I'm not sure I enjoyed the second round of group fixtures as much as the first and they have presented a rather dull situation for much of the final round of games in which any team with four points is, barring a miracle *Leicester fan raises hand*, already qualified for the next stage, able to rotate and play out thrilling 0-0s that peter out into nothing. This has led to a slew of grumbles about the tournament; there's a been a lack of goals and tension has so far been slight, but we are from here into the business end, and I stand by my theory that even if the groups have appeared watered down for excitement, the new teams have been worth having and the extra round of knockout football, more than doubling the previous volume, will prove worth it. Nobody remembers a tournament for its group stage after all.
All the "already qualified" flags a-waving inform us the viewer: don't watch France v Switzerland, watch Romania v Albania and so on. The new system has created a situation where more teams are involved to the final game--only Ukraine were toast after two--but also more teams are comfortable. Around ten teams were statistically certain of qualification after two games with a handful more long odds on to join them. So that leaves the intrigue of the qualifying matchups with the subtle variations of the positioning in the groups meaning we can't be 100% sure who will face who until it has all shaken out.
For potential drama, Wales v Russia is a match between two teams that could either qualify or go home and so appeals more than England v Slovakia which is two teams that are going through. Sadly, Group C's remaining interest lies on rooting for Northern Ireland to beat er... Germany. Czech Republic v Turkey holds more qualifying interest than a chess match between Spain and Croatia, for all that Turkey have been dreadful and deserve nothing from their efforts, a charge we could also lay at Sweden's door, a team that are somehow an unlikely victory against Belgium away from the next stage.
Group F is the one group I can endorse both matches. either you get Iceland's story facing off against the thoroughly disappointing Austrians or you continue the Ronaldo saga, which has proven good value so far.
We also have what appears to be a newer complaint-- about the "quality" of the football. Maybe this is a by product of modern analysis and the vast amount of content available on each and every big match? Historically, international tournaments were the one opportunity where the world got to see teams and styles they were otherwise not exposed to and innovative tactical schemes were often building blocks for the wider game. Nowadays, the quality is seen as a poor relation to, quite understandably, more complex and entrenched styles seen in the club game. We see ever more football now and little surprises. International teams have ever less time to create coherent tactical methodologies with a constant rotation of players or a fixed but limited squad. Part of the mystique of international tournaments for me as a kid were that the players in your sticker book came to life, you simply never saw them play outside these tournaments, TV coverage was scant. Unless you were a season ticket holder, it's unlikely you'd even see players for your own country play very often outside the odd televised match or international game, so these tournaments had far more power to influence than they do now. So Spain are a neutered Barcelona, Italy are Juventus without the thrilling forwards, England are Tottenham with Milner instead of Eriksen and so on. It's fine though: what we lack in quality we make up for in cruelty, knock out football does not care for fairness and luck can play a huge part in small sample outcomes. Which is fun. And fun equals entertainment and that's hopefully what we get when the second round starts.
Couple of resources:
- Clarke @footyinthecloud charted up a few shot stats from the early games in tweets here and here
- Paul Riley has his xG charts running
..and there's tons more from other people out there in the twittersphere. Lotsa pretty pictures and predictions.
Amazingly after two rounds of fixtures, the simple truth that all winning teams have recorded more shots on target than the opposition has held firm. The other simple truth is that the competition has lacked a star turn upset. This could be a by product of the wider variation in quality, and after all these groups would probably be easily navigated by the bigger teams if only the top two qualified. We can see in simple shot measures: even in two games the leaders in shot volume +/- per group are France, England, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Portugal. The Swiss and Italy take France and Belgium's place if we look at shots on target, but otherwise the list remains the same. The cream has easily risen to the top so far.
Michael Caley's two game xG totals were lead by Spain, Croatia, England and Portugal with all the other usual suspects in behind. Even if Portugal have struggled for reward, they certainly can consider themselves unfortunate not to have won a match. Saying that, one aspect of their play is fascinating, as Clarke noted, Portugal have outshot the opposition 49-8 but in open play shots in the box with the foot (acronym that!), which is a loose proxy for reasonable chances, they are running at 4-4. The long bombs are not just Cristiano Ronaldo's doing and they sure are creating a lot of headed chances.
The orthodoxy so far is strong, and that could well be contributing to the perception of the tournament not yet living up to its billing. A small team like Northern Ireland beating a smallish team like Ukraine is great, as is the Iceland story, but a truly big scalp would ratchet up the thrills. Still let us not forget, the second round is lined up as eight matches across three days from Saturday to Monday. If you ever needed motivation to book a long weekend off from work, it's right there.