The full time whistle has blown on the qualifying matches for France 2016 and we now have our line-up for the finals next summer. England have qualified from Group E with a ‘perfect’ 100% record but UEFA’s statistics from the qualifying matches leave me a little concerned.
Premier League statistics often show us that possession isn’t everything. It’s what you do with it. But in international football, the consensus is that possession is indeed nine-tenths of the law and the perception at least is that the England national team don’t keep the ball well enough. What do the passing accuracy stats from qualifying suggest about how and where England maintain possession?
Let’s be fair. Let’s not compare our players’ completed passes total to Toni Kroos. No one gets remotely close to his 1,007 completed passes. He has 40% more successful passes to teammates than second place Sergio Busquets (721) – another world class midfielder from a top European nation.
Whilst five of the top six players ranked by completed passes are midfielders, surprisingly the top ten comprises of as many defenders as midfielders. Growing up, I always assumed midfielders were the best passers, dominating possession between the half-way line and their opponent’s penalty area. The game has changed then, defenders are now crucial play-makers too.
England are not as unusual as you may think in having a large proportion of their possession with defenders during this qualifying campaign. With just 439 completed passes, Chelsea’s Gary Cahill tops the national list, in 42nd position overall, followed by his frequent partner Phil Jagielka in 108th. Jordan Henderson is the country’s highest placed midfielder down in 168th position.
Cahill and Jagielka’s high success rates of 94% and 97% respectively suggest short passes along the back and into midfield, perhaps whilst not being pressed by the opposition. Allowed to have possession in an area of the field where they don’t pose too much threat. But we need to apply context to these figures. Is it just that Cahill and Jagielka have played more minutes to make those passes?
With 720 minutes during this qualifying campaign, Gary Cahill is second only to Joe Hart in terms of England playing time and it’s noticeable that they are two of only six players to play even half the available minutes. England’s modest opposition allowed Roy Hodgson to chop and change players, reducing the significance of this statistic for comparison to other nations.
It’s true, the players towards the top of the completed passes list took advantage of virtually all available playing time for their country, with the exception of Cesc Fabregas who needed a little over five matches. The Spaniard’s better than a pass-a-minute ratio is exceeded only by German Kroos, who managed an almost unfathomable 113 passes every 90 minutes over the course of nearly nine full matches.
Of the 24 players with 500-plus successful passes, half completed a pass every 90 seconds or better, only one (Norway defender Vegard Forren) averaged longer than two minutes without finding a teammate. This was however over an extended 12-match qualifying campaign that included the Play-Offs.
Despite completing fewer passes than Cahill, Eveton’s Phil Jagielka averages a higher number of successful passes every 90 minutes – one of only three England players to complete a pass at least every 90 seconds. Michael Carrick completed 77 passes in just 90 minutes of qualifying action, whilst Jonjo Shelvey averaged 71 successful passes in what equated to less than three matches.
In a previous article I suggested England’s qualifying group was like playing one Premier League team, two Championship teams, a League One and a League Two team. Based on the ease of their qualification and their dominance of opponents, I would have hoped for better passing and possession indicators. More players with comparatively higher pass completion per minute. Possession more with the midfield.
With England, Northern Ireland, Wales and now Republic of Ireland all having booked their places in France next summer, attention switches back to the Premier League for the winter. England won’t play again until March with ‘prestige’ friendlies against prolific passers Kroos and Boateng (Germany) and Sneijder and Blind (Holland).
The Football Association will probably arrange a couple of warm-up games prior to the Euros, giving England just four games to not only settle on a side but also to make the team gel and perform to the sum of their parts. Even if the same 11 players started each of these fixtures, which they won’t, I’m afraid the Three Lions still wouldn’t be roaring and hunting like a pack in time for the tournament.
If we are going to have the majority of our possession at the back then perhaps at this late stage we should stick with the tidy, accurate passing of Cahill and Jagielka. The poise and ability to bring the ball out of defence make John Stones a must, possibly at right back this time. At left back, the returning Leighton Baines is a dead ball specialist and still as good as anyone we’ve seen play there in his absence.
Although I appreciate the prospect of three Everton defenders probably doesn’t excite most England fans as much as it does this Evertonian, they will at least have the opportunity to build continuity and understanding over the next four months. England certainly need that and along with Cahill, my suggested backline all play for clubs that like and are encouraged to keep possession. A pre-requisite of international football.
Richard Coleman, Pundit Arena.