18th October 2021

Heartbreak for England

The following notes are the summation of months of digging into England’s Euro 2020 data. I wanted to find closure after the most disappointing end to a brilliant summer tournament. Most of all, I wanted to work out what could have been done differently, with a view to Qatar in 2022.

England produced one of the best defensive performances in a major international tournament in recent memory. Indicative of the side’s ability to keep the ball away from the danger zones, England conceded the least xG of any team at the tournament. When England did face shots, Jordan Pickford was a safe pair of hands, with only 2 goals conceded from 2.7 post shot xG (PSxG). England did not concede from open play. One fantastic free kick from Damsgaard and a scrappy but significant Bonucci goal following a corner were the only goals conceded throughout.

A defensive, safety-first approach took England all the way to their first Euros final, their best performance in a major international tournament since 1966, but it couldn’t quite get them over the line.

Euro 2020 was the highest scoring Euros since the group stage was introduced in 1980, but it didn’t always feel like it for England fans. England scored only 2 goals on the way to topping group D. England produced only 3 direct attacks (where the ball starts in your own half and results in a shot in less than 15 seconds) throughout the tournament. Semi finalists Denmark racked up 15, whilst winners Italy produced 13. These sorts of quick transitions are likely to catch the opponent defenders out of position, increasing the likelihood of a good opportunity. Whilst Spain also opted against using direct attacks, also managing just 3 throughout the tournament, they generated plenty of opportunities, with 19.2 shots per game, closely followed by winners Italy with 18.1 shots per game. England ranked 20th out of all teams in the competition for this metric, averaging a mere 9 shots per game.

Furthermore, England’s shots had the second closest average distance from goal of any team in the tournament (14.3) only Germany lower with 14.0, indicating that England were unwilling to take more ambitious shots despite their obvious talent pool in attack. In summation, England were slow, cautious, and unproductive in attack compared to the other teams in the competition. This seems to be the factor that prevented England from getting over the line in the final.

Perhaps a different starting 11 would have created more for England.

At times, England’s substitutes looked like that photo of Ronaldinho, Henry, and Eto’o on Barcelona’s bench. Fan favourite Jack Grealish was a particularly glaring omission from the starting 11. Most games in which he did not feature had England fans chanting his name and with good reason. When he did feature, Jack averaged 3.58 shot creating actions per 90, more than any other England player. Southgate’s reluctance to give Jack Grealish play time is indicative of his conservative approach throughout the tournament. Infact, Grealish was the only English player to average over 3 shot creating actions per 90, whilst 8 Italian players averaged over 3 shot creating actions per 90.

Not to criticise Southgate too harshly. Broadly speaking, the players he afforded the most minutes put in the best performances (measured here using WhoScored ratings for the tournament).

A change to the defensive style could have been used to create opportunities in attack.

The two finalists, Italy and England, applied the most pressure throughout the tournament, but Italy’s pressure was more effective - they got 56 high turnovers, joint most with denmark. These turnovers generated 13 shots, of which 3 were goals. England only managed 2 shot ending turnovers.

Spain were quick to respond when losing possession, with opponents making only 8.1 passes per defensive actions (PPDA). Italy allowed 13 passes. Comparatively, England allowed opponents more time on the ball before attempting to regain possession, averaging 17.7 PPDA. Pressing quicker, higher up the pitch, and then countering quickly upon regaining possession would have created more shots for England. Again, pace and directness limited England’s attacking opportunities.

Fortunately, this tentativeness did not result in another early knock out for England. When the chances did come, England took them, with the team maintaining good xG conversion throughout. By comparison Spain experienced misfortune in front of goal. Spain had the highest xG in the tournament, but the most negative npG-xG. Dani Olmo (Dani Almost) racked up -2 npG-xG, with Gerard Moreno tallying -1.9 npG-xG. With more luck in finishing (or better shooting technique) Spain could have won the whole thing.

As the games went on, England grew into the tournament. The below chart compares England’s xG per game to Italy’s. The data reflects the viewing experience. Italy started with a bang, rapidly becoming tournament favourites after 3 brilliant group stage wins. England looked boring at first, before providing more exciting games in the knockouts.

Harry Kane might have ended the tournament on more goals, but England simply would not have left the group stage without Raheem Sterling rediscovering his shooting boots. Sterling showed off his talent for taking the ball into dangerous spaces. His 22 successful dribbles were the most of any player at the tournament, almost double that of any other player. He was responsible for 10 carries into the 18 yard box, the 5th highest of any player at the tournament. All of this creation and finding of space afforded Sterling 2.4 npxG, the 4th highest of any player at the tournament. Not just looking out for himself, Sterling was also responsible for more shot creating actions (17) than any other English player. This tournament was Raheem Sterling at his silky best.

For all the talk of England’s talented selection of right backs, it turned out to be a left back that stood out. Luke Shaw completed more passes into the 18 yard box than any other England player. He was well rewarded for this creation, ending the tournament with 3 assists, more than any other English player. He saved his best moment of the tournament for the final...

The game against Italy was the first major final the English men’s team has played since 1966 and it started like a dream. The move starts after successfully defending against an Italy corner. Kane passes to Trippier, who crosses it to Luke Shaw. Shaw’s half volley slips past Donarumma at the near post. As highlighted earlier, England lacked the element of surprise throughout the tournament. Shaw’s goal was unarguably the most exciting moment of the summer for an England supporter. Unfortunately, this goal was an outlier. England were about to put in their most disheartening, lethargic performance yet.

Luke Shaw’s 2nd minute goal was England’s only on-target shot of the 120 minutes. His shot was worth 0.2 post shot xG. Shaw’s finishing was strong and the goal was fortunate. would England have been forced to play more proactive football rather than essentially attempting to park the bus for 88 minutes.

There were a few chances: one header from John Stones that Donarumma tipped over the bar, another cross that missed Stones’ head by half a second. In general though, England showed little interest in creating chances and little interest in even regaining and maintaining possession. England averaged 50.9% possession throughout the tournament, but only 34% in that final game. This allowed Italy to unleash an onslaught. Between Luke Shaw’s goal and Bonucci’s equaliser, Italy took 12 shots compared to England’s 2. That the match went to penalties was rather fortunate for England after being so thoroughly outclassed.

Both teams had their pragmatic moments. Italy frustrated Spain to penalties in the semi final, knowing that they could rely on their young goalkeeper Donarumma to do the job in a penalty shootout. If England had won the final with dull pragmatism, pundits would have praised Southgate for winning by any means necessary.

Southgate should have known that playing for a penalty shootout would not work out considering England’s long, bitter history with shootout. Donarumma’s imposing presence and Jorginho’s tricky penalties made this one a particularly difficult shootout.

England were one kick away from their first European trophy. We would remember last minute heroics from Jordan Pickford, where he denied a must save penalty from Jorginho, a notoriously tricky penalty taker. We would remember Maguire’s thunderbastard of a penalty that rattled the camera.

Bukayo rolled his penalty into Donarumma’s hands.

Southgate placed his trust in a teenager and two young players that were almost entirely uninvolved in the tournament. Manchester United teammates Sancho and Rashford were almost entirely absent throughout the tournament. Sancho got 98 minutes on the pitch, Rashford a mere 88. Neither player accrued any xG, and between them they completed fewer than 100 passes. You don’t need to be a psychologist to wonder if their lack of involvement impacted their mindset when it came to taking their penalties.

Everything about that final indicated that England simply were not ready for a major trophy, but given their performance throughout the tournament, England fans are right to feel a little cheated. England only found themselves in a losing position for 1% of the time they played. This is, without a doubt, the best England team since ‘66.

Another year of hurt. More heartbreak for England. Another painful penalty shootout and more “what ifs”.

The challenge for England in Qatar will be to improve their output in attack without sacrificing defensive solidity. As a few exceptionally talented young English players hit their stride, there is hope that Qatar will be the place where England finally put their demons to rest.

Data from Fbref, WhoScored, and The Analyst

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