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What tactics do the Netherlands employ? What should we look out for from France? And what can we expect from Ralf Rangnick’s Austria?

The 2024 European Championship finals start on Friday and The Athletic is running in-depth tactical group guides, so you know what to expect from every nation competing in Germany over the next month or so. We will examine each team’s playing style, strengths, weaknesses and key players, and highlight things to keep an eye on during the tournament.

Expect to see screengrabs analysing tactical moments in games, embedded videos of key clips to watch, the occasional podcast clip and data visualisation to highlight patterns and trends — think of yourself as a national-team head coach and this a mini opposition dossier for you to read pre-match.

Here’s Group D, which features France, the Netherlands, Austria and Poland.


France

  • Manager: Didier Deschamps
  • Captain: Kylian Mbappe
  • Qualifying record: P8, W7, D1, L0, GF29, GA3
  • Euro 2020: Round of 16
  • Most caps in squad: Olivier Giroud (133)
  • Top scorer in squad: Olivier Giroud (57)

How do they play?

Logically, France haven’t moved away from the approach that guided them to the final of the 2022 World Cup, where they lost to Argentina on penalties.

After shifting his reigning world champions to a back four on the eve of that tournament 18 months ago, Didier Deschamps has continued with that shape since then, with Antoine Griezmann playing in a midfield three after he impressed in that role at the World Cup.

France’s main attacking threat comes from the wide areas, where the focus is on finding Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele in one-v-one situations.

Mbappe and Dembele have the upper hand over most full-backs in the game because of their quick acceleration and dribbling ability in isolated situations, but the French wingers also look to combine with advancing full-backs, especially the left-sided Theo Hernandez, who regularly occupies a higher position than Jules Kounde, the right-back. When Deschamps wants more attacking power from his full-backs, Jonathan Clauss usually starts rather than Kounde.

To balance Hernandez’s forward surges down the left, Adrien Rabiot maintains a deeper position in midfield, alongside Aurelien Tchouameni and in front of the remaining defenders.

The left-back’s advanced position on that side allows France to attack multiple lanes and support captain Mbappe in wide areas, either by allowing him to move inside, combining with him or simply creating space for him to go to work.

The biggest question entering this tournament is who will lead France’s attack.

Olivier Giroud, Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani have all started as the team’s centre-forward since the World Cup. Giroud’s link-up play has been vital to Deschamps’ team for many years, but Kolo Muani’s off-ball movement and runs in behind provide a different profile, while Thuram offers a balance between both.

Off the ball, France’s defensive shape moves to a lopsided 4-4-2 with the right-winger dropping next to the flattened midfield line. This way, Deschamps frees Mbappe of any defensive responsibilities and keeps him in an advanced position to be a threat on the transition.

France’s defensive organisation is empowered by the individual quality of their defenders. From their duelling ability to their pace, the French defensive line isn’t easy to beat, and if bypassed they are usually able to recover their positions.


Their key player(s)

There is no doubting Mbappe’s star qualities or Tchouameni’s all-round skill set, but the key player for this France side is surely Griezmann. The Atletico Madrid forward has played across the front line throughout his international career, scoring 44 goals for France since his debut 10 years ago.

That switch to a No 8 role in 2022 enhanced his importance to this side. From a deeper position, Griezmann can make late runs into the box to attack crosses, or find team-mates with accurate passes in the final third.

In addition, Griezmann is aware of his positioning when France are defending in a 4-4-2 mid-block, while having a defensive impact across the pitch with his well-timed sliding tackles.


(Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

What is their weakness?

The risk-reward of giving Mbappe a free hand.

On one hand, its attacking benefits have been clear in possession and on attacking transitions for the last couple of years, but France’s narrow 2-1 quarter-final victory against England in the 2022 World Cup illustrated that their left side can be exploited when facing strong opposition.

Before that game, Gareth Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland hinted at the idea of attacking France down Mbappe’s side. “There is always a plus and a minus to everyone,” Holland said. “It’s that cat-and-mouse of, ‘Yes, we have still got to try to deal with him’ but we also have to try to exploit the weakness that his super-strength delivers. Trying to adapt your team to cover for that while still trying to create your own problems is the challenge.”

Despite losing by the odd goal that day, England’s approach worked and only small details cost them.


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One thing to watch out for…

Cutbacks to Mbappe.

More often than not, the now Real Madrid winger occupies a central position rather than attacking the back post when the team is attacking the wide areas. From there, Mbappe constantly offers himself as a cutback option while the centre-forward is dragging the defensive line deeper.

In this example from a Euros qualifier last October against the Netherlands, also group opponents this summer, Mbappe is ready to attack the penalty area while Kingsley Coman finds Clauss’ overlapping run down the other side.

As the right-back approaches the ball, Mbappe adjusts his movement to present himself as a cutback option with Kolo Muani’s movement forcing defenders Virgil van Dijk and Nathan Ake deeper. Clauss spots him and plays the correct pass, but Lutsharel Geertruida manages to intercept.

In the 14-0 victory against minnows Gibraltar the following month, Mbappe managed to score from a cutback from the other side.

Here, he is in a narrow position with Theo Hernandez down the left wing. The left-back makes a run behind the defence, which is found by Youssouf Fofana’s pass, before Hernandez plays the cutback into Mbappe, who holds his run to keep a distance from the defenders and finishes into the bottom corner.


Netherlands

  • Manager: Ronald Koeman
  • Captain: Virgil van Dijk
  • Qualifying record: P8, W6, D0, L2, GF17, GA7
  • Euro 2020: Round of 16
  • Most caps in squad: Daley Blind (107)
  • Top scorer in squad: Memphis Depay (45)

How do they play?

Alternating between a back three and four, Ronald Koeman’s Netherlands continuously change their shape from game to game, or within the same match — as in this example from the 1-0 away victory against Greece last October.

Despite that, the differences between the 3-2-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 on the ball are minimal. Apart from having one centre-back fewer and a more attacking profile in the front line, the Dutch still look to find their No 10s between the lines and combine to create an advantage for their widest players — whether these are wing-backs, a wide forward or an overlapping full-back.

When attacking from a back three, Koeman’s side either try to find the wing-backs directly or play through the opposition to force them into a narrow shape, before using the wide players. In this example from last September, also against Greece, Frenkie de Jong finds Cody Gakpo in between the lines, which forces Manolis Siopis to react…

… leaving Xavi Simons in a bigger space in midfield. Once Gakpo dribbles by the Greece midfielder, the positions of Simons and right wing-back Denzel Dumfries give Kostas Tsimikas a dilemma: moving inside to limit the space for Simons provides Dumfries with an advantage, and vice versa.

Tsimikas decides to hold his position to prevent Gakpo playing the ball to Simons in a dangerous situation, but in turn it creates room out wide for Dumfries to attack and the Liverpool forward finds him with a pass through the defence…

… before Dumfries crosses the ball towards Wout Weghorst, who scores to make it 3-0.

On the other hand, the 4-2-3-1 provides a different profile in the front line; rather than having two wing-backs, it’s an overlapping full-back and a winger. Often, one of the wingers would roam inside the pitch to create space for the advancing full-back.

Here against the Republic of Ireland, also last September, Donyell Malen’s movement drags James McClean inside and creates space for Dumfries to attack. The right-back’s run is found by De Jong with a chipped pass over the defence, and Dumfries heads the ball across goal for Weghorst to score the winner.

Out of possession is where the difference between their shapes is most stark, with an additional centre-back making it a back five instead of a back four.

In addition, the Netherlands are able to press higher up the pitch if needed, with their centre-backs accustomed to aggressively marking opponents in advanced positions.


Their key player(s)

Netherlands’ spine coming into the tournament was composed of Van Dijk, De Jong and Simons — and they will be weakened significantly by De Jong’s absence because of the ankle injury that has troubled him for months.

His presence in the Netherlands’ midfield has been vital to the team, on and off the ball. His ball-carrying ability helps the team evade the press, while moving them up the thirds where his precise passes are crucial. Complementing that is his superb tackling and defensive positioning when his team is out of possession.

With De Jong ruled out of the tournament on Monday, Jerdy Schouten and Joey Veerman are the likely pairing for the Netherlands’ first group stage game against Poland on Sunday. Schouten was always expected to partner De Jong, but Veerman’s promotion does at least come at a moment of career-best form, with the 25-year-old impressing during the Netherlands’ 4-0 warm-up win over Iceland on Monday evening, creating Xavi Simons’ opener beautifully. Other options in midfield include Atalanta’s Teun Koopmeiners and ex-Liverpool midfielder Gini Wijnaldum.

They have strength elsewhere. Captain Van Dijk’s defensive prowess and ability to cover space are essential to this side’s defensive phases and on transitions. Meanwhile, his diagonals to the wide players and progressive passes through the lines are the base of Koeman’s attacking ideas. The Liverpool centre-back also empowers their defensive and offensive set pieces with his aerial ability.


Koeman relies on Van Dijk’s trademark diagonals (ANP via Getty Images)

Much will be expected of Simons at this tournament.

Whether as a No 10, narrow forward or a winger, he is able to receive the ball in the tightest of spaces and dribble past opponents to create chances for his team-mates. Simons’ creativity and technical ability on the ball are the catalyst to Netherlands’ passing combinations through the centre and out wide. In 2023-24, he managed double figures for both goals (10) and assists (13) at RB Leipzig, where he was on loan from Paris Saint-Germain.


What is their weakness?

The Dutch defence was solid in most of their qualifying campaign, managing five clean sheets in six games against Greece, Gibraltar (twice each) and the Republic of Ireland. But against stronger opposition, their back line has suffered. In their two group matches against France, they conceded six times.

On top of that, they let in four against Croatia and three against Italy in the 2022-23 Nations League finals last June, and two against Germany in March.


One thing to watch out for…

As the Netherlands’ wide forwards combine with their wing-backs in the final third, one feature of this attack is the wing-backs rotating positions with the forwards to be a threat inside the penalty area.

In this example, in a 2-1 loss against France last October, left wing-back Quilindschy Hartman plays a one-two with Steven Bergwijn, which allows them to cut through the French defence, as Hartman attacks the vacant space and curls the ball into the near corner.

On other occasions, the narrow positioning of the wing-backs creates space for the Dutch forwards in wide areas.

Here, Dumfries and Simons combine down the right side, but it is Daley Blind’s movement from a narrow position that is the catalyst to the goal. The left wing-back’s positioning attracts Greece’s right-back, Lazaros Rota, and frees Gakpo towards the back post. Dumfries then finds the unmarked Gakpo, who scores to double Netherlands’ lead.


Austria

  • Manager: Ralf Rangnick
  • Captain: Marko Arnautovic
  • Qualifying record: P8, W6, D1, L1, GF17, GA7
  • Euro 2020: Round of 16
  • Most caps in squad: Marko Arnautovic (112)
  • Top scorer in squad: Marko Arnautovic (36)

How do they play?

Austria’s cautious and reactive football under their previous manager, Franco Foda, is a thing of the past.

Ralf Rangnick’s arrival in summer 2022 after their failure to qualify for the World Cup has transformed the team’s playing style to an energetic and proactive one, which the players have warmed to. “Maybe we’re fed up with playing a certain kind of football, like we’ve always had in previous years,” said their currently injured captain, David Alaba, after a 1-1 draw with France two years ago.

Under Rangnick, Austria operate in a 4-2-2-2 in possession with narrow No 10s behind two forwards. One of their main attacking ideas is to find this front four with direct passes on the ground, so they can combine with each other.

They access the front four through their full-backs or directly from the centre-backs, who usually position themselves wider in the build-up phase with one member of the midfield double pivot dropping to support.

In this example, against Turkey in March, Maximilian Wober and Kevin Danso split up, with Xaver Schlager dropping in between them to provide those centre-backs with better passing angles in to the No 10s or the front men.

In another example, in the 2-0 win against Slovakia three days earlier, Wober’s wider position in the build-up phase allows him to find Marcel Sabitzer between the lines, before he passes to Romano Schmid behind the defence, and the latter plays a ball across the goal for Andreas Weimann to double the lead.

When they aren’t able to play through their opponents, Austria go direct with long passes towards Michael Gregoritsch or Marko Arnautovic and look to win the second ball, which is helped by the close proximity of their front four players when in possession.

Off the ball, the team’s high-intensity approach suits their players, with many having either played within the Red Bull club network, of which Rangnick was the tactical architect, or worked with coaches influenced by him.

This high-octane style creates numerous transitional situations, which fit the profiles of their midfielders and forwards, who are adept at winning the ball back quickly and attacking space.

In terms of the high press, Rangnick’s side start with a 4-4-2 shape…

… but then adjust by dropping a midfielder to provide a safety net or mark players moving in between the lines, and one of the wide forwards moving inside.

In this example, against Germany last November, Sabitzer moves inside to mark Ilkay Gundogan as Xaver Schlager drops deeper to protect the midfield with Nicolas Seiwald pushing forward to press Leon Goretzka. Germany’s decision to start the move down their left side means that it’s Austria’s far midfielder, Sabitzer, who moves inside the pitch, with his team-mates Konrad Laimer and Christoph Baumgartner pressing down the other side.

In case Germany build their attack down the right side, the movement of the Austria players mirrors them: Gregoritsch and Sabitzer press Mats Hummels and Jonathan Tah, Schlager marks Gundogan and Laimer moves inside to keep an eye on Goretzka, with Seiwald (out of shot) dropping deeper to zonally defend the midfield.

In that March friendly against Turkey, it only took two minutes for this pressing scheme to give Austria the lead.

Kaan Ayhan playing the ball to his left-back, Cenk Ozkacar, triggers the press, with Laimer moving towards Ozkacar, Schlager marking Hakan Calhanoglu, Seiwald (again out of shot. Nothing personal, Nicolas!) defends against Turkey’s No 10, and Schmid moves inside to press Salih Ozcan.

Under pressure, and with no passing options, Turkey’s left-back returns the ball to Ayhan…

… who tries to play through the press to Ozcan, but Schmid is in the correct position to pressure the midfielder with Austria’s forwards close by.

Baumgartner manages to win the loose ball, and though his shot is saved, Schlager scores from the rebound.


Their key player(s)

Gregoritsch has scored eight times in his past 12 matches for Austria, including a hat-trick against Turkey, but it’s not only about the goals.

The tall Freiburg centre-forward is an aerial outlet to Rangnick’s side when they can’t build up the attack, and a link-up player when they are passing through the thirds. Meanwhile, his well-timed runs behind defences provide Austria with a threat on the transition.


(Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

What is their weakness?

Two major injuries will hinder Austria’s chances this summer, because missing Alaba and Xaver Schlager is more than just playing without your best players — both of them are necessary for this style to succeed.

Real Madrid defender Alaba is the captain of this side, and Austria will miss his leadership of the back line, proactive work off the ball and prowess in terms of defending the penalty area — when they play deeper, Austria’s low block isn’t as strong as their high press.

Schlager’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury playing for RB Leipzig just over a month means that Austria’s midfield will be without one of their best ball winners, who has also been essential to their build-up and switch of play from one side of the pitch to the other.

To make things worse, their first-choice goalkeeper Alexander Schlager is also out of the tournament with a knee injury.


One thing to watch out for…

Due to Austria’s approach on the ball, their full-backs have space to attack down the wings and the No 10s complement that by positioning themselves in the half-spaces. The passing combination to look out for is the out-to-in pattern, where one of the double pivot or centre-backs plays the ball to the advancing full-back…

… who then finds the No 10 between the lines or behind the defence.

In this example, Patrick Wimmer’s narrow position allows him to attack the space behind Turkey’s right-back, who moves up to face Alexander Prass, Austria’s left-back. Prass finds Wimmer’s run…

… and he goes on to set up Maximilian Entrup to score.


Poland

  • Manager: Michal Probierz
  • Captain: Robert Lewandowski
  • Qualifying record: P10, W4, D3, L3, GF15, GA11 (qualified through play-offs)
  • Euro 2020: Group stage
  • Most caps in squad: Robert Lewandowski (150)
  • Top scorer in squad: Robert Lewandowski (82)

How do they play?

After sacking Fernando Santos, Portugal’s Euro 2016-winning coach, last September following defeats to the Czech Republic, Moldova and Albania in three of his six matches during eight months in charge, Poland decided to promote their under-21s coach, Michal Probierz, to the top job.

Under Probierz, the senior side have maintained a back-three shape which moves to a 5-3-2 when they are defending in the middle third or deeper. Aerially, it’s hard to get the better of towering centre-backs, Jan Bednarek and Jakub Kiwior, who have featured regularly alongside a third defender in the heart of the defence.

Poland’s attacking strength lies with wing-backs Nicola Zalewski and Przemyslaw Frankowski. Probierz’s team focuses exclusively on attacking wide areas by finding their wing-backs high up the pitch, or playing long passes into the channels towards their centre-forwards.

Crosses from Zalewski and Frankowski are Poland’s main threat in the final third, with left wing-back Zalewski able to cross with both feet. This ambidexterity is a useful tool, because he can dribble with his right foot and cross with the left before the opposing defender reacts.

In this example, against Latvia in November, Zalewski dribbles towards the byline with his right foot, while Frankowski moves into the penalty box to overload the back post…

… before connecting with the left wing-back’s left-footed cross to give Poland the lead.


Their key player(s)

If you are a country’s leading appearance holder and record goalscorer, it’s hard for you not to be their key player.

Lewandowski has scored for Poland in the World Cup, the European Championship, in qualifying for both, and in the Nations League. He is also able to score every type of goal: left foot, right foot, header.

But going into the tournament there are concerns about his fitness, after the Barcelona striker had to be withdrawn after half an hour of Poland’s final warm-up match, against Turkey on Monday. It will be a massive blow to Poland if he is not fit to take part in the tournament.

Poland’s crossing-based playing style complements Lewandowski’s penalty-box presence and aerial finishing. Also, playing two strikers up front lessens the load on Lewandowski, who turns 36 in August, and allows him to drop deeper to link the attack or roam to the channel, while the other centre-forward provides a central threat.

Making plenty of the chances for Lewandowski is Zalewski, on the left wing. Since a 1-1 draw with the Czech Republic in November, Zalewski has solidified his status as this team’s main creator. The left wing-back’s dribbling ability provides him an advantage in one-v-one situations, and allows him to beat the defender in front of him before crossing into the penalty area.


(Visionhaus/Getty Images)

What is their weakness?

A lack of attacking diversity — which makes Lewandowski’s involvement so important.

Poland’s attacking approach is simple and effective. However, they are over-dependent on wing-backs Zalewski and Frankowski in terms of chance creation. Their two main options for ball progression are either long passes to the centre-forwards, or circulating the ball towards their wide areas.

Opponents analysing Poland’s games will deliver a clear plan before the match: stop the wing-backs.


One thing to watch out for…

Despite only making his international debut in October, Jakub Piotrowski’s attacking skill set perfectly fits Poland’s style of play. Featuring as a No 8 in midfield, Piotrowski’s off-ball movement complements the team’s wing play by providing passing options for the wing-backs and wide centre-backs, or making late runs into the penalty area.

Piotrowski’s runs from midfield helped him score 17 goals for Bulgarian champions Ludogorets last season. In this example, against Botev Plovdiv in March, he makes a late run into the penalty area, which is found by the right-back, Aslak Witry, before the Pole heads the ball home.

Moreover, Piotrowski’s long-range shots and threat on attacking set pieces offer Poland attacking solutions they are definitely in need of.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

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Fixtures

Round 1:

  • 16/06/2024 — Poland vs Netherlands (3pm CEST, 2pm BST, 9am EDT)
  • 17/06/2024 — Austria vs France (9pm CEST, 8pm BST, 3pm EDT)

Round 2:

  • 21/06/2024 — Poland vs Austria (6pm CEST, 5pm BST, 12pm EDT)
  • 21/06/2024 — Netherlands vs France (9pm CEST, 8pm BST, 3pm EDT)

Round 3:

  • 25/06/2024 — France vs Poland (6pm CEST, 5pm BST, 12pm EDT)
  • 25/06/2024 — Netherlands vs Austria (6pm CEST, 5pm BST, 12pm EDT)

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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