Euro 2020 trends: out of possession

Guide All Ages

With all the excitement of watching England reach the Euro 2020 final, there might have been a few things you’ve missed. Here, we identify three out-of-possession trends from the tournament – and explain how you can use them to develop your players.

The first trend to highlight is centre-backs stepping out into midfield to defend.

It was a common sight during Euro 2020, as central defenders – fast and slow – aggressively pressed an opponent in central midfield areas.

But why did we see so much of it? The answer could be down to 45% of teams playing with a back three.

This formation means that if one defender steps into midfield, they can still rely on the two remaining two centre-backs for cover. Furthermore, when a team involves more players in midfield, they're less likely to be outnumbered. This helps prevent the opposition from gaining possession or exploiting space.

England's Harry Maguire leans back while clearing the ball under pressure from Denmark's Christian Norgaard.
Harry Maguire often read the game well and stepped into midfield areas for England.

To see this in action during the Euros, you don't have to look far. Italy's Giorgio Chiellini, Germany's Mats Hummels and England's very own Harry Maguire are all great examples. They read the game and step in to apply pressure – or intercept the ball – and then comfortably move forward in possession.

France are masters of this tactic too. Take Raphael Varane’s performance against Portugal. Not only was he always ready to step up and apply pressure in midfield, but he also had a good body position – which meant he could run back quickly at the first sign of trouble.

But what does this mean for you?

If you work with older age groups or the professional game, you might want to give this strategy a go. If you coach younger players, you should focus on helping them deal with these demands in the future.

To develop players capable of doing this, consider:

  • using tag games to develop good movement, twisting and turning skills
  • using 1v1 activities to get players used to dealing with opponents on their own
  • providing a big area for your out of possession practice designs. This allows players to experience deciding when to press and hold their position. It also provides triggers for other players to practice cover and balance.

BEING COMPACT IN CENTRAL AREAS Regular visitors to The Boot Room will know that this is how England play out of possession. Staying compact in central areas forces the opposition to play out wide rather than playing through your team. This keeps them further away from the goal, delays their attacks and puts them in a less threatening position.

By using this tactic in Euro 2020, England restricted their opposition to an average of just 13 touches inside their box per game.

Switzerland's Steven Zuber is shown out wide by France's Raphael Varane during their game at Euro 2020.
France's Raphael Varane helps to force Switzerland's Steven Zuber wide and away from goal. (Photo by Denis Doyle/UEFA via Getty Images).

To replicate this, teams need to know where to force their opposition. They also need to move as a unit and have excellent communication skills.

While every player has the responsibility to make sure the team is compact, it’s especially important for central midfielders. They need to work out who engages an opponent and who stays back to provide cover. After all, this decision is what prevents the opposition from finding a route through the middle of the pitch.

During the tournament, there were plenty of players who made the right call. Denmark’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg topped the list, winning the ball back 51 times, followed by Italy’s Jorginho (48) and England’s Kalvin Phillips (45).

To help develop a team with these skills:

  • challenge players to steal the ball before their opponent receives a pass
  • use 2v2 activities to encourage players to communicate and develop relationships on the pitch, particularly at centre-back and in central midfield
  • reward and praise players for breaking up play in the middle of the pitch or winning the ball after forcing their opponents out wide.


As mentioned earlier in the piece, a lot of Euro 2020 teams employed a back three. Because of that, wing-backs were also a common feature. But, interestingly, that didn’t mean they all played the same role.

For example, when they didn’t have the ball, the Netherlands used a high defensive line and asked their wing-backs to press aggressively. This strategy benefits teams with players who are athletic and good decision-makers. If done well, this approach can keep the opposition in their own half, allowing you to win the ball back high. But it can also leave you open at the back.

On the other hand, Belgium asked their wing-backs to sit deep – effectively forming a back five when defending. This tactic limits your opponent's space and forces them to commit, allowing you to hit them on a counter-attack. Doing this requires great awareness. Players must spot the opportunity to attack while they’re concentrating on good decision-making and defending in and around their own box.

The Netherlands' Owen Wijndal closes down Ukraine's Serhiy Sydorchuk during their game at Euro 2020.
Left wing-back, Owen Wijndal, presses high for the Netherlands to put Ukraine's Serhiy Sydorchuk under pressure. (Photo by Koen van Weel/Getty Images Sport via Getty Images).

Clearly, being a wing-back can be a tough role to master.

So, if you’re looking to use a system with wing-backs, or you want to help your team develop the skills required to fulfil this role in the future, try the following.

  • Use practices where the defensive team have an overload over an attacking side who are challenged to keep switching play to find space. This will help them decide to press or stay compact at the back.
  • Provide game-related 1v1 scenarios in practices. This will help defenders develop the skills needed to cover wing-backs when they go forward.
  • Encourage players to look up and scan the pitch, as well as increasing communication with teammates. This will help them develop their awareness skills.

Article image courtesy of Catherine Ivill/Getty Images Sport via Getty Images.

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