Major international soccer tournaments are funny beasts. After a grueling, nine-month club season, we shuffle all the rosters, have these new teams play between three and seven games together, and then draw far-reaching conclusions and referendums -- Player A is clearly overrated, Coach B's tactics are a shambles, Country C's time has come and gone -- from this tiny sample of matches.
Only one match remains in Euro 2020, and while we'll refrain from the referendum, now seems like a pretty good time to chat about some of the trends and players who interested and entertained us the most over this past month or so.
My fifth-favorite player of the tournament: Federico Chiesa
In the past year, Chiesa has gone from well-established prospect to star. He had already made nearly 20 appearances for Italy before the coronavirus pandemic stopped the sport, and he scored double-digit goals for Fiorentina in both 2018-19 and 2019-20, but since a loan-to-buy move to Juventus last fall, he's quickly proven to be one of the most ready-for-the-moment players in Europe.
Chiesa combined nine goals with nine assists in his first Serie A campaign with Juve, but he also scored four times in his first eight Champions League matches -- three in two knockout-stage matches against FC Porto -- and he's combined two goals with six chances created in just 352 minutes at Euro 2020. It doesn't appear he's come particularly close to his ceiling just yet, but he's still proven capable of engineering absolute nonsense like this:
Three at the back: everyone's doing it
While we can go a little bit overboard in assessing the significance in formations sometimes, there's plenty of tactical information that can be pulled from a team's general setup. Are they using a single midfielder in a pivot role, or are they using two? Are they deploying one centre-forward or two? Are they using a four-man defensive line, or are they going with three?
That last question has been quite relevant of late. Call it the "Tuchel Effect" if you want. When he took over as Chelsea manager at the end of January, he shifted the Blues' formations from a four-man back line to three, primarily in a 3-4-2-1 structure with wing-backs stretching the pitch horizontally, and Chelsea racked up the second-most Premier League points after Feb. 1 (behind only Manchester City) while toppling City in the Champions League final.
If winning leads to imitation, then it's fair to assume that plenty of clubs and managers will be studying whether to make similar moves, and bring in some wing-backs, moving forward.
If you have the pieces for it -- namely, centre-backs who can reliably distribute the ball and wing-backs who can play creative roles in attack while tracking back fiercely to help prevent counterattacking situations -- a three-man back line makes plenty of sense. It allows you to achieve maximum width while still having the numbers to clog the midfield. And the horizontal distribution of players allows for maximum potential when it comes to counter-pressing (immediately trying to win the ball back after losing it).
It has become the de rigueur formational tactic in Italy's Serie A: Internazionale won the league with Antonio Conte's 3-5-2, Atalanta are an annual Champions League presence out of Gian Piero Gasperini's 3-4-2-1 (or is it 3-4-1-2?), Hellas Verona and AS Roma have leaned heavily on a 3-4-2-1, Udinese prefers a 3-5-1-1, etc. In all, teams used a three-at-the-back approach 28% of the time in Europe's Big Five leagues as a whole, after doing so 24% of the time in 2019-20. Expect that number to rise further.
New Bayern Munich manager Julian Nagelsmann has at times expressed a preference for a three-man line, and Paris Saint-Germain's acquisition of all-world wing-back Achraf Hakimi suggests they might be looking into something similar. This could be a widespread shift at the club level -- especially among elite clubs -- but we didn't need to wait until club season began to see the Tuchel Effect in action.
At Euro 2016, teams deployed a three-man back line 13% of the time: Conte's Italy reached the quarterfinals with its 3-5-2, and Chris Coleman's Wales made an underdog run to the same round with what was sort of a 3-4-3, sort of a 3-5-1-1. But that was about it.
Five years later at Euro 2020, teams have used a three-man back line 40% of the time. Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands -- three of the betting favorites coming into the tournament -- used it exclusively, while Switzerland and Denmark each began all but one of their matches with three at the back. Eight other teams, from quarterfinalist Ukraine to winless North Macedonia, at least dabbled with it. England adopted its own three-man defense to mirror Germany's in their round-of-16 matchup, and France even whipped out a 3-5-2 that it looked like it had only sort of practiced in the same round against Switzerland. Formations fall in and out of vogue, but there's no question where the current trend is heading.
My fourth-favorite player of the tournament: Mikkel Damsgaard
Give him credit: the dude knows how to make a lasting impression.
DAMSGAARD FOR DENMARK!— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 7, 2021
HE SCORES THE FIRST FREE KICK GOAL OF EURO 2020 😱 pic.twitter.com/mnB3IcmFKl
Brought over from Danish power Nordsjaelland for $7.4 million last September, Damsgaard held his own on the left side of Sampdoria's midfield, starting about half the season and logging 1,770 minutes, two goals, four assists, 21 additional chances created and 108 ball recoveries. He might have gotten a bit more of a run than intended at the Euros because of Christen Eriksen's sudden and nearly tragic absence, but he made himself a vital part of their semifinal run. In 331 minutes, he scored twice and created six chances with one assist, and he won 55% of his more than 11 duel attempts per 90 minutes.
Damsgaard's a strong dribbler and willing defender, and if bigger clubs were to start moving toward a three-at-the-back approach, his value was already destined to be pretty high. But then he went out and put on one of the best performances of the Euros. The only question is whether big clubs will come after him to meet Sampdoria's high price tag now or wait one more year?
Maybe it's the Atalanta Effect?
Italy have reached the final playing out of a 4-3-3, but while the Azzurri have not directly participated in this trend of three-at-the-back, can we talk for a moment about how influential one of Italy's most successful clubs has been in this tournament?
Atalanta have shown the hell up at Euro 2020:
Wing-backs Joakim Maehle (Denmark) and Robin Gosens (Germany): three goals, two assists, 12 chances created
Attacking midfielders Ruslan Malinovskyi (Ukraine) and Matteo Pessina (Italy): two goals, one assist, 12 chances created
Central midfielders Mario Pasalic (Croatia), Remo Freuler (Switzerland) and Marten de Roon (Netherlands): one goal, one assist, 10 chances created
Forward Aleksei Miranchuk (Russia): one goal, four chances created
Centre-back Rafael Toloi (Italy): one assist, four chances created
In all, eight players from Europe's second-most watchable team have combined for seven goals, five assists and 37 other chances created while assisting many of the pre-tournament favorites in either fully deploying the benefits of three at the back -- the wing-back position has stood out in its importance, and Atalanta have had two of the best -- helping them to advance deep into the tournament, or both.
RB Leipzig's tournament was almost as good. Forwards Emil Forsberg (Sweden), Yussuf Poulsen (Denmark), Konrad Laimer (Austria) and Dani Olmo (Spain) combined for six goals, four assists, 22 other chances created and 59 ball recoveries, and midfielder Marcel Sabitzer (Austria) chipped in five chances created (one assist) and 26 ball recoveries. Keeper Peter Gulacsi (Hungary) was one of the best in the tournament (while playing behind RBL teammate Willi Orban), and 19-year old full-back Josko Gvardiol, who will soon move from Dinamo Zagreb to RBL, was a shop-wrecker for Croatia with 25 ball recoveries and high-quality shots against both Spain and Scotland that required excellent saves.
If you were to craft a list of potential Champions League winners outside of Europe's financial superpowers -- the teams that endeavored to start the failed Super League a few months ago, plus PSG, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, basically -- you would probably start with Atalanta and RBL. This tournament certainly helped to prove why.
My third-favorite player of the tournament: Own Goal
People can't stop talking about him! He's scored 11 times this tournament!
ENGLAND ARE LEVEL!— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 7, 2021
THE OWN GOAL STRIKES AGAIN! pic.twitter.com/t6I4GgAYVc
own goal going to psg for €220 million this summer— Aaron West (@oeste) July 7, 2021
Own Goal is having a tournament for the ages. Gonna win the Golden Boot by a mile.— John Green (@sportswithjohn) July 7, 2021
Spain and the power (and limits) of possession
If three-man back lines were the most noteworthy strategic shift, the success of pressure has been the biggest strategic confirmation.
The past year of soccer has been defined by measured effort. The compressed club schedule -- the season began about a month later than normal, but no fixtures or international breaks were omitted -- meant that teams couldn't go all-out as much as they might have preferred. Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) has become a commonly accepted measure for pressing and defensive pressure -- it looks at actions like tackles, interceptions, challenges and fouls that take place in the opponent's defensive three-fifths of the field. In Europe's Big Five leagues, teams went from allowing 12.06 PPDA on average in 2019-20 to 12.51 in 2020-21; whereas 15 of 98 Big Five teams were under 10 PPDA in 2019-20, only six were last season.
The shift in the Euros was even more significant. At Euro 2016, the average PPDA was 12.78; at Euro 2020: 14.58. Nine teams allowed more than 16 PPDA (including finalist England, at 18.1), and really, only one team truly succeeded at haranguing opponents from end to end: Spain, at 8.1.
Spain's Euros performance laid a perfect template for a modern, aggressive possession game. They held the ball for absurdly long periods of time -- 32.9 seconds per possession (first among the 24 teams), 8.2 passes per possession (first), 88% completion rate from the defensive third (first), 82% completion rate into the attacking third (first), 54% of possessions ending in the attacking third (first), 517.7 carries per match (first). If you tried to pressure a Spanish player with the ball, he passed it to an open teammate; if you didn't, he dribbled upfield until you did; and on the rare occasion that you took the ball away from them, they immediately took it back.
Only two of 24 teams had a possession rate above 55% in the tournament: Germany at 61.8% and Spain at 71.9%. Italy had pulled off its own solid version of a pressure-and-possession game at the Euros, hogging the ball and keeping it far away from its own goal, but Spain destroyed Italy's ball-control game.
Possession rate: Spain 69%, Italy 31%
Passes per possession: Spain 7.9, Italy 3.4
PPDA: Spain 7.4, Italy 21.9
Average possession time: Spain 30.9, Italy 17.0
Pass attempts: Spain 908, Italy 387
Carries: Spain 623, Italy 201
Because Spain were so good at retaining the ball, their opponents were doing all the running; that allowed them to preserve all the energy they needed for when, on rare occasion, they lost possession.
Before the semifinals, Italy were averaging 57% possession with 551.1 pass attempts and 18.9 shot attempts per 90 minutes. In 120 minutes against Spain, they managed only 31% possession and seven shots. Their lone goal was a perfectly executed counterattack -- something Spain were very much not immune to -- but Spain were able to steal the legs of even the most exciting team in the tournament to date.
I would venture to say that, when it comes to pure possession and threat, Spain dominated this tournament as much as it did when it won the Euros in 2008 and 2012. So why did they finish second in Group E (and behind the anti-possession Sweden, no less)? Why did they get eliminated by an Italian team they had so thoroughly dominated?
Because their shooters couldn't shoot. A slight issue.
The trio of Olmo, Alvaro Morata and Gerard Moreno attempted 52 of Spain's 113 non-penalty shots in this tournament -- nearly half. While Morata produced three goals from 16 shots worth 3.7 xG, Moreno and Olmo produced 36 shots, 4.5 xG ... and no goals. Olmo was a revelation against Italy, generating loads of pressure, drawing numerous fouls and, in his role as a false nine, helping to create constant numerical advantages in the midfield. He also created very little danger with the five shots he attempted, really only scaring keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma once.
Throw in missed penalties by both Morata (who also had a meek penalty saved by Donnarumma in the shootout) and Moreno, and you've got a pretty straightforward recipe for underachievement. Spain created chances worth 2.5 xG per 90 minutes and only scored 1.9 goals per 90 -- 5.0 against Slovakia and Croatia and 0.8 in their other four matches. They dominated the ball to an almost unprecedented degree, and the structure of their overall match plan was almost unassailable. But by pinning opponents deep and giving them no oxygen, they also limited the space with which they had to shoot and failed to take advantage of the opportunities they got.
A decent portion of the analysis from this tournament has centered on the fluidity of teams like Italy and Spain and the way the game is pushing more and more toward what amounts to a positionless, ball-dominant future. If nothing else, Spain's exit should remind us about the positional value -- like forwards who finish like forwards -- a positionless game must still account for.
My second-favorite player of the tournament: Thorgan Hazard
The 28-year-old has long been overshadowed by both ultra-successful older brother Eden Hazard and other members of Belgium's so-called Golden Generation -- Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, etc. For that matter, he suffered some injuries and got lost in the shuffle at Borussia Dortmund this past season, too, but since he came over from Borussia Monchengladbach, BVB have been far more successful when he plays (2.1 points per game) than when he doesn't (1.6).
Why hasn't Belgium gotten over the hump?
Tim Howard and Alessandro Del Piero react to Belgium's loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 quaterfinals.
The Euros gave Hazard a moment in the spotlight. With both De Bruyne and the elder Hazard dealing with injuries, he was Belgium's most important player during their run to the quarterfinals. The left wing-back touched the ball more than any other non-defender, attempted more passes, completed 88% of them and produced 24 ball recoveries, second behind fellow wing-back Thomas Meunier on an otherwise passive team.
Oh yeah, and he scored twice, in one-goal wins over Denmark and Portugal. Vital.
An ode to English lungs
I had originally intended to write a little bit about Denmark's perfectly strategic and well-thought-out substitution patterns in this tournament.
In basically every match, manager Kasper Hjulmand followed a similar pattern: make two substitutions around the 60-minute mark, make two more around the 70-minute mark and save your final sub for late-game purposes. In the semifinals against England he waited a bit longer, perhaps because of the potential extra-time period on the horizon: he made three substitutions (including both strikers) at the 67-minute mark, took out defender Andreas Christensen around the 80th minute, then took out workhorse midfielder Thomas Delaney around the 90th minute.
I loved this approach because it maximized the potential of both tactical shifts -- you could get ahead of your opponent by changing more than one-third of your lineup and crafting a different approach over the course of about 10 minutes -- and the way this was designed to keep key legs as fresh as possible late in both the match and the tournament.
Again, this was what I planned to dive into, especially as Denmark went deep against an England squad that not only came into the tournament with more miles on its collective legs over the past year than any other team but also barely substituted at all.
Not including extra-time periods, England have averaged just 2.7 substitutions per match, more than only France (2.5) and Ukraine (2.3); take out the consequence-free match against the Czech Republic and a blowout win over Ukraine, and Gareth Southgate has made a total of seven subs inside 90 minutes in his other four matches. Considering he has maybe the deepest roster in the tournament, and considering his team logged so many cumulative minutes in club season, this seemed like a massive wasted opportunity and a chance for Denmark to gain a late edge.
Instead, the opposite happened. The Danes lost their legs around the 70th minute or so, and players like Kalvin Phillips (who has played in 529 of 570 possible minutes thus far) and Kyle Walker (who has played every minute of the past four matches) looked like the freshest guys on the pitch. The Yorkshire Evening Post reported that Phillips ran 15.3 kilometers against Denmark (about 9.5 miles) and has recorded 67.3 kilometers (41.8 miles) for the tournament so far. And yet there he was, running Denmark's own midfield into the ground.
Over the last 60 minutes of the semifinal, England attempted 14 shots to Denmark's one and generated 2.7 xG to Denmark's 0.04. The Danes were completely out of gas, and it looked like England were only getting started.
Yes, the match was played on home soil -- as five of England's six have been thus far -- and yes, the penalty that was awarded to Raheem Sterling in extra time, which ended up deciding the match, was extremely soft at best. But there was no questioning who the better team was. The English survived a back-and-forth battle for 60 to 70 minutes, then turned on the afterburners. That they had afterburners to turn on at all made little physical sense, but damned if it didn't make all the difference.
My favorite player of the tournament: Raheem Sterling
A selection of ESPN headlines from recent years:
Aside from maybe Marcus Rashford, no English player has taken more public, racist abuse from fans in his home country -- and, quite often, media members as well -- than the 26-year-old Jamaica transplant.
His achievements -- which are legion at this point: 78 Premier League goals, 21 Champions League goals, 17 goals for England, three Premier League titles, nine total trophies -- have been minimized; his missteps and missed opportunities (and no, he has not lacked in those either) have been magnified. Barely a month ago, he was the subject of extreme criticism when Manchester City's Pep Guardiola started him in the Champions League final despite a poor run of form. Despite the fact that he was responsible for a couple of City's most dangerous opportunities, he took the brunt of the criticism when they lost 1-0.
Out of form and subject to more criticism than ever, he has been the best player on England's best run in a major tournament in 55 years. Southgate stood by him from the start, selecting him over a wealth of other attacking options, and he has responded with four goals and assists (tied for most on the team), three game-winning goals (most), nine fouls suffered (second-most), three chances created (fourth) and 22 ball recoveries (fifth).
Sterling has put 58% of his shots on target. He was responsible for the own goal that tied Denmark late in the first half of the semifinals -- if Simon Kjaer doesn't over-reach to try to knock the ball away, Sterling pokes it into the net with ease. He has attempted by far a team-high 67 ground duels and has won more than 50% of them. He has carried the ball 993 yards, second-most of any non-defender -- for a team that has struggled to consistently work the ball through the midfield and into attacking situations.
He is poised for Best Player honors if England win the final (and maybe even if they don't). He deserves this moment. It's been a thrill to watch.