Expert analysis of the events in Poland and Ukraine
Zonal Marking maestro Michael Cox on how Michal Bilek's side changed their game – and reached the quarter-finals...
Of the four sides that topped their group, the Czech Republic were clearly the most surprising winners. Of course, they had the advantage of being in a weak group – but after a humiliating 4-1 defeat to Russia in their opening game, few expected them to be competing in the first quarter-final this evening.
The shape of the Czech side in the last couple of matches is very different to the system Michal Bilek started the tournament with. Against Russia, he played without a true holding midfielder, pairing Jaroslav Plasil and Petr Jiracek in the centre of the pitch, with Tomas Hubschman only on the bench.
It was understandable: over the last year, the Czechs had often looked better and more fluid without Hubschman in the side, particularly in the play-off victory over Montenegro. Therefore, it was a logical move from Bliek to play without the Shakhtar Donetsk man – but it turned out to be disastrous, as Russia took advantage of Plasil and Jiracek’s poor positioning and counter-attacked through the middle.
At half-time, Bilek reverted to his alternative system. It was still a 4-2-3-1, but Hubschman now sat solidly in front of the defence alongside Plasil. This made the Czechs more defensively secure, but equally important was Jiracek’s new role. Instead of playing as a left-sided central midfielder, he was pushed to the right of midfield, as shown by the difference in the zones he received the ball in, before and after half-time.
This gave the Czech Republic much more balance. Before half-time they were playing with two wide forwards: Vaclav Pilar on the left and Jan Rezek on the right. Their play was too obvious, too direct, with both players trying to make runs in behind the defence.
After the switch, Jiracek played much narrower than Rezek, and came into the centre of the pitch to become involved in build-up play. Pilar, on the opposite flank, continued to make runs in behind – and soon grabbed the Czechs’ first goal of the tournament with this approach. They still lost 4-1, but it showed the way they should play in their next two group games.
Therefore, for the game with Greece, Bilek used the same system: Hubschman sitting deep, Jiracek on the right. Again, the system worked well because of the variety in the Czech attacks. Jiracek sometimes got the ball on the flanks, but often ventured into the centre of the pitch, and the assist for his early goal was the most central pass he received in the attacking third.
Pilar stayed much wider, hugging the touchline and stretching the play. Almost all the passes he received found him outside the width of the penalty boxes.
Another interesting feature of the wide players’ performances in that game was how many fouls they committed – nine between them. Only Croatia committed more fouls than the Czech Republic in the group stage.
For the final group game against Poland, there was a different pattern to the positions occupied by the wide players. The Czech Republic played a cautious game, with the players in a more structured, boxy system.
Pilar continued to get the ball wide on the left, but so did Jiracek – barely venturing into the centre of the pitch, with the exception of the pass for his goal, which came after he made an excellent diagonal run to the opposite flank to support Milan Baros.
It will be interesting to see how Bilek asks Jiracek to play against Portugal. Portugal’s left flank is their biggest strength going forward, with Fabio Coentrao overlapping Cristiano Ronaldo, but all four goals Paulo Bento’s side have conceded have come from that wing. One way or another, the battle on that side will be key, and Jiracek’s positioning will be crucial.
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