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Do you really need the ball to be a EURO success?

"They had a lot more of the ball because we wanted them to," said coach Adam Nawałka after Poland held Germany. Steffen Potter reflects on a draw that invited a number of questions.

Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller troop off after Germany's 0-0 draw against Poland
Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller troop off after Germany's 0-0 draw against Poland ©AFP/Getty Images

Germany 0-0 Poland; world champions 0-0 ambitious outsiders. The first goalless draw of UEFA EURO 2016 may, in tactical terms, have highlighted a philosophical debate in modern football. 

Playing in the Spanish style they have been perfecting since the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Germany placed a premium on possession. They played as high up the pitch as possible and looked to win the ball back quickly, following the adage that your opponent cannot score without the ball.

Poland, at Saint-Denis on Thursday night, offered a riposte to that approach, conceding the ball and dropping deep, hoping to exploit the vast open spaces in front of them – which they did to threatening effect. Coach Adam Nawałka concluded: "We were in control of things. They had a lot more of the ball because we wanted them to."

Lewandowski happy with point from Germany clash
Lewandowski happy with point from Germany clash

What happened in the Group C stalemate went a good way to justifying his position. For all of Germany's possession (63% to Poland's 37%), number of dangerous attacks (78 to Poland's 21) and shots (Germany 15-7 Poland), the best chance went to their neighbours when Arkadiusz Milik failed to fully connect just after the restart.

Poland may have had their supporters on edge at times, but – as Atlético Madrid perhaps confirmed in reaching the UEFA Champions League final – it is footballing realpolitik in action: a way for rugged, durable but nonetheless ambitious sides to thwart, and defeat, arguably more skilful opponents. 

The Spanish style is certainly not for everyone, and has a habit of exposing teams' limitations when they strive to outpass genuinely superior rivals. One example came when Bayer Leverkusen tried to 'play' Barcelona at Camp Nou in the 2011/12 UEFA Champions League: they lost 7-1.

The Germany v Poland tie was by no means unique: going into Friday's fixtures, 15 of the 18 matches so far had been dominated by one side in possession terms. However, the 'dominant' outfit won only eight of those games; four more ended in draws while Italy (2-0 v Belgium), Slovakia (2-1 v  Russia) and Northern Ireland (2-0 v Ukraine) all prevailed despite seeing less of the ball.

It is not, however, a magic bullet. 'Possession' teams have averaged 1.87 points per game, those ceding it 0.87 points, and when it comes to winning matches shots on target remain key: only a single fixture (Croatia's 1-0 success over Turkey) was won by the side with fewer of them.

The ability to defend well at these finals is clearly a theme. Joachim Löw summed it up after the Poland game: "I have always maintained that the group-stage matches will be attritional battles."

However, how long teams can defend well for remains the big challenge; sitting back demands very high levels of concentration, for 90+ minutes. There have been four late winners at UEFA EURO 2016, all of them coming for the 'possession' sides.

Löw anticipates a different experience if Germany make it to the knockout phase. "We could see more teams playing a more open game, potentially leading to more space and more goals," he concluded.