Norway hosted Spain at the Ullevaal Stadion for a crucial match of the UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifiers. Comfortably at the top of Group F, Spain looked to win this match and possibly officially win the group. Norway was fourth heading into the match with only two points less than second-place Sweden. They desperately needed a win, considering both Sweden and third-place Romania would have easy matches. That set the scene for a high-energy match from start to finish. Spain thought they won the fight, but Norway dramatically got one point back in stoppage time.
In this tactical analysis, we will delve into both sides’ tactics, and how Norway managed to cause Spain a lot of trouble.
Norway started this match in a 4-4-1-1, with Håvard Nordtveit and Kristoffer Ajer the centre-back pairing. Ole Selnaes and captain Stefan Johansen were the nominal wingers, while Martin Ødegaard played just behind lone striker Joshua King. With Erling Braut Håland’s hip injury in mind, it’s necessary to add that coach Lars Lagerbäck has favoured King’s experience over Håland’s energy throughout Norway’s 2020 Euro qualifying campaign.
Spain used a 4-3-3, with an unusual back four of Juan Bernat, Sergio Ramos, Raúl Albiol and Jesús Navas, whose recent form helped him took Dani Carvajal’s place. The midfield three, which Robert Moreno seems to choose in bigger matches, consisted of Sergio Busquets, Saúl Ñíguez and Fabián Ruiz. At the front, Arsenal’s loanee Dani Ceballos, Rodrigo Moreno and the in-form Mikel Oyarzabal led the line.
Spain in possession
Spain played in a 2-1-4-3 in possession. The full-backs surged forward, while Saúl and Fabián played higher than Busquets and had more license to roam higher up the pitch. That is displayed in Spain’s passmap below.
A midfielder by nature, Ceballos would stray away from his starting winger position to drop deeper and more central. Rodrigo and Oyarzabal are by no means traditional forwards either, and would also look to drop between the lines to receive the ball and combine with his teammates. This could also attract the opponent’s centre-backs and open gaps behind them to exploit.
Here, Rodrigo was dropping deep to connect with others. After getting the ball, he played a first-time pass towards the run of Bernat and immediately ran into the space behind the Norway defender who followed him.
Norway defended in a zonal 4-4-1-1. Ødegaard had the important job of blocking passing lanes to the influential Busquets. He did that quite well. Busquets’ number of touches in this match was 88, only fifth of all Spain players.
When Spain tried to build from the back, Norway would press high. King would close down the man on the ball, the wingers marked Spain’s full-backs, Ødegaard marked Busquets, while the double pivot marked Spain’s other two central midfielders. The home side’s intense pressing forced some promising turnovers, but Norway couldn’t turn those into goals.
Here, King just rushed at any of the goalkeeper or the centre-backs who was having the ball.
Norway would use a similar scheme when counter-pressing.
Norway’s midfield and defence were very disciplined. They always tried to maintain horizontal and vertical compactness. But they didn’t just sit deep and absorb the pressure. The most near-ball player would be the one to step out and close down the ball-carrier. By going straight at the man with the ball, he could cover any passing lane to the opponent behind him, while forcing the former to quickly make up his mind. If Norway had allowed Spain too much time on the ball, the latter would have moved the former’s shape around easily and taken total control of the match.
Here, Henriksen stepped out of position to press Saúl, forcing him to pass backwards.
Sometimes, by using cover shadow smartly, more than one Norway player could step out to put even more pressure on the ball-carrier. Here, Johansen combined with Ødegaard to press Ramos while still covering the passing lane to Bernat. Ramos ended up passing the ball into Johansen’s feet, giving Norway a chance to counter quickly.
It was crucial that when someone moved out of his position to close down the ball-carrier, no one could exploit the space he left behind. In central areas, nearby midfielders could always cover for the pressing man. However, on the flanks, Spain often used rotations. For example, when a Spanish winger had the ball on the flank, Norway’s nearby full-back would step out to close him down. A Spain striker would look to exploit the space behind the opponent’s full-back. In such situations, Norway’s winger would always track back and followed the opponent’s movements in behind his full-back.
Here, Navas was about to receive the pass. Norway’s left-back Aleesami quickly closed him down, while Rodrigo made a run to exploit the space behind the defender. However, left-winger Selnaes instantly followed the Spanish forward to prevent any danger.
Norway’s solid two banks of four forced Spain to attack from wide. La Roja’s top two passing links (shown next to their passmap above) were the ones between a central midfielder and a full-back of the same side.
Space would be created for the wide players using quick switches. The wingers played on their wrong sides (left-footed player on the right), so the responsibilities of providing crosses lie on the full-backs. Navas was the more prolific full-back in providing crosses (five crosses compared to Bernat’s one) as he hugged the touchline most of the time, while Bernat would move more central when the ball was on the other flank.
The above image also showed that in possession, we can see eight Spaniards in a rather tight area. As expected of a short passing team, they would stay close together to combine. This also helped them in transition. Should they lose the ball, they could immediately coordinate counter-pressing to win the ball back quickly. The image below is an instance of the counter-press. This was just four seconds after Spain lost the ball. The Norwegian ball-carrier was being surrounded from all sides. He was then unable to get the ball past Busquets. The counter-attack was stopped in just four seconds.
In addition, the Spanish players were smart in occupying pockets of space within the opponent’s shape. Here, we see Oyarzabal and Saúl doing so.
The likes of Rodrigo and Oyarzabal are smart with their movements between the lines, but they don’t provide impressive physical presence in the box. The two only won 3 offensive duels combined. Considering Spain had to relied on crosses, it’s no surprise they had a difficult match offensively. They registered 6 shots in the first half, but 4 of them were blocked. The athletic Saúl should have tried to run more into the box instead of staying conservative most of the time.
After struggling for 20 minutes, Norway started to grow into the match and began to create longer possession sequences.
Norway in possession
While in possession, Norway’s full-backs would move very high up the pitch as if they were wing forwards, while the wingers stayed deep to provide cover and help with the build-up. This was especially true on the right, when the average position of right-back Omar Elabdellaoui (#14) was much higher than right-winger Johansen (#8). That is even odder considering Norway only had 37% possession in this match.
Spain defended in a 4-1-4-1, with the nominal wing forwards dropping deep and form a line of four with the central midfielders. Cover could be provided when needed. In the below example, when Oyarzabal was out of his position after pressing high, Rodrigo moved to the right-winger position to complete the midfield line of four. We could also notice the high position of Norway’s full-backs Aleesami and Elabdellaoui.
Either of the two central midfielders could drop deep to form a back three and help Norway circulate the ball better.
Spain’s 4-1-4-1 formation in defence is one that is not often used by high pressing team. It’s true that Spain didn’t press high initially, staying conservative and compact, forcing a short pass to the wing. The winger would then step out of his position to press, while blocking the forward passing lane down the flank. The Norway winger would then be forced to pass back to the nearby centre-back. Spain’s nearby midfielder could then close him down to force him to pass further back.
In the below example, when Norway’s left winger Selnaes got the ball, he was instantly pressed by Oyarzabal and forced to pass back to Sander Berge. Right after Selnaes passed the ball, Fabián surged towards Berge. Rodrigo was also ready to close down Ajer should he get the ball.
Norway’s attacking plan was not too complicated. Their main aim was to open up space on the wings and send crosses in from there. Space would be open after exchanges of passes between Ødegaard and the midfielders. The full-backs, especially Elabdellaoui were aggressive in their positioning and would look to send crosses in. Elabdellaoui could also run into the box to disrupt the opponent’s defence. Here, his run gave Henriksen, who often moved wide to help facilitate attacks through the right flank enough space to cross.
Second half changes
Saúl opened the scoreline in the 47th minute with an impressive weak-footed half-volley. Norway now had to attack more in search of an equaliser. It was clear that King was not dominant enough in the air to pose real danger after Norway’s crosses. More physical strikers were needed.
In the 63rd minute, Alexander Sørloth replaced Johansen. Norway then played in a 4-4-2 with Sørloth and King up front, and Ødegaard as a right-winger.
Sørloth was used as a target man, winning all of his 3 aerial duels. In the below example he was at the end of a cross. He headed the ball back to his teammate, who almost scored.
Norway pressed even higher and more aggressive. in the second half, with a central midfielder pressing Spain’s first line of build-up. Here, after forcing Busquets to pass to Albiol, central midfielder Henriksen instantly rushed to hunt Albiol. The Spanish defender passed back to Kepa, and Sørloth immediately forced him to go long.
In the 83rd minute, Bjorn Johnsen – another tall striker – came in for Henriksen. From then on, Norway kept launching long balls towards the two target men and tried to win second balls to attack He beat Ramos in an aerial, which gave King a chance into the box. Kepa fouled King, and the latter beat the former in the resulting penalty. The match ended 1-1.
Our analysis has shown both sides’ tactics in this match. The end result can be a disappointing one for Spain, considering the favourites’ lead well into stoppage time. However, Lagerbäck’s smart tactical gave Norway a well-deserved point. Nevertheless, Sweden and Romania’s comfortable wins mean that Norway would have to try their best and hope the formers lost points. Norway can also look to qualify through the play-offs after winning their group in League C of the 2019 UEFA Nations League. For Spain, this draw won’t really affect their chance of winning this group.
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