Thursday 19 September 2019

Euro 2016 analysis: How long balls, late goals and team-work are ruling the roost

Jonathan Liew examines tactical trends at the Euros and what they tell us about international football in 2016

Workers laying the new pitch in Lille yesterday. Photo: AP Photo/Frank Augstein
Workers laying the new pitch in Lille yesterday. Photo: AP Photo/Frank Augstein

Jonathan Liew

1- Team-work is triumphant: "Systems win you nothing," Roy Hodgson declared before the start of Euro 2016. "Football players win you games."

There may be some truth to that, but it is no coincidence that the best-organised teams - Wales, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Poland - have outperformed expectations.

Meanwhile, the countries with outstanding individuals but little by way of an overarching game-plan - France, England, Portugal, Belgium - have proven less than the sum of their parts.

This has held true even in a relatively low-scoring tournament, which you imagine would be more susceptible to moments of individual brilliance.

As the likes of Leicester and Atletico Madrid have shown, team-work is what can bridge the gap between two sides of different skill levels.

And team-work means more than defensive solidity, too: watch the way Hungary picked their way through opponents with one-touch football that looked instinctive, but only because everybody knew where everybody else was supposed to be.

2- Goals are hard to come by...

In terms of goals, that is. If you are judging entertainment in terms of microphones thrown into lakes, it has been a cracker. But even after Hungary and Portugal's remarkable 3-3 draw, this remains a disappointing tournament for goals: one goal-fest, no drubbings and very few great games.

In fact, it is by far the lowest-scoring group stage since the Euros were expanded to 16 teams in 1996.

3- Especially for strikers

Euro 2012 was a classic tournament for strikers. Six players shared the Golden Boot with three goals, and four of those were authentic centre-forwards - Fernando Torres, Mario Mandzukic, Mario Gomez and Mario Balotelli (Cristiano Ronaldo would probably count these days, but not then). Andriy Shevchenko, Nicklas Bendtner and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all scored twice.

Most of those have now either retired or passed their peak, and, four years on, there does seem to be an acute lack of world-class strikers.

Conventional centre-forwards have struggled, whether through lack of service (Ibrahimovic), lack of form or freshness (Harry Kane), being forced into a sacrificial role by heavy marking (Robert Lewandowski, Mandzukic) or simply being a bit useless (see Turkey, Russia, Switzerland, Albania).

The reason for this is probably tactical. With an increased number of smaller nations, we are seeing more narrow, deep-lying defences, limiting space in the final third and the possibility of through-balls.

This is also evident in shots per game, which are down around 10 per cent on Euro 2012. More unconventional forwards have thrived, whether wide players cutting inside, such as Dimitri Payet, or auxiliary strikers who gather the ball from deep and run at defences, such as Gareth Bale.

In a tight, defensive tournament, skilful players who can gather the ball in space and bring it into central areas are even more valuable than usual.

4- Teams are leaving it late

Leaving a game before it finishes is dumb at the best of times, but particularly so at Euro 2016, where the tickets are extortionately expensive and the goals have come very, very late indeed.

Generally, goals have always become slightly more likely the longer you play, but even so, this tournament has been extraordinary.

Almost two-thirds of goals have come in the second half, but even that only tells half the story. More goals have come in the 88th minute and later at Euro 2016 than in the first half-hour.

5- Long-ball football has returned (partially)

Long balls are up on Euro 2012, and all teams - even Spain - have resorted to them at some point.

The tactical homogeneity of this tournament, with almost everyone playing some variant of 4-5-1 in defence, has made it increasingly difficult to play through teams.

The quick switch to the flanks or the hopeful hoist into the channel has therefore become a useful alternative. This is also evident in a small rise in crosses.

Equally, with most teams employing a high press, defenders are under pressure sooner and forced to clear their lines more quickly. And this is an important point: the long ball is a defensive tactic as well as an aggressive one. There is little evidence to suggest that teams are simply sticking it in the mixer Charles Reep-style - in fact, the average number of passes leading to a goal is up on Euro 2012.

6- Possession football has declined

The correlation between possession and success is now so illusory as to be non-existent. Northern Ireland (34 per cent) and Iceland (35 per cent) are both going through. Ukraine (56 per cent) and Russia (53 per cent) are both going home.

Of the 16 teams in the knockout stages, eight have had more than 50 per cent of the ball.

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