The European Championships always give us a glimpse of the evolution in the tactical side of the beautiful game. Many tournaments have been a source of recognition for new faces while others have been a source of redemption. But most of all, every tournament shows us the future. A road map, a journey of tactical marvels that will be picked up, refined and further boosted by the clubs, countries and even federations.
Most tournaments (this one included) can be divided into 2 stages. The first being the Group stage and the second being the knockout round. A common phenomena witnessed in these competitions is the freedom in the group stages and caution in the latter rounds. It is justified since there is a clear psychological aspect that plays an important role as teams advance towards the more gruelling stages of the competition.
Now that the tournament is over, let us reflect on the more successful systems, tactical shifts and philosophies.
One notable aspect of all these Euros was that there was not much repetition in the systems and most of the teams tried their best in bringing novelty to the matches. England got to the final by repeatedly shifting their formation according to the opponent but were let down in the final by a manager who lost his nerve and ended up with a back 8 at times, with Sterling and Kane also camped within his own half. Nevertheless his tactical flexibility was a hall mark of these championships.
Whilst the back 5 is trendy again, it is noticeable that in the key battles involving big nations, whenever there has been a direct conflict between a back 5 v a back 4 - the back 4 has invariably won. Italy defeated the back 5 of England and Belgium, Switzerland defeated the back 5 of France, the Czech's defeated the back 5 of the Netherlands. Is this a coincidence or is something deeper at play?
One thing that is common between the sides who play with a back 4 or a back 5 is the desire to have 3 defenders at the back when the side is in possession. Italy held back their right back in Di Lorenzo who effectively acted as a right centre-back in order to free up Spinazzola. Walker did the same for England in regards to Luke Shaw. For Enrique's Spain, Jose Gaya and Jordi Alba have provided some great width while Cesar Azpilicueta provided defensive surety on the right.
One could argue that this trend was pretty apparent even in the Champions League. Walker performed a similar role at Manchester City, freeing up Zinchenko or Cancelo down the left, Tuchel took it to an extreme with a RWB and RCB who were defensively minded in Reece James and Azpilicueta, freeing up Chilwell and elsewhere in the Premier League we are seeing it at Manchester United with the contrasting roles of Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw.
The benefit of a back 3 rather than a back 2, with two flying wing backs is that you are avoiding the centre backs having to cover the entire width of the pitch in negative transitions. There is less chance of someone getting onto a long ball by running into the channels and thus you can pin the opposition in their own half without any real outlet on the counter for them.
Cons include that it leads to a very lopsided attack. Teams know which flank you are going to target your attack down and it becomes a war of attrition, with bodies flooding down one side of the pitch and the team in possession ultimately having no space to work with. In contrast a proper back 5, with flying wing backs will be able to stretch the pitch down both sides - i.e. Cafu and Carlos for Brazil.
Ever heard of the cliché "The game is won and lost in the midfield". Well now we have witnessed it first hand. In most of the matches, the winning team has had a higher possession ratio with battles having been won and lost in an around the center circle. Playing patterns have been associated with the adventurous display from the midfielders. But what has been the more common set up?
Both Italy and Spain have successfully played 3 midfielders in the middle. The similarities do not stop there. Both team managers have settled for a combination of a holding midfielder flanked on one side by a playmaker and a box to box runner on the other side. Jorginho and Busquets have very similar attributes. While Luis Enrique has built his team around Busquets, Mancini's side relies heavily on their metronome Jorginho. Claims of a Balon D'Or push for Jorginho are not going away and with good reason.
And that brings us to the partners in crime. Barella has been performing wonderfully running box to box for Italy with touch of silk. Koke has been more physical in his approach. His non stop running has been crucial for the Spanish. Playmaking roles have been divided amongst the midfielders as they all have the necessary skill set but then we have also seen standout performances from the more glamorous players in Verratti and Pedri. Both have been crucial for the functionality and the element of surprise.
England and Denmark in stark contrast seem to have progressed towards the business end without requiring silk in their midfield. Both have very workmanlike midfields whose emphasis is on protecting their back 5's or 4's. We saw in the final how limited that strategy is when you come up against a well balanced and strong opponent who will relentlessly seek to break down the low block.
Nevertheless it is a strategy that has its plaudits and can be an effective one - so expect to see your pragmatic coaches take heart from Southgate's progress this summer and implement it across club competitions next year.
>Many critics would call a forward/striker a hit or flop based on one statistic. How many goals does he score. But the truth is, the strikers in modern football are expected to a lot more than just that. Take Ciro Immobile's performance against Belgium.
For the regular fan, he might have been a complete flop but if you watch closely his constant running and holding the ball while drawing defenders to commit challenges was key to Italy's dominance of the game. Many football fans considered Harry Kane's goal against Ukraine a liberating experience. Surely the Englishman would feel the same.
But forwards have been much maligned for their obvious lack of goals in this tournament. A bit unfair as most of have played to their best especially in a tactical set up that requires more from them then just goals. None more so than the hard working Alvaro Morata.
The Spaniard is capable of scoring the spectacular but even in droughts he has been standout in his performances for the team. He has been excellent in this tournament despite the odd misses and lack of continuity in amongst the goals.
Karim Benzema deserves a mention her. His all round performance has been appreciated by many when considering how the French National side underperformed.