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Uefa's latest technical report shows why possession football is no longer in vogue

Ireland were among the teams in terms of passes attempted and distance covered.

Portugal players celebrate after winning the Euro 2016 final.
Portugal players celebrate after winning the Euro 2016 final.

IN FOOTBALL, THERE is a saying that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Based on recent results, however, this claim seems dubious at best.

The sport, of course, is constantly evolving, and throughout the game’s history, there has increasingly been evidence to suggest that dominating the ball is by no means essential to a team’s success.

From the unprecedented heights of the Irish team under Jack Charlton in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the “shit on a stick” era, when Premier League teams enjoyed plenty of success in Europe without playing the most attractive style of football, there is an increasing sense that direct, long-ball football is a valid and even somewhat sophisticated style rather than simply being ‘anti-football,’ among other derogatory and condescending terms used to describe it.

Of course, there was a time, not so long ago, when possession football was very much in fashion.

The success of Barcelona and Spain using the tiki-taka approach revolutionised the game. Many lesser sides such as Swansea, then managed by Brendan Rodgers, subsequently began attempting to emulate this approach.

However, styles in football tend to be cyclical. As the Barca and Spain stars got older and started to enjoy less success, other football teams began to alter their approach accordingly.

Even Barcelona, while still being technically accomplished, have changed their style to a degree. In contrast with the patient build-up play of Pep Guardiola’s team, Luis Enrique’s side have a much more direct style with a greater emphasis on pace in attack rather than intricate passing in midfield and around the penalty area. Meanwhile, other teams, such as Atletico Madrid, have increasingly prospered with approaches focused largely on what they do without the ball.

In addition, sides with a much more pragmatic approach are enjoying greater degrees of success. Leicester last season were a prime example. They were in the bottom three in terms of average possession in the Premier League, yet managed to triumph regardless, with quick counter-attacks and a rock-solid defence bolstered by the tireless running of defensive midfielders N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater their main attributes.

And it’s not just less fashionable teams playing what some might deem an unsophisticated style. The recent Premier League match between Liverpool and Tottenham was a good example of this change. The game was defined, not by passing and building the ball up from the back, but players’ speed and athleticism and the frenetic tempo that ensued. Chances in the game largely came about, not through creative play, but from one team losing the ball in their own half of the field and the opposition counter-attacking swiftly in an attempt to capitalise on their rivals’ mistake.

Source: Inter Milan Productions/YouTube

(Robbie Brady’s winner against Italy was one of the many goals at Euro 2016 scored from a cross)

The latest Uefa technical report, based on all the matches at Euro 2016, is further proof that possession football is no longer as popular as it once was.

Compared with Euro 2012, the amount of passes in the build-up before goals declined, while the number of seconds needed in possession to score fell by almost 11% compared with four years previously.

The list of teams reliant on long balls at the tournament is also interesting. Unsurprisingly, Ireland played the third highest percentage of long balls (21%), behind Northern Ireland (28%) and Iceland (22%). The Boys in Green even exceeded their tally from 2012 under Giovanni Trapattoni (19%).

Semi-finalists Wales (18%) are fifth on the list, while even a traditionally big footballing nation such as Italy (15%) find themselves quite high in that regard.

Spain (10%), France (11%), Switzerland (12%), Germany (12%) and England (12%) are the five teams that played the lowest percentage of long passes, with the varying levels of success another example of how possession is by no means conducive to victories currently.

Yet the decline in the success of possession football becomes stark when you look at the results-based stats. Teams with the most possession won just 31% of the matches at Euro 2016, and only four of the 15 knockout games.

A good example is eventual winners Portugal. At first glance, it seems they were invariably a possession-based team. They are the sixth lowest team in terms of long passes played (13%) and ninth-highest in terms of average possession (52%).

However, a closer examination reveals that Portugal were actually at their weakest in games where they dominated possession and that the basic stats are misleading to a degree. In their three group matches, all of which they failed to win, Fernando Santos’ side had between 58% and 66% possession.

However, the eventual champions switched style in the knockout stages, and had less than 50% of the ball in all of the games after the group stages.

Technical observer Peter Rudbæk goes even further in suggesting the vast majority of the teams in the competition had no interest in playing possession football, highlighting Antonio Conte’s Italy as a classic example.

I would say that only Germany, Spain and England genuinely wanted the ball,” he says. “Italy certainly weren’t concerned about possession and quite a few of the other teams were quite happy to focus on counterattacking.

“Italy brought something new to the tournament with their tactical approach… But the foundations of their game were good defending and effective high pressing. They didn’t care about possession — they underlined the realities of the game. And they could easily have reached the final had they not lost that penalty shoot-out.”

From an Irish perspective, there are also some interesting stats.

Over the course of the tournament, Ireland attempted 280 passes on average, considerably less than the sides that topped the list (Spain and Germany on 641 and 639 respectively) and above only Iceland (259) and Northern Ireland (230).

However, the Irish side were higher in terms of average possession (45%) compared with sides who made a higher number of passes, such as Albania (351/42%) and Czech Republic (317/43%).

Furthermore, despite many people assuming that Ireland’s game is all about work ethic and hard running, they actually had the lowest average distance covered of all the teams (103,192m), while Italy had the highest (114,656m) perhaps partially due to the fact that the Boys in Green had the oldest squad in the competition.

Other interesting comparisons with Euro 2012 included crosses, which increased significantly (2,079 compared with 811 before), with a rise of 56% indicating teams are attacking down the flanks more regularly. In fact, crosses and cutbacks led to a significant 42% of all the goals from the competition in open play.

Oddly however, the number of headed goals is actually down (22% compared with 29% four years previously).

Average goals have also dropped significantly from the previous three Euros, which were all in and around the 2012 tally of 2.45, to 1.92 per game.

Goals from set pieces are also on the rise, going from 21% in 2012 to just under 30%. The figure of dead-ball goals amounted to 32 overall, and they were especially crucial at tight points in games — 19 of the 32 were the opening goals in matches.

Read the full Uefa technical report here

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