Euro 2022 vs Euro 2017 is a different ball game: England pass completion is up 20%

Across almost every aspect of Euro 2022, the numbers are up dramatically from Euro 2017: higher prize money, higher attendances and higher viewing figures.

But what has perhaps been overlooked so far is the rise in the quality of football.

Over the last half-decade, the women’s game has improved considerably — and England has represented that dramatic forward leap better than any competing nation. Five years ago, under Mark Sampson, England’s pass completion rate was 63 percent. Now, it’s up to 83 percent.

A 20 percent jump in pass completion rate is enormous. To put that into context, not since Tony Pulis’ Stoke City in 2010-11 has a Premier League side recorded a pass completion rate as low as 63 per cent, but 83 per cent is what Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal achieved that season and what Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal achieved last season. They are essentially the two ends of the footballing spectrum, and it’s obvious that supporters accustomed to top-level men’s football will be more enamored with the latter.

This matters. In a world of almost unlimited choice of viewing, the product needs to be good for people to be interested. In an interview with The Athletic at the start of the tournament, BBC host Gabby Logan was honest about her experiences of covering the Women’s World Cup in 2007, recalling “being really enthusiastic about something, but knowing that it’s not quite there yet”.

It’s a matter of debate about precisely when the quality became “there”, but it’s not unreasonable for those unfamiliar with women’s football to have tuned in for this competition and been surprised. There’s been a significant step forward, and it’s worth detailing some basic numbers across the tournaments to illustrate the progress over the past five years.

2017 2022

Pass completion

71%

77%

Pass completion in own half

83%

85%

Pass completion in opposition half

63%

70%

Pass completion into the final third

57%

64%

Crossing accuracy

19%

23%

Shot conversion rate

9%

11%

Errors leading to goals

12

8

Fouls per game

24

17

England’s pass completion rate improvement of 20 percent has not been matched overall, but six percent between one tournament and the next is a healthy improvement.

Interestingly, a further breakdown suggests that this owes primarily to an improved pass completion rate into the opposition half, and into the final third (a jump of seven percent) rather than in a side’s own half. In other words, the change has not been about a concerted shift away from long goal kicks and towards playing out of the back, but instead about more patience and precision in the final third.

Other basic statistics are up. Crosses are four percent more likely to find a team-mate. The shot conversion rate is two percent higher, probably because there are fewer hopeful long-range punts and more of a focus on working the ball into dangerous positions.

According to Opta’s definition, there have been four fewer mistakes leading to goals (there’s still room for that to change, although four within one game seems unlikely) and fouls have fallen by 29 percent over the past five years, which ensures games are played at a higher tempo with fewer stoppages.

But it’s the pass completion rates that most concisely illustrate the shift, and it’s worth breaking the numbers down into individual teams to demonstrate that there’s been progress across the board. The following four graphs show figures for the 14 teams who played at both Euro 2017 and Euro 2022. The average at the bottom of the graph includes the figures of the extra two sides — Finland and Northern Ireland have replaced Russia and Scotland from five years ago .

There are a few notable aspects of this graph.

First, 13 of the 14 sides’ pass completion rate has improved, which speaks for itself.

Second, the only team whose pass completion rate has fallen — quite considerably, in fact, by seven percent — is Germany. That reflects a change in approach under Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, and a determination to work the ball forward more quickly. However, it’s still a surprise to see one of the finalists has a lower pass completion rate than the average.

After England, the next-biggest improvers in this respect have been Austria, by 17 percent. They squeezed into the semis five years ago before “only” making the quarter-finals here, but it explains why manager Irene Fuhrmann was so pleased with their progress in terms of playing style.

There’s a similar pattern in terms of pass completion rate inside teams’ own half of the pitch — England and Austria are the biggest improvers, and Germany the biggest fallers, although five of the 14 sides have become less accurate in this respect.

In the opposition half, the patterns are broadly consistent, although it’s also worth highlighting improvements of 11 percent from Norway, who were disappointing this time around but didn’t even manage a goal five years ago, and 12 percent from Italy, who admittedly didn’t create many chances.

And despite Germany and Belgium finding their pass completion rate down significantly when it comes to playing the ball into the final third, there were considerable improvements. There are jumps of around nine percent from Sweden, once termed “a bunch of cowards” by United States goalkeeper Hope Solo at the 2016 Olympics because of their determination to sit back and defend, and Spain, who were already playing tiki-taka five years ago but have taken it a step further here.

But perhaps the most telling metric is the oldest one in the book — goals. There were only 68 goals five years ago, making for a slightly pitiful 2.19 per game. This time, it’s been 92 at a rate of 3.07. With an asterisk over France vs Netherlands, which needed extra time for the French to make the breakthrough, we haven’t had a goalless draw.

All this suggests that this has been the highest-quality women’s tournament we’ve seen, probably by a large distance.

After his side’s elimination by England, Sweden manager Peter Gerhardsson said that the European Championship has the greatest concentration of good teams, more so than the World Cup or Olympics, which includes some giants from other continents but also some relative minnows because of the need for geographic spread.

He’s probably right. But with major tournaments to come in 2023 (World Cup), 2024 (Olympics) and 2025 (the next European Championship), it will be fascinating to see whether the quality of football continues to improve at such an impressive rate.

(Photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

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