With a FIFA World Ranking of 62, North Macedonia entered the 2020 European Championships, their first ever major tournament, as clear underdogs. Before this, the only player of North Macedonian origin who had played in the European Championships was Blagoje Vidinic, a goalkeeper for the Former Yugoslavia in 1960. Unfortunately for North Macedonia, they failed to progress past the group stage, and floundered to the bottom of Group C. Despite that, they never looked as though they did not belong. Here is our tactical analysis of how they performed at the European Championships.
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North Macedonia qualified for the competition through the UEFA Nations League D, besting the rest in their division. They beat Kosovo 2-1 in the semi-finals and then Georgia 1-0 in the final, thanks to captain Goran Pandev, arguably the country’s most influential and important player ever. (He even has a team named after him back home!). This amazing qualification showed that even though they are complete novices when it comes to playing at the level of the Euros, they have plenty of talent and experience. The players were all ready to prove themselves on the grand international scale, and believed that they could advance past the group stage into the knockout rounds. In fact, the North Macedonia team was packed with technically proficient players beyond Genoa’s Gordan Pandev. Eljif Elmas of Napoli impressed at the tournament, as did Levante’s Eris Bardhi. Ezgjan Alioski is also an adept fullback who plays for Leeds United, and goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski plies his trade in Spain with Rayo Vallecano. Very soon, more North Macedonian players may find themselves in more of Europe’s top leagues.
Their manager, Igor Angelovski, also entered the tournament as a proven winner, having won a league title and two cup triumphs with Rabotnicki Skopje in the Macedonian League. Tactically, he is also quite experimental, operating in various 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 tactical formations, while most comfortable in 3-4-1-2. He took over the national team in October 2015, and took them to three wins in 2018 World Cup Qualifying, their most in a single campaign. The manager and his players failed to qualify for the World Cup, but they took all the lessons they learned to give a go at the Euros, winning Nations League D.
system of play
North Macedonia’s system of play regularly became 5-3-2 and 3-5-2 due to their defensive stance and approach to matches, though it looked like 3-4-1-2 on paper, and in brief counter attacking moments. The other three teams in their group, the Netherlands, Ukraine, and Austria, all had more experienced players, more exposure to international tournaments, more players in major leagues, and had shown they could handle Angelovski’s team in previous fixtures. Austria for example had previously beaten them twice before, and went into the first match as clear favourites as a result. With all of this in mind, Angelovski’s approach became very defensive and reserved, and they rarely looked to push forward. On the few occasions that Gordan Pandev got on the ball high up the pitch, Angelovski’s team looked dangerous. They even managed 11 shots per game with Pandev at the forefront, significantly more than many teams at the tournament who advanced to the Round of 16, including Belgium, Portugal and France. In the end, they lost all three of their group matches, but not because they did anything particularly wrong. They just faced tough opposition that had layers more of international experience.
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With a reserved, defensive approach North Macedonia proved to be direct in possession, without much inclination to spend time on the ball. In counter attacking moments, they would play with verticality and speed, as their players would sprint up the field as far away from their goal as possible. This direct approach resulted in a lot of risky, forward passes, but these were usually kept along the ground or at a low height. They were particularly resourceful against Austria and Ukraine, but found a much more difficult time thrusting forward against the possession-dominant Netherlands. But against all three teams, their efforts proved to be in vain. They tested their opposition’s goal several times on a match to match basis, but only found the back of the net 2 times in 3 games. Their shots were rarely on target, creating just 2.7 shots on target from their 11 shots and 8 clear cut chances created per game.
Attempting to play in a mid-block and stifle their opposition in the midfield third meant that they often left a large amount of space between the goalkeeper and the rest of the team. Balls over the top or through balls into space could then be cruelly exposed by speedy attackers like Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum. Simultaneously, this compactness limited their attacking approach. Through adopting such a narrow defense, they rarely had enough width to attack from different angles. Instead, they needed to rely on their direct counter attacking approach and passes into the two strikers. Since they are also not very physical or aerially dominant, they could not rely on high passes in counter attacking moments or any degree of long balls. So again, they were very limited in both attack and defense simply because of their personnel in comparison to the teams around them.
After a long, busy season, North Macedonia also rarely pressed from the front. They did however adopt an aggressive approach in defense, winning the second most interceptions and fourth most tackles at the Euros so far. Though this is positive for the team, it wasn’t enough to keep the ball out of the back of the net. Their opposition were often able to drag North Macedonian players out of position and then drag centre-backs into 1v1 situations that would end in a shot, corner or goal.
Despite their failures at Euro 2016, North Macedonia is clearly a team capable of pulling off upsets against the strongest opposition, like their dramatic win over Germany before the Euros. They have players who are capable of winning at the highest level, and have a lot of creative flair in their team, especially from players like Alioski and Elmas. They definitely did not prove to be a walkover for other teams in their group due to their intense discipline and organization. They might not have advanced beyond the group stage, but they gave it their best shot. That alone speaks to the great quality of the team.
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