High pressing, direct and physical: Why Slovakia could hurt England

Slovakia are an outlier at this European Championships as the only Pot 5 team to reach the finals from qualifying. They have already exceeded expectations, and now have their sights set on more against England on Sunday.

Less than two years ago, a miserable set of Nations League results including home defeats to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan condemned them to be drawn at the same levels as the likes of Gibraltar, Latvia and Cyprus.

Manager Stefan Tarkovic’s position was deemed unsurprisingly untenable and his replacement, Francesco Calzona, has been a revelation. “He changed not only the style of the game, but also our way of thinking,” said winger Lukas Haraslin ahead of this weekend’s showdown in Gelsenkirchen.

Reaching the last 16 is nothing new for Slovakia, who made this stage in 2016 before they were brushed aside by semi-finalists Germany.

But ahead of their latest foray into the knock-outs, the national media back home runs a warning which may prove prophetic to an England side yet to hit any sort of form.

“The English do not take the Slovaks seriously,” reads one headline in the Pravda newspaper, quoting Jude Bellingham admitted he did not know who England would be playing in their next game during a recent interview.

Ivan Schranz of Slovakia celebrates with Lukas Haraslin and Ondrej Duda after scoring against Belgium
Ivan Schranz gave Slovakia a shock win over Belgium in their first game and is one of only six players to have scored more than once in Germany

Slovakia are not quaking in their collective boots about the prospect of facing Gareth Southgate’s side.

Before Georgia’s unlikely win over Portugal, Calzona looked most likely to be setting his team up to face Spain, the tournament’s most impressive performers, in the last 16.

“I would rather choose the English,” said experienced midfielder Ondrej Duda, who scored their opener against Romania in their final group game. “They are of course favourites and have great quality, but they haven’t dazzled in Germany yet.”

Slovakia can already one-up England on one of their biggest failings, an inability to beat quality opposition, something Calzona achieved in his first game of the tournament with a shock 1-0 win over Belgium.

At points, that performance encapsulated everything many fans hoped England to be at this tournament – high pressing, dogged and committed.

It also serves as a warning to Gareth Southgate.

England have been poor at building through the lines and Slovakia’s two No 8s, Juraj Kucka and Duda, have been tasked with throttling their opponents, just as we saw from their winner against Belgium in their opening game.

Despite the former turning 37 in February, only four players have regained possession in the final third more across the whole tournament so far. No one in a Slovakia shirt ran further in that Belgium match than the veteran.

Slovakia's Juraj Kucka, left, is challenged by..Romania's Nicusor Bancu during a Group E match at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament in Frankfurt, Germany, Wednesday, June 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Slovakia’s Juraj Kucka turned 37 in February but has proved a high-press machine for Francesco Calzona’s side

“Our playing style is quite unforgiving, very proactive,” said former Slovakia U21 coach Adrian Gula ahead of the last 16, as quoted by The Guardian.

Directness is still the order of the day and Slovakia are well-drilled in transition, and strong at defending their own 18-yard box.

Only Portugal, Germany and Ukraine have faced fewer crosses, and the number of shots they have conceded from inside their own penalty area ranks straight down the middle of the knockout qualifiers.

A settled team, and back-line in particular, helps with that. Slovakia have fielded the oldest average XI at Euro 2024, including former Scudetto winner Milan Skiniar to marshal the defence – with Feyenoord’s David Hancko, more comfortable in the middle than at left-back, doing a steady job out wide.

Skriniar and his centre-back partner Denis Vavro have an important job going forward, too. Slovakia are unapologetically direct, generally looking to find Lucas Haraslin or Ivan Schranz, the two danger men out wide.

It works to good effect, Schranz ranking as one of only six players to have scored more than once in Germany, while only Christian Eriksen has completed more crosses than Haraslin.

England’s press will have to become more effective to counter this, or Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker, assuming they are given the nod again by Southgate, will need to be extra wary of being caught upfield at the turnover of play.

Sparta Prague winger Haraslin has come into the tournament in the form of his life and has proved effective from corners in Germany too. They could, and perhaps should, have scored twice from his deliveries early in their draw with Romania.

This is another area England will have to be strong, though their capability at dealing with the aerial threat of their group-stage opponents has been one of few highlights so far.

There are other reasons for England to feel more at ease. Should they manage to play through the initial press, they will find a Slovakia defence exposed against England’s raw attacking talent – even if that talent has largely gone missing to this point.

Their reputation for running out of legs and dropping off may also seem familiar to England fans, after they were left to hang on against Belgium and were undone by two second-half goals against Ukraine.

Perhaps Napoli midfielder Stanislav Lobotka put it best: “You can say that England are not at their best but at some time they will click and kick on, it is just a question of when.”

Lobotka is almost certainly right, but whether or not it happens at this tournament, or under Southgate, Slovakia have the tools to show England exactly why they should be aware of what they’re coming up against.

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