The group stages of Euro 2020 wound to a pulsating close yesterday. Rounding off the first stage of the month-long tournament were France and Portugal playing an entertaining 2-2 draw that saw them both qualify for the Round of 16. Meanwhile, Germany clawed back to hold Hungary by the same scoreline, ensuring their progress and the latter’s elimination.
Over the three group games, Italy and the Netherlands were two nations that underlined their credentials for the title, playing with swagger and purpose to win all their matches.
Other big names have blown hot and cold: Germany have seemed defensively suspect, while France’s Kylian Mbappe has had a curiously dry tournament so far. England have barely stuttered into life, while Spain’s profligacy almost cost them their qualification. Eventually though, Luis Enrique’s side hammered Slovakia 5-0 in their final group game to ensure they progressed in emphatic fashion.
Of all the fascinating themes playing out so far, one that has become fairly apparent is the clever usage of the wide areas by teams that have dominated so far. Italy and the Netherlands, for instance, have worked the flanks supremely well, while the most entertaining game of the tournament so far featured irrepressible wing-back play from Germany against Portugal.
Having effective wide players allows teams to not just stretch opposition defenses, allowing their creative players into the game, but also offers a creative threat from beyond just the central areas.
If anything, these games don’t just highlight the strengths of these teams, but the evolution of the sport as a whole over the last three years, since the World Cup in Russia – particularly the role of full backs and wing backs. The two tactical minds of our footballing generation, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, have effectively made their full backs indispensable, and by extension, taught the sport how effective these wide operators could be.
Guardiola often uses his full backs as decoy midfielders (think Joao Cancelo), providing another passing option in the middle of the field, something that was critical to his Manchester City side cantering to the title this year. By using his full backs as auxiliary midfielders, effectively ‘inverting’ them, Guardiola allows for his forward players to stretch defenses, with the additional midfield presence aiding the counter-pressing in case the ball is lost.
Klopp, on the other hand, uses his flying full-backs – Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson – to stretch defenses. This allows the forward line to effectively possess two inside forwards, who can now target the half spaces that open up between the opposition full backs and the centre backs on those sides. Mohamed Salah, for instance, is predatory in these channels. Indeed, Liverpool’s midfield is entirely functional with very little flair – since Phillippe Coutinho’s departure in 2018 – because their most creative players are their full backs, who are effectively wide forwards.
Euro 2020 has allowed for this development of full-back play in the men’s game to spill over into international tournament football. The group stage has been littered with excellent work in the wide areas, particularly from two standout players so far.
Spinazzola and Dumfries have both been supremely effective from the wings
Before the start of the tournament, Leonardo Spinazzola may not have been the player Italian fans would have been most hyped about. But after his performances in the first two games for Roberto Mancini’s classy Azzuri side, they cannot be blamed if they’re salivating for more.
The Roma left-back has been exceptional, dovetailing with Lorenzo Insigne with aplomb on the left, driving Italy forward. There was a relentless run he made in the second game against Switzerland, where he picked up the ball and ghosted into the penalty box, ultimately poking it just wide. He generally drops near the halfway line to pick up passes from the centre-backs and the midfielders, making him an important outlet to evade an opposition midfield press.
Interestingly, he operates on the left but is patently right-footed. Not that this is out of the ordinary in football, but it does warrant a mention. Because of his stronger right foot, he has the ability to cut inside and deliver arching balls towards the far post, generally Domenico Berardi’s terrain.
Importantly, it makes Italy’s left flank unpredictable. Spinazzola has a functional left foot as well, and showing him towards the byline doesn’t exactly shut him down. Further, he has the ability to make underlapping runs as well, bursting through a zone where an advanced midfielder or inside forward may operate. This was typified by his charge at goal against Switzerland.
This is critical, for it gives teams another headache to deal with. If they show Insigne onto his left foot and usher him towards the touchline, Spinazzola would then just swap running channels with the Napoli forward, maintaining the consistency of the threat down Italy’s left.
No issues of stronger feet arise when speaking of the other standout full back so far – Denzel Dumfries of the Netherlands. A right-footed player playing on the right hand side, he has been one of the Oranje’s best weapons going forward. A more conventional deployment, Dumfries has essentially been playing as a flying wing-back. He is responsible for stretching defences, drawing out opposition full backs and allowing the likes of targetman Wout Weghorst to work the channel between the opposition left back and left centre half.
A case in point is the Netherlands’ second goal in their opener against Ukraine, where Weghorst looks to run towards the near post expecting Dumfries’ cross. On that occasion, however, Dumfries went on his own and forced a save from Ukraine goalkeeper Bushchan. Weghorst tucked in the rebound. This came after Dumfries had already caused mayhem with his crossing that led to the first goal. He eventually got the winner, lurking at the far post and tucking in a powerful header, in what was a vintage wing-back performance down the right hand side.
Dumfries’ presence high up on the right hand side critically balances the Dutch attack. Indeed, with Memphis Depay operating mostly down the left, the Lyon attacker attracts great attention from the opposition defense. Dumfries has so far been able to exploit the left-leaning orientation of opposition defenses by taking up the spaces left on the right.
If the opposition left back goes out to meet him, Gini Wijnaldum makes his late runs into the resultant gaping hole. It is fairly simple, but so far, it has proved highly effective.
An interesting example of the importance of the wide areas came in Belgium’s last group game against Finland. Roberto Martinez, expecting his Scandinavian opposition to sit deep and defend in low blocks, attempted a remarkable experiment. He lined up Leandro Trossard – a forward for Brighton & Hove Albion – as right wing back.
As the match went on, however, Trossard’s instructions became clear. With Belgium on the ball – especially if the ball was in and around the opposite flank – he would almost always be tucked in as an auxiliary inside forward, playing just off the shoulder of Romelu Lukaku upfront. This would entail a swapping of positions with Jeremy Doku, who would go further out towards the touchline and tap into his obvious strength of isolating the opposition full back out wide. He would then attempt take-ons before firing in a cross – a tool commonly deployed by him while manufacturing the 66 shot creating actions over the course of the 2020-21 season with Rennes in Ligue 1.
It didn’t seem to have the desired effect, because while Trossard was a presence in the inside forward role, despite being a starting wing back, the channels for him to operate never really opened up properly. Finland didn’t get dragged out of shape and denied Doku the ball, without having anyone to take on and beat. It was, however, an interesting thought, and on another day, could have been a tactical masterclass.
It does not come as a surprise that the teams Dumfries and Spinazzola play for are the ones that have been the most swashbuckling sides in the group stage. Equally, it becomes fairly obvious as to why some sides like England have struggled so far.
In the first two games, without much width at all, England struggled to make merry in the final third, diluting any sense of attacking urgency they may have had. This was most pointed in the 0-0 draw against Scotland, where the full backs Reece James and Luke Shaw attempted just three crosses between themselves.
Even France, to an extent, have huffed and puffed a bit, particularly on the right hand side. Benjamin Pavard having a game to forget against Hungary, and Jules Kounde, a traditional center back, also looking out of place on the right. Despite the riches of their attacking talent, neither of these two teams have properly gotten going, and it is because of their underwhelming full-back play so far.
In modern football, midfield battles are fairly even at the highest levels, because of the heightened efficacy of the press and the counter-press. Creating through the middle, through a conventional string-puller, has been on the wane for a while now, with very little time on the ball being afforded in the middle of the park. Therefore, the ability to stretch a defence and disrupt a midfield press, opening up passing lanes through the lines, is something the modern full-back must bring to the table.
The role of Kimmich and Gosens in particular for Germany – especially in their 4-2 demolition of Portugal – has been expanded upon already. That, in conjunction with the study of Spinazzola and Dumfries, underlines just how important effective usage of the wide areas through full-backs are to the modern game, even in the international men’s football.