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October 9, 2018

Possession Football Remains Alive and Well for Spain and Germany

By Paul Riley

‘Tiki-taka’ died for the umpteenth time in Russia this summer. What with Spain and Germany’s possession game going home earlier than usual from the World Cup, there could be nothing else to conclude. Both these nations had been found out.

Rio Ferdinand said: “Spain have been so successful with that style of possession football but there comes a time when you have to get the ball into the strikers. You have to change it up a bit. Spain got what they deserved.”

Gareth Southgate said: “It has been unusual to see them (Germany) struggle as much as they have but the level of all of the teams is strong and they have played teams who have been tactically very good against them.”

Since then, in the UEFA Nations League, Spain have beaten Southgate’s England and whooped World Cup finalists Croatia 6-0. Germany have drawn with World Champions, France, and beaten Peru.

What. A. Crisis.

The problem is that most of football – the professionals in it, and the fans watching it, still really struggle to look beyond the score line to back up their takes.

In terms of shots, expected goals and creating chances, Germany battered everyone they played in the World Cup:

Germany dominated the ball too, completing three times as many open play passes as its opponents. It wasn’t all sideways and backwards either. Germany proportionately played more balls vertically into the opposition box from the middle of the final third than any other team. No other side crossed the ball into the box more than Germany either.

Maybe as Gareth said, the level of all teams is strong now and all the teams Die Mannschaft played were tactically very good against them. The only numbers that back that up are the score lines. They’re the only numbers that matter! scream the real football guys. As usual, here at Statsbomb, we beat the drum that the underlying numbers count for more in the long term and give a better reading of performance now and in future. The score lines since back that up.

Spain didn’t actually lose a game in normal time during the World Cup. This is how the game Spain went out to versus Russia looked on the shot map:

That big red square there on Russia’s map was a penalty. After Artem Dzyuba scored that spot kick on 40 minutes, Spain proceeded to have 24 shots to Russia’s 3. They also passed them to death for the entire game.

Spain only allowed seven shots on target during its four game tournament but David De Gea conceded goals on six of them. Two were penalties, one was a peach of a free kick from Ronaldo and one he fumbled in from outside of the box.

This was not a team in crisis (despite the loss of its manager on the eve of the tournament), it was a team whose path crossed with misfortune.

Maybe it’s like Rio said. Spain had to change it up and get that ball into the strikers more. The only numbers that back that up are the score lines. They’re the only numbers that matter! scream the real football guys. As usual, here at Statsbomb we beat the drum that the underlying numbers count for more in the long term and give a better handle of performance now, and are a better predictor of it for the future.

We repeat that message. A lot.

Spain only did enough to get one or two goals versus Croatia last month according to expected goals. However, Luis Enrique’s men still totally controlled the ball with 70% possession. Keep dominating games as Spain do, and the cliff you occasionally fall off will, at the bottom of it, have a dinghy in the water to handily catch you before you get wet. The rain in Spain falls mainly on the opponent’s goalkeeper.

A quick search of Google throws up all manner of newspaper articles looking at the secret of Croatia’s success both during and after the country’s run to the final. Much of it surrounded the wealth of character the people possess after what the nation’s been through over the years. I’m #justsaying the underlying numbers had them as a side dominating possession and shot counts.

Presumably, a 6-0 drubbing precipitates calls for a change of style and play from our English soccer (yes, soccer) pundits. A quick Google search throws up nothing. It wasn’t a World Cup game after all, and it’s only Croatia. They’ve never won anything anyway so we’re not desperate to find a chink in their Balkan armor.

Back in the Premier League, our pundits currently wax lyrical about the teams at the top of the table: Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool – the teams that, funnily enough, dominate the ball and most importantly, the shot count. But the pundits will never frame it that way.

Remember Gary Neville questioning Guardiola (who’s won loads) and City last season? “Every single team that’s won the league, barring none, has had power and strength at the heart of them – that spine. I just wonder whether they can play that way. That’s the fascinating thing over the next 12 months. Can you play that way, with those players and win this league? That will be the real test.”

Forget all the other nonsense, and get on board. City absolutely smashed everyone for shots and in the expected goals table last season. It’s the actual real test and measures the strength, heart and spine of any good side.

Article by Paul Riley