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Euro 2020 fatal flaws: What could hold Spain, England, Italy back from glory

Only eight teams remain in Euro 2020, but the picture as to who is going to win this thing has barely cleared up at all. Some of the original batch of favorites are gone — France, Portugal, Germany — but according to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), no remaining team has even a 30 percent chance of winning the tournament. No matter who you think is the favorite, odds are good you’ll be proven wrong.

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Each of the quarterfinalists have obvious flaws, and by the nature of tournament play (with no third-place matchup), seven of the eight will end their tournament with a loss. Even if we don’t know who will win, we know the damning faults that will probably end each team’s run. So let’s talk about those.

(The teams below are listed in diminishing order of title odds, per SPI.)


Jump to: Spain | England | Denmark | Belgium | Italy | Switzerland | Czech Republic | Ukraine


Spain only give you good looks on goal

Euro title odds: 29%
Odds of winning quarterfinal vs. Switzerland: 72%

Despite starting with a couple of draws, Spain have been as statistically dominant as anyone in the 24-team field. They’ve hogged the ball as only they can — 73% possession rate, 15 percentage points higher than anyone else — and their xG differential is +1.52 per match, the best in the tournament. They’ve also pressured the ball with vigor: in a tournament full of dead legs and selective pressure, they’re allowing just 8.2 passes per defensive action, easily the fewest (Denmark is second among quarterfinalists at 12.6).

Switzerland vs. Spain, Friday: Noon ET / 6 p.m. CET (ESPN, ESPN+)

And yet, for all this dominance, Spain has only briefly actually dominated. They crushed Slovakia, 5-0, but they only outscored three other opponents by a combined 6-4 over 300 minutes. Opponents are packing in their defenses and forcing Spain to undergo long stretches of sometimes aimless possession, but while they’ve begun to overcome that with vigor — they’ve scored 10 goals in their last two matches — another issue has emerged: opponents are creating extremely high-quality chances themselves.

When Spain won three consecutive major tournaments — the 2008 Euros, 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros — they allowed an average of 9.2 shots per match at a tiny 0.06 xG per shot. In the three majors that followed, however, they allowed 8.5 shots per match at an increased 0.14 xG per shot. At Euro 2020, they’re allowing only 6.0 shots per match … at 0.27 xG per shot.

Opponents have already attempted 10 shots with an xG of 0.3 or higher, after taking only 14 in the entire 2014-18 sample. A lot of this damage came against Croatia, which attempted six of those 10 particularly high-quality shots, with five in a 12-minute span late in regulation and early in overtime. But Poland and Sweden each created two such close-range opportunities during the group stage as well.

Switzerland, Spain’s next opponent, attempts 0.18 shots per possession (fourth among quarterfinalists), but averages only 0.11 xG per shot (second-worst). They’ve scored on three of their five particularly high-quality (over 0.3 xG) chances, however, and that includes Ricardo Rodriguez‘s failed penalty against France. They could very well capitalize if Spain’s transition defense breaks down; even if they don’t, far more clinical teams await in the semifinals or finals.

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Steve McManaman believes England have a favourable route to make the Euro 2020 final following their win against Germany.

Title odds: 24%
Odds of winning quarterfinal vs. Ukraine: 71%

England’s first goal against Germany in the round of 16 was a perfect combined effort from four of the best creative and/or attacking players in the world. The ball quickly shuffled from the feet of Tottenham Hotspur‘s Harry Kane to Aston Villa‘s Jack Grealish, then Manchester United‘s Luke Shaw and, finally, Manchester City‘s Raheem Sterling into the net. Just a few minutes earlier, Grealish had subbed in for Arsenal up-and-comer Bukayo Saka, who started over Borussia Dortmund‘s (for now) Jadon Sancho, City’s Phil Foden and United’s Marcus Rashford.

Gareth Southgate has an embarrassment of riches from which to choose up front, and the goal was a perfect example of what superior attacking talent can create out of a reasonably neutral situation. It was also England’s first official shot in more than 48 minutes.

Ukraine vs. England, Saturday: 3 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. CET (ABC, ESPN+)

England reached the 75th minute against Germany having attempted just three shots worth 0.17 xG. Two of the shots had come from defender Harry Maguire while Kane, the best centre-forward in the Premier League last year, had only 19 total touches to that point. They had also held Germany to only five shots worth 0.58 xG, of course, but Southgate’s cautious tactics and defense-friendly lineup selections did what they’ve done all tournament: strangled both their and their opponent’s respective attacks.

England has attempted by far the fewest shots, and scored the fewest goals, of the eight remaining teams.

They also have yet to allow a goal, of course, and while it’s a red flag that opponents take more shots than they do, England averages 0.18 xG per shot (most of any quarterfinalist), and opponents average 0.08 (third-lowest).

There’s no question that Southgate’s “tournament football” approach — stifling defense at the expense of creative ball progression — has worked out pretty well. England made the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup and has taken 122 points from 58 total matches with the former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender in charge. But knowing you can probably create more and better scoring chances than your opponent while refusing to do so is a massive gamble, and if England loses any of the next three matches, it will almost certainly be because its neutered attack failed to produce enough chances for its most talented players to convert.

Denmark don’t pressure shooters (and may have a goalkeeping issue?)

Title odds: 15%
Odds of winning quarterfinal vs. Czech Republic: 66%

From a statistical point of views, Denmark is the hardest team to poke holes in at the moment. Their xG differential of +1.52 per 90 minutes is tied with Spain’s for the best in the tournament. They are taking the second-most shots and allowing the second-fewest. They are allowing opponents to start only 3.5 possessions per 90 in the attacking third (fewest) and allowing only 28% of opponents’ possessions to finish there (second-fewest). They are controlling the ball (58% possession rate, second to Spain), and they have led for 46% of their possessions in the tournament (second to Belgium).

Czech Republic vs. Denmark, Saturday: Noon ET / 6 p.m. CET (ESPN, ESPN+)

Opponents haven’t created nearly as many high-quality chances as Spain has allowed, but Denmark does lack when it comes to creating proper shot pressure. (The numbers in the table to the right are per StatsPerform.)

A lack of pressure isn’t perfectly equivalent to allowing high-quality shots — England is second-worst in this list despite four clean sheets from four games, after all — but it’s been an issue for the Danes. In Belgium’s 2-1 win over Denmark, both of Belgium’s goals came on low-pressure shots from very close range. (Russia‘s penalty goal also did, obviously.) They allowed Gareth Bale a quality look early in the round-of-16 match against Wales, too, which could have redefined how that match played out.

Facing minimal pressure allows you a chance to put a more accurate ball on goal, but you could also make a case that maybe Kasper Schmeichel should be saving more balls than he has. Using StatsPerform’s Expected Goals on Target Conceded measure (xGOT) — a stat looking specifically at ball placement of shots on goal to take a different look at xG — opponents’ shots on goal were worth about 2.2 xG, but produced four actual goals. Keeper Schmeichel’s negative 1.8-goal difference is the second-worst in the tournament and continues a trend: his minus-5.1 goals prevented was the third-worst in the Premier League among regulars.

If your defense is giving talented opponents chances to line up quality shots and your keeper isn’t stopping as many as he should, that seems like a pretty good way to lose.

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Alessandro Del Piero is not confident about Italy’s chances if they play like they did against Austria again.

Belgium are old and banged up

Title odds: 13%
Odds of winning quarterfinal vs. Italy: 53%

Going back to Sept. 2016, Belgium has lost just three of its last 58 matches. The core roster has played together for a long while; no team in this tournament knows itself more than Roberto Martinez’s squad.

Belgium vs. Italy, Friday: 3 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. CET (ESPN, ESPN+)

Another way to phrase that last sentence: Belgium are old. We knew that heading into the tournament, and they looked absolutely gassed for most of the second half of their 1-0 win over Portugal in the round of 16; worse still, they’ve lost their two most creative players, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, to injury for at least the quarterfinals.

They could use that creativity, too, because their actual shot quality has been lacking StatsPerform’s Shooting Goals Added (SGA) subtracts a team’s or player’s xGOT to total customary, pre-shot xG. As one would expect, striker Romelu Lukaku has been world-class in his finishing ability, taking nine shots worth 1.36 xG, turning them into 1.89 xGOT and scoring three times. His SGA, then, is +0.54 (1.89 minutes 1.36). The rest of the team: -0.70 (2.41 minus 3.1). The team’s average of 0.25 xGOT per shot on target is by far the worst of the quarterfinalists.

Written another way: they aren’t taking full advantage of the shots they get, and since they don’t pressure teams high up the pitch, they aren’t creating an abundance of easy scoring chances either. And when they tried to explode forward in counter-attacking situations late against Portugal, it usually just resulted in a slow-motion break and a quick turnover.

This hasn’t been a problem yet because the defense has been so sound. Opponents are firing high-frequency shots — 0.17 per possession, most of the quarterfinalists — but at a tournament-low 0.07 xG per shot. Plus, 96% of opponent shots have come with at least two defenders between the shot and the goal, by far the most. (For comparison, the average among quarterfinalists is 85%, and Spain and Denmark are both at 75%.)

They stay behind the ball at all times, and if you crack a shot through a wall of defenders, maybe the best keeper in the tournament, Thibaut Courtois, is behind them to reel it in. Despite a particularly old defensive line, this formula has worked quite well, but can Belgium commit proper numbers to attack if they fall behind? And can they take full advantage of the chances they create?

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Steve McManaman feels Belgium looked a little lost in the second half of their 1-0 win vs. Portugal.

Italy take mostly bad shots

Title odds: 10%
Odds of winning quarterfinal vs. Belgium: 47%

As has been the case for most of the last three years, Italy did most of the big things right against Austria in the round of 16. Austria are loaded with talent from Europe’s “Big 5” European Leagues (English Premier League, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga and French Ligue 1) and came out with a great game plan, but Italy completed a higher percentage of passes in regulation (88% to 81%), passed better in the attacking third as well (84% to 73%), created nearly twice as many shots (18 to 10) and won more loose balls (58 ball recoveries to 54).

You’re not giving your opponent very many pathways to victory when you’re executing that combination.

Belgium vs. Italy, Friday: 3 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. CET (ESPN, ESPN+)

And yet, Austria nearly found a path anyway, staying packed in front of the goal and allowing Italy to attempt long-range bombs. Italy might have taken eight more shots, but none had an xG greater than 0.09, and only two were taken within 10 meters of the goal. Not even including a goal that was disallowed by a narrow offside call, Austria had the two most high-quality shots in regulation, but Marcel Sabitzer missed one and had another saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma.

It broke open for Italy in overtime, with Federico Chiesa‘s masterful 95th minute goal (xG: 0.30) and Matteo Pessina‘s follow-up 10 minutes later (0.29). They advanced 2-1, but it wasn’t as easy as it could have been.

Italy just assault you with chances while preventing you from doing the same. They lead the tournament with 0.24 shots per possession, and they’re second-best in allowing only 0.08 in return. Almost none of the shots they allow are of any major quality, but few of theirs are, either. They have the shot-making ability to overcome this — Manuel Locatelli, Pessina and Chiesa have scored five goals from just 2.29 xG — but as we saw against Austria, the well can go dry when you’re relying on scoring magical goals over more functional, high-quality looks.

One could see how this might be a problem against Belgium. Italy can hope to overrun an aging defensive line, but if they don’t — and if Belgium can keep bodies behind the ball as it usually does — one could see quite a few low-xG, long-distance attempts taken at an elite keeper.

Switzerland ask far too much of their goalkeeper

Title odds: 5%
Odds of winning quarterfinal vs. Spain: 28%

Like Austria, Switzerland entered the round of 16 both (a) a significant underdog and (b) un-awed by the moment.

Most of their roster comes from players in Europe’s “Big 5,” including Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, Liverpool‘s (for now) Xherdan Shaqiri, Borussia Dortmund’s Manuel Akanji and Borussia Monchengladbach‘s Yann Sommer, Nico Elvedi and Breel Embolo. This is a squad of battle-tested players, and it showed in their penalty shootout win over France. France overthought their tactics and blew opportunities, and the Swiss simply played their game.

Switzerland vs. Spain, Friday: Noon ET / 6 p.m. CET (ESPN, ESPN+)

They possess the ball safely; they’re letting opponents begin only 4.4 possessions per 90 in the attacking third (third-lowest among quarterfinalists), they average 6.4 passes per possession (fourth), and they both take plenty of shots (0.18 per possession, fourth) and take them well (0.39 xGOT per shot on target, third). They are antagonistic — Xhaka did everything to France’s Paul Pogba but give him an atomic wedgie in the round of 16 — and aren’t to be taken lightly.

Unfortunately, they allow opponents to basically become Italy from the perspective of shot quantity. While quarterfinalist teams are allowing 0.12 shots per possession on average, Switzerland are allowing 0.21, many of decent quality. They have to operate well offensively because you’re definitely going to score against them: they’re allowing 1.85 goals per 90, easily the most among remaining teams (Ukraine is second-worst at just 1.38).

Sommer has performed admirably between the posts, but he’s been asked to take on far too much and if the Swiss are to pull a quarterfinal upset, they’ll have to take full advantage of the defensive breakdowns Spain gives them.

Czech Republic lose half its possessions almost immediately

Title odds: 4%
Odds of winning quarterfinal vs. Denmark: 34%

The Czechs have only eight players on a “Big 5” roster, and they’ve reached the quarterfinals through a combination of high-quality individual performances and a nice collection of underdog tactics.

Czech Republic vs. Denmark, Saturday: Noon ET / 6 p.m. CET (ESPN, ESPN+)

West Ham United‘s Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal have been excellent, while forward Patrik Schick has been an outright revelation, scoring four times — on shots of eight, nine, 11 and, of course, 49 meters. It’s possible someone dramatically overpays Bayer Leverkusen for his services in the weeks to come after how good he’s looked.

Playing the Czech Republic is a unique experience. They play at a tempo higher than most of the favorites are comfortable with — their 98.8 possessions per match are far higher than that of any other quarterfinalist (Spain is second at 87.5) — and they pounce on mistakes, starting more possessions in the attacking third than anyone but Spain. Only Spain has more set piece goals, too.

Even when underdogs find winning tactics, however, they generally come with a trade-off. The Czechs average only 19.2 seconds per possession, far fewer than any other quarterfinalist, and they lose 48.3 possessions per game from passes attempted in their defensive third. Only Ukraine come anywhere close in either category (24.3 and 39.7, respectively). They look to quickly get the ball out of dangerous areas and strike quickly, and they’re willing to risk quick turnovers in the name of that.

This technique worked great in 3-2 wins over both Scotland and the Netherlands, but England and Croatia were able to stay organized and force both poor shots and impatience. The Czechs scored only once in those two matches. Is Denmark organized enough to manage the load? Will they get sucked into the type of track meet the Czechs want?

Ukraine create no easy chances whatsoever

Title odds: 2%
Odds of winning quarterfinal vs. England: 29%

Andriy Shevchenko’s squad has proven to be both resilient and adaptive. They began to lose control of their round-of-16 match against Sweden — the Swedes hit the post twice and generated half of their full-match xG between the 55th and 70th minutes — but they adjusted, engaging in long, Simpsons-view-of-soccer possessions, stealing Sweden’s legs and forcing overtime. Once there, they benefited from a Sweden red card and kept pecking away until they scored with a perfect Oleksandr Zinchenko cross and an Artem Dovbyk header.

Ukraine vs. England, Saturday: 3 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. CET (ABC, ESPN+)

In terms of goal and xG differential, this is the second-least successful team in the tournament besides Switzerland. Their defense is by far the most passive of the quarterfinalists, and the ball control game is glitchy — they start just 3.5 possessions per 90 in the attacking third, by far the fewest, and opponents start 10.6 there, by far the most.

The Ukrainians average 0.12 shots per possession (fifth among quarterfinalists) and allow 0.16 (sixth), and they’ve had to rely on moments of individual genius to advance this far. That renders them inconsistent — they were pretty helpless against Austria in a group-stage loss, and they lost five of six matches late last year, getting walloped 4-0 by Spain and 7-1 by France. But they’re as dangerous as they are faulty because Manchester City’s Zinchenko, Gent’s Roman Yaremchuk and West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko have delivered repeated and wonderfully creative moments.

Because of their spellbinding moments, they are capable of pulling another upset or two, but because of their faults, especially in defense, they are the team least likely to go all the way.

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