Portugal allowed German wing-backs complete freedom in their 2-4 defeat, which England must avoid in their Euro 2020 last-16 clash.
England and Portugal may have been in different groups at Euro 2020, but their styles of play are strikingly similar. Gareth Southgate and Fernando Santos both failed to make the most of their attacking talents, opting for a more cautious approach. The tactics failed to work for the defending champions as they were knocked out by Belgium in the round-of-16. The safety-first approach did not help Portugal in defensive third either, as they conceded seven goals in their four games. It is an area where England have thrived, conceding none till now – but at a heavy price. The Three Lions have scored only twice in the group stages and both have come from Raheem Sterling.
Southgate’s side have been toothless in front of goal, struggling to create chances. Their playing style has been the team’s main problem. They are unable to quickly shift the ball from defence to offence, to threaten the opposition. England enjoyed the bulk of possession in all three group matches but failed to make the most of it. Their movements are too slow and their passing game is pedestrian, making it easier for the opponents to defend against them. When they play Germany on Tuesday, England must add variety to their game if they are to have any chance of beating Joachim Low’s side.
It was rather surprising to see Germany play with a back three in this Euro. They have relied heavily on the wing-backs to be their creative outlet. Robin Gosens on the left and Joshua Kimmich on the other flank have been their biggest weapons in this tournament. The Atlanta wing-back – in particular – has had a tournament to remember. He single-handedly destroyed Portugal in their second group game. His pace, dribbling ability, and lethal final pass made it impossible for Portugal’s defence to tackle him.
Gosens spearheaded Germany’s remarkable comeback after falling behind to a breathtaking counter-attacking move that resulted in Cristiano Ronaldo opening the scoring for Portugal. Ruben Dias, who was attempting to get ahead of Kai Havertz, deflected a whipped cross by Gosens into his own net. Raphael Guerreiro did the same from a Joshua Kimmich cut back minutes later.
The Atalanta wing-back set up the third goal immediately after the break with an inviting ball that allowed Havertz to score from a close range. Following that, Gosens, who was denied an earlier goal due to offside, rounded off a fantastic evening by heading in Germany’s fourth goal from Kimmich’s cross. The match demonstrated how much Low’s attacking play depends on their wing-backs. They play a vital part in moving the ball quickly from back to front.
On that fateful evening, Santos’ Portugal did not have a special plan to counter that threat, allowing German wing-backs space and time to dictate the tempo of the play. This also allowed the German attackers to take up good positions in and around Portugal defence to maintain their dominance. Thomas Muller and Havertz benefitted the most from this style of play as they tucked in alongside Serge Gnabry, providing multiple goal scoring options for Germany in the penalty box.
That was the only match in this Euro 2020 Germany lived up to their expectations. They have been a shadow of their former self in the other matches against France and Hungary. Didier Deschamps’ French side executed a perfect game plan against Low’s team in their opening match of the tournament. Playing in a 4-3-3 formation, Antoine Griezmann started on the right, while Kylian Mbappe played on the left. With the French wingers continuing to play higher up the pitch, the German wing-backs were forced to stay behind.
To prevent themselves from getting exposed in a possible counter-attack, Gosens and Kimmich were mindful of their forwards runs. Barring the rare occasions, the German wing-backs stayed close to their defenders, offering cover in the wide positions. It is something England must try to do on Tuesday in their last-16 clash. Southgate must start with wingers, who are direct in their approach.
This will allow England to be purposeful in the attacking third, preventing Germany wing-backs from surging forward. If England can nullify their wing-back threats, it might become simpler for the Three Lions to defend against them. This might allow them to keep a check on Gnabry, who is playing as a make-shift striker.
In order to accomplish it, England need direct runners, who can stretch the opposition defence. Bukayo Saka had a positive outing against Czech Republic in their final group match. He was direct with his play, showing no fear in dribbling at people. The teenager cut inside, went outside, bamboozling the opponent defenders.
It is players like Saka who England need over players like Phil Foden, whose movements have become predictable as he frequently tries to cut inside on to his strong left foot. Direct attackers on the wide areas will force Gosens and Kimmich to stay behind, allowing England to maintain a solid shape at the back. From there on, it’s up to Southgate’s attacking players to trouble the German defence.