The Offensive Threats Of All Four Semi-Finalists

Three games left and we will know the winner of EURO 2020. In this article we zoom in on the offensive patterns and habits of the four semi-finalists, who have all demonstrated they have mastered more than one way to create chances.

Written by Ahmed Walid.

During the group stages, doubts were raised about three of the four semi-finalists. Spain’s inability to score despite creating good chances raised up multiple questions, England’s inability to solve the Scottish jigsaw brought back some doubt about Gareth Southgate’s ability to make in-game changes, and Denmark were riding an emotional rollercoaster with zero points and their best player out of the competition.

The last of the quartet is Italy, whose flexibility in changing shapes in and out of possession mesmerized the viewers as much as their opponents. They were the most convincing side after the group stage, and after two rounds into the knockout stage they still have not lost their allure.

Italy’s flexibility in shape complements their flexibility in their attacking approach. Attacking teams using different threats from one game to the other. By the semi-finals stage, that trait has spread and the teams which had question marks over their heads are now going into the semis confident of their chances. Spain, England, and Denmark have also showcased multiple attacking threats during their run-up to the semis.

Spain: different types of crossing

Spain’s change of approach in possession by moving away from triangular combinations out wide between the central midfielders, fullback and wide player to a more central approach with Koke and Pedri nearer to Sergio Busquets improved the side’s ability to get in the box, but they still kept their effective ideas out wide when the ball reached the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal.

Crosses from the edge of the box towards the far wide player has been a key feature before the switch and after the switch. It all started with Spain’s first attacking threat in the tournament, Koke’s cross found Dani Olmo’s header but Robin Olsen managed to deny the Spaniards.

In the next game it featured as well. Jordi Alba’s cross here behind Poland’s defensive line gave Pablo Sarabia a chance that he should have scored.

Instead, the winger weirdly decided to set it up for Alvaro Morata who did not have enough time to react.

Then after changing their approach in possession, Spain still used this attacking threat again. In the game against Slovakia, Pedri’s cross from a similar position to the previous examples found Sarabia’s run behind the defense but the winger was unable to hit the ball cleanly.

Then Pedri himself was nearly on the end of one of these crosses when Cesar Azpilicueta spotted his run into the space.

Another feature of Spain’s attacking arsenal is releasing Alba on the left side. The left back has the highest expected assists out of all the players remaining in the tournament and has probably been Spain’s best player alongside his club team-mate Pedri. Similar to the crosses from the edge of the box, Spain’s change in approach in possession didn’t affect their usage of Alba. On the contrary, it actually improved it.

Because of Spain’s improvement in terms of penetrating the opponent’s block, they can now find Alba out wide freely as seen in their third goal against Slovakia. Pedri’s positioning inside Slovakia’s block forced Lukas Haraslin to go inside, freeing Alba out wide before Alba’s cross found Sarabia.

Furthermore, Pedri and Koke have presented themselves as attacking options with runs into the box throughout the tournament. Spain, for all their missed chances, should worry the Italians.

Italy: long passing and playing between the lines

On the other hand, Italy’s 3-2-4-1 in possession is only one half of their beauty. The rest resides in their continuous flow of attacking ideas. Nicolo Barella’s threat in the right half space factored in the opener against Belgium, before Lorenzo Insigne’s positioning inside the pitch in the left half space allowed him to have a crack at Thibaut Courtois scoring the second.

In the game against Wales, it was all about balls behind the defense from Alessandro Bastoni and Marco Verratti.

And a round before that, Manuel Locatelli’s late runs into the box alongside Italy’s supreme build up plan totally dismantled Switzerland. 

Remo Freuler and Granit Xhaka’s marking and pressing duties were used against them on the night as Italy’s build up constantly lured them up or split them apart, before utilizing the space created behind them or in-between them. With the duo split to mark both Barella and Locatelli, Italy’s defenders sought to play the pass in the space in-between the Swiss duo…

…..for the dropping forward who was usually Ciro Immobile. The aim was to get the ball behind Freuler and Xhaka into a player that can link the play.

Freuler and Xhaka were constantly moved up or split up to get an Italy player behind them or in-between them on the ball. An example here shows only Freuler marking Locatelli with Haris Seferovic putting Jorginho in his cover shadow. When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played.

However, in a blink of an eye Barella drops moving Xhaka with him and Jorginho pushes forward to attack the space behind Xhaka and Freuler who are currently inside the trap. The Swiss duo are high up the pitch to mark Barella and Locatelli, but that’s exactly where Italy want them with Jorginho attacking the space behind them.

Bonucci’s long pass found Jorginho, but Seferovic had to foul the Chelsea midfielder to stop the attack. Again, Freuler and Xhaka were taken out of the equation.

Though it remains to be seen how Emerson Palmieri will fare in Spinazzola’s place, Italy’s strength in depth also gives them fresh options off the bench as seen in the Round of Sixteen fixture against Austria. That, coupled with their massive improvement in set pieces brings us to the next contender who share these two features, England.

England: set pieces and runs in behind

Southgate side’s ability from set pieces is unquestionable by now, even before the two goals against Ukraine, England showed a glimpse of what they can do against Scotland with John Stones hitting the post and Harry Maguire getting two chances against Germany in the first half.

The second of those set-piece goals against Ukraine originally came from a long ball behind the defense. A feature of England’s play that didn’t only present itself here in the second half against Ukraine, but also throughout the first half against the Czech Republic.

The runs in behind the opponent’s defense work well with England due to the dynamic nature of their attacking players. Creating space for runners from wide or from midfield as was the case in their first game against Croatia.

It eventually paid off when Kalvin Phillips set up Raheem Sterling to score the only goal of the game. The positioning of Phil Foden and Kyle Walker moved Josko Gvardiol towards the touchline and grabbed the attention of Ivan Perisic. That, while Harry Kane was pinning Duje Caleta-Car created space for Phillips to attack and Walker found Phillips with a pass through Croatia’s defensive shape.

Kane then continued his excellent work off the ball by dragging Domagoj Vida and creating space for Sterling to attack. It’s also important to note Mason Mount’s wide positioning when Sterling was central. That forced Sime Vrsaljko to stay wide, thus making the gap bigger when Vida was dragged out of position.

Denmark: different forms of wing play 

England’s opponent in the semi-final is Denmark. A team that have showed impressive displays even in their losses against Finland and Belgium. From intense man-oriented pressing against Belgium in the first half to rampaging wing backs throughout the tournament. 

Accordingly, it’s no surprise that the spotlight falls on their left wing-back Joakim Maehle whose strides forward down the left wing are Denmark’s best chance of scoring.

Maehle has contributed to most of Denmark’s goals throughout the tournament and his threat alongside Jens Stryger Larsen on the right might force Southgate to move again to a three at the back system. 

That’s not Denmark’s only threat though. Thomas Delaney has been making constant runs into the box whether when in a midfield two or a midfield three. Those runs usually occur when one of the front three drops to help with ball-progression.

Delaney was close to scoring against the Czech Republic when Mikkel Damsgaard dropped to aid with ball-progression…

… allowing Delaney to make a run into the space behind the Czech midfield who were occupied with Damsgaard…

…but Delaney didn’t manage to get his shot on target.

These runs also help Maehle and the front players when they aren’t dropping. It grabs the attention of the opposition defense…

…providing more space and less pressure for Maehle and the front player towards the far side of the pitch.

The four finalists have all presented different attacking options throughout the tournament and that should make for exciting semis and final where any of the four can utilize one of the many attacking approaches they have used before. 

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