Many of the teams in the 2020 European Championship are tournament regulars, with Slovakia just about fitting into that category, based on their success over the last eleven years. Having qualified for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2016, expectations of them were raised and hopes were high that they could reach their third major tournament, having missed out in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. In a qualifying group containing Azerbaijan, Croatia, Hungary and Wales, they finished third, but made it to the play-offs thanks to their Nations League performance.
They are in a tough group for the finals, having been drawn in Group E with Spain, Sweden and Poland. There will be some expecting little from them, but they are definitely a team capable of causing an upset during major tournaments. In this tactical analysis, we will look at every part of their team, picking out their strengths and weaknesses.
The key players to look out for in their squad include Milan Skriniar, the Inter Milan centre-back who has consistently been linked with a move to the Premier League, particularly to champions Manchester City. He played a major part in Inter’s Serie A title win this season, helping them to topple Juventus from their throne for the first time since 2010-2011, scoring three goals, all in crucial matches. He could well be one that the “Sokoli” (the Falcons) rely on in this tournament, with him possessing the obvious quality to lead from the back and ensure opponents find it hard to break the Slovakian defence down.
Another player worth keeping an eye on is 21-year-old forward Robert Bozenik, who plays for Feyenoord in the Eredivisie, and who is a potential future star of Slovakian football. He is not yet a prolific scorer, but leads the line well and creates options for his teammates in the final third. This is something Slovakia rely on, with the striker playing an essential role in their tactics, as this analysis will show.
They may not advance beyond the group stages, but getting wins is not out of the question for them, so we shouldn’t be surprised if they do claim points from the other three teams in their group.
Slovakia tend to play with a 4-3-2-1 formation, which lends itself to their tactics nicely. It gives them natural width in defence, with the full-backs also covering the lack of wingers by playing high up the pitch and controlling the wide channels when the team is in possession. The three midfielders can then move around the central areas of the pitch, helping to link up the play during transitions. Their attack is built on a pivot style of play, with the striker holding the ball up and allowing the two inverted forwards to get into dangerous areas ahead of them, causing problems for their opponents.
Slovakia’s starting goalkeeper is likely to be Newcastle United’s Martin Dubravka, who has been a regular between the posts since his return from injury earlier this year. He has won 25 international caps since his debut in May 2014, whilst their other Euro 2020 squad options, Dusan Kuciak and Marek Rodak, have 13 and five caps respectively. Dubravka has proven to be a reliable player for club and country, and his experience will be important when Slovakia face teams with intense attacking styles of play.
In defence, Peter Pekarik and Jakub Holubek are both capable of dominating the wings and dropping back to help out defensively. Both are in their 30’s, so, again, their experience will be essential in giving the team leadership qualities. The two central defenders have different roles, with Denis Vavro likely to win balls more, whilst Skriniar is more adept at running from the back and starting attacks for the team.
The role of the midfielders is to link the play between the back and front, and having Napoli’s Stanislav Lobotka, Genk’s Patrik Hrosovsky and Parma’s Juraj Kucka gives them a wide range of options when doing this. Having a variety of qualities allows them to find different areas of the pitch, depending on where the space is and the positions of the opposing players. There are different variations of the midfield three that they can use, fitting different match situations, but the main point to take is that those players can remain in the central areas of the pitch, as the full-backs look after the wide channels.
Slovakia’s two inverted forwards play off the central striker, moving the ball into them and then running into spaces beyond to receive it and shoot at goal. With this in mind, the two attacking midfielders, Ondrej Duda and Robert Mak, are both likely to be crucial players for the team, and the source of the majority of their attacking play. Many of Slovakia’s key players can be found in this role, with the experienced Vladimir Weiss and young star Tomas Suslov both viable alternatives for different games.
In attack, Slovakia have players at both ends of the age scale, with Michal Duris likely to start most games, due to his experience, but the centre forward alternatives to the Omonia striker in the squad are the aforementioned Bozenik and David Strelec, the 20-year-old Slovan Bratislava forward.
When looking at their ages, we can see that the majority of Slovakia’s team are in their peak, whilst there are also options in the youth and experienced sections of the chart. This suggests that Slovakia are well covered for any situation they will face in Euro 2020, with the experienced players likely to feature heavily, whilst the younger, up-and-coming players can bring extra energy and perhaps a more direct style of play when required.
This graphic shows how Slovakia operateṣ in attacking phases of play. Their highest value is for average shot distance, ranking in the top 5% for this when compared to the other 23 teams in Euro 2020. This reflects how they take shots from a longer distance than the other teams, backed up by their lower rank for touches in the penalty area per 90 minutes. From this, we can expect them to shoot from outside the box more, because the striker will stay further back than normal to feed balls into the two inverted attacking midfielders. Given that we have already mentioned how they play balls into the attacking midfielders behind opposing defences, this may sound strange. However, when those passing options are closed down, the striker will need to shoot at goal themselves, and their positioning in front of the defence will mean more shots from greater distances.
It is also worth noting that Slovakia rank in the top 10% for directness in possession, which is again because they always play up the pitch when in possession, hoping to create goalscoring opportunities as often as possible. However, Slovakia’s productivity in the final third, despite this, is not as high as it perhaps needs to be, with them ranking very low for expected goals, shots per match and crossing tendency, showing how they could struggle in the final third when they do have opportunities, which could be their undoing in the tournament.
We have mentioned it a lot, but this image shows one way that Slovakia’s attacking setup works. They have the ball in the far side channel here, looking to move it up the pitch and into a dangerous area. Robert Bozenik, as the central striker, has taken up a position close to the Israeli defenders, ensuring that all of the attention is on him or the ball. This allows Robert Mak, who we can see moving in behind the defensive line, to receive the ball in the open space. This chance leads to a goal for Mak, so we can see how they used the striker as a decoy here, allowing the Ferencvaros winger to get behind the defence with little opposition and to shoot at goal.
This is something we can expect to see plenty of in Euro 2020 from Slovakia, because of the ability of the attacking midfielders to get into these good positions almost without being noticed. Opposing defences will need to be on high alert against Slovakia, as any open spaces and lapses in concentration at the back will be exposed by them.
The other key feature of Slovakia’s attack is the role of the full-backs. We have already mentioned how they don’t play with wingers, instead asking the full-backs to control the wings, and this image demonstrates what that gives them tactically. The ball is in space here, with two Slovakian players positioned close to each other centrally. This appears to be the obvious passing option, but Scotland have seen this threat, moving all of their defenders into that area to block it off.
This is where the full-backs come in, with Peter Pekarik, in the blue circle here, running ahead of the ball and making it clear that he is a viable passing option to keep the attack alive. His positioning also extends the area Slovakia’s attack covers, trying to stretch the Scottish defence out and making it harder for them to close off all the spaces. This is something else we can expect to see from Slovakia during their Euro 2020 games, especially against teams who defend deeply and are alive to Slovakia’s preferred attacking style of play.
Slovakia are likely to defend a lot in Euro 2020, so it makes sense that this is where their values are higher across the board. This is supported by the fact that they are in the top 20% of teams at the tournament for shots against per match, but also for recoveries per match, recoveries in their own third, interceptions and clearances, all highlighting their organised approach at the back. This comes from the defenders knowing their roles, ensuring that balls are won, but gaps are not left open in the process for their opponents to exploit.
It is also interesting to note the comparison between their defensive duels and aerial duels. We can see from the graphic how they are in the top 20% for both defensive and aerial duels per match when compared to the other 23 teams, but win significantly more defensive than aerial duels. This implies that they are more confident when the ball is on the ground, rather than, for example, when the opponents are crossing it into the box. This is one defensive weakness that opposing attackers can exploit, and we can expect that Spain, Sweden and Poland will look to play aerial balls into the final third as often as possible, making it harder for Slovakia to win the ball and increasing the likelihood that the attackers convert their chances.
This image shows how Slovakia’s defensive setup works. Despite playing with a back four, the full-backs alternate with each other in supporting the attack. This leaves three players at the back, who then form the defensive line that we see here. Malta have moved the ball into Slovakia’s goal area here, but the home side have marshalled the threat and ensured that it goes out of play, ending the attack.
The line discipline shown here is the crucial element, with none of the three players going too far forward or back, meaning no gaps are left open. With this structure, they can let the ball drift across their goal, confident that no Maltese attackers can reach it. Alternatively, if they needed to, they could make an interception or tackle, but working together to protect their goal is the reason they have proven difficult to break down, and why they rank so highly for defensive statistics when the ball is on the ground.
Their lower aerial duels won is likely to be because the organisation ends as soon as the ball is in the air, with all three players trying to win the ball and clear it. This leads to a lack of communication and gaps opening up, so is why other teams can beat Slovakia more easily when they keep the ball in the air.
When there are four players back, one tends to move out and close down the ball, leaving the other three to form their rigid three-player structure. We can see here how Pekarik has moved out to his Paraguayan opponent, taking time away and forcing them to play the ball quicker, increasing the chance of them making a mistake. This happens on both sides of the pitch, with the left-back going out if the ball is on their side of the pitch, so is an adaptable defensive tactic that Slovakia will use plenty of during the tournament.
The reason they play this way is to prevent crosses coming into the box, stopping opponents from exposing their weakness. This is another responsibility that the two full-backs have in the team, as well as controlling the wings in attacking phases of play. Slovakia are a strong team defensively, but, if any gaps are left open, or the full-back doesn’t get out quick enough, then there is space for attackers to move into, so their defensive strength relies on all players knowing their roles and working together.
We mentioned how the full-backs track back when Slovakia lose possession, and David Hancko, who can play at left-back or centre-back, gets back here to stop Malta playing the ball into the space which would have been left open on the nearside wing. This is because the other three Slovakian defenders are positioned narrowly in the middle, looking to stop Malta’s central threat, but have left the wide channels open in doing so. If the full-backs don’t get into these positions quick enough, the opponents can get behind their defence and cross the ball into the box, exposing Slovakia’s aforementioned aerial weakness.
We mentioned how only one full-back goes forward at a time, and this ensures that the two centre-backs don’t become isolated by the opposing attackers. If the two centre-backs were alone, the attackers could play outside them, giving them a way of moving the ball into the final third. Therefore, in attack-to-defence transitions, it is essential that the full-backs play their part and slot into these gaps, otherwise Slovakia will struggle against their opponents, and will concede plenty of goals throughout the tournament.
When moving the ball from the back to the front, they look to play quick football, making early decisions about where to pass to. This leads to one-touch football in their transitional play, helped by their fluid three-player midfield, who all move into spaces around the pitch. This ensures that, no matter where the opposing players are positioned, Slovakia can always find pockets of space to pass the ball into, ensuring that they keep the momentum going in attack. The arrows here show the two passes they made in this transition, and we can see how they have covered a large part of the pitch with their quick play.
This takes time away from Scotland, who are looking to get back and close off the spaces, and increases the chance of Slovakia scoring as a result. We know that, when they get into the final third, the Slovakian striker is used as a pivot to enable others to get into dangerous areas behind the opposing defence, and this quick passing enables the ball to reach them with more speed, helping to expose the open spaces in the opponents’ third.
To look at Slovakia’s forward options in this scout report, we will compare touches in the penalty box and shots, both per 90 minutes, as well as goal contributions and expected goal contributions. The player who immediately stands out across all four areas is David Strelec, the 20-year-old Slovan Bratislava forward, who ranks highly for goal contributions, expected goal contributions and touches in the box, and has the fourth-most shots as well. However, Robert Bozenik, another player fighting to start in the striker role, has more shots per 90 than Strelec, though ranks lower for everything else.
This shows how Slovakia have different options in their forward line, meaning they can switch tactics as required. Therefore, when they are behind, Strelec will go for goals more, whilst Bozenik will drop deeper and bring other players into the game, linking up the play more, and the fact that Bozenik has a low value for goal contributions highlights how his role focuses on movement, taking defenders away from teammates.
We picked out Michal Duris to start most games, but only because of the experience he will bring, compared to Bozenik and Strelec. His statistics are not as high as those two, so it may be that Slovakia coach Stefan Tarkovic will start him with the intention of bringing others into the game, like Robert Mak. However, if they want to maximise their attacking threat, then Strelec or Bozenik would be a better choice to lead the line in their group games, depending on how Slovakia want to play, but we will have to see if this is the case when the tournament starts.
For the midfielders, we will look at progressive passes and passes to the final third, both per 90 minutes, as well as goal contributions and expected goal contributions.
Undoubtedly the star of Slovakian football over the years has been Marek Hamsik, who spent twelve seasons at Napoli and also played in the Chinese Super League between 2019 and 2021. The statistics show that he makes the second-most progressive passes per game, and the most passes to the final third per game as well, showing how he always plays forwards when he gets the ball, creating opportunities for those further forward. Patrik Hrosovsky also ranks highly in the same areas, and, given he is likely to start the games, this ensures Slovakia have a constant source of balls into the final third, ensuring they can cause problems for opposing defenders.
Another who ranks highly for progressive passes and runs is Laszlo Benes. The midfielder, who plays for Augsburg, on loan from Borussia Monchengladbach, is a creative attacking midfielder who can move the ball into the forwards, giving them plenty of chances to score. His progressive passes and passes to the final third values are among the top five in the Slovakian team, reflecting how he looks to get himself and the ball forwards as often as possible. When Slovakia have Strelec upfront, they lose the pivot striker, so Benes gives them another way of creating goalscoring opportunities. His goal contributions are also high, sitting second in this statistic, showing again how he gives Slovakia plenty of options in attacking phases of play.
18-year-old Groningen forward Tomas Suslov is one of the up-and-coming talents in Slovakian football, and has the third-most expected goal contributions and the most goal contributions in the team, but has a lower rank for progressive passes and passes to the final third. However, this is likely to be because he plays more often as one of the two inside forwards, so is already in the final third when he receives the ball. He is capable of scoring goals in the tournament, especially if players like Bozenik feed him accurate passes behind the opposing defence.
In our predicted starting XI, we named Milan Skriniar and Denis Vavro as the two centre-backs, and these two graphs show how both are very different players with different qualities.
Vavro ranks just above average for interceptions and successful defensive actions per game, but below most for progressive passes and progressive runs, both per 90 minutes. This reflects how his role is to win the ball back, going out to meet opposing attackers and prevent them advancing too near the goal. Skriniar, meanwhile, ranks highly for progressive passes and runs, showing how his job is to move the ball out from the back, helping to launch attacks once Slovakia retake possession. Given this, we can expect a lot of Slovakia’s attacks to start with him passing out from the back, especially as the full-backs and midfield trio are always available as passing options.
Across the board, most of the defensive options at right, left and centre-back rank have similar values in the charts, showing how Slovakia’s defence is made up of players who can slot in where needed. This means they won’t need to alter their tactics too often when substitutes are introduced, ensuring a constant and fairly fixed blueprint can be adhered to, as well as tactical consistency.
Given the part he played in Inter Milan’s title win, we can expect that Skriniar will play as big a part in Slovakia’s Euro 2020 finals campaign, because he brings so much to all areas of the team.
From his attacking and creativity statistics, we can see how he is in the top 20% of defenders at the tournament for dribbles per 90 and smart passes per 90. This shows how he has the confidence to not just clear the ball towards his teammates once in possession, but also to keep it and wait for the right moment to release it. This means that Slovakia are calm under opposing pressure, helping them to be harder to beat, and Skriniar is a key part of this.
When it comes to passing and progression, he is one of the most accurate defenders in possession in Euro 2020. From the middle graph on the graphic, his forward passes, accurate passes and passes per 90 minutes are all in the top 10%, showing again how he is comfortable with the ball at his feet, willing to pick the right pass and not giving it away too easily. Therefore, when he is in the team, Slovakia will always have a chance, because he is the one that his teammates look to when under pressure from opposing attackers, and he rarely fails to deliver.
It is worth noting that his average pass length is in the bottom 30%, which demonstrates two things that we have already mentioned. Firstly, when he passes from the back, he tends to give the ball to a player nearby, rather than risking a longer pass being intercepted, and, when dribbling, he moves the ball across shorter distances, not trying to get it into the opposing box with long balls. This reflects how he is a team player, doing what is needed at each point in the game, but not trying to get the headlines.
The statistics for his defensive actions are not as high, with none being over the median line, but this is all to do with making interceptions and duels, and, as we have already established, this is not his main role in the defensive unit.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE TOURNAMENT
There is no doubt that Slovakia have the quality in their squad to win games, and will cause plenty of issues for Spain, Sweden and Poland in their group matches. We have seen how they move their inverted forwards into spaces beyond the opposing defensive line as much as possible, which could be an effective tactic, and one that catches out a few of their opponents. We have also seen how they can play long balls or work their way through the thirds, giving themselves different ways of playing, which is also an essential ingredient to have.
If they play well, there is a genuine chance that they could qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament. This is because, whilst Spain will be a tough opponent, there is a chance of them beating Sweden and Poland, as both are capable of having poor games from time to time. Slovakia will prove to be a difficult team to break down, as well as having goals in the team, and have a clear tactical playing style. All of this means that, if they play well, there is a chance that they could sneak a place in the knockout stages of Euro 2020.
Predicted squad list
Marek Hamšík (c)