By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer
Passing has been a major talking point at Euro 2012. The continued success of Spain has sparked prolonged drooling, but also triggered something of an attitude change amongst many international teams. Conventional wisdom seems to be slowly changing. Maybe the tactic of thumping the ball towards the forehead of a tall man and hoping the ball falls perfectly for a smaller, quicker man to whack it into the net isn’t a roaring success.
It’s an area of the game dripping in hyperbole. The skilful players caress the ball. They seduce it, entrance it and make metaphorical love to it. The hoofers can’t. They get it, ply it full of cheap Sambuca and hump the life of it in a remote cave somewhere. The effectiveness of all the pretty football may not actually match the volume of praise it gets, but it’s better than a game plan that revolves around Kevin Davies’s flailing elbows.
As you’d expect, Spain dominate both the pass completion rates and possession, as this Paddy Power Blog graphic shows. They’re the world leaders in moving the ball accurately so in a not entirely unexpected turn of events that means they’ve hold on to it more than anyone else. 81 per cent of their passes find their target and on average they hog 61% of possession. That’s good enough to top both categories so far at Euro 2012.
It’s no surprise to see Germany not far behind, either. If there’s one thing Joachim Low loves more than a freshly-pressed shirt to wear on the sideline, it’s elegant football. They were never offensive on the eye, but as his reign has gone on, Germany have become a more attractive footballing side. At times against Greece, their passing and movement was so quick and smooth, it warranted a song featuring the rapping talents of John Barnes. Their pass competition rate of 77% and possession of 57% are both the second best in the competition.
Despite everyone expecting Italy to survive as long as a cake in Beth Ditto’s dressing room, Cesare Prandelli has masterminded a shrewd campaign. They’ve generally been very Italian and defended solidly, but at times they’ve played some not very Italian, expansive football. It may not involve quite so much marauding movement as La Furia Roja or Die Mannschaft, but it’s good.
He’s 33 years of age, but Andrea Pirlo has to be in the running for both Player of the Tournament and Hair of the Tournament honours. The quality of his passing probably warranted Italy wrapping up their quarter-final long before Ashley Cole trickled his penalty to Gigi Buffon and Alessandro Diamanti sealed the deal.
Portugal are the least successful passers and ball-hoggers of the quartet. Part of this is down to the fact they do a lot of ‘giving the ball to Ronaldo and expect him to do something brilliant. That’s not to say that’s their only tactic. They sometimes also give Nani the ball and expect him to do something brilliant too.
CR7™ may be Europe’s best player, but when it comes to passing at this tournament, he’s very much in the middle of the pack. He has made 137 passes (six Spanish players have made 300+), slightly less than world renowned DIYer, Arjen Robben and only slightly more than the ‘not renowned for his playmaking’ Joe Hart. As a team, their pass completion rate is better than just three other teams in the competition. And two of those teams are Ireland and Greece, making those crumbs of comfort feel extra stale.
Unless there’s a dramatic and surprising change of heart from UEFA between now and Thursday, the semi-finals will be decided by who scores the most goals and not who has the better passing statistics. Despite the impressive numbers, Spain aren’t necessarily shoe-ins in the Ibero-Derby and Germany won’t have it easy against semi-final specialists, Italy.