England well short of pass masters Spain

With possession the name of the game in modern football, it is hardly a shock that the best passers have fared well at Euro 2012.

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It is also somewhat unsurprising that, even though they went unbeaten, England’s rather timid attacking performance against Italy can be accounted for in part by a glance at their overall passing statistics throughout their stay in Eastern Europe.

Of the teams that made the quarter-finals in Poland and Ukraine, England were sixth out of eight in terms of passes completed; but the 11 additional passes compared to Portugal came during the half-hour of extra time played in their penalties defeat to Italy.

Portugal actually completed a higher number of passes-per-90 minutes than England – 369.3 to 343.4 – meaning that, from the top eight sides, Roy Hodgson’s unbeatables were only able to better Greece in terms of their work with the ball. A Greek side famous for sitting deep and hoping for the best.

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Portugal’s tally is still some way short of people’s favourites Germany and pass masters Spain, with the latter racking up a whopping 731.8 passes per 90 minutes during the group and quarter-finals stages.

That is well clear of the Germans, who managed an average of 565.5 passes per game and a total of 2262 in four matches – almost 700 less than the Spanish, who rather predictably top all the possession stats and managed double the number of England passes with 30 minutes less time on the pitch.

That’s not to say Germany are in any way inferior to Spain – their style of play is less based around pure possession than the Spanish, and they are quicker at getting the ball forward, happy to cross to strikers who are just as accomplished with their heads as their feet.

The appearance of France quite high in all the possession charts is unsurprising – Italy only sneak ahead of the French in total number of passes thanks to their extra half-hour against a flagging England. In the passes-per-90 standings, and the overall passing accuracy, France – who like to keep the ball – are third and not far off the Germans.

However, the French were very disappointing at the Euros as – for all their ball-retention – they were toothless up front, rarely found a killer pass, and had clear weak spots at the back.

A similar theory could be applied to the Czechs, who had a decent possession tally – above England, Portugal and Greece – but, tellingly, the second-weakest pass completion ratio, 78.2 %. It’s all very well getting a lot of touches, but if you keep giving the ball away you will be punished.

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An exception is Portugal, who despite relatively low passing stats have created plenty of opportunities, taking more than enough to go through.

But Portugal’s frugality with the ball is all very well when you have a ringer like Cristiano Ronaldo in your team – find him and he will make the keeper work, and quite probably score. Had Wayne Rooney been in anything like the form of Ronaldo, England could well have progressed in similar fashion.

Paulo Bento’s big test comes in the semis, as they face Spain. Can their policy of quick transitions from defence to attack via Nani and Ronaldo work against a team who will dominate possession? It all comes down to Ronaldo and his supply chain. And their beaten quarter-final opponents Czech Republic, while decent, are not Xavi and co.

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Interestingly – and like England – none of Portugal’s players make any of the individual passing top-20s, which are dominated by Spanish, German, French, Italian and Dutch players.

We’ve touched on the ipassing stats and Spain don’t just top the team tallies but the individuals too – the metronomic Xavi has completed more passes than anyone else (431), with team-mate Xabi Alonso second (366) and Germany’s playmaker Bastian Schweinsteiger third (341).

The only impact on their dominance is Russia’s Igor Denisov sneaking into the passes-per-90 top three ahead of Alonso. He lies seventh in the total passes ranking and, like the French, this should be of little surprise as Russia saw a lot of the ball, dominating most of their games, but were unable to take their chances.

Obviously there are exceptions – one being England, who from their passing statistics alone should have been nowhere near the quarter-finals, let alone unbeaten.

The ability to defend, as England showed, is just as important as holding the ball, while the ability to show composure in the final third trumps pretty possession play - as France and Russia found out to their cost, and Portugal to their benefit. Overplaying it could yet hurt Spain against the top sides – will they play with a striker, or persist with their triple-pronged attacking midfield?

Finally, Netherlands had plenty of possession in their three games but a combination of poor composure from their strikers, and incisive counter-attacking from their opponents, saw them crash out. Proof that, while nine tenths of the law, possession does not define it.

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