a threat; and Austria created very little on the ball as a result.
For the majority of the game Portugal had possession though, and for the second time in a row they were tasked with trying to break down a good defensive unit (it was usually a 4-5-1 off the ball for Austria, although Alaba would sometimes be in line with Sabitzer). Portugal’s own possession shape was more of a 4-3-3 in this match, Ronaldo’s starting position being wider, Nani’s in the centre, and with Quaresma being the wide option on the right. Ronaldo had a slightly freer role than everyone else, but again there was lots of movement, André Gomes receiving the ball between the lines a number of times in his more central role and benefitting from the runs of those ahead of him.
Yet for all the fluidity, there was again, quite weirdly, a notably individualistic side to them in attack. The movements around each other were there, but the combination play to convert possession in the final third into chances wasn’t. It’s perhaps to be expected of that front three, seeing as none of them are exactly renowned for that aspect of their game, and a significant number of their attempts on goal came from outside the box. Their best came from the penalty spot towards the end of the second-half, although Ronaldo struck the post with his effort in what was another frustrating game for him.
They did at least have reasons to be positive again though, particularly from a defensive perspective, restricting Austria to four shots and holding a good structure which made it really difficult for their opponents to progress the ball from deep. Portugal’s high starting position, due to them having a lot of the ball up the field, played a part in that. Although Austria didn’t always help themselves when it came to the gap between their deeper players and the attacking four.
So it ended all-square, with Portugal left to rue that penalty miss. They still had a very good chance to qualify even after two frustrating draws, especially coming up against a Hungary side who knew they were already through, but losing was certainly not an option. For Austria, who disappointed again, it was the same kind of scenario – but they needed to win instead.
22/06/16, Saint-Denis – Iceland 2-1 Austria – Böðvarsson 18, Traustason 90+4; Schöpf 60
Both Iceland and Austria had hopes of qualifying going into the final round of games in Group F, each knowing that a win would be sufficient to see them through in some way or other. Iceland kept exactly the same team again with the aim of achieving that, although a draw was also enough in their situation, while Austria made just the one change from their meeting with Portugal a few days before – Dragović coming back into the side after his suspension for Martin Harnik.
Austria did make quite a drastic systematic switch though. Having used a 4-2-3-1 in both of their previous matches, here Marcel Koller opted for more of a fluid 3-4-3 type shape which became a 5-3-2 defensively. Christian Fuchs and Florian Klein played as the two wing-backs, the midfield two consisting of Baumgartlinger and Ilsanker in the continued absence of Junuzović, while Alaba played an advanced central role alongside Sabitzer and Marko Arnautovic up top (who’d had a very quiet tournament throughout). Alaba didn’t really play as a striker, though, more as a false nine who dropped deeper to try and be involved more.
One of the benefits of having the three centre-backs was that Austria found it easier to avoid the first line of pressing from Böðvarsson and Sigþórsson, but what it also meant was that they had one less player in the midfield than usual. That evened things out in the centre, an equality which played into Iceland’s hands due to the good defensive structure which they displayed again, and the wider Austrian centre-backs (Dragović and Martin Hinteregger), though good technically, never made use of being the free men. And just like in the Portugal game, despite him dropping deeper they struggled to get Alaba on the ball anywhere near as much as they should’ve.
He had the least touches of all Austrian players in the first-half, in fact, and in combination with their attacking troubles they went into the break at 1-0 down. Böðvarsson got the goal from a long throw-in which Iceland utilised well, while Dragović spurned a chance to equalise from a penalty towards the end of the half. They changed back to a more common shape then though, Janko and Alessandro Schöpf coming on in place of Ilsanker and Sebastian Prödl during half-time. That saw them play in a 4-3-3, Janko now leading the line and Alaba further back in the centre of midfield alongside Schöpf.
Those two were given lots of freedom to push forward due to Baumgartlinger playing as the deep-lying midfielder, and the switch enabled a far better, more direct way of playing to occur. Both combined for their equalising goal in the 60th minute, an excellently worked one at that, and with the three in midfield they now outnumbered Iceland to finally turn their control of the ball (which they had in the first-half but didn’t really utilise) into a dominance of the match. Iceland, who at this rate were still on for the point which they needed to qualify, seemed content to sit back as usual but couldn’t ever really break out.
Not until right at the end, anyway, when Arnór Ingvi Traustason got the winner on the counter-attack in the final minute of injury time. It secured their first ever win in their inaugural international tournament, enough to see them through to the knockout stage – and enough to ensure that Austria’s hugely disappointing tournament ended with a bitter blow. The real damage for them was done in the time prior to these 45 minutes of football, though. But for Iceland, at least, the dream went on.
22/06/16, Lyon – Hungary 3-3 Portugal – Gera 19, Dzsudzsák 47, 55; Nani 42, Ronaldo 50, 62
Hungary knew that they were already through prior to this match so it wasn’t a surprise to see them rotate their team quite significantly for it, five first-team players from the last game (including the two best performers until now, Kleinheisler and Nagy) being rotated. It was a different situation for Portugal, who knew that they just needed a draw regardless of the other match that was being played on the final day in the group. They made two changes, Santos swapping Guerreiro out for Eliseu and Quaresma being replaced by João Mário.
Really open football wasn’t something that we’d seen a lot of in this tournament throughout the group stages, one of the (typically smaller) nations usually opting to play fairly deep in the majority of games, but both of these sides had exhibited lots of attacking impetus in their other matches. And they each did here as well, Portugal having more of the ball and able to progress it relatively easily against a not particularly structured Hungary; while Storck’s side pushed lots of men forward when they got possession back.
It was the team who didn’t need anything from the match who took the lead, Gera scoring a superb half-volley from the edge of the box following a corner to put Hungary 1-0 up. They won that corner after a quick break, and following that they continued to try their best to attack in such a manner. In a similar sense they were also quite proactive defensively, strong elements of man-marking in their defensive strategy being one of the reasons why Portugal were having success in moving the ball up the field.
Portugal got things level in the 42nd minute through Nani, but it was from half-time onwards where things turned truly manic – four goals being scored in the first 17 minutes of the second-half. There was some small pattern to all the madness at least, the lively Dzsudzsák putting Hungary into the lead for a second and third time with two deflected goals from outside the box, while Ronaldo got both of Portugal’s equalisers in that period.
Santos’ team had been pretty unlucky in front of goal before this game, their one goal scored being very unreflective of how well they’d played. Frustratingly for them, then, it was the match in which those troubles finally ended thanks to some good combination play in the final third where their defensive luck went fully out the window. That’s not to say that they were good without the ball in this game, because their transitional defence was surprisingly poor by their standards here, but conceding three was pretty unfortunate in terms of the quality of chances.
Luckily they didn’t have even more go against them, though, seeing as they needed at least a draw to go through. And they just about got it in the end, the rather frantic, exciting game ending 3-3. Iceland’s really late winner meant they went through as one of the two best third-placed sides, meaning they ended up in the more favourable half of the draw, while Hungary also secured top of the group because of this point. So it was a happy result for all involved.