A year later than planned, the European Championships are about to get up and running. We’ve waited long enough for the football so let’s get straight into these predictions:
Denmark make a deep run
What is the formula for success at international tournaments? With time together at a premium implementing the sort of intricate systems favored by the likes of Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Thomas Tuchel is often impossible.
Indeed the only national side to have made a successful approximation of that in recent memory was perhaps the all-conquering Spain side of 2008-2012, one which effectively transplanted the nucleus of Guardiola’s Barcelona team and sprinkled it with a few star talents from Real Madrid. Even Vicente del Bosque had to make pragmatic adjustments to that formula, playing two defensive midfielders instead of one, and the attack naturally did not click in quite as consistent a fashion. That’s what happens when you don’t have Lionel Messi.
Recent evidence is that teams that go far in international tournaments have rigid foundations, do not overextend themselves and make the most of dead ball and set pieces. If you have a Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema at the top end of the pitch more the better but you can achieve a lot without superstar forwards in the international game. As then technical observer Gareth Southgate noted in the Euro 2016 technical report: “In tight matches — as games at a major championship are — teams are well organized defensively and tend not to expose themselves to counterattacks at the beginning. So attention to the detail of scoring from set plays and being able to defend them is very important.”
This becomes all the more true as the tournament wears on. In the group stages of Euro 2016 18 of 69 goals came from set plays. In the knockout round it was 14 of 39. FIFA noted similar trends in their technical report for the 2018 World Cup. In that tournament France won their semifinal with a header from a corner and scored two of their four goals in the final from dead balls.
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Enter Denmark, who on paper have all the offensive punch of Homer Simpson up against Belgium’s Drederick Tatum in Group B. That is not to say that Kasper Hjulmand’s side aren’t attack-minded, particularly from full-back positions, but neither Yussuf Poulsen nor Martin Braithwaite have had the sort of club seasons to offer a convincing case to start at this competition. What they do have is a squad chock full of players who can impose themselves in the air — their center backs all give the impression they were hewn from large chunks of granite — and one of the continent’s finest dead ball specialists in Christian Eriksen. Of players at the tournament no-one has created more chances over the past five seasons in Europe’s top five leagues from corner and free-kick situations than Eriksen. His tally of 18 dead ball assists is only bettered by Toni Kroos.
He will have experienced targets to aim at, as Denmark’s likely back five have a combined 253 caps. Place Thomas Delaney and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in front of them and you have a team unlikely to concede many and more than capable of grabbing a few from dead balls. If, as expected, Hjulmand’s men finish second behind Belgium in Group B then the draw could be relatively favorable for them: the second-best Group A has to offer in the round of 16 and potentially the winner of Group C. None of those teams should hold any fear for the Danes. They may not repeat the heroics of Euro 92, when as late replacements for Yugoslavia they won the whole thing, but don’t be surprised to see them in the latter stages of the tournament.
The possession battle will look very different
During Spain’s hegemony of international football it at times felt like there was one statistic that would show you which team was going to win any match: possession. Del Bosque’s side and the German team that followed them as world champions were able to inflict death by 1000 cuts on their opponents, a remorseless examination of the limits of international footballers’ patience that would inevitably end with the team who had most of the ball winning comfortably. If that was never quite as true as it felt then it is certainly not now.
Indeed at Euro 2016 quite the opposite was true. Only four of 15 knockout games were won by the team with the most possession. The three teams that averaged the most throughout the tournament — Germany, Spain and England — all underwhelmed to varying degrees. Antonio Conte’s Italy set something of a blueprint for international football, they almost seemed to deliberately cede the ball so that they could catch opponents on the counter. It worked. A team with Graziano Pelle as its center forward beat Belgium and Spain and came within a penalty shootout of sending the Germans out.
Even those that rank among the pre-tournament favorites are defined by being somewhat less expansive than the sum of their parts would suggest they should be. France won the World Cup averaging 48 percent of the ball, Portugal are altogether more reactive and possession-phobic than a team with Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes ought to be. As Fernando Santos put it when his side won the Euros five years ago: “Sometimes you have to be pragmatic. It’d be nice to play pretty but that’s not always how you win tournaments.”
Even Joachim Low’s recent years as Germany manager seem to have seen him caught in a bind between his footballing principles and a belief that the new method for success on the international stage is counter-attacking. That is how successful teams have won competitions in recent years.
As such you’d have to place among the favorites any team that has Harry Kane scoring from and unleashing runners such as Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling. Wouldn’t you?
Football won’t come home for England
Having said that, it is very easy to see how sheer luck of the draw means England come unstuck. Their path to the top of a group including Croatia, the Czech Republic and Scotland is not easy but there is a reason why Southgate’s side are among the pre-tournament favorites beyond just bookmakers reacting to the market. They have quality across their frontline and this particular squad seem to have a surety about themselves that predecessors as talented as them did not.
Their problem is the somewhat bizarre nature of the draw for the round of 16 that means that their reward for topping Group D would be to face the second best Group F has to offer: likely one of France, Portugal and Germany, probably either of the first two. Only the winners of Group A also have the misfortune of not getting one of the four third place teams who will be taken forward to the knockout stage. This seems a rather unfair reward and one which a more imaginative approach from UEFA might have negated — for instance why not allow the best-performing teams from the group stage to pick their opponent for the round of 16? Admittedly that would not work in a tournament spread across Europe but it would add some spice and unpredictability to the knockout rounds whilst also rewarding performance to a greater extent.
Harry Kane could be crucial for England at Euro 2020
As for England, their attack looks formidable but it is hard to shake the questions that hover over their defense. Reports that full backs Luke Shaw and Kyle Walker could flank John Stones for the opening game against Croatia are as clear an indictment of Southgate’s options beyond Harry Maguire, who returned to training on Thursday after a moment out with an ankle injury, as could be needed. Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady have rarely impressed on the international stage and Ben White has scarcely shared the pitch with Stones.
It would not be a crisis playing one or more fullback in the back three — Walker was excellent in the position for England at the 2018 World Cup — but the issue threatens to be that the backline will constantly be chopped and changed, flitting between a four against weaker opponents and all sorts of triumvirates against the best Europe has to offer. Flexibility is to be admired but when the time comes to face the best of the best a lack of a settled system may come to punish them far earlier than it ought to.
Portugal will retain their title
However you run your predictions, whoever you have coming out of Group F in first place and whichever players you expect to set the tournament alight it is hard for your predicted path to the final to take you far away from a second meeting between Portugal and France at Euro 2020, this time at Wembley Stadium with the Henri Delauney trophy up for grabs.
These are the two best international sides on paper with players that are mostly in their prime and quality across the field. Both have outstanding center backs and robust midfield screens that set the platform for some of the best forwards on the planet, from Kylian Mbappe to Cristiano Ronaldo. They have the experience of winning not just international tournaments but consistent silverware at club level. Picking between them feels like something of a coin flip.
If one had to — and there’s not much point writing a column on predictions for Euro 2020 in which you don’t — then they would come down on the side of Portugal, who just feel like a team who are slightly less predisposed to going walkabout in defense on the biggest days. For all that France’s solid backline took them through many games back in 2018 there were others where they needed to win heavily outscore opponents, not just the final against Croatia but the round of 16 when they beat Argentina 4-3. Portugal do not profile to be the sort of team who let France score four against them, indeed since the resumption of international football they have conceded just seven goals in 13 relatively challenging matches. Santos’ more conservative style may mean they do not have quite the same ceiling as their Group F rivals but their floor might just be high enough to become the second team to retain the tournament.
Bonus predictions: The award winners
Golden Boot: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Player of the tournament: Paul Pogba (France)
Young player of the tournament: Jeremy Doku (Belgium)
Team of the tournament: Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark); Joao Cancelo (Portugal), Ruben Dias (Portugal), Presnel Kimpembe (France), Raphael Guerreiro (Portugal); Youri Tielemans (Belgium), N’Golo Kante (France); Kylian Mbappe (France), Bruno Fernandes (Portugal), Lorenzo Insigne (Italy); Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)