Tactical Takeaways: Euro 2016 has taught us more than a thing or two
The conclusion is simple though... put the right players into the right system.14:41 Sunday 3 July 2016, 14:41 3 Jul 2016
If you can't beat them...
The greatest tribute to Antonio Conte's Italy was the fact that world champions Germany felt compelled to switch to a similar but, of course, not identical three at the back system in a quarter-final they eventually edged through on penalties on a Saturday night in Bordeaux. Talk about setting the tone from a Conte perspective eh?
Three at the back is nothing new of course, even if it has gone in and out of fashion over the decades. Wales have used it too to good effect during Euro 2016 and Conte used it at times during his former tenure at Juventus.
As the matches in France reach end-game, it's apt to remember that major tournaments have traditionally acted as a kind of audit of where football is at in the wider scheme of things.
The one thing is that they probably don't have as great a direct influence on club football because the element of surprise is gone. We know how teams across the globe will set up thanks to global TV networks and the Internet. For example, we won't see teams copy the three at the back Italy system en masse. Chelsea might but that's because Conte is their next manager. Even he might avoid it though because the outstanding tactician that he is will recognise that a system can only be as good as the suitable players that inhabit it.
But what can we take from Euro 2016?
Let's start with Ireland. Martin O'Neill used a diamond-like formation that had first reared its head in the friendlies and it proved to play to the strengths of the players we had in midfield but also at full-back. In that first game, it was a truer diamond formation but with James McClean's introduction it became a little more lopsided as he is more of a wide man than internal schemer.
The diamond is a formation with a significant weakness on paper because it cedes control of wide areas in the midfield zone against teams that stretch the play. Sweden's equaliser in our opener came after a prolonged area of threat down their left side, particularly from their left-back Martin Olsson.
We haven't been the only side to use a diamond shape during Euro 2016. With Cristiano Ronaldo moving more centrally as he ages, it means the left-wing berth for them has a hole. But rather than plug it man-for-man, they have used a 4-1-2-1-2 formation with Nani switched from his old role of winger to the pacey forward who stretches the play as Ronaldo finds spaces elsewhere. He can move wider as can Nani which gives some flexibility.
While, France never truly lined out as a diamond, they did morph into that loose shape during their opening night scare against Romania with Dimitri Payet often finding himself drifting centrally in front of the muscular midfield three. Antoine Griezmann also played very closely to target man Olivier Giroud.
Meanwhile, aside from the Italy match, Germany have come closest to the new-school orthodoxy that Spain's 2007-2012 success was meant to usher in with high pressing, a very high defensive line, possession and (Kroos) control.
They even started the tournament with a False 9 in the shape of Mario Gotze but his own lack of sharpness saw that abandoned by the end of the group stages and the more traditional centre-forward qualities of the other Mario G (Gomez) brought in to lead the line.
Spain also went for a forward up front in Alvaro Morata instead of the often strikerless methods of 2012, and the diminutive creators led by Andres Iniesta continued to set the agenda.
Martin O'Neill and Robbie Brady
England, while suited to the counter because of their pace, ended up being possession-centric due to the type of opposition they faced in Group B and against Iceland. Their intentions in the latter match are open to interpretation though and probably immune to analysis so inept it proved to be.
And there in lies the issue for them. Whether it be down to the oppressive intrusion of the media, player development issues or tactical shortcomings, England have failed to put the cohesion of the team above individual players. If a system revealed that Wayne Rooney for example - and just as an example - was not suitable in a starting XI, do you think Roy Hodgson or his predecessors would make the right call rather than shoe-horn him in? We can leave that question hanging because the answer is clear.
And Iceland showed that yet again the 4-4-2 is not dead if used correctly. Giovanni Trapattoni tried to use it in 2012 but due to a lack of flexibility in a different football era and a mood shift within the camp, it turned out to be like turning up at the OK Corral with a water pistol.
But all the above paragraphs may be redundant when the simple fact of the matter is that the teams that have shone most are the ones that found a way of bringing the best out of their most important players. And they have used a variety of systems.
Bale and Ramsey
Wales' 3-5-2 gave stability and gave Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey the freedom to work further up the field.
Iceland's two banks of four makes it easier for all eleven players to understand their roles fully. They haven't felt the need to throw on their most famous player Eidur Gudjohnsen (37) for the sake of it either.
And Conte recognised that he already had a pre-packaged quarter of central defenders and goalkeeper in the shape of the Buffon-Barzagli-Bonucci-Chiellini combo to use as a castle from which other arrows could be fired from. Lorenzo Insigne was their most creative forward player, but Conte decided to use him only as an impact sub in order to preserve the cohesion of his team.
Bonucci is an interesting player to drag out of that by the way. So comfortable on the ball, he makes the back-three more dynamic. His ball from deep led to Italy's opening goal in their 2-0 win over Belgium and he nearly pulled off a similar back-to-front move against Germany.
The Germans had Mats Hummels doing a similar role when they switched to a three and some of his distribution from his left-sided centre-back role was outstanding in the first half against the Italians.
But aside from ball-playing centre-halves, the role of the winger continues to become ever more inverted, flexible and in some cases redundant for certain teams. Well, we knew the Stanley Matthews type was long gone.
The centre-forward which some viewed as likely to go the way of the dodo at some point in the not-so-distant future still breathes, even if the role is more flexible than the old days depending on the individual players chosen and the requirements of the system.
Like fashion though, the old days can often become the new days before they become regarded as old again.
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