Why Euro 2016 has lacked goal action – but will almost definitely get better

So it’s official: this summer’s edition in France is the lowest-scoring yet in comparison to the 16-team format. Alex Keble looks at what’s to blame, and what’s ahead

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The murmurs of discontent are quietly growing, and indeed it was difficult to deny that there was a rather mundane familiarity to England's stuttering, listless 0-0 draw with Slovakia on Monday evening. It was the same with France the previous night. 

Euro 2016 hasn’t been without its bursts of excitement, but ultimately a tepid night of aimless shuttling into brick walls felt emblematic of the tournament so far. Even before the final four matches of Group A and B (which conjured just four goals between them), the first 24 games of Euro 2016 have been the lowest scoring in the history of the tournament.

In every previous edition since the format expanded from eight teams to 16 for Euro 96, the 24th match has signalled the end of the group stages. And so, while the final round of group games in France is still to conclude, it seems like a good time to analyze the statistics.

The first 24 games of Euro 2016 produced 47 goals – that’s 13 fewer than four years ago, eight fewer than the second-lowest scoring tournament (Euro 96), and 18 fewer than the highest scoring (Euro 2000). The four games since have been Switzerland 0-0 France, Romania 0-1 Albania, Slovakia 0-0 England and Russia 0-3 Wales. 

Extra teams, less fun

Even if the final round of group games in 2016 equalled the third-matchday record of 27, that would still only bring the average up to 2.06 goals per game

Is the best of the group stage still to come? As the table below indicates, three of the five editions have produced the most goals in the final round of group games, but the pattern is small and inconsistent.

Yet, even if the final round of group games in 2016 equalled the third-matchday record of 27 (achieved in 2000 and 2004), that would still only bring the average up to 2.06 goals per game – lower than the 2.29 achieved during the group stages of the second-lowest scoring year (1996).

If the Group A and B deciders are anything to go by, even this outcome seems highly unlikely.

When looking at the chart below, consider there are four extra games per round at Euro 2016 than the others

The expanded format may not explain the goals tally in terms of the tournament’s current state of progress, then, but it is still the most likely cause – thanks to an influx of smaller, more defensive nations and the controversial third-placed qualification places.

Sit back and relax

Breaking down a tight throng of bodies is extremely difficult, particularly when coaches are wary of tired legs; it requires high-tempo attacking

It’s difficult to accurately determine which eight teams would have failed to qualify for the tournament under the old format, but based on FIFA ranking, qualifying form and tournament history we could posit a guess that Albania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Romania and Sweden would have missed out.

These nations make up six of the bottom seven for possession held at Euro 2016, have averaged 2.8 shots on target each (Sweden haven’t managed any), and scored just 12 goals – or 0.75 per match. Not that statistical analysis is particularly necessary here: even the most casual observer will have noted that all of these nations, with the exception of Hungary, have approached the tournament with the aim of defending in deep, compact rows.

Regardless of the attacking nation’s strength, this is almost certain to produce a lower return of goals. Breaking down a tight throng of bodies is extremely difficult, particularly when coaches are wary of tired legs; it requires high-tempo attacking to break through such resolute walls – and quick transitions are often missing at major tournaments (the Republic of Ireland will tell you why, after being swept away by Belgium’s counters on Saturday).

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Defense: easier to organize

At the end of a long and tiring domestic campaign, international coaches get around two weeks to drill their players before the tournament kicks off.

Unsurprisingly, tactical sophistication is rare in the opening few games as players slowly adjust to their new surroundings and gradually forge an understanding of each other’s movements and decision-making processes.

Chris Smalling, Slovakia

Smalling almost gifts Slovakia a goal in Saint-Etienne

It could be argued, then, that it’s easier (or at least quicker) to build a defensive side than an attacking one, because the basic requirements of a deep-lying system are more instinctive and universal than a progressive approach.

Both the basic positioning and technical attributes (heading, tackling, and clearing) of defensive play are more easily adaptable to new scenarios, allowing defenders to quickly forge relationships with their team-mates – who are largely situated very close by and with similarly clear, simple roles. Conversely, to build a fluid and high-tempo attack requires a better understanding of fellow attackers.

In short, with so little time to create a sophisticated tactical model, the larger nations are playing in a slower, slightly disjointed manner that is easily nullified. In the knockout stages – when teams are more similarly matched and show mutual attacking ambition – we may see the goals tally begin to reflect that of previous tournaments.

Third place rewards conservatism

The main reason why the likes of Albania and Iceland are happy to sit remarkably deep is that, for the first time, it is possible (if unlikely) to qualify for the last 16 without winning a single game.

From changes to the offside rule, to the removal of the backpass, football has always sought to reward attacking intent – until now. UEFA’s bloated format has created a scenario in which three 0-0 draws can see a team through. 

This caginess has been evident in most of the games at Euro 2016, and while this may change slightly in the final round of group matches (particularly in ‘knockout’ matches between third- and fourth-placed teams) it has already had a major effect on the tournament – as shown by the unusual cluster of goals scored towards the ends of games.

Eder celebrates his goal against Sweden

Italy struck late in a poor game against Sweden to win the group

Before Wales managed two against Russia, only four had been scored in the first half-hour of matches at Euro 2016. This is, frankly, an extraordinary statistic – but perhaps matched by the fact that 28% of all the goals in the first two rounds coming after the 85th minute.

The table below is perhaps final confirmation that it is indeed the format change which has led to such low-scoring games. The heavy weighting towards the latter stages not only shows that nations are approaching games with an added caution – employing a Must Not Lose mentality first and foremost – but also that most games are falling into a pattern of smaller defensive nations against faltering attacking ones.

Defending is notoriously more fatiguing than holding possession, and thus it is logical that goals are coming at the death – when tired legs finally cave to the pressure.

Excitement still to come

There is still plenty of time left for Euro 2016 to become a tournament to remember. With all of the favourites likely to qualify and plenty of the low-scoring nations set to finish fourth, the knockout stage will almost certainly be more interesting than the first 16 days of the tournament.

But, sadly, it’s difficult not to conclude that the new format – more teams and more knockout places – has dampened the quality of the football thus far. The third-placed qualification places have made draws more valuable than ever and defeats more catastrophic, while end-to-end matches have been rare to non-existent, replaced instead by scrappy underdogs grinding out draws or falling to late winners.

On the pitch at least, expect a better fortnight to come once the tournament is cut from 24 to 16.

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