Tactics EURO 2020

How teams at EURO 2020 are finding their own Robert Pires

Everyone remembers that Trezeguet goal in the Euro 2000 final, but prior to the left footed finish there was a brilliant solo move from Robert Pires who assisted the winner. Gliding past Demetrio Albertini, before pinning Fabio Cannavaro to the ground with a fake dribble inside then going outside to cross the ball.

Written by Ahmed Walid.

Pires had replaced Bixente Lizarazu with four minutes to go in normal time, and in extra time France’s setup consisted of Pires and Sylvian Wiltord as wing-backs ahead of a back three of Lillian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, and Laurent Blanc. The change in shape showed the psychological effect of Wiltord’s last minute equalizer. France played to win the game, while Italy were in a state of shock especially after Dino Zoff decided that Italy would sit back the last twenty minutes of normal time and defend their lead when they could have controlled the game.

That peculiar back three in possession with highly technical offensive players at wing-back proved to be France’s main threat in extra time and it eventually won them the tournament. 

Modern times

A back three in possession is far from odd in 2021 and it comes in different shapes. A back three in possession might feature a defender going into midfield to form a 3-2 structure like Joao Cancelo at Manchester City, it might involve a winger playing as a wing-back in possession similar to Yannick Carrasco’s role earlier on in the season at Atletico Madrid  or it may even mean wing-backs going inside the field while the strikers provide the width out wide as Graham Potter experimented towards the end of the season at Brighton.

A back four on paper might turn out to be a back three in possession, and a back three in possession is not the same as a back three in possession. Different attacking approaches might yield the same shape despite operating differently and formational notations go out of the window

Similar to France at the end of the EURO 2000 final, in EURO 2020 Belgium played a couple of their wide attacking players in the wing-back position. Thorgan Hazard, Leandro Trossard and Nacer Chadli have played at wing-back during the group stage but the more interesting part about the role is that they frequently change positions with the wide player in the front three to be the attackers themselves.

Next level

This provides the likes of Eden Hazard, Carrasco and Jeremy Doku more space outside to show their prowess in one-versus-one situations, and it also contributes to unexpected threats in the box for Belgium as seen in the goals in the game against Denmark. Thorgan Hazard initial positioning is clearly inside the field rather than wide at wing-back…

…and this allows him a central position in the box to meet Kevin de Bruyne’s low cross and score the equalizer.

Tactics EURO 2020

Then in the second goal, Thorgan’s movement inside presents him as a passing option for Youri Tielemans, before combining with his brother for the ball to eventually find De Bruyne out wide. A wing-back going inside provides unpredictability but also frees space out wide for anyone to attack as De Bruyne did here.

In addition to the goals showcased above, this feature of Belgium’s attack has caused problems for Russia and Finland. Portugal already had a tough experience against more conventional wing-back behaviour in the match against Germany, but this Belgium side will present them with next level  wing-back play.

Italian dynamism

If Belgium go past Portugal, they will probably face Italy in the Quarter Finals. The Italian side impressed the most throughout the group stage. Their 4-3-3 shape out of possession transforms into a 3-2-4-1 in possession as Leonardo Spinazzola pushes forward as a left wing-back with Lorenzo Insigne going inside in the left channel. On the other side, it’s Domenico Berardi who stretches the opponents out wide as Nicolo Barella moves into the right channel to mirror the positioning of Insigne.

The beauty of Italy’s attacking approach is in its flexibility. In the game against Turkey, Berardi would occasionally move inside from his wide positions to create space for Barella to attack out wide. Then against Switzerland it was all about Manuel Locatelli’s runs from midfield complementing their ethereal buildup play before balls behind the defense from Marco Verratti and Alessandro Bastoni rained over Wales. Italy’s 3-2-4-1 structure is easy on the eye, but it’s their different attacking approaches inside this structure that might catch opponents out.

The first team to worry about that should be Austria who will face Italy at Wembley in the Round of Sixteen. Franco Foda’s side have also used a back three in possession in their first two games in the group stage. The two key points in their attacking approach in a back three were David Alaba’s forward thrusts from a left center back position to put crosses into the box and Marcel Sabitzer dropping deep in the left channel to play diagonal cross field passes for late runners inside the box.

Germany theory

Moving along the borders to Germany. Joachim Löw’s side were expected to play a 3-4-3 formation even before the tournament started. The combinations between the front three, complemented with Toni Kroos’ diagonals to find the electric Robin Gosens at left wing-back should in theory cause opponents problems, but it was only when a Portugal side completely ignored defending the space out wide that Germany prospered. 

It would not be a surprise if England moved to a back three against Germany. After all Gareth Southgate’s squad was specifically chosen to be able to switch between a back four and a back three throughout the tournament. Despite fielding a back four till now in their group stage games, England actually moved to a three-man buildup in their game against the Czech Republic. In contrast with Germany, Southgate’s side was looking for balls behind the Czech defense aided with the better passing angles a back three buildup offers compared to a back four.

The Orange shift

That half of the draw also includes the Netherlands whose 3-4-1-2 on paper plays out more like 3-4-2-1 with Memphis Depay dropping to the left channel. That left side of the Oranje has been the core behind creating their chances. Passing combinations between Daley Blind, Frenkie de Jong, Patrick van Aanholt and Memphis dominate the opponent’s wide area and offes penetration towards the goal.

A quick passing combination here between the quartet penetrates Austria’s back five…

…then comes the role of Gini Wijnaldum who starts from the right channel in this structure but perfectly positions himself in the space inside the penalty area while the Netherlands left side build the attack. As a result, he offers a good passing option inside the penalty area for Depay, De Jong or Van Aanholt as is the case here.

There is also another dimension to these left sided combinations. The gravitational force that it presents pulls the opponent to that side of the pitch, creating space for Netherlands’ right wing-back Denzel Dumfries to create havoc at the far post. Here, a combination between Blind, Depay and De Jong…

…penetrates the Ukrainian block while Wijnaldum – as always – presents himself as a good passing option by dropping away from the Ukrainian defense. Tilting the Ukrainian defense towards the left side of the pitch creates space for Dumfries and makes him a threat if fast horizontal passes were played into him. This time Wijnaldum decided to shoot though. The threat of Wijnaldum and Dumfries in the box originates from the Netherlands’ buildup on their left side.


With the group stages done and many of the matches presenting a high entertainment value, we cannot look beyond the trend of back threes being used in possession. Many teams implement it but each has their very own traits, making this an intriguing phenomenon to study, looking at the specific ways in which it aims to maximize their strengths. 

All teams might be trying to find their own Trezeguet in the knockout stages, but they shouldn’t forget to find their internal Pires first.

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