Commentary

Tournament dulled by teams too willing to surrender possession

The question of what we have learnt tactically from Euro 2016 is always asked, but this is not 1958, with a back four bursting forth to change the world.

It's not 1974 and the Netherlands confirming the efficacy of the Total Football of Ajax and Feyenoord.

It's not even 1986 and the wonderment of the back three.

Euro 2016's relation to the club game was indirect and perhaps more psychological than tactical.

Along came Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, tiki-takaing their way to possession stats that frequently hit 70 per cent or more.

At first everybody panicked and tried to work out ways of getting the ball off them.

Games of cut and thrust, of two teams actually going at each other - which is what makes for the most thrilling spectacle - have been rare, almost to the point of being non-existent.

Then in the wake of Inter Milan's success in the 2010 Champions League semi-finals, it was recognised that the way to beat them was to let them have the ball.

So Jose Mourinho's radical non-possession challenged Barca's radical possession and a new paradigm emerged.

Teams at this tournament have been eager to take on the reactive role.

Many games seemed almost a battle not to take the initiative, a slow bicycle race of non-possession.

Games of cut and thrust, of two teams actually going at each other - which is what makes for the most thrilling spectacle - have been rare, almost to the point of being non-existent, a situation exacerbated by the glut of moderate teams, the height of whose ambition is to pack eight men behind the ball.

Stats are slippery beasts but, as a rough indication of that, 49 per cent of games in this tournament featured one side having 60 per cent possession or more, as opposed to 37 per cent of games in last season's Premier League.

Half of the games, in other words, were essentially attack against defence.

That's not necessarily a problem - Germany had 66.8 per cent possession against France - and if the reactive side has a clear idea of how to attack, as France did in Marseille, a disparity in possession can still produce stirring football.

But when a team essentially sets itself up as a punching bag, the results are rarely worth watching.

This is also the FA Cup's dirty secret: people don't watch the early rounds because they're not very good.

The shocks that are its lifeblood are, by definition, rare, even with Premier League sides often playing weakened sides, and the games that aren't shocks are often stultifying.

But at international level it's worse because attacks aren't as well-drilled as they are at club level, the lack of time making it impossible to generate the slickness of thought and the mutual understanding that would help a side cut through a massed rearguard.

Germany were able to do it against Slovakia because they have a creative core - Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil - who have played together for years. But they are a rarity.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'Tournament dulled by teams too willing to surrender possession'. Print Edition | Subscribe