How non-possession game proved a success at Euro 2016

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe hold the trophy at the end of the Euro 2016 victory over France at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis
Picture by AP

NON-POSSESSION game: talk about damning with a quaint phrase.

Euro 2016 may have been viewed pretty positively by the Republic of Ireland but Uefa’s Technical Report on the tournament uses that negative terminology to sum them up.

The implication is that the ‘Boys in Green’ were not overly concerned with keeping the ball, an approach explained further by describing their ‘direct attacking rather than build-up from back’.

Similarly, although Northern Ireland largely enjoyed the Euros, the only table they were top of was not one most teams would want to lead: they had the highest percentage of long passes attempted, 28 per cent, with Iceland next on 22, and the Republic of Ireland on 21. Spain, unsurprisingly, were lowest in that category, on 10 per cent, with France on 11, Switzerland, Germany, and England all on 12, and winners Portugal on 13.

Just 23 per cent of NI’s attempted passes were categorised as ‘short’; the Republic’s figure was little better, at 24 per cent. Perhaps linked to that approach, Michael O’Neill’s men were second bottom in another category, average possession, with only Iceland (36%) having less than their 37. The further you kick the ball, the more likely you are to lose it. Accordingly, Spain were second in that table, on 61%, with Germany top on 63. Then again, England were third, with 59%.

The north achieved both their highest possession (45%) and passing accuracy (78%) against Wales. However, they had only 34% possession against Ukraine, and passing accuracy of their joint lowest 64%, but still won that match 2-0. Against Germany they had only 29% possession (and again a 64% accuracy), but in both cases that wasn’t through tactical choice but because the opposition kept the ball so well.

Martin O’Neill’s side were sixth lowest on that average possession list, with 45%. Their range was tighter, going from a high of 47% in the opener against Sweden to a low of 40 against France, that latter figure no doubt influenced by the dismissal of Shane Duffy. Yet, intriguingly, only 15 of the 51 matches were won by the team that enjoyed more possession, so maybe Martin and Michael O'Neill were on to something.

The perception of those players who performed well is backed up by the stats. Jeff Hendrick made the most passes for Ireland, 114, 19 of those to skipper Seamus Coleman, and the midfielder also received 19 from the second highest passer, Robbie Brady, and 18 from the man third on the list, Glenn Whelan. The excellent Brady got the ball 19 times from Wes Hoolahan too.

Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis was their most important passer, with 104, 15 of those to his central midfield colleague Olly Norwood, who despatched 21 to ‘Davo’. Outstanding ball-playing defender Jonny Evans hit more passes than Norwood (93 compared to 86) – with 17 of his going to fulcrum Davis.

Despite Uefa’s description of the Republic’s “outstanding work ethic, team spirit, never-say-die attitude”, they languished at the bottom of the `distance covered’ table, averaging just over 103km per match as a team. Again, their figures did not vary much across the four matches, with a high of 104.7km against France and a low of 101.8 against Sweden.

NI were eighth highest in that category, with an average 108.5km covered per game. Their top performance in that regard was the win over Ukraine, more than 114km, closely followed by 112.6km against Germany.

There was quite a variance for the north, though, as they covered only 103.4km in their poorest performance, the opening loss to Poland, and just 103.8km against Wales in the unfortunate round of 16 defeat.


Republic of Ireland’s ‘key features’:

1-4-1-4-1 or 1-4-4-2 with occasional use of diamond structure in midfield • Non-possession game; direct attacking rather than build-up from back • Out-of-possession game focused on shutting down spaces • Goalkeeper launching attacks with long ball towards target striker • Strong second-ball support with midfielders breaking forward

• Frequent use of ball behind back four and immediate high pressure • Strong, compact defensive block; aerial power in attack and defence • Hoolahan and Hendrick the main creators of chances with solo abilities • Right-back Coleman ready to push forward and deliver quality crosses • Outstanding work ethic, team spirit, never-say-die attitude


Northern Ireland’s ‘key features’:

• 1-4-1-4-1 the default setting; 1-5-3-2 v Poland and Wales • Emphasis on compact defending and direct counterattacking • Goalkeeper opening play with long upfield kicking • Good second-ball support by central midfielders Davis and C. Evans • Runs by target striker aiming to get behind opponents’ back line

• When ball lost, immediate high pressing by middle-tofront players • Conservative full-backs careful to deny counterattacking possibilities • When ball won in defence, frequent early pass to Davis or C. Evans • Very dangerous set plays in attack based on aerial power • Strong team ethic, commitment to cause, discipline, mental strength


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