Round of 16:
25/06/16, Saint-Étienne – Switzerland 1-1 Poland (4-5 p) – Shaqiri 82; Błaszczykowski 39
The first tie of the knockout round saw the meeting of two pretty decent sides who had both finished second in their group, yet were fortunate enough to end up in what looked to be the ‘easier’ half of the draw. As a result, and with each having reasons to be positive about who they were playing in this stage, Poland and Switzerland could harbour similar hopes of doing something seriously impressive in the competition provided they could get through here. Neither side did anything special or unique with their teams, both sticking to the 4-2-3-1 that had got them through to this point.
It was just a couple of selections here and there which were up for debate in reality; for Switzerland, Seferovic was chosen to lead the line, while Grosicki was preferred on Poland’s left wing ahead of the talented youngster Kapustka. And things almost got off to the perfect start for Poland when Djourou sloppily gave the ball away while under pressure on the edge of his own box after Sommer played it short to him. Fortunately for him, Milik missed the opportunity that arose, but worryingly for his team it was an indication of what had been (and would remain to be for some time) issues with their general building of play.
While Djourou, Schär and Xhaka outnumbered Lewandowski and Milik, who pushed up alongside his attacking partner to switch Poland into a 4-4-2 off the ball, they found it difficult to initially bypass the first line of pressure because of both the speed they were playing and the predictability of their structure. That slowed Switzerland’s overall ball possession down, enabling their opponents time to shape themselves and become more compact. Over time they began to make a more wing-orientated approach though, building more in the half-spaces and wide areas to help avoid pressure.
In contrast to that, Poland’s biggest strength with the ball was probably their ability to attack at speed; their first-half goal was scored on the break right after a Swiss corner, Fabiański throwing the ball out for Grosicki to carry it all the way to the opposing box and set Błaszczykowski up to finish. Possession had been relatively even until that point, and they’d used it decently with Lewandowski and Milik alternating positions more and the two wingers being very direct in their play. Naturally, though, Switzerland had more of the ball throughout the rest of the game as they looked to break down Poland.
It took a moment of sheer brilliance late in normal time from Shaqiri to finally draw Petkovic’s team level, arguably the goal of the tournament actually, and that took the game to extra-time. With Switzerland having made all three of their subs already while chasing the game (leaving a pretty attacking side on the field) and Poland still having theirs all remaining there was potential for it to be interesting, yet in reality very little of note happened.
So it went to penalties, which in a somewhat different tone to the rest of the game were very impressively executed. Nine of the ten were buried, even against two goalkeepers who have pretty good records from spot-kicks in the past, and it was a Xhaka miss which eventually settled things. Thin margins, but Poland, who weren’t overly impressive on the day but were looking like a really tough side to beat overall, would happily take it. They progressed.
25/06/16, Paris – Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland – McAuley 75 (og)
Wales’ reward for somewhat surprisingly topping their group ahead of England was a tie against another British side, Northern Ireland, who in both sheer quality and performance terms were the worst team to get through to the round of sixteen. But though in that regard it was the best draw that Coleman could have hoped for his team to get, on a stylistic level they had an opponent who were quite an awkward match-up for them.
That’s because their best performances have come when there’s space to exploit in attack – and based on their past three matches you could be pretty certain that the Northern Irish weren’t going to allow it to be an open game. They set-up in what looked like a 4-5-1 but typically played out as more of an asymmetric 5-3-2 without the ball, while Wales deployed their standard 3-5-2 which had Bale playing slightly off Vokes as the two most advanced attackers.
Defensively, Northern Ireland had a notable focus on man-marking, rather than simply positioning themselves zonally. That was represented in the lopsided nature of their formation, where Dallas on the left often dropped deep to allow Jonny Evans more freedom in his positioning. For the most part that simply meant him moving infield to be a centre-back as normal, but at other times he could be aggressive and step up onto Bale when the Welsh star moved towards the right side and looked to combine with Ramsey.
The balance on the right was different. Instead of just having one player on that side, as Dallas was on the left, Aaron Hughes played as the right-back while Ward was pushed closer to Lafferty upfront. He helped to press the Welsh build-up play from those areas often, also aiding the prevention of access into the midfield where Northern Ireland were slightly outnumbered if Bale dropped deep enough. Steven Davis, Corry Evans and Oliver Norwood did an excellent, disciplined defensive job in there to combat that too.
Possession was surprisingly even between the British sides, but less shocking was the fact that neither created much throughout the game. How Wales attacked at pace was one of the reasons they’d been so enjoyable to watch until now and, even if they did show some hints of good rotation in midfield in an attempt to avoid the man-marking, their opposition did a fine job of preventing that from happening here. They only managed one shot on target throughout, a tally surpassed by a defensive Northern Ireland’s measly three.
One goal in a very tense, strategic game was probably the absolute most anyone could realistically ask for then; something which finally came in the 75th minute when McAuley unfortunately turned the ball into his own net after Bale put in an excellent cross from the left flank. It was harsh on Northern Ireland to concede after such a disciplined defensive display, and Wales could count themselves fortunate for it to not go on to at least extra-time, but that was that. Coleman’s team went through.
25/06/16, Lens – Croatia 0-1 Portugal – Quaresma 117
Aside from Italy playing Spain, the meeting of these two in Lens looked like quite arguably the tie of the round. Croatia had put in three excellent performances in the group stages to attract lots of attention to themselves, including a very impressive win over La Roja, and while Portugal only narrowly scraped through in the end they had still, less overtly, played quite well. So how the pair would fare against each other was sure to be a really interesting tactical match-up.
Luckily it at least didn’t hugely disappoint in that sense, because as a pure spectacle the game had very little going for it at all. There were no shots on target during full-time, both sides really struggling to create anything, and just one real flurry of action right at the end of the extra-time period where the substitute Quaresma got the goal that put them through. Aside from that, it was very much a case of the two sides stifling each other for the majority of the game.
Portugal, in their 4-4-2 with André Gomes and João Mário as the wider players, had quite a notable orientation towards man-marking in the midfield when they didn’t have the ball. Nani and Ronaldo covered the half-spaces on their respective side of the pitch, preventing the Croatian centre-backs from carrying possession forward, while the space in the centre of those two was often covered by Adrien Silva. He pushed up onto Modrić whenever he tried to receive the ball off the defenders in those areas, preventing him from turning and controlling the game as effectively as he’s done in his other appearances at the tournament.
In the instances when Croatia did manage to bypass that first press, Adrien Silva was (if he had moved forward) quick to drop and the rest of their midfield closed in well. There was an impressive horizontal compactness about that line of four, completed by William Carvalho, them all sticking to their respective men and making it very difficult for the ball to be progressed centrally again. It meant there was a significant disconnect between Rakitić and the other two midfielders, the Barcelona man constantly blocked off, with Badelj and Modrić forced too deep to aid with the initial build-up phases to access him. There was space out wide, which Srna made good use of every so often on the right, but the most dangerous areas were all plugged off.
As for Portugal’s struggles in possession, a lack of fluidity and an inability to utilise the pace of Nani and Ronaldo was hurtful to them. André Gomes being quite off-colour and far less progressive than usual didn’t help, especially in what was a fairly defensive-minded midfield selection. He was replaced by Sanches shortly after half-time, and though he didn’t have an enormous impact the teenager provided some more ball-carrying threat and pace in the midfield to stretch things a bit more later on. The introduction of Quaresma just before the full-time whistle, who of course ended up scoring the winner, also gave them more them more to possibly worry Croatia during extra-time.
It was a less cagey match in extra-time, but that was more due to the decline of the good defensive structures from both rather than a notable rise in the quality of attacking play. Portugal got their goal though, countering Croatia and knocking out a side who had looked so impressive until now, leaving them to get through to the quarter-finals still without having won a much in normal time.
26/06/16, Lyon – France 2-1 Republic of Ireland – Griezmann 58, 61; Brady 2 (p)
France didn’t look overly brilliant in their group stage performances but, in between the defensive flaws and slight lack of attacking connectivity which they exhibited, the hallmarks of a very good side were undoubtedly there. Solving those issues going forward would be key to France making a real positive impact on their own tournament, and in Ireland they had an opponent who, though certainly not a bad side, were one they could expect to beat and offered an opportunity for them to refine themselves at the same time. Conceding a penalty and going 1-0 down within two minutes, then, was certainly not in their script.
It was Robbie Brady, the scorer from the Italy match, who got it, and with France thus having to chase the game it gave them the perfect excuse to prioritise playing on the break. They didn’t show much proactivity with possession, preferring to go long towards Daryl Murphy rather than trying anything ambitious through building play, and there was a distinct focus towards their right flank when attacking. Murphy and Shane Long would often be in close proximity to each other on that side in the hope of a knockdown or the chance to take the more vulnerable Evra on.
Without the ball their 4-3-3 system would often become more of a flat 4-5-1: and how France did, eventually, break through that, was the real story of the rest of the game. At first they struggled though, building play nicely and exploiting Ireland’s man-orientation in the midfield but being unable to make use of the spaces which then appeared after that. Some of that was simply down to poor technical execution, although very predictable movement patterns (Payet and Griezmann moving infield, nobody making runs beyond Giroud) which were evident in their previous matches also made up a big reason for that.
The key moment in the turnaround came at half-time, when Kanté was taken off for Coman. As a result of that, France changed from the standard 4-3-3 to what was effectively a 4-2-3-1, a shape which Deschamps has used before – but this time with Griezmann moving into a central position behind Giroud. It’s an area of the pitch which he’s more used to operating in at club level, allowing him to get involved to a greater extent and eventually score the goals which carried France through to the quarter-finals.
Rather than starting wide and constantly drifting infield, Griezmann’s movement could now be a lot more varied. He could help to link things up in the number 10 area when France were building play, moving from one side to another in order to offer a possible passing option, as well as being better placed to make penetrative runs at pace beyond Giroud when he held up the ball. The striker’s hold-up play was certainly something that France hadn’t utilised enough up until then. Griezmann’s second goal, where he burst past the defence following a Giroud knockdown, showed the threat of it when used properly.
Griezmann even helped to get someone sent off in the middle of the second-half, too. Shane Duffy was the one forced into bringing him down on the edge of the box, a brilliant show of pace from the Frenchman setting him through on goal if not for the foul, leading to Ireland having to play with a man less for the remainder of the game while chasing a lead. And unsurprisingly, clawing it back with such a disadvantage proved to be too much for them. So thanks to Deschamps’ changes and an excellent second-half from Griezmann, France went through to the quarter-finals.
26/06/16, Lille – Germany 3-0 Slovakia – Boateng 8, Gomez 43, Draxler 63
Having looked like a force to be reckoned with for the majority of their three games so far, Germany (setting up in their usual 4-2-3-1) had a right to be confident whoever they’d be facing in the next round – and as it turned out, it was Slovakia. Kozák’s team had looked alright themselves, especially on the counter with Hamšík at the core, so that was something for the Germans to be careful of, but without a doubt there was quite a significant quality difference between the sides. And that certainly showed on the day.
Germany’s main source of dominance was established, like usual, during their build-up phase. The line of three formed by Kroos dropping alongside Hummels and Boateng (from left to right) was spread across the pitch nicely, allowing the two on the outside to operate in the half-spaces away from Slovakia’s sporadic but largely uncoordinated attempts to press them in their 4-1-4-1 system. It was easy for one of those three to become the spare man and then have space to either push forward or be able to distribute in a more penetrative manner. Khedira similarly had room to use when he occupied his deeper starting position.
Their width, offered almost constantly by Hector and Kimmich, as well as great spacing from the rest of the players in the centre of the pitch, made it easy to circulate the ball at an excellent pace. Having the full-backs take up such a high position forced Weiss and Kucka to track them back fairly regularly too, and like against Northern Ireland when their opponents’ wider midfielders weren’t narrow enough that helped to give Germany even more control in the middle. Them vacating such a dangerous area and Slovakia pressing inefficiently as a unit was a dream for Löw and his side.
Out of the players higher up the pitch it was probably Draxler towards the left side who benefited from all this the most. He put in one of the best individual attacking displays of the tournament, easily finding himself gaps inside thanks to Hector’s positioning on the flank and constantly taking on – and beating – whoever attempted to close him down when he received the ball. A goal in the 63rd minute was a just reward for his efforts, though a superb assist for Gomez twenty minutes earlier meant he’d already made a decisive contribution by that point.
Naturally Germany’s performance level dropped in general during the second-half with the score being 2-0 at the interval (Boateng had given Germany an early lead), and Slovakia gave a good account of themselves either side of Draxler delivering the killer third goal. Ján Greguš coming on for Weiss and a switch to what mostly played as a narrower 4-3-2-1 helped with that, giving them some support closer to the previously isolated Ďuriš upfront and allowing for some decent combination play when they pushed higher up the field.
But even with them growing into the game Germany saw it out rather comfortably, Slovakia’s decent debut in the tournament ending in a round of sixteen exit. For Germany, then, their convincing win and one of the best 45 minute displays of the competition was more than enough to send them through to the quarter-finals.
26/06/16, Toulouse – Hungary 0-4 Belgium – Alderweireld 10, Batshuayi 78, Hazard 80, Carrasco 90+1
Hungary and Belgium playing each other was something of a meeting between the biggest overachievers and largest underachievers of the Euros up until this point. The former had surprisingly got through in first place of what looked like it would be a very tough group for them, whereas Belgium had, though they looked decent enough at times, not done much to live up to the hype that people were giving them prior to the start of the tournament.
The aspect of their play which Belgium had managed to really excel at until now, however, was when they had chances to attack at real speed. And even in the early stages of the game they were given a lot of space to make use of by Hungary, who were looking to be very expansive in possession and maintained a wide shape in their 4-2-3-1 (a system that Belgium also played) with the full-backs pushed high. That especially gave Hazard and Mertens opportunities to burst beyond them when turnovers occurred, or at the very least get into one-on-ones with Lang and Kádár respectively, as well as the centre of the field being rather open for De Bruyne to thrive in.
Most of the time Mertens would attack more directly down the wing, whereas Hazard had greater variety in his movement and often moved narrower. Not only did that get him into more dangerous central positions, it also helped him to combine with De Bruyne and Lukaku quite regularly. In normal phases of possession Vertonghen was a beneficiary of that drifting from Hazard due to it allowing him more space to push forward from that less familiar left-back position of his.
In terms of how open they were, Hungary conceding an early goal courtesy of Alderweireld certainly didn’t help them. The likelihood though is that they would’ve maintained their openness regardless, as even the first few minutes before the goal showed, and keeping a solid structure without the ball hasn’t really been one of their strengths – a pairing of Gera and Nagy at the base of the midfield is hardly the most secure thing in the world. With the ball they were better at least, Dzsudzsák and Nagy looking good as they had for most of the tournament. An injury to the playmaker Kleinheisler in the warm-up was a blow to them, however.
Despite creating numerous chances to kill the game after that opener, it took Belgium until deep into the second-half for them to finally double their lead. Michy Batshuayi got that one, scoring with his first touch having come off the bench, and that signalled the opening of the floodgates; Hazard scored a superb goal on the break just a couple of minutes later to seal a stunning showing from him, and then Carrasco (also a sub) added a fourth in injury time.
It was a disappointing way to go out for Hungary, just because of the sheer extremity of the score, but overall they had a tournament which undoubtedly surpassed their expectations. Belgium, meanwhile, managed to finally meet theirs. They went through to the last eight, where a tie against another underdog, Wales, awaited them.
27/06/16, Saint-Denis – Italy 2-0 Spain – Chiellini 33, Pellè 90+1
The real highlight of the round of sixteen came in Saint-Denis where Italy’s clash against Spain took place. It was a rematch of the final in 2012, when a dominant La Roja side came out 4-0 winners over the Azzurri, but there were no signs of a repeat happening here; Conte being a master of adjusting his teams to deal with specific game situations and opponents. For Del Bosque, meanwhile, as of late that’s been something which he’s been far from good at doing. He selected exactly the same line-up in a 4-3-3 yet again, and Italy reverted back to usual after a rotated selection in their last, meaningless group game.
Italy often opted for a strong focus on man-marking in this match, and straight away their dynamic, intense pressing looked to be a real problem for Spain. High up the pitch the trio of Piqué, Ramos and Busquets were given no time to build play in the middle by Éder, Giaccherini and Pellè. Slightly further back, De Rossi and Parolo covered the central midfield areas with great energy. And on the wings, De Sciglio and Florenzi adopted higher positions initially to ensure that Alba and Juanfran couldn’t represent easy outlets on the wings.
There was a big disconnect between Spain’s three attackers and the rest of their side when Italy adopted that structure. As a result, possession was given away pretty cheaply on a few occasions where hopeful long passes were played in the air towards Morata – which, even if he won them, were quick to be cut out by Italy at the second time of asking. It was quite evident during goal kicks, actually, a phase where Italy often had three players pushed extremely high to make it almost impossible for De Gea to play it short.
As the game went on, and particularly after half-time (which Italy went into 1-0 up thanks to a Chiellini goal), a deeper shape from the Azzurri saw Spain able to gain more territory and be less pressured when developing possession. That was a structure which still proved effective for Italy though, with Pellè still typically man-marking Busquets while the midfield flooded into the centre and outnumbered Spain. It was very tough for Fàbregas and Iniesta to find any space amongst all that, and while Silva comparatively had a bit more joy drifting from his wider starting position it was still a largely limited impact.
That aforementioned lack of situational adaptability from Del Bosque’s La Roja meant they never looked like finding a way to maintain their style and overcome Italy. Instead of little tweaks, there was quite a drastic switch and a strong focus was then placed on overloading the box and using the full-backs to cross the ball into Morata and (half-time substitute) Aritz Aduriz. But against the Juventus core that Italy have at the back, that was never really going to yield any success. Even without the benefit of hindsight, most people could work that out. And Del Bosque did revert back to his initial strategy again in the closing stages of the game, but ultimately with no success.
Despite the lack of focus on it, Italy actually put in a very competent attacking display on top of how well they defended too. They made the pitch big by utilising the width of their wing-backs, avoiding Spain’s struggled attempts to press them before going back towards the middle and searching for the pairing of Éder and Pellè. It wasn’t pure counter-attacking like most teams do against sides like Spain; it was a very effective display of vertical passing and the manipulation of space. They got a highly deserved second late on, putting a bit more gloss onto what was one of the best all-round displays you’ll see of a team in international football. And, of course, they went through as a result of it.
27/06/16, Nice – England 1-2 Iceland – Rooney 4 (p); Sigurðsson 6, Sigþórsson 18
While people were largely disappointed that England had only picked up five points on the road to finishing second in their group, for the most part their performances until this point had been up there with some of the better sides in the tournament. So Hodgson didn’t really have much reason to change things going into their first knockout round tie against underdogs Iceland, keeping with the 4-3-3 system that he’d used throughout, while Lagerbäck stuck with the 4-4-2.
And keeping in tone with those good showings, things began off very well for England in Nice. Sterling won a penalty early on, giving them a chance to put themselves into the lead within just four minutes which Rooney converted. After that, though, a promising start quickly turned into a disaster. It took Iceland two minutes to equalise, and not long afterwards they’d established a lead for themselves – leaving England to try and break down their defensive structure for the rest of the game. Something which, despite playing well in general, they had struggled with until now.
Iceland didn’t hold a particularly deep line in comparison to England’s previous opponents, which left space for Sterling and Sturridge to run beyond, but other than in the passage of play which led to the penalty they were largely unable to exploit it. A large part of the reason for that was the pressure that the Icelandic forwards put on, Böðvarsson (who also dropped deep to pick up Dier when necessary) and Sigþórsson closing down with real intensity and regularly forcing sideways or backwards passing during the early build-up phase.
That slowed everything down for England, and with Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling being unable to split lines with vertical passes from deep the play was far too commonly diverted in a ‘U’ shape to the wings. Such width wasn’t even used properly when it presented itself, either; Walker not taking up as effective positions from right-back as before, Sterling and Sturridge looking to cut inside constantly, and a lack of Lallana in midfield meaning that there was little intelligent movement in the centre to look towards after stretching Iceland’s shape open.
How England attempted to adjust and change things didn’t have much effect on that. With the gap between Dier and the rest of the midfield having proved to be too large because of both poor spacing and Iceland’s good central coverage, Rooney began to regularly drop very deep to help out. That made the initial build-up phase easier, but then somewhat ironically the absence of Rooney in the more advanced position that he originally took up around the midfield was evident. It solved one problem, yet created another at the same time.
A lack of fluidity, surprisingly poor technical execution and bad spacing all meant that England created extremely little. So they were never able to turn around that deficit, seeing them crash out in the first knockout round and sparking the beginning of another national inquisition for them as ever. Yet for Iceland this was one of the proudest moments in the history of their football team, a fully deserved win seeing them, quite spectacularly, through to the quarter-finals.
30/06/16, Marseille – Poland 1-1 Portugal (3-5 p) – Lewandowski 2; Sanches 33
The first match-up of the quarter-finals saw Poland take on Portugal in Marseille, and the most interesting thing about the team selections was the inclusion of Sanches from the off. The young midfielder had made a real influence in the games he’d come off the bench in, and with André Gomes’ performances slowly tailing off over the course of the competition he was replaced in the centre of the pitch. Guerreiro also dropped out of the side for Eliseu, while Poland stayed unchanged from their shootout victory over Switzerland in the previous round.
Things got off to a very lively start, with no time for the game to settle before Poland took the lead: Lewandowski finally getting his first goal of the tournament after a cross from Grosicki on the left side. Grosicki was found out wide by a long diagonal (which Cédric Soares badly misjudged), and he often adopted those kind of positions near the flank, while Błaszczykowski held a slightly narrower shape on the right. It was a goal that forced Portugal to come out and play, rather than taking up a more defensive approach like they had against Croatia.
Portugal had shown the potential to be a decent, fluid attacking outfit in the group stages, such as the first-half against Iceland for example, but then they’d also demonstrated that they could similarly be very much the opposite of that. It was the latter that was more the case here and, while their equaliser was the result of some great combination play between Sanches and Nani in the right half-space, for the most part they were very individualistic with the ball. Ronaldo received the ball in his favoured left half-space positions on a good few occasions but didn’t have the space made for him to do much from there; João Mário and Adrien Silva often in the same central zones and having little impact on the match.
Their very central focus was quite odd against a Polish side who have shown real organisation in this competition. Santos’ questionable selection of full-backs played an important factor in the lack of width they demonstrated, Eliseu being a real offensive downgrade on Guerreiro and Cédric representing a more defensive option than Vierinha. That meant Poland could focus on being horizontally compact and pick off Portuguese possession in their half, Krychowiak and Mączyński defending well in combination with each other. Just behind them, Kamil Glik and Michał Pazdan continued their good partnership at centre-back too.
A lack of cohesion in attack from Poland as well, with Milik being kept awfully quiet between the lines, meant that the game grew quite sterile the more it went on. During the build-up phase Krychowiak typically dropped very into the defence and Portugal pushed up to close that down, potentially opening up space behind the first line of the press, although because of large gaps between players they weren’t ever able to really make use of it. It was quite a disappointing game, to be honest.
Perhaps given that both sides had gone beyond normal time after low-scoring affairs in the last round, the only two games of those eight to have done so, it shouldn’t have felt like much of a surprise that this one between the two did as well. And a lack of anything too eventful happening in that period, just as extra-time typically goes, was standard too. It went to a penalty shootout, then, and Portugal emerged victorious in the end – Quaresma providing the decisive contribution yet again to take his country into the last four.
01/07/16, Lille – Wales 3-1 Belgium – Williams 31, Robson-Kanu 55, Vokes 86; Nainggolan 13
After struggling but just about managing to overcome a resolute Northern Ireland, Wales’ reward for getting into the quarter-finals was a tie against Belgium – who’d had a much more convincing 4-0 victory against Hungary in the previous round. Stylistically this was better suited to Coleman’s team though, playing against a side who have largely demonstrated a lack of structure and, just as importantly, who’d look to dominate the game against them (even if, a little ironically, Belgium’s strengths were best when they weren’t in control too). To help match that, Robson-Kanu was brought in for Vokes as the only change.
Wilmots made a couple of swaps himself, though they were forced changes in defence due to Thomas Vermaelen and Vertonghen being unavailable to play. Regardless of missing two key defenders they started off very well though, pushing high up the field and piling the pressure on in the first 15 minutes when Wales hadn’t quite settled into the game. The high positions of the wing-backs, Gunter and Taylor, quite so early on certainly didn’t help them, opening up spaces on the wings for Belgium to try and attack at pace, and there were a few occasions when the Welsh were forced into somewhat cynical fouls just to try and slow things down.
Belgium took the lead during that period through an unstoppable strike by Nainggolan, but soon after that the game swung much more in Wales’ favour. Bale and Robson-Kanu played a key role in that, often running the channels, holding the ball up and helping their team to push forward in a more structured manner, and as things went on they were soon able to get considerably greater support to those two thanks to what became a very flexible shape in the midfield. Allen, Ledley and Ramsey all rotated with each other regularly, something which drew a mostly man-orientated Belgium out of their positions, and with Bale dropping into the midfield regularly they had a numerical advantage in those zones.
That meant there was always a free man, either for building play or for one of the slightly deeper three – usually Ramsey – to push into the space that Bale had drifted out of. Such a thing shows the problems of not having sufficient zonal coverage; clever movement can exploit it and open up gaps. It was what presumably forced Wilmots into a defensive change at half-time, Carrasco being taken off for Fellaini as they flooded the midfield to close off the space. The change certainly helped to stop them being outnumbered in the centre, although in response their opponents used the wide areas pretty well instead.
By that time Wales had already equalised from a set-piece, and in the 55th minute the decision to start Robson-Kanu was (if it hadn’t been already) fully justified when he pulled off a quite exquisite Cruyff turn in the box to create space and score. It was a goal that originated from Bale dropping and playing a ball over the top into one of those penetrative, vertical runs in the right half-space that Ramsey kept doing, giving Wales a fairly deserved lead. Naturally they took a more defensive, more counter-based approach in the aftermath of that, dropping into a 5-3-2 and looking to close the spaces that Belgium wanted to attack in.
Wales held firm in that phase of the game despite the pressure, and with their opponents unable to break them down they were able to see themselves through to the end. Not before one last moment of euphoric joy though, Vokes scoring a third to kill the game late on, and quite spectacularly they were now in the semi-finals of their first ever European Championships. No such success for Belgium in what was a rather disappointing tournament for them under Wilmots, but this was all about a superb performance from Coleman’s team.
02/06/16, Bordeaux – Germany 1-1 Italy (6-5 p) – Özil 65; Bonucci 78 (p)
Although Spain’s failure to make any adaptations to deal with Italy’s 3-5-2 shape in the previous round cost them, Löw wouldn’t make the same naïve mistake as Del Bosque. He decided that the best way of countering their slightly unorthodox system was to match it, going with what played out as a 3-4-2-1, including a back three of Boateng, Höwedes and Hummels. In attack they had Gomez leading the line again, leaving Müller and Özil a little deeper so that they could orientate their movements around him. Conte’s only change from their last match was a forced one, Stefano Sturaro replacing De Rossi.
The sheer similarity of their plans was particularly evident at goal kicks in the first few minutes. Both sides like to build play from deep, but neither would give the other the satisfaction of letting them do so – whoever was defending pressing high and trying to force long balls. One thing that Germany had which others who faced Italy didn’t was Neuer, a goalkeeper as good with his feet as any, and his kicking accuracy did lessen the effect of this kind of pressing on them compared to, say, Spain. Two high quality ball-playing centre-backs, Boateng and Hummels, also helped, while Höwedes is far from bad too. Those three in a line spread out across the pitch made it possible to bypass the Italian front two of Éder and Pellè, where having their usual back four would have made it far more challenging.
This often left one of the outside defenders as the free man, something which Italy tried to react to by pushing their own wing-backs higher, although Mattia De Sciglio and Florenzi couldn’t do that to a sufficient extent to completely nullify the threat because of the danger of Hector and Kimmich behind them. Having Boateng in the middle made it slightly less threatening for Italy though (and if not for him doing a superb job as the covering defender off the ball he may well have been moved wide by Löw), and similarly the German wing-backs weren’t quite as effective as they have been in other games.
When Germany did move it up the pitch, the positioning of Özil and Müller in the half-spaces were a good source of attacking joy. They drifted into those positions to receive the ball in gaps behind the Italian midfield whenever play was orientated towards their side, giving them a chance to turn and try to make something happen. For Italy, meanwhile, a good portion of the direct attacking play and runs in behind which they attempted were cut out by Boateng. Between him and Neuer, Germany practically had two sweepers on the field.
The energetic Giaccherini did move into a further advanced role as the game went on to help Italy provide more attacking threat, him pushing up closer to the two strikers on a more regular basis. That provided both more potential passing options in the final third and another source of pressing for them, ensuring Germany couldn’t risk dwelling on the ball too much in deeper zones as the game went on. That was when they were chasing the game after going 1-0 down because, of course, in the middle of all that fascinating tactical action, some goals happened too.
The first came from Özil after an excellent Gomez assist in the middle of the second-half, the second late on through Bonucci – who converted from the penalty spot after a bizarre handball from the otherwise superb Boateng. With things all level it then went to extra-time, during which nothing of real notable worth happened, leaving it to be settled by a shootout which was even weirder than that moment of madness by Boateng. Germany held it together and just about lived up to their reputation, though, winning it and getting themselves through to the last four.
03/06/16, Saint-Denis – France 5-2 Iceland – Giroud 12, 59, Pogba 20, Payet 43, Griezmann 45; Sigþórsson 56, Bjarnason 84
Even if France had only really scraped through against Ireland before this, the manner of their win – and how Deschamps changed things to help turn the match around – meant that they learnt a lot from it. Especially when it came to how to break teams down, which was a lesson that would prove particularly useful versus an Iceland side who had earned themselves a fully deserved win over England as a result of some excellent defensive play.
The plan of trying to get the most out of Griezmann in a wide area was abandoned, him starting this game in a central role behind Giroud as the 4-2-3-1 returned from the off. Matuidi and Pogba were the midfield two, Kanté’s suspension keeping him from being involved at all, and they had Payet and Sissoko operating as the wider attackers. In contrast, Iceland stuck with the 4-4-2 which had served them so well in getting to the quarter-final.
It didn’t work that well here though, and France’s new dynamic attacking methods tore them apart as they put in probably the most devastating offensive display of anyone in the tournament. There was real flexibility about their shape; Griezmann drifting all over the place to cause havoc, Payet pushing inside and helping to overload in the middle, Sissoko making powerful runs at speed on the right. Such a variety of threats meant Iceland were really struggling to mark players and protect zones properly, and with France’s spacing between players in the final third likewise being excellent they found it easy to combine effectively enough with each other to exploit any gaps that appeared.
The Icelandic front two (Böðvarsson and Sigþórsson) being unable to properly prevent Matuidi and Pogba from controlling things in deeper zones, or at the absolute least slow play down, also meant France’s tempo was constantly high. They found it easy to bypass them and get the ball into more advanced midfield positions, putting them in prime positions to pick apart the high defensive line that their opposition defended with too often. Giroud’s first goal and the fourth from Griezmann, where one vertical pass split the defence open and set the player through on goal, showed that perfectly.
When they didn’t go for that direct route, Matuidi and Pogba would also step forward from the midfield to put even more pressure onto the already outnumbered Aron Gunnarsson and Gylfi Sigurðsson. On top of the benefits of that from just an attacking point of view, their spatial coverage, not just from the midfield but from the whole side, helped them to completely restrict Iceland’s own attempts to keep the ball. Every time they lost it France pressed quickly, forced a sloppy pass, and got the turnover which they were looking for. The first-half was a demonstration of a near perfect 45 minutes from them; the 4-0 lead which they picked up undoubtedly being unassailable.
Iceland did pick up in the second-half and rescue some pride from this match, going for a more offensive approach and scoring two goals (either side of the hosts’ fifth) for themselves in the process. That raised some questions about the French defence yet again but the game was over as a contest by that point, Les Bleus taking quite a conservative approach and prioritising seeing the game out without wasting too much energy above all else. It was easy for them in the end, and they were fully deserving of their semi-final place. Credit to Iceland, though, for a magnificent debut tournament overall.
06/07/16, Lyon – Portugal 2-0 Wales – Ronaldo 50, Nani 53
Not too many people expected or backed Portugal to have a long run in the competition, and even fewer thought Wales would do the same. But here they both were, somewhat against the odds, taking each other on in Lyon for a place in the final. Each had to make a few changes to their previous match – Santos swapping William Carvalho, Eliseu and Pepe out to be replaced by Bruno Alves, Danilo and Guerreiro. Their system stayed in the same mix between a 4-3-1-2 and 4-4-2, while Wales’ 3-5-2 didn’t change either, although Davies and Ramsey both missed out through suspension.
Beyond maybe Italy these two were probably the sides who had demonstrated the best execution of their systems throughout the competition, so it wasn’t much of a surprise to see this be quite a cagey affair. The two somewhat cancelled each other out in the first-half; for Wales, there was a notable focus on man-marking which helped to stop Danilo (who dropped between the centre-backs) and Adrien Silva from getting on the ball much in the middle of the field. Some Portuguese midfield rotation helped to drag the Welsh players around a bit as they kept up that marking, although Portugal never really made the most of that by filling in the vacant spaces enough.
As for Portugal’s defensive system, that did a better job of stopping the Welsh rotation in the midfield being effective. They plugged the centre of the pitch fully in a more zonal system, not really pressing but using a very horizontally compact diamond shape to force play out wide to the wing-backs, Gunter and Taylor. When it did go out to them, João Mário and Sanches would then react quickly and use their pace to stop them from advancing too far up the field. Ramsey was certainly a big miss for Wales, because of both his technical quality and ability to time his runs, and Bale couldn’t have too much impact between the lines.
Possession and the number of chances were both very even in the first-half, with neither side able to force anything too effective to happen, but shortly after the interval it was Portugal who managed to take what proved to be an unassailable lead. Ronaldo scored a header from a corner in the 50th minute, and then just three minutes later Nani put the ball into the back of the net to make it 2-0. That demanded a change for Wales, or three rather, with two strikers and an attacking midfielder all coming on within eight minutes of each other.
They were three very attacking substitutions, although they weren’t changes which had any real structure in mind. A lot of the focus was on hopeful long balls to try and get back into it, something which Bale attempted to stop a little by dropping deeper and looking to have more influence but that in turn simply meant there was nobody more advanced between the lines for him to pass to. As they kept pushing the game got very open, and it was Portugal who actually looked the more threatening by countering whenever the chance to arose to try and get that third goal.
It didn’t arrive, but the two-goal cushion proved to be more than enough to see them through to the final in the end; while the dream debut in the tournament finally came to an end for Wales. Portugal finally had that elusive first victory in normal time in this game, too, but who they were set to play in the final was still to be decided.
07/07/16, Marseille – Germany 0-2 France – Griezmann 45+2 (p), 72
If the first semi-final was a clash of two relative underdogs, the second was a meeting of two heavyweights who were considered as favourites prior to the tournament starting; the World Cup holders against the hosts. Germany reverted back to their usual 4-2-3-1 here, but Gomez, Hummels and Khedira were all absent meaning that Emre Can started alongside Schweinsteiger and Kroos in the midfield (leaving Müller as the striker). France meanwhile opted for exactly the same line-up as against Iceland, also a 4-2-3-1, having seemed to finally have found an attacking structure which could truly get the best out of the lethal Griezmann.
And for the first 10 minutes or so here it worked superbly, the French flying out of the traps and playing at a high intensity which really shook their opponents. After that point though, when Germany slowed things down and established a strong hold on the game, it looked as if Deschamps had made a real error with his selection. Germany’s midfield rotation was in full flow, giving Kroos and Schweinsteiger time on the ball and helping to bring Özil into the game between the lines, and Frances’s lack of a third midfielder to combat them was proving extremely problematic.
Matuidi and Pogba were overrun without Kanté’s support, while Sissoko on the right did little to move inside and pressure Kroos in the left half-space. Their team wasn’t set-up to absorb pressure in such a manner. The problem for Löw, though, was that control which Germany had never truly developed into quality chances. Müller was a little off the pace upfront, and the majority of their shots, especially in the first-half, came from outside of the box. A distinct focus on passing in the final third, rather than mixing it up with dribbling, also meant there was a lack of variable methods to vertically penetrate France’s defensive lines.
Not only did they have nothing to show for their very good but ultimately fruitless possession play, going into half-time they were 1-0 down – Griezmann scoring a penalty in injury time to give France the lead against the run of play. It was somewhat surprising that Deschamps didn’t change anything during the interval given the tone of the game, actually, especially as he’s shown a propensity to do so against both Romania and then Ireland when things weren’t in their favour. But he didn’t, and in the second-half the match went very much the same way for some time.
It was kind of a set of self-inflicted problems which slowed Germany down more than anything in the end. Boateng’s injury in the 61st minute saw him taken off, robbing them of his ability to distribute brilliantly, on top of meaning that the width which Hector and Kimmich had been trying to offer would be utilised even less. Then, just when they’d recovered their rhythm from that again and were benefitting from Özil finding more space in the zones directly in front of Laurent Koscielny and Samuel Umtiti (who, it must be said, were both excellent), Germany got themselves into a real mess at the back and allowed Griezmann to score a second.
France’s manager did make the reactive action of bringing Kanté on for Payet in the 71st minute, a change which signalled a switch to a more defensive 4-3-3 structure, although Griezmann’s goal happened just a minute later so it only proved to just be a tool which helped them see the rest of the game out. And as the final whistle sounded in Marseille, the delight which had been building around most of the stadium – and the rest of France – was finally allowed to come out in full. France had knocked out Germany, and were through to the final of the tournament which they were hosting. The final against Portugal was all set-up for them now.
10/07/16, Saint-Denis – Portugal 1-0 France – Éder 109
After overcoming Wales and Germany respectively in the last round, this was it for Portugal and France: a final to decide who the winners of Euro 2016 would be. Both were at pretty much full strength going into this match, France being unchanged and sticking to the 4-2-3-1 which they’d successfully switched to during the knockout stages, while Portugal were able to put both William Carvalho and Pepe into the team again.
The game started at quite a good tempo, France pressing and putting their opponents under the cosh initially, although the first major moment of the game caused it to become very stop-start for a fairly prolonged period – Ronaldo getting caught in a collision with Payet. He tried to carry on a couple of times but was ultimately unable to, Portugal’s star man being replaced by Quaresma in the 25th minute and that signalled Santos swapping them to more of a 4-3-3 system. Quaresma was on the right of that, with Nani playing a central role and João Mário pushing higher on the left (he’d originally been the left-sided central midfielder in their diamond).
Saying that Ronaldo’s injury benefitted Portugal would be extreme, but the game being slowed and then played at a notably lower tempo suited them. France had thrived when able to play at speed, such as in the second-half against Northern Ireland and the match versus Iceland, but other than the threat of Sissoko who had lots of joy towards the right they were unable to do that here. Portugal did a good job of keeping France’s possession at a manageable pace, the pressing of Adrien Silva on Pogba keeping his influence down in his role as the deeper of the double-pivot alongside Matuidi.
France still had the better of things in the first-half, and that continued during the second – Deschamps capitalising on that by bringing the direct Coman on for Payet on their left flank. He had a lot of success, as Payet had hinted at while he was on, beating Cédric Soares regularly and causing a slight orientation towards that flank when they attacked. That did leave opportunities on the far side for Sissoko, although his occupation of the half-spaces wasn’t common nor effective enough to be fully utilised (even if he continued to play well).
Having been second-best for most of the game, though, Santos’ changes helped Portugal even the platform going into both the latter stages of normal time and then extra-time. First, the introduction of Moutinho for Adrien Silva gave them a little more control with the ball, and then Éder was brought on as Portugal used a natural number nine for one of the very few occasions at the tournament; he held the ball up well and enabled Portugal to push forward more.
And no more so than in the 109th minute. Following a ball played into his feet, Éder shielded off the pressure of Koscielny, drove infield, then fired a powerful right-footed shot into the bottom corner from 25 yards out. Cue huge celebrations from Portugal, which got even bigger around 10 minutes when the final whistle went. That was it. Portugal were the champions of Euro 2016.