EURO 2016 technical report 5: Does possession matter?

In the last extract from the new UEFA EURO 2016 technical report, the expert panel examine whether having the majority of possession was really much use at all.

Germany v France

Only 15 of the 51 matches at UEFA EURO 2016 were won by the team that enjoyed a greater share of possession.

Emre Can (Germany) ©Getty ImagesAVERAGE POSSESSION
Germany 63% (reached semi-finals)
Spain 61% (round of 16)
England 59% (round of 16)
Switzerland 58% (round of 16)
Ukraine 56% (group stage)
Hungary 54% (round of 16)
Russia 53% (group stage)
France 52% (runners-up)
Portugal 52% (winners)
Sweden 52% (group stage)
Austria 51% (group stage)
Belgium 51% (quarter-finals)
Croatia 51% (round of 16)
Turkey 48% (group stage)
Wales 48% (semi-finals)
Poland 46% (quarter-finals)
Romania 46% (group stage)
Italy 45% (quarter-finals)
Republic of Ireland 45% (round of 16)
Slovakia 45% (round of 16)
Czech Republic 43% (group stage)
Albania 42% (group stage)
Northern Ireland 37% (round of 16)
Iceland 36% (quarter-finals)

Blaise Matuidi (France) & Éder (Portugal) ©Getty ImagesThis trend extended right through to the final, which Portugal won with 47% of the ball. Of the 15 knockout games, only four were won by the team that had more of the ball. With two of the group games producing 50-50 split, this means that possession translated into victory in only 31% of the matches in France.

After two successive EUROs in which Spain's possession-based game had prevailed, this was a thought-provoking departure from the recent norm. As UEFA's chief technical officer, Ioan Lupescu, commented on the day after final: "The tournament could be viewed as a contest between possession play and the ability to defend well and hit the target. In a way, it was a case of getting back towards pragmatism and reality."

In the four years since UEFA EURO 2012, the value of ball possession has prospered as a debating point in the UEFA Champions League where the trophy has regularly oscillated between teams who prize possession and those who are comfortable without the ball.

England v Iceland - Round of 16 - UEFA Euro 2016 ©PanoramicThe 2015/16 season refuelled the debate, with a narrow margin of 53 wins for teams that dominated possession and 43 for those that took a lesser share, coupled with victories for the more direct approach of Atlético Madrid against both Barcelona and Bayern München – two possession-based teams par excellence.

UEFA EURO 2016 endorsed the theory that having more of the ball offers no guarantee of results and left a few question marks hanging over the trend towards a possession-based style of play.

"I would say that only Germany, Spain and England genuinely wanted the ball," commented technical observer Peter Rudbak. "Italy certainly weren't concerned about possession and quite a few of the other teams were quite happy to focus on counterattacking."

Lupescu took up the topic of Antonio Conte's team, who finished near the foot of the table in terms of ball possession. "Italy brought something new to the tournament with their tactical approach," Lupescu said.

"But the foundations of their game were good defending and effective high pressing. They didn't care about possession - they underlined the realities of the game. And they could easily have reached the final had they not lost that penalty shoot-out."

In terms of debating points, the tournament provided contrasting evidence. Whereas Switzerland were among the front-runners in terms of possession (to the extent of enjoying 58% of the ball against France), Iceland's run to the quarter-finals was based on having control of the ball for just over 21 minutes of each match.

Portugal painted their campaign in chiaroscuro, Fernando Santos' side clearly dominating possession (between 58% and 66%) in their three group games, only for their share to drop into the 40s as they switched to counterattacking mode in the knockout matches against Croatia, Poland, Wales and France. Their tournament average of 52% is therefore deceptive, as it conceals a clear change of strategy.

The above article appears in the official UEFA EURO 2016 technical report: DOWNLOAD NOW