The mental aspect of football is just as important as the physical. No team has become successful without players who know their roles and a manager that’s defined their style. Yet, for all the weight carried by tactics, it’s very difficult to change things once a match has actually started. Managers may switch shape, or put an individual player in a different zone, but normally the only true trump cards come from the bench. A shrewd manager can change the entire direction and personality of his side with one substitution while a bad or ill-timed swap can cost a game. Some sides used the bench to their advantage in the tournament, while others wasted the opportunity.
England-Roy Hodgson showed that in most ways he is still the exact same coach that had Liverpool playing some of their most unattractive football ever; however he was much more proactive as England manager. Liverpool fans often saw substitutions arrive far too late to influence the game but at Euro 2012 they were prompt and actually effective. Theo Walcott pushed the opposition back when England was trying to hold on to a slender advantage and he gave the side an outlet ball to ignite counters. If not for wasteful finishing by his teammates Walcott would have improved even more on a successful tournament. Carroll was another substitute used well. England often had much less of the ball than their opponent and without a hard-working hold up player to give the side respite towards the end of matches they could have easily been overrun.
Perhaps where Hodgson could have improved was with his starting lineups. Ashley Young had a poor tournament and while James Milner is the quintessential English player, disciplined and hardworking, Oxlade-Chamberlain could have come in for either and perhaps injected slightly more dynamism. Andy Carroll, while effective in his sub role, could also have started more, especially after being impressive against Sweden and with England’s main goal strategy involving set-pieces and crosses.
Germany-Along with Spain Germany was probably the side with the most depth going into this tournament, and Joachim Low used that fact well. Swapping out his regular front three for the quarter-final was an extremely brave move but by exchanging Klose for Gomez he introduced a more mobile player to help attacks flow against a side defending deep.
However, the fact that Germany’s squad is built with lots of good players that fit within their style means that they don’t have someone to bring off the bench and change things around drastically. Toni Kroos and Marco Reus are fine players for the style Germany plays but against Italy they probably lacked the Plan B that a player like Llorente gives Spain.
Against Italy in a perfect world Low would have brought on a swift winger and pushed both fullbacks up high to attack the flanks. Italy’s fullbacks were often unprotected with all their midfielders in the center and Philip Lahm caused problems on more than one occasion on the overlap, yet Podolski, Ozil and Reus were all too one dimensional. Low simply didn’t have a player in his squad like David Odonkor, whose pace and directness was used extremely well by Jurgen Klinsmann in the 2006 World Cup.
Greece-Making it to the quarters was a fine result for such a limited team in a competitive tournament and although the Greeks were fortunate with lots of their goals, Fernando Santos’ creative use of his squad was critical to their success.
Santos always made inspired half-time substitutions that helped his side get back into games. More importantly his changes weren’t merely throwing on another striker but actual shifts of shape and tactics. Against Germany Santos recognized that the left side was Greece’s best chance of scoring with Lahm constantly high up the pitch and Schurrle not being as careful with the ball as Ozil or Reus. Bringing the striker Gekas on at half-time meant the more mobile striker Salpingidis could shift out to the flank and it was he who crossed for Greece’s opening goal.
Against Poland the manager’s substitutions enabled Greece to stay in the game after going down to 10 men, with Salpingidis again playing a key role. Bringing his main striker, Samaras, deeper and to the left meant that Greece shored up their weak area and could still hold the ball up for Salpingidis’ brave runs behind.
Of course the question is would these wonderful tactical maneuvers even have to be made if Santos had just got his selection right from the start, but the article isn’t about that. Also, it’s quite hard to plan for things like a straight red card.
Italy-In terms of tactical excitement, Italy probably sprung the biggest surprise at Euro 2012. Most of the time going into a match, spectators had a reasonable idea of how both sides would line up, but Italy showed that they could play two extremely different shapes with aplomb.
The Italy-Spain Group C opener was the finest tactical battle at the Euros. Instead of sitting back like most other sides Prandelli competed for the midfield area while playing wingbacks high, hitting Spain’s theoretical weaknesses in Arbeloa and Alba.
With regards to substitutions, because Prandelli had his side playing so well from the start of games there was hardly ever a reason to drastically change things. Often the players brought on were due to fatigue from the starters and were ones that knew the system well.
Against Spain Antonio Di Natale was the perfect substitute to come on and take advantage of tiring legs because he spent his entire season making runs behind the defense in a 3-5-2 formation at Udinese. In the rest of the tournament when Italy played a 4-3-1-2 Prandelli was excellent at recognizing when the head of the diamond was exhausted from pressing, and always made a like for like substitution at around 60-65 minutes.
The only time Italy trailed the entire tournament was the final, and that was the only time Prandelli’s initial game plan didn’t work. Xavi stuck tight to Andrea Pirlo and thereby severely reduced the tempo and danger of Italy’s attacks. That match didn’t tell us how Prandelli would respond to a crisis as one of his substitutions was forced through injury and another of his regular ones was injured soon after coming on. His third, Di Natale was actually successful doing broadly the same thing as the first time Italy and Spain played, his finishing just wasn’t good. Perhaps playing a 3-5-2 in the final would have been the better option but with Pirlo not having the opportunity to play long diagonals and Spain’s fullbacks being much braver in their positioning that could easily have backfired as well.
Spain-Spain were also a side that was comfortable playing two systems, a 4-6-0 with sometimes up to seven different players taking turns to make the runs that a central striker would have made, and their regular 4-3-3. Against Italy in their first match it seemed that they weren’t comfortable operating without a reference point, something Fernando Torres would have provided without slowing Spain’s passing tempo. People such as Fabregas and Silva weren’t timing their runs correctly and lots of Spain’s possession proved sterile in the end. The fact that they improved markedly when bringing on Torres and continued their ascension against Ireland meant that many wanted them to stay with the 4-3-3. However, their best game of the tournament came in the final with a slightly hybrid system, no recognized striker but one midfielder, (Fabregas), told to play much more like a striker than the others.
What Spain’s evolution showed throughout the tournament was that Del Bosque didn’t persist with systems that weren’t working; he improved them by making use of his squad. When Italy was getting the better of Spain he abandoned his initial plan and introduced Torres to make runs behind the opposing lines that his midfielders weren’t doing. When sides like Croatia were parking the bus Jesus Navas was used to entirely change Spain’s shape, the simple act of him being wide right on the pitch meant that teams couldn’t stay narrow and block Xavi and Iniesta’s passing lanes. Against Croatia Navas’ speed and outside-in runs got the winning goal.
What was a little surprising was that Fernando Llorente and Jesus Navas were never used in conjunction; in fact Navas against Croatia he came on for Fernando Torres which meant he was rarely being used with a striker that could get on the end of the crosses he had lots of space to provide.
Euro 2012 was not a tactically fascinating tournament, but it was fitting that the two most interesting teams, Italy and Spain, reached the final. In the current international setup, teams do not have a lot of time together, so mastering one system, let alone two in such a short space of time can rarely be done well. So the fact that Del Bosque and Prandelli had their players knowing how to deal with a variety of situations in multiple styles meant that they really did know their squads well.
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