TThe broken glass has been cleaned. Wembley Way is no longer sticky underfoot. As the sense of shame and disappointment fades and the instinctive panacea fades, it may be worth thinking that Euro 2020, as shameful as it may have ended, was the one of the big tournaments, possibly the best since Euro 2000, and wondering what that might mean for next year’s World Cup and beyond.
There has been a long period in which international football has been the pinnacle of the game; this is where we saw the greatest concentration of the best players. Then, in the late 1970s, as coordinated pressing systems became more prevalent and time spent on the training ground developing mutual understanding became more and more important, club play took over. above. At least tactically, international football could fall behind by a few years. More recently, international football and club football have felt like different forms of the same sport, so distant from each other in strategy and feel like limited and test cricket.
Caution prevails. Without the time to establish consistent patterns, whether for pressing or attacking play, international coaches tended to prefer something simpler: build a defensive block and hope that creative players could conjure something up to profit. of a white sheet.
This is how Portugal won the Euro in 2016 and France the World Cup in 2018 – the two games in which they scored four goals in the tournament, the result of either the brilliance of their opponents, or defensive errors which forced them to attack, and thus offered an enticing spectacle. glimpse of the team they could have been if Didier Deschamps had not been determined, his team would have to take on their own cursed image. Even Spain in 2010 and 2012 and Germany in 2014 were less exuberant versions of Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
With that in mind, it’s significant that the most striking general tactical trend in these euros has been the use of rear fenders. England, Denmark, Switzerland, Ukraine, Czech Republic and Belgium, six of the eight quarter-finalists, all at one point put together with three from behind.
After the 1994 World Cup, then Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton noted how the full-back had become the most tactically important position on the pitch. In club play, they have become more and more offensive, to the point that they are often judged less on their defensive qualities than on their ability to beat a man and deliver a cross.
But the instinctive caution of the national coaches means they often prefer their full-backs to stay a bit deeper, which of course led to the pre-tournament debate in England over the inclusion of Trent Alexander-Arnold. This has a ripple effect higher up the pitch, removing the extra angle of attack offered by an aggressive full-back and preventing wide attackers from a player passing them to ward off a defender. The result is that international attacks can often appear static.
How, then, to introduce attacking full-backs without sacrificing the safety so important for national coaches? The obvious way is to add an extra center-back, freeing up the full-backs as winger and allowing for the kind of attacking scale that allowed England to score in the final.
But it is still the creation of solidity that dominates the thinking during major tournaments, and which has guided Gareth Southgate’s approach. He spoke on several occasions of his research into the successes of Portugal and France. He recognized, as few English coaches have done, that the group stages are only a peripheral concern.
They are largely to be negotiated and no more; the ability to rack up big scores against midrange opponents has little bearing on whether a team can then beat real title contenders. And that’s one of the big problems of trying to analyze international football: in each four-year cycle, even the best teams probably only play half a dozen games that really matter, while a Elite Premier League manager at that time could play 10 times more.
Southgate’s pragmatism is perhaps his greatest strength as a coach and helps explain why he has (including penalties) won five knockout wins in major tournaments, two more than any other English manager. He improved the atmosphere around the team, made them more tactically flexible and for long stretches his team exercised the kind of control that would have been unthinkable for previous England teams.
There is an absence of a star in England which fits the general trend: modern football is all about system and unity and if the more talented cannot apply themselves there are problems – like the observed France and Portugal. It is a measure of the decline of South American football behind Europe (13 semi-finalists against three in the last four World Cups) that the Copa America final has been presented as a battle between Lionel Messi and Neymar.
England were only nine minutes behind in the Euro overall. If Marcus Rashford’s penalty had been four inches on the right, they probably would have won. The tournament for them was, by any reasonable estimate, a success. But there are two concerns. First, that Southgate can still seem slow to respond in games. His plans look good, but he may not have the ability to sense a play and act on it if the play deviates from the plan. In this regard, the similarity between the semi-final of the World Cup and the final of the Euro was clear.
But perhaps of more concern is the example set by Italy and Spain, the two teams who have played 4-3-3 throughout, both teams with coaches who have enjoyed significant club success. . Both are mandated to enact radical change, Roberto Mancini to implement a fluid pressing game and Luis Enrique to give Spain greater verticality. Both have proven that it is possible to instill something that comes close to club cohesion, even at the national level.
There were isolated clues to this in Russia. It’s a high-risk strategy, and Italy have been fortunate enough to have traditional defensive qualities on more than one occasion, but with great potential rewards. For Southgate, the danger is that by researching the past so thoroughly, he will end up fighting the last war and find himself caught behind the tide of history.