Do not expect Euro 2024 to look like Premier League football

Decnlan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden celebrate an England goal at the 2022 World Cup

One reason why England managers find themselves playing to a tough crowd is the number of fans who expect the national side to resemble a top Premier League team. Or even to surpass those standards.

That has never been a realistic aspiration. International managers do not have the luxury of hours on the training ground to hone more sophisticated patterns, or to layer their preferred system with fail-safes and variations. Players have a small sample of matches to build relationships, and summer tournaments arrive at the end of a long, exhausting club season.

Tournament matches, therefore, have a distinctive rhythm and character: low-scoring encounters in warm temperatures, long spells of low-tempo possession and perhaps an overly officious referee slowing the game down further.

Improved fitness levels and homogenised coaching templates mean football is becoming more standardised, but the contrast between the club and international game remains. Matches are won and lost in moments, and with only a small sample of games to play, underlying data does not enjoy the same primacy as in a 38-game league campaign.

Using data from matches at the World Cup in Qatar and the latest Premier League season, here is the sort of fare to expect at Euro 2024.

Tighter games with fewer goals

Last season produced a record 3.3 goals per game in the Premier League, from 3.1 expected goals.

We should not expect to see such numbers repeated this summer. Not since 1958 has a World Cup or European Championship produced more than three goals per game. Qatar 2022 produced a respectable 2.7 goals per game, from 2.7 expected goals.

The World Cup had 22.8 shots per game, compared to 27.6 in last season’s Premier League. That was a marked improvement on some more dour tournaments, such as 2.12 goals per game at Euro 2016 or 2.21 goals per game at Italia ’90.

In a sign that things may be loosening up, the past two World Cup finals have produced 10 goals between them in normal time. Nevertheless, history suggests tournament winners run a tight ship.

Less build-up, more long balls

The risk-reward calculation changes in knockout football. One wrong move can put a team on the flight home, so it is understandable if they play the percentages a little more.

Qatar 2022 had marginally more long balls attempted per game than the last Premier League season, 106.4 to 101.3, while the average distance of goal-kicks was 2.6 metres longer in Qatar. Just 5.4 goal-kicks per game at the World Cup finished in a team’s own penalty area, compared to 6.3 in the Premier League, which indicates teams going shorter more often in the domestic competition.

Teams did not just launch it at the World Cup, though. Passes per sequence of play were almost identical. There were, however, fewer build-up attacks at the World Cup. Opta defines these as an open-play sequence that contains 10 or more passes that either end in a shot or at least one touch in the penalty area.

More passive defending

Intense high pressing of the kind used by Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool requires two things to be successful: petrol in the tank, and finely tuned coordination. International teams do not tend to have much of either come summer.

It can be prudent to settle into a more passive and pragmatic defensive strategy, drawing breath in a shape and allowing opponents possession in harmless areas.

Passes per defensive action, which measures how many passes a team allow an opponent before a defensive intervention, is an imperfect but useful measure of pressing. The lower the number, the more intense the press. In the Premier League last season, the average PPDA was 12.8 per game, while at the World Cup it was 15.7.

In the Premier League, there were 16.7 high turnovers per game while in Qatar it was 14.4. There were fewer defensive actions per game at the World Cup: 49.95 to 53.91 in the Premier League.

In a sign that it was easier for teams to keep possession, Qatar produced 24.3 sequences of 10 or more passes per game, compared to 22.1 in the Premier League.

More fouls … and potentially more penalties

As seen in the Champions League, referees in Uefa competitions officiate differently than those in England. There were 23.8 fouls per game awarded in Qatar, compared to 21.3 in the Premier League. More finicky refereeing contributes to a feeling that tournament matches are less about flow, and more about isolated passages of play.

Uefa referees also interpret the handball rule differently, leading to more penalties, though club football has followed the same trend since the introduction of VAR.

The 2018 World Cup had 29 penalties awarded, the most in the tournament’s history. The second-most penalties came four years later in Qatar, when 19 were given. Euro 2020 produced 16 penalties, the most in that competition’s history.