Euro 2020: Why international football is an entirely different ball game

Tournament football will not be replicating the frenetic pace and tactics of the club game any time soon. It is instead dominated by defensive structure, set-pieces and maybe ‘one piece of magic’

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 10 June 2021 10:10
Countdown to Euro 2020: Daily briefing

It’s a complaint that sums up the compromises many international managers have to make. During the March World Cup qualifiers, one high-profile coach wanted one of his midfielders to press in a particular way. His preferred system was dependent on it. The manager quickly found, however, that the player could barely do it for 20 minutes. The midfielder just wasn’t physically conditioned to play that way, because his club naturally prepared him with a fitness programme that suited their own needs.

It’s one of many issues the 24 management teams have to solve for these European Championships, that have taken on a new level due to the advances in the game since even Euro 2016. The international managers can’t really condition the players in the way they’d like, since they are really only borrowing them. They are almost entirely dependent on the longer-term - and often highly varied - work done by the clubs.

It is no longer a new point to say that the international game runs along different lines to the club game, of course, but it may have already led to a new trend. It may even represent a breakpoint in football history.

There is a strong argument that the international game isn’t even behind the club game in terms of tactics. It may well have gone down a completely different evolutionary line, to the point there is going to be less and less crossover.

This is highly relevant to how managers will set up, and how Euro 2020 will play out. It may also make some of the expectations of the club game - especially those around expansive football - almost irrelevant for countries.

As an illustration, you only have to consider the trends that have dominated the Champions League and major domestic competitions over the last decade. The most profoundly effective has been the pressing revolution. That is in turn based on advances in sports science, and highly-tuned fitness programmes, that led to relentlessly frenetic top-level football before the pandemic hit. The finest club teams have been supremely co-ordinated, in everything from pressing to attacking moves, in a way the game had never really seen before.

It is still not seen in international football, and is unlikely to ever be witnessed in that way.

These opportunities just aren’t available to national team managers. They don’t have the time. They don’t have the control of the squad. They do have a lot of players coming from completely different set-ups. It is ultimately about making do with what you’ve got over a short period of time. There’s even an argument it’s a purer form of “management” - in terms of adapting to the resources available - if not coaching.

“It’s inevitable that international football is different,” Spain’s Thiago Alcantara tells The Independent. “It is about time. With your club, you have more days to train, more days together, more days to learn away from the pitch with the coaches, the teammates. You spend so much time practicing automatisms. With the national squad, you have your set times to train and play - and in a tournament summer that brief period of preparation - and then it’s over.”

Teams like England do practice automatisms but they are naturally more basic and less varied than those possible at club level due to the time constraints. They are thereby easier to stop for defences.

The net effect of all this is that the international game hasn’t just gone off in a different direction to the club game. It is almost going in the complete opposite direction. Whereas the club game is inevitably weighted towards a faster and more open football - which becomes inherently attacking - the international game becomes ever more defensive. A solid structure has a much greater effect because the attacking football is less advanced and less quick.

This can be seen in the numbers. For the 2018 World Cup, the average goals per game was 2.64. The two Champions League seasons before it both broke three goals per game, with 2016-17 at 3.04 and 2017-18 at 3.21.

Euro 2016 meanwhile brought a pronounced drop-off, at a modern nadir of 2.12 goals per game.

This trend has been even more evident in some of the deeper stats. Tournament games are much less intense than club matches, and played at a slower pace, with fewer fast movements or breaks.

All of this is only amplified by the context, where tournaments come at the end of long seasons and fatigue must be facilitated - something set to be even more pronounced with the pandemic - while the most forward-thinking managers naturally gravitate towards the club game. Antonio Conte, for example, just got too bored in the long breaks of the international game and the inferior standard. Luis Enrique is meanwhile the only coach at Euro 2020 to have big-club experience in the last half-decade, and that was as long ago as 2017.

The trend has consequently been for international managers to prioritise defensive structure more, because the level is loaded towards it. The football is just more suppressed, and sedate.

It is something some of England’s much-discussed young attacking players have noticed.

“As soon as you get the ball, it’s just like everyone is on you straight away,” Jack Grealish says of taking up the ball in forward positions. “Whereas, in the Premier League, you get so much more space. I just go out and try to create that one piece of magic. It is so much different.”

All of this is something that Gareth Southgate’s staff have taken particular note of in their analysis of the last few tournaments.

“We feel that there are so many nuances to these things that we can really advance it,” the England manager said in October. “We are absolutely looking at what is the best way of winning at tournament level.”

He then followed up with the following in March.

“There are certain factors that make winning teams: to recognise stages of games, when to make the right decisions, when to keep possession, when to rest with the ball, to not allow the opposition’s counter-attacks by some of your positioning. I just think, when I’ve watched the French and Portuguese - teams that have won - they are savvy and experienced winners. And that’s something we have to add to this group.”

Such words might disappoint those who feel Southgate needs to add much more flair to this team above anything else. It shouldn’t be overlooked that Didier Deschamps has faced the exact same debates and criticisms in France. Why is his team so defensive? How has he made so much attacking talent so boring?

The reality is that this is probably what is required at the top end of the modern international game.

Many will no doubt point to the fluid football of Spain’s Euro 2008 side or Germany 2014 as examples of what else is possible. The Spanish eventually had to adjust even their game to account for the massed defences they faced in 2010, introducing another pivot to prevent breaks, while the Germans similarly added another defensive midfielder halfway through 2014.

Even more relevantly, both benefited from club cores that enjoyed a rare level of integration and understanding from two of the greatest sides of all time: Barcelona 2008-11 and Bayern Munich 2013. They had a cohesiveness and fluency that is virtually impossible for any modern international side to replicate.

It is why tournament football won’t be replicating the club game any time soon - maybe ever again. It has instead been dominated by defensive structure, set-pieces, more isolated attacking moves and what Grealish describes as “that one piece of magic”. No international side is going to be able to play like Bayern Munich, no matter how much talent they’ve got.

A good backline and a few players capable of scoring - or, better yet, a true number-nine - can instead go a long way, and much further than in the club game. It is why Southgate has been so obsessed with protection in this squad weighted towards proactive attacking players.

It may not necessarily make for the best football, or the best tournaments. It may well make for Euro 2020’s best team, and eventual winners.

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