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The retro kick-off tactic that is proving popular (and effective) at Euro 2024

It was the first act of Euro 2024, it led to Albania’s goal against Italy (the fastest in the competition’s history), and is also a tactic used regularly by the top two in the Premier League, Manchester City and Arsenal.

Back with a vengeance, it is the old-fashioned hoof up the park at kick-off.

Aimless punts may seem like a relic of a bygone age in today’s football, largely a revolving battle between one team pressing high and the other trying to find space to play through, but this more rudimentary approach is back in fashion.

Kai Havertz got things underway on Friday by overlooking the creative supporting cast of Florian Wirtz, Jamal Musiala and Ilkay Gundogan, instead playing the ball back to left-back Maximilian Mittelstadt and leading a charge towards the Scotland penalty box.

The Stuttgart defender duly played a long ball for Havertz to contest in the air. After the ball broke inside the Scotland penalty box, it took two frantic clearances to get the ball away from danger, but Germany now had controlled possession with Toni Kroos inside the attacking half and Scotland were pinned back.

It set the tone from the first kick, as did Albania’s diagonal to the right wing against Italy the following day. The ball floated out for a throw, but Sylvinho’s side sprinted forward to pen the Italians in their own corner. After struggling to decide on an option, Federico Dimarco attempted to reach Alessandro Bastoni inside his own penalty box with his throw, but it was cut out by Nedim Bajrami and he found the net only 23 seconds into the game.

After the first round of games in Germany, 14 of the 24 teams played long either towards the opposition penalty box or launched a diagonal into the wide channel from start-of-half kick-offs, as shown below.

Some took different routes there: England emptied the entire centre of the pitch as Jordan Pickford pushed up to play to Harry Kane; Poland had five players lined up on the far side at kick-off against the Netherlands but used it as a decoy, with Piotr Zielinski running across onto the ball and spraying it wide to the other flank and the ball then going forward; Austria attempted a sophisticated routine by playing a short combination of passes in the centre circle before trying to play the ball over the top of France.

Possession purists Italy positioned five players on the halfway line to give the impression they were going direct, with Alessandro Bastoni stopping the ball dead in front of Riccardo Calafiori as if teeing him up, but it was a disguise to force Albania to drop back and give them space to have controlled possession.

It returned the game to a more natural setup and is something Arsenal did on the few occasions last season they did not go long from David Raya, with the Spaniard putting his studs on the ball and two players dropping back late to give them the numbers to build up against a set defence.

It is a trend that has crept back into the game after a long time out when teams looked to implement their passing style from the very first whistle.

Aaron Briggs, who was an analyst at Manchester City before working as assistant coach at Monaco and Wolfsburg, is working as a consultant at UEFA tracking the tactical trends at Euro 2024. This is a theme he has seen re-appear.

“The kick-off is such a strange time in football as it’s the only time it’s like a rugby game with both teams either side of the ball,” he says.

“You see top teams go completely against all their principles in that one false moment.

“You usually end up back at the goalkeeper under pressure and then end up going long, which is less advantageous than going long straight from the centre circle as you can go deeper into their half.

“When you play the diagonal, you can challenge for a 50-50 and the knockdown, or it goes out for a throw and you then try to press onto that first ball and keep them in. It’s like rugby and kicking for territory, but the last couple of years it’s become common again.

“At coaching courses, we’ve been shown that when teams play short, they end up under stress and going long, so this is maybe how it has spread.”

Marseille did something novel in 2017-18 — the season they reached the Europa League final — by kicking the ball straight into the far corner with no forward runners to challenge for the ball.

It was like the 50-22 rule in rugby union that means if the attacking team kicks the ball from their own half and it bounces inside the 22-yard line before going out, then the kicking team is awarded the lineout rather than the opposition.

There is no such reward in football, but it still marks a change from the previous decade, perhaps influenced by the dominance of Spain and tiki-taka, when the ball would go back to a central midfielder and then across to a full-back, which is when play would start.

Do that now, explains one player-turned-coach, and even a team that typically plays with a low block will look to rush you as the opposition’s energy and aggression are at their highest point, plus they are going to be cohesive and in sync due to the team in possession being compressed in their own half.

It is why he and many other coaches are deeming it a pointless risk and are instead playing for territory.

There have been some examples of creativity beyond hitting and hoping. Sampdoria went through a phase of having all 10 outfielders line up across the halfway line and split into different positions, while RB Leipzig scored from a similar tactic a decade ago in the lower tiers of German football.

Two years ago, Kylian Mbappe scored for Paris Saint-Germain against Lille inside eight seconds in what was a brilliantly worked routine in which two runners caught the defence cold.

Defences are so used to pedestrian openings to games, with teams looking to establish possession, that there is an opportunity to take them by surprise. Dominic Solanke’s run for Bournemouth against Fulham two years ago was one such example.

Kick-offs are essentially another set-piece moment in a game like a free kick or throw-in, yet it is a unique scenario no one seemed quite sure how to handle.

Now, though, it appears even the elite teams have decided it is best not to play around in unfamiliar surroundings and have identified the benefits of going long.

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