EURO 2016 Group Stage Review -3 Things We Learnt

Fans enjoy the atmosphere at the EURO 2016 championships in France | Pic Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Lack of goals but lots of late goals

Before the tournament began, it was predicted that the increase in number of teams from 16 to 24 could lead to a dull, defensive boring group stage characterised by a lack of goals. With the group stage now done and dusted, it is fair to say that things have panned out on expected lines.

The group stage of EURO 2016 has seen a of total of 69 goals scored in the 36 group games. In the last two EURO championships, 60 and 57 goals were scored respectively. But the group stages in 2012 and 2008 included only 16 teams and, consequently, only 24 games. A simple calculation shows that the goals per game has declined to 1.9 per game from the 2.4 per game in 2012 and 2.5 per game in 2008.

Of course, much of it is down to the new group stage format. Of the 6 groups, barring Group E, the rest typically pitted a heavyweight side against two underdogs/ minnows and a relatively strong team. Also, given that four of the six 3rd placed teams would make it to the playoff round, it was natural for the minnows to eschew risk-taking and maintain a non-negative goal difference. This was evident in Slovakia’s clash against England in the final round of Group B games where the former ceded possession-almost willingly- to maintain their defensive shape and not concede a goal.
This meant that most of the games were non-starters in the first half(especially the first 30 minutes). The proportion of goals scored in the first half vis-a-vis the second half is strong evidence of this.
 Of the 69 goals scored in total, 45 came in the second half- roughly 65%. A further breakdown shows that the maximum number of goals were scored in the “75-Full Time” bracket: twenty(20). That’s 29% of all the goals scored. A full break up of the goal numbers- for each group and match day-can be seen in the graphic below.

Goals Breakdown by match day & breakdown by minutes ; MD indicates Match Day

Of the 24 goals scored in the first half, more than half(13) were scored in the 31–Half Time bracket underscoring the defensive tactics adopted by teams in most games. In fact, after the second round of matches, more than 70% of the total goals scored were recorded in the second half.

Lack of elite striking talent

Exacerbating this situation further is the real lack of elite-level strikers in the competition. As Micheal Cox(@zonal_marking) writes in this excellent piece, the only world-class strikers in the competition are Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski. Sweden’s meek elimination was mostly down to Ibra receiving precious little service from his midfield; Lewandowski is yet open his account in the tournament.

Other strikers in the tournament are in the rung below these world class talents and this has been amply demonstrated in the group stage. For France, neither Giroud nor Gignac have set the world alight-performing more or less at par with expectations. England’s Jamie Vardy & Daniel Sturrdige scored the goals in the win against Wales but found it difficult to conjure up that one moment of magic against a Slovakian side happy to sit deep and soak up the pressure. Wayne Rooney is no longer a striker.

The tournament’s joint top goal scorer, Alvaro Morata, is an exciting talent but he is yet to score regularly at club level to be considered world class. Harry Kane, too, hasn’t done it, yet, at the European level. Gareth Bale- the other joint top goal scorer- plays a floating role in the Wales side and is not, per se, a striker.

As Micheal describes in the aforementioned piece, teams have coped with this in different ways. Spain have, for the last 4 years, relied on their midfield to provide the attacking thrust as well as goals. Germany have done the same after Miroslav Klose’s retirement and their ploy of using Mario Gotze as a “False9” isn’t exactly paying rich dividends.

Contrast this with the attacking talent on show at the Copa America and one can clearly see the schism that has developed between Europe and South America in producing world class strikers.

Quirky Format & Playoff draw

The mind-mindbogglingly confusing nature of how the playoff games would be decided and the unexpected under-performance of teams like Portugal and, to some extent, England has thrown up a quirky, lopsided playoff draw.

In the top half of the draw are Switzerland, Portugal, Croatia, Poland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Hungary and Belgium. This means, one of these teams will be in the final. Except Belgium, not one of these teams is a top class international side. Portugal are the dark-horses but are utterly dependent on one man to lift their fortunes. None of these sides has won a major international tournament.

In the bottom half of the draw are the traditional heavyweights: Germany, Spain, England, Italy and hosts France.

Given the nature of knockout games one can expect a couple of shocks in the next round.