When I get nervous watching football on TV, I usually turn to the match statistics in the hope of some succour. But the reality is that, no matter how much the stats might favour my team, a narrow lead can always be eradicated in a moment of bad fortune. As they say in a different context, the past is no guide to the future.
Last night I was very nervous. And from very early in the game. At first, the statistics seemed to be a real help. Despite appearance to the contrary, England were dominating possession – almost 70:30 in our favour until … well, until I realised that the BBC were showing Italy in the “home” team column, despite the match being at Wembley. (The Beeb obviously thought football wasn’t coming home last night.) Our possession of the ball was, in fact, as poor as it had seemed to the naked eye.
Possession isn’t everything, of course. Not if you are creating, and taking, chances. But, after Luke Shaw’s heart-warming, nerve-settling goal on 1 min and 57 secs, England went through the entire first half without another shot.
The match facts from Sky Sports show that, once the left-back had struck home (from the right back’s exquisite cross), we didn’t have another attempt on the Italian goal until a header (off-target) from centre back, Harry Maguire, in the 56th minute. Our next attempt, another header (also off-target), came from the other centre back, John Stones. Those were the only three players to attempt a shot or header at goal during the 90 minutes. The one remaining attempt (after 85 minutes and off-target once again) was a second shot from our left-back.1
Four attempts on goal from those nominally playing at the back sounds like a very forward-pressing team. But what does it say about the performance if those were the only attempts? As Gary Linker pointed out during the post-match analysis, England were playing a heavily conservative formation: a back three, two wing-backs and two defensive midfielders. That left us with just three players having attack as their primary focus.
One of them, Harry Kane, is one of the most prolific scorers in an England shirt. But Alan Shearer, BBC pundit and a former top scorer for England, claimed that the current leading goal-scorer kept dropping deep in search of the ball – so deep and so often that he didn’t touch the ball once in the opposition penalty area.
To be fair, it was one of those moves that helped create the goal. But, surely, I thought: Shearer must be wrong. So I checked the statistics. And he was wrong. Kane scored during the penalty shoot-out. But during the actual match? During the 90 minutes? Plus 30 minutes of extra time? And the 12 minutes of time added on for stoppages? In the 132 minutes? There must have been touches by Harry Kane in the Italian penalty area? Nope, none at all. None. At. All.
I don’t know what to make of that. Teams have been deploying deep-lying forwards and a false number nine since before I was born. But, if they are also the players you most look to for goals, don’t they need to get forward at some point?
I’m not a football tactician. I wouldn’t know how to set up a kids’ soccer team, let alone a team playing at the highest level of international football. I wouldn’t dare to second-guess Gareth Southgate. If my nerves hadn’t been so on edge last night, I wouldn’t have looked at the statistics. I wish I hadn’t.
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In the interests of completeness, I should mention that there were two more attempts during extra time: a shot (wide) from defensive midfielder, Kalvin Phillips, and, finally, after 1 hour and 48 minutes, a shot (blocked) from a striker, substitute Jack Grealish.