With the wait for the eagerly anticipated Euro 2020 nearly over and with barely any noise about the build-up to it in the media, this instalment of the European Championship has almost crept up on us. Perhaps the one-year enforced delay that saw the tournament moved forward a year in 2020 has thrown up an element of caution?
Despite this though, it has left us wondering exactly what is in store for us this summer, with the new 32 team format set to provide us with plenty of intrigue, in addition to the multi-nation host factor of the tournament, with teams to play in venues all around Europe.
Over the years, one of the elements that has evolved in football is the different philosophies and playing styles, with formations often playing a part in these.
Naturally, there is a difference with regards to these when you look at both domestic and international football; invariably some players have to adapt after playing a whole season in one system at club level before the international stage presents a completely new system.
Generally formations at international level tend to be more traditional and conservative. Mangers often feel they need to keep things simple with formations to best integrate players used to playing different styles in different line-ups, with 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 a common sight at international level. It is rare to see teams play three at the back, for example.
Still there are examples where formations can work very well at international level, especially for nations that can recruit the core of their team from one or two high level clubs.
Domestic Club Line Ups Affect National Teams
When you look back at previous international tournaments, there have been cases; especially for the more successful nations where they have had a core of players from two or three of the best domestic clubs, with just a sprinkling of other clubs represented.
Perhaps one of the best international side’s arguably never to win a tournament could perhaps be the England squad that featured at least five players from Manchester United, that made up one side of the pitch. When you consider Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham, and Paul Scholes, that was four influential starters from one club in a 4-4-2 formation. Throw into the mix Phil Neville and Nicky Butt, then that becomes an England starting XI with a strong Red Devils contingent, all of whom were used to playing attacking football.
International managers have often made use of domestic club partnerships when deciding on what system to play, though often, trouble arises if you have two world-class, similar players from different clubs, but who simply cannot seem to play together effectively. For many years Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard encountered this problem for the Three Lions.
It was often said that neither of them could fulfil their absolute potential when playing together because both played in more of an advanced central midfield position. Owen Hargreaves was even brought in to create a three-man central midfield to allow more freedom to both, however, this usually meant only having one striker. The problem this posed was deciding either between Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney. Latterly, Peter Crouch and Emile Heskey were considered better alternatives as a lone frontman, which compared to the former duo, is justifiably unthinkable.
One instance where everything seemed to slide right into place, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, was the Spain side that won three consecutive international tournaments. A starting XI which was invariably made up of virtually half of the Barcelona and half of the Real Madrid sides produced displays of tantalising telepathy.
Here, 4-3-3 triumphed, with that metronomic midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andress Iniesta (all Barcelona), effectively each tournaments’ ‘Puppetmasters in Chief’, feeding three from Pedro, Cesc Fabregas, David Villa (all Barcelona) and Fernando Torres (Liverpool & Chelsea). Combined with a back five that included Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Alvara Arbeloa (all Real Madrid), and Gerard Pique (Barcelona), the only player in the starting XI to not feature for either club was left-back Jordi Alba (Valencia).
This was at a time when Barcelona were effortlessly dismantling teams in La Liga and this translated on to the international stage; the 4-0 thrashing of Italy in the final of Euro 2012 providing the perfect example.
Player Positions That Influence Formations
Certainly, over the last five or six tournaments, it could be argued that there have been a number of positions that have had a particular effect on how a team has played at international tournaments, often with these positions featuring players who are specialists in these particular roles.
When Italy won the World Cup in 2006, we saw the importance of full-backs, Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta who were vital in providing constant energy, pace, and also deliveries down and from their respective flanks. Full-back was also a position that the highly successful Spain squad utilised to good effect, especially [Jordi] Alba, who played the attacking left-back role to the tee at Euro 2012, culminating with a superb goal in the final.
What about the seemingly evergreen Philip Lahm for Germany, who could be regarded as one of the best left-backs of his generation, effectively making the position his own in a way that Roberto Carlos (Brazil) once did. Boasting a left foot with near-equivalent potency, his ever-present energy provided Germany with an important outlet for each of their international tournaments, with the former Bayern Munich man also scoring memorable goals.
It could be argued that England severely under-utilised their full-backs at a time when they had arguably the best two in the world in Ashley Cole and [Gary] Neville, who for their clubs were constant attacking threats, though on the international stage were somewhat restricted by what could be considered as unimaginative tactics.
Arguably, the central midfielder has evolved over the years on the international stage, especially the specific roles of such a position. We have seen teams tinker with utilising a midfield three, with a specialist defensive anchorman (Busquets – Spain and Andrea Pirlo – Italy), while the double pivot has also been a popular choice (Toni Kroos filling one of these roles exceptionally for Germany).
It was ball distribution in particularly that played to the latter’s strengths in this position. Alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger who effectively had more of a box-to-box role and with often the mercurial Mesut Ozil just in front, this was a central trio set-up that really played to Kroos’ strengths.
This came at a time when Germany effectively chose strikers to play in the wide positions, though this selection was a masterstroke. Lukas Podolski and especially Thomas Muller’s movement from the flanks proved decisive in helping to create space and Kroos responded in-kind time and again. Not too dissimilar from the masterclass that [Andrea} Pirlo provided in 2006, with his contributions often coming from the base of a diamond.
What Formations Could We See At Euro 2020?
One thing that is obvious is that there are a number of national teams that are effectively in a transition when it comes to re-establishing their identity once again. The likes of Spain, Germany, Netherlands, and Italy have seen a number of their stars of yesteryear retire and as a result, this tournament could demonstrate somewhat of a mish-mash on the pitch. Not quite the previously cohesive tournament teams of the past, but works in progress.
Likely to stand out, will be France, who, likely to play an attacking 4-3-3 will be looking to add a consecutive international trophy, adding to their 2018 World Cup success. A lot will hinge though, on the fitness of PSG star Kylian Mbappe and whether he fully recovers from his latest injury, however, with Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Anthony Martia, Alexandre Lacazette and Thomas Lemar, they are blessed with attacking talent.
Portugal, with the exception of captain Cristiano Ronaldo, still have a young squad, capable of playing in a number of systems, whether this be 4-3-3 or variations of. Aided by Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes, we will likely see him play a dominant role in midfield, while the ball-playing ability of Manchester City centre-back Ruben Dias will also be instrumental. His teammate at club level, Bernardo Silva will be just as important going forward, while Atletico Madrid phenomenon Joao Felix will be looking to be among the goals. It could be argued that Portugal has a strong case to be considered relative outsiders.
The question though on everyone’s lips, will be, ‘can England finally deliver’? Having come agonisingly close in 2018, being eliminated in the semi-finals by Croatia, many have billed this as being their tournament, with Wembley providing the stage for the final. It appears that Gareth Southgate has learned to adapt to certain types of opposition well and seems to choose players based on the teams that England plays.
This has been evidenced recently, in him using two more defensively-minded midfielders (Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips), against teams who can be regarded as more difficult, though to good effect. It is likely that they will line up in a 4-3-3, though Southgate is essentially spoiled for choice in attack, while you would feel the full-back roles will also be crucial.