EURO Insights: How Serbia turned up the pressure on England

In this Insights article UEFA technical observer Rafael Benítez takes a detailed look at Serbia’s key tactical change against England.


Sergej Milinković-Savić receives instructions from Serbia coach Dragan StojkovićUEFA via Getty Images

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Where in the first half Serbia had defended in a 5-4-1 and applied less pressure on the centre-backs, this changed with the switch to a 5-3-2, with Dragan Stojković's men occupying higher positions on the pitch. As a result, where England had had 208 touches in the opposition half before the break, they had 153 in the second half as Serbia made it harder for them to circulate the ball.image.png

This image gives an example of how Serbia, with two players leading the press from the front, were now more effective. We see right wing-back Veljko Birmančević and centre-back Miloš Veljković each applying pressure to help force England backwards. From there, their forwards are able to apply early pressure on the England centre-backs and, as a consequence, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was forced to play long.

Thanks to the adjustment, Serbia were more aggressive defensively and the graphics below show the contrast between their average distance between the highest player and the goalkeeper in the two halves. In the first half, the distance was 44.9m high on average; in the second, it was 49.2m, in the second half starting position from goalkeeper was more advanced.


To single out two individuals, goalkeeper Predrag Rajković's position is over two metres higher in the second half than the first. Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, Dušan Vlahović (No7), who defended as a right winger in the first half, can be seen in a central position in the second (below).

The next chart below shows the higher number of pressures that Serbia achieved in the second half. Between the restart and the hour-mark, they made 32% of all their pressures in a mid-block and 29% of their overall number in a high block – a reflection of their change of mentality as well as the tweak in tactics according to Benítez, the UEFA technical observer.


"All of them were more aggressive and closer to their opponents," said Benítez, citing Filip Mladenović's stronger defending against winger Bukayo Saka. "England were not a threat with runs in behind in the second half. The aggression and man-to-man defending of Serbia were enough to push them back."

In the middle third of the half, Serbia's pressing intensity dropped, which can be partly explained by the fact they now had more of the ball. In one sequence just after the hour, for example, they strung together 30 passes prior to a cross into the England box.

"Serbia were more offensive with the wing-backs and even centre-backs taking more risks and playing one against ones frequently," added Benítez. "With Vlahović and [Luka] Jović at the top and [Dušan] Tadić between the lines and the wing-backs high and wide, [Ivan] Ilić had more time on the ball and they played better."

As they chased the game late on (76-90+ mins), Serbia increased the intensity again, producing a quarter (25%) of their total number of pressures in a high block.

The impact on England was clear. As highlighted in this post-match analysis, Pickford attempted 20 long passes in the second period compared to eight before the break.

As a final indicator, Serbia effected 67% of their pressing actions within two England passes – and a significant majority of these quicker pressures were in the second half. As Harry Kane summed it up afterwards: "They went almost man for man and we couldn’t quite keep the ball well enough."

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