The 5 Coolest, Funkiest Player Roles in EURO 2020

From a goal scoring wing-back to a playmaking one and a center-back that's also a defensive midfielder.

International football is often seen as a callback to the past — and rightly so. Due to a lack of prep time and cohesion, tactical structures can hardly be named as such and coaching revolves around lineup optimization and man-management rather than the most sophisticated automatisms.

As a result, it feels like players are operating in a completely different environment than normal, enjoying space and time that we haven’t seen since the 1990’s or early 2000’s. Having Paul Pogba sling ridiculous through balls in the EUROs in 2021 is almost like putting him in a time machine. What if we placed one of the most technically gifted players of all time in an era where pressing wasn’t as much of a thing and defensive compactness was less coordinated?

The inability to assert significant tactical control leads to a lot of stuff like Gareth Southgate’s England being so conservative that they’ve only attempted 6.8 shots per game (only Hungary and Finland have recorded lower totals) and Fernando Santos starting two defensive midfielders vs. Hungary.

But that very lack of prep time and organization — two things that make the individual subservient to the system — frees up the opportunity to make game-changing decisions just by altering the role of a single player.

Though not every manager has taken advantage of this, just enough have done so going into the quarter-finals of the EUROs to allow us to look at the coolest, funkiest player roles of the tournament so far.

5) Gareth Bale (Wales): ~Deep-lying Playmaker

We start off with one that’s more cool than funky. It’s not altogether strange to see a team’s most talented attacker drop off to initiate plays and progress the ball, but it is ~sort of weird that Gareth Bale was the one doing that. Even at his age and with his glass body, Bale is still quick and dangerous enough to be making runs over the top, especially with the room afforded at the international level.

However, Bale is also underrated as a passer, and that same space was afforded to him when receiving deep, allowing him to casually sling dimes to primary runner Aaron Ramsey and the rapid Daniel James.

This was most on show in the chaotic Wales-Turkey group stage game, where Bale drifted wherever he pleased.

This is a decent way to make use of Gareth within the context of Wales, which possesses other threats in behind and lacks great progressive passers.

Now, it’s not like Bale never pushed forward and tried to find his own shot, but the numbers back up the idea that he played a more withdrawn, facilitative role this EUROs. 33% of his deliveries went long this tournament as opposed to the 23% from last season and he played more progressive passes and helped the ball move into the final third more than his time at Spurs and Real Madrid [fbref].

Ultimately, it’s questionable as to how high this approach can take you, but it helped Wales win in the group stages and was extremely fun to watch while it lasted.

4) Kieran Tierney (Scotland): Overlapping Center-back

Steve Clarke’s utilization of Tierney might’ve ranked higher had it been more frequent. Alas, the Gunner only played two of the three available games and attempted a total of three crosses, which was still enough to rank him fourth in the squad (of players with at least one 90).

It’s easy to see why using your left center-back as an overlapping threat ranks as both cool and funky. It’s cool because it’s such an underrated way of generating unpredictable and un-trackable overloads with decent security behind you (if you’re in a back three, that is). It’s funky because it’s underrated, meaning not that many teams do it.

Admittedly, the rareness of versatile personnel is a limitation on its viability and is what makes someone like Tierney special. You can stick him at LCB to accommodate Andrew Robertson without completely taking away from the former’s offensive threat. As long as the timing and rotations are right, attacking center-backs represent a futuristic way of gaining on the margins in a game that is only getting more congested and harder to break down.

3) Denzel Dumfries (Netherlands): Wing-back Box Threat

Fullbacks have been used in practically every way in modern football, whether that be to form back threes, go inverted to support midfield, or stretch the touchline and act as 1v1 threats like old-timey wingers. Yet, it is still rather rare to see them deployed as genuine scoring threats.

That makes sense, as fullbacks are generally meant to fit around better attacking talent to make the latter’s jobs easier. Forming back threes aids progression to the middle and final phases and gets the ball into danger men; going inverted does that to a greater degree while providing the security in defensive transition to free up attacking #8’s; and staying as wide as possible creates space for everybody else.

One does not simply optimize for wide defenders as scoring threats.

Unless you’re Frank de Boer.

To his credit, it proved to be a pretty good idea while the Netherlands still dreamt of taking advantage of a relatively easy path to the later rounds.

Denzel Dumfries is not a particularly good progressor, dribbler, nor chance creator.

On the other hand, he is very athletic and seems to have an uncannily sharp sense of when to attack space. Sure, you could just stick him out there as a classic wing-back simply to manage width, but why not take advantage of his potential to attack the penalty area?

With all the attention that Memphis Depay, Wout Weghorst, and Gini Wijnaldum attract — thereby compressing defenses centrally — the last thing the opposition expects is a right back flying in on the blindside to put home a header.

This whole effect is amplified in transition, too, where Dumfries can outrace flustered back lines to manufacture some very high-quality chances.

The PSV Eindhoven-man ended the EUROs with 2 goals off of 1.9 xG. Only Depay scored more and only Wijnaldum recorded better underlying numbers.

2) Steven Zuber (Switzerland): Inverted Playmaker at Wing-back

Switzerland already had a pretty refined possession game going into their final group stage match. Granit Xhaka conducted circulation at the heart of a 3-4-1-2 attacking structure and sought to find the likes of Breel Embolo and Xherdan Shaqiri inside blocks. The Swiss’ emphasis on verticality and central occupation gave off vague Italy vibes.

But Vladimir Petković wanted more and added another twist vs. Turkey — Steven Zuber.

By moving Ricardo Rodríguez to nominal left center-back and Zuber to nominal left wing-back, Petković added further dynamism and positional rotations to an already fluid and potent attack.

Though Switzerland still defended in a 5-2-3, they adopted frequent back four looks, with Rodríguez stretching wide and Zuber drifting into the center. This created another path of progression through the middle for a side that already had Embolo and Shaqiri threatening between the lines.

Against France, Zuber stayed a little wider but still continued to shift back and forth between wing and halfspace.

Zuber’s comfort kissing the touchline and acting as a #10 plays perfectly off of Rodríguez’s elbow back role and allows Switzerland to take up an endless number of distinct shapes emanating from a base 3-4-1-2.

This was scarily effective vs. Turkey and paid early dividends vs. France, with Zuber notching 4 assists(!!!) over those two games.

To be clear: not all of the goals in the video were great shots, but what’s important was how Zuber enabled Switzerland to get into the positions preceding those attempts. Haris Seferović and Shaqiri needn’t always shoot from distance in these situations. Zuber’s ability to create numerical superiority and facilitate quick combinations could just as easily have led to a one-two for a great box entry or a cross from an overlapping Rodríguez, and may do so down the line.

Watch this space.

1) Andreas Christensen (Denmark): Center-back/Auxiliary Pivot

Kasper Hjulmand’s switch from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 appears to have been a genius move, liberating Mikkel Damsgaard and Martin Braithwaite to cause chaos in their own ways while creating a man-to-man pressing structure that matches up naturally against the overwhelmingly-popular back three set-up.

It looks like Hjulmand has struck gold with another adjustment as well: using Andreas Christensen as an auxiliary pivot. We already saw what this looked like vs. Russia, though I remain unsure of how big its effect really was.

There was no such doubt in my mind vs. Wales in the Round of 16.

Denmark initially started off in their regular 3-4-3 shape but found their double pivot stressed by Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale — who were sometimes joined by one of Joe Allen and Daniel James — floating inwards.

Hjulmand’s response was close to immediate. In roughly the 14th minute, Christensen was permanently deployed as a six — both on and against the ball.

The effect was dramatic. Within the first 10 minutes, Wales had 3 shots inside the box in addition to Bale’s unchallenged long distance effort; Denmark had 1 shot from distance. Over the next 80+ minutes, Wales had 3 more shots inside the penalty area (only one of which was remotely centered and close to the six-yard box); Denmark had 9 shots inside the box and 4 goals.

Funnily enough, Christensen barely recorded a statistical footprint. He had 30 touches (only keeper Kasper Schmeichel had less), passed very little, and only recorded a few defensive actions. It was what Christensen allowed his teammates to do that made this strategy brilliant.

Defensively, Christensen moving up instantly nullified the overloads that Wales were creating and emboldened Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Thomas Delaney to step out to Ramsey and Bale. This dissuaded penetrative passes from even occurring and utterly shattered Wales’ plan to destabilize the opposition block.

Offensively, Christensen enabled Højbjerg and Delaney to push wide with a lot more freedom, fashioning tighter triangles on the flanks to play the ball into Damsgaard and Braithwaite.

While Højbjerg’s average position on the passmap might seem to indicate that he stayed central, the arrows to either side of him demonstrates that he traversed quite a vast range of pitch, which is better seen in his heatmap for the game;

It’s hard to understate how valuable this type of in-game tactical adaptation can be. It allows Denmark to play any opponent starting from their preferred formation, safe in the knowledge that they can simply move a center-back into midfield should they need greater numbers in their second line for defense or build-up purposes.

This gives Hjulmand endless reactivity to whatever his rivals do and can even be more situational like it was vs. Russia, where Christensen was a six in possession but a CB against the ball.

For those reasons, Christensen’s use as a variable center-back-defensive midfielder takes the #1 spot for the coolest, funkiest role in EURO 2020 thus far.

Honorable mentions: Marcos Llorente (underlapping fullback), Adrien Rabiot (an offensive CM playing at LB, I guess?), Konrad Laimer (a ball-winning CM turned right-winger for defensive purposes).