Possession still key to Euro success, but flexibility also crucial

Euro 2016 has not seen a tactical revolution but Spain's elimination shows that possession for possession's sake is also no longer the winning formula.

Spain won back-to-back Euros in 2008 and 2012, plus the 2010 World Cup in between with their famous tiki taka style of short passes.

That already got them nowhere at the 2014 World Cup, and their Euro adventure in France ended in a 2-0 defeat against Italy in the last 16.

Italy are a team that have always had a safety-first attitude but their Euro displays also demonstrated that pure defence is not enough to win after they tormented Spain with fast attacks.

"We showed that Italy is not only catenaccio. This is a team that plays football. We are very organized in defence and organized going forward," coach Antonio Conte said.

Italy played with a three-man defence which could however be changed to five men when the opponent had possession, with the full-backs then taking a full defensive role.

World champions Germany applied a similar 3-5-2 formation instead of their preferred 4-2-3-1 en route to beating Italy on penalties in the quarter-finals.

It led former Germany midfielder Mehmet Scholl, now a TV pundit, to heavily criticize coach Joachim Loew.

But Loew would have none of it, saying: "It was absolutely necessary to change the formation. We had to shut down the centre."

Loew is now deciding on the best tactics to beat hosts France in Thursday's semi-final. He has become more pragmatic over the years, moving away from a pure possession game, although he still wants his side to keep the ball as much as possible.

Long balls from the likes of centre-back Jerome Boateng have become acceptable again, and Loew even did without a false nine and instead fielded a proper striker in Mario Gomez in recent games before he got injured.

Scholl slammed Loew because he felt Germany had changed their tactics for an opponent instead of looking at their own game, but that has also been the case with other teams.

France coach Didier Deschamps played Antoine Griezmann in his favourite role behind striker Olivier Giroud in the 5-2 quarter-final demolition of Iceland.

But he is not promising the same attacking line-up for the Germany semi-final because it could be suicidal even though the Germans have holding midfielder Sami Khedira injured and centre-back Mats Hummels suspended.

"It's all about adaptation," Deschamps said. "I am not the only one to tweak his system."

While fans love attacking displays, a coach must ultimately make sure that the team wins, regardless how.

"You have to be pragmatic at times to win. We would like to play beautiful football but you don't always win tournaments in that way," Portugal helmsman Fernando Santos said.

Portugal had not won a single game in 90 minutes heading into Wednesday's semi-final against Wales, which will feature Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

Santos and Wales manager Chris Coleman have tirelessly praised the two superstars for their dedication to their teams - showing that a tightly knit unit is another ingredient for success.

"We can never forget our beliefs, our identity and our vision," Coleman said, adding that a "streetwise" approach with some ugly moments is part of the game as well.

Coaches must also live with the players they have at their disposal, which for instance led Iceland to play with an old-fashioned 4-4-2 system because coaches Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson believed that was best for the team.

"It is important to find the right system for your players and not the other way round," Lagerback said.

The number of goals has increased from an all-time low of 1.92 goals per game in the group stage to 2.83 in the knock-out rounds but the average of 2.15 is still on the low side.

The number of goals from set pieces has however risen from 21.1 per cent at Euro 2012 to 26.2 per cent in France, thanks in part to Iceland's special formula: the long throw-ins from captain Aron Gunnarsson which for example helped them beat England 2-1.

Euro 2016 will not be remembered for glorious play, but it will be remembered for a newfound flexibility among coaches.

Last update: Wed, 06/07/2016 - 11:27

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