Football statistics are more plentiful now than ever before. Many people believe we are in a golden age of information with reams of data available at our fingertips. The problem with having all this information is that sometimes you cannot hear what you want for the rest of the noise. By using data collected by Opta, I analysed over 25 different key match statistics and their varying degrees of success to see if any patterns emerged which could help deduce why the outcomes were as they were.

Couple of early provisos on this information: -

As half the teams only played 3 games and the maximum played was 6 by Italy and Spain this information has a large margin for error. For example, you will see that I analysed Attempts on Goal, after 3 games the Czech Republic had quite a respectable average of 12.3 attempts on goal per game. However in their Quarter Final against Portugal they either did not try to attack/were unable to (depending on your viewpoint!) and only had 2 attempts bringing their average to 9.75 per game. This large movement (almost a quarter in one game) shows that in this kind of tournament, it is more about form than reading what will happen in the long term. There is an excellent blog post on this recently by Ed Feng at The Power Rank (http://thepowerrank.com/2012/07/13/the-one-thing-everyone-ought-to-know-about-sports-analytics/)

Whilst statistics are a valuable tool they should always be taken at face value for what they are. Further digging into the information can sometimes reveal more clues as to why events happened. For example, when Italy played England they had a tournament high of 36 Attempts on Goal. Sounds impressive, but further investigation reveals that 25 of these Attempts were from outside the penalty area. While shooting from outside the penalty area wouldn’t be frowned upon, it would appear that speculative shooting was the order of the day, especially against a world-class goalkeeper like Joe Hart. After 120 minutes they hadn’t scored.

FIFA Ranking & Pre-Tournaments Favourites

The first thing I’m going to look at is the pre-tournament odds. I took the odds to win the tournament from William Hill on 07/06/2012 and compared them with their official FIFA Co-efficient Ranking on that day.

The first thing that stands out is how far from the rest of the teams the 2 host nations were ranked. Despite both putting up a relatively good show, neither qualified from the group stage and it would appear that recent hosts (South Africa, Austria, Switzerland) have been generally quite weak.
The rank outsiders were Denmark at 100-1, despite being ranked in FIFA’s top 10. This was largely due to the strength of the group they were in, with Group B containing 4 teams from FIFAs top 10.

The bookies do not often get it wrong and they didn’t in this case with the 4 semi-finalists being amongst the 7 top teams, including Spain being favourites, number 1 ranked team by FIFA and eventual winners.

So, what does the graph tell us? Not much that we didn’t already know. Favourites have the best chance of winning. FIFA Rankings, despite being far from perfect and possessing a number of flaws, are pretty accurate barometer of recent success.
Holland were the biggest surprise disappointment but it’s unlikely the graph above was needed to show that!

Shot Conversion Rates

The obvious correlation in football is that goals win games. Football is such a fluid, dynamic sport that you could survive 90 minutes of pressure, have 1 shot a win the match. In all likelihood though, this doesn’t happen that often. More often than not, the teams who take the most shots, get the most on target and convert, the better their chances to win the match.

The graph above looks to compare the different rates by which teams managed to firstly get shots on target and by which they converted these efforts.
The first 2 to notice are Greece and Russia’s on Target Conversion percentages. Greece scored an incredible 63% of the shots they managed to get on target (roughly 2 in every 3 shots) while Russia scored 55% of on Target shots (just over 1 in 2 on target). As mentioned earlier the problem with this is the low amount of shots that each team got on target, Greece with just 8 shots on Target in 4 games, Russia going slightly better with 9 in 3 games. Despite this it shows that the finishing by both teams was clinical when they managed to hit the target. It’s unlikely that this would have continued if there was a greater statistical sample to pull from but it shows that in Greece’s case from only 32 shots in the whole tournament they scored 5 goals, a very healthy conversion rate.

In terms of actually hitting the target Spain, Germany and somewhat surprisingly Sweden had the highest % of shots that hit the target.
Clinical strikers could be given as being the case for all 3 as especially with Spain’s fluid 6 man midfield/attack formation they would often look to play short passes and get into better goal scoring positions rather than taking pot shots from outside the area (59% of attempts were inside the area).

Germany and Sweden tended to rely on the finishing of a top class striker, with Mario Gomez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic respectively having the most attempts for each team. Ibrahimovic’s transfer to Paris St Germain taking him to a combined transfer fee total of almost £150m in his career speaks for itself whilst Gomez, has an outstanding goal scoring record.

Passes per Game/per Goal

Spain’s ‘tiki-taka’ style of football has become prevalent over the last 6 years resulting in winning 2 European Championships and a World Cup. However this style didn’t happen overnight and has evolved from Luis Aragones in 2006 and 2008 to Vicente del Bosque in 2010 and 2012. The building blocks were put in place to play this style many years ago. Even so, it seems many other teams have tried to emulate the Spanish way of playing, with varying degrees of success. So how do the other teams fare?

Spain are far and away the team who attempted and completed the most passes with 720 on average per game and 637 completed. France, Italy, Holland, Germany and Russia all played a similar passing game, in fact Italy’s may have been even higher had they not had to play Spain twice in 6 games.
What the graph does show is that despite playing the ball around a lot, Spain make it count by scoring on average for every 319 passes they completed. Contrast this with Holland and France who passed the ball a lot but didn’t use it effectively.
The most effective teams in terms of goals per passes completed were Greece, Sweden & Croatia. 1 team made the Quarter Finals, somewhat surprisingly even in a poor group and 2 teams didn’t qualify.
There is no single way to play the beautiful game but it does seem that even by scoring despite not passing the ball much does not equal success. Passing can be used not only to score (such as Barcelona) but also to prevent the other team from scoring (Swansea in the early part of the 2011/12 season)
What was interesting was the next 3 teams in terms of success England, Germany and Portugal. (240-244 passes per goal)
All 3 teams could quite easily have made the final (in fact all 3 would have made the semis if England could get over their phobia of penalty kicks!) and this mid-range would seem to be the most effective. Portugal and England both played a direct style, looking for the wingers early and relying on individuals to create chances and goals (Ronaldo/Nani and Rooney/Gerrard).
So although passing isn’t the defining statistic to win games, it can certainly help if used in the right way.

Attacking 1/3 Passes

I mentioned above the difference in passing and keeping possession with teams like Barcelona and Swansea. The media in England have often referred to Swansea as the Barcelona of the Premier League due to their fluid passing style. This is not strictly speaking the case as Swansea’s style of football, especially in the early part of the season, was intended to keep the ball away from their opponents and prevent them from scoring as much as it was designed to initiate attacks.
That’s where the attacking 1/3 passes come in. This statistic shows the teams who not only pass the ball but who do more passes further forward, thereby showing more attacking intent.

This graph shows The number of Attacking 1/3 passes as a percentage of Total Passes Attempted during a game, compares this with the number of these that were complete and contrasts this with the number of Attempts on Goal per game.

Surprisingly Croatia are the team with the highest % of their passes in the attacking 1/3. Unfortunately this doesn’t result in them having many more attempts on goal than England, Denmark or the Republic of Ireland. Perhaps this is one reason they crashed out at the group stage.
Germany, Russia and Portugal also had a high percentage of their passes in the attacking 1/3, but in contrast to Croatia had a higher than average number of attempts on goal per game.

The reverse of this sees Holland have the second least number of their passes in the opponents 1/3, but the joint most attempts on goal per game. In fact Holland and Russia had the most attempts and both exited the tournament at the Group Stage so perhaps having the ball in the attacking 1/3 doesn’t correlate with success.

Crossing & Take Ons vs Passing

This tournament saw the average number of passes attempted rise to a higher level than at any time before in European Championship history. Due to that you would think a lot of goals would be scored from short passing moves and through balls. However, this tournament saw more headed goals scored than any previous competition.

I thought it would be useful to look at the number of crosses each team did, linking this with Take Ons (simply for the fact that you would generally have to beat a defender to get a cross in although this is not always the case) and compare this with the number of passes.

The flags on this graph represent the number of passes attempted per game (clearly showing Spain way out in front) but Germany and Holland had both done a high number of crosses despite attempting well over the average number of passes (they were actually 2nd and 3rd). Germany averaged 25 crosses per game and notably scored from 4 of these occasions, proving a very successful tactic.

I was a little surprised to see Holland average 23 crosses per game. With van Persie the central figure in a 4-3-3 (not renowned for his heading ability) and Robben and Afellay both prone to cutting inside and shooting the number was dramatically higher than I expected, especially given that they scored no goals from crossing situations. They did however have the highest number of Take Ons.

Despite doing the 5th least passes per game on average, England equaled 6th on number of crosses attempted (equal with France) and scored from 4 crossing situations.

Again all the graph above goes to show is that football is a game that can be played in many different styles and there is no ONE BEST WAY to play.

Defensive Ability

England were pilloried in the press back home for being so defensive. We never had the ball and played akin to Chelsea in the Champions League final all the time according to the tabloids, but do the statistics back this up?

I looked at the number of Attempts allowed on average per game, along with Tackles, Interceptions and Blocks to see if there was a correlation.

As you can see Republic of Ireland, Greece and England conceded more attempts on goal than any other. As mentioned above however, this does not take into account where the shots were from (using Italy’s example of 25 of their 36 attempts against England from outside the box). 2 of these teams that conceded so many attempts made the Quarter finals, England could conceivably made the Semis had they done better in the penalty shoot out.

They also have a significantly higher number of Blocks per game on average than most of the other teams, England and Ireland averaging 7.5 and 8 blocks per game against an average of 3.3 per team per game. Desperate defending? Perhaps. The throwing yourself in front of the ball style encapsulated by John Terry and Scott Parker to prevent the opposition from getting a good shot on goal is clearly shown on the graph.

Tactically as England dropped so deep and effectively gave up possession to the opposition they had 2 banks of 4 on the edge of their own penalty area. This allowed plenty of opportunities to get blocks in as the opposition were forced to shoot from distance rather than try to play short balls to create space in behind.

The team with the most tackles and 2nd most interceptions was rather surprisingly Poland; they also allowed the fourth fewest attempts on goal behind Spain, France and Portugal. That they crashed out at the Group Stage despite this seems somewhat surprising, generally if you don’t let the opposition shoot and win the ball back from them you’d have an excellent chance of winning, as demonstrated by the results for Spain.

Conclusions

These graphs are designed to highlight the statistics from the European Championships but can any conclusions really be drawn from them? Let’s look at Spain:

• They were ranked 1st by FIFA and were favourites to win with William Hill
• They got the 2nd highest percentage of Shots on Target (42%), 7th in converting their overall attempts into goals (12%) and joint 9th with the Ukraine on converting their Shots on Target into Goals (29%)
• They were clearly 1st in Average Passes Attempted (720) and Completed (637) per Game, but were 10th in the average number of passes per goal (319). However when you do so many passes this average still works out at 2 goals per game.
• They were 7th in average percentage of passes being in the attacking 1/3 (30%) and 5th in percentage of passes completed in the attacking 1/3 (27%) but were 4th for average attempts on goal per game (17)
• They did the 13th most crosses (16 per game) and 2nd most Take Ons (18)
• They allowed the least attempts (just 8 on average per game), had the 5th most Tackles (20), 9th most Interceptions per game (16) and the least blocks (just 1 per game)

What all these stats do help us understand that teams do not have to be that clinical all the time, that getting crosses in or blocking shots may not be so key because if you control the ball with passing and possession, teams put themselves in a better position to score and win more than they will lose.

Thanks for reading, feel free to follow me on Twitter (@donceno) and check back for the next part on impressive players soon.

By Guest Blogger, Dave Willoughby
You can follow Dave on Twitter @donceno

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