Euro 2024 semi-final: How bad are England playing really, and does it matter when it comes to winning?

England take on The Netherlands at the Euros this evening, with a final against Spain on Sunday up for grabs.

The endings of the last two England games have certainly been memorable, but all the other bits have been far from it.

After five perfect penalties and a last-minute overhead kick, England are in the semi finals, but critics will tell you they don’t deserve to be there. However, history and data shows us that a defensive strategy can pay off.

What’s been disappointing for many fans is seeing the likes of Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden and Harry Kane, best players or top scorers in Spain, England and Germany respectively, struggle to replicate their club form on the international stage.

If that’s what you think’s been happening, your eyes haven’t been deceiving you – the stats back it up. But perhaps it’s the old England fan favourite of hyped up expectations that’s leaving them feeling disappointed again.

Jude Bellingham has actually been England’s best player so far, according to the data – he’s averaged a ‘WhoScored’ rating of 7.27 out of 10 in his five matches so far.

WhoScored is a football analytics company that measures player performance using an algorithm that weights over 200 different statistics – from dribbles to passes to tackles to goals, based on their positive or negative influence on the game.

Despite apparently being England’s finest, these Euros performances from Bellingham are still not up to the level we’ve been used to seeing from him this season.

The Birmingham-born midfielder averaged 7.81 out of 10 for Real Madrid, the second-best average in men’s elite football last season.

The only man to score higher for their club was England captain Harry Kane. He averaged 7.82 out of 10 for Bayern Munich, but has fallen to just 6.78 in the Euros so far, despite his two goals in five games.

That’s one of the biggest differences between club and Euros form, but the overall score still leaves him as the country’s fifth highest ranked player this tournament, just ahead of defensive duo Marc Guehi and John Stones.

The centre backs are the only players so far who have managed to outperform their club form for their country.

What has that meant as a team?

There’s no other way to put it, England’s attack has been terrible.

If you look at ‘expected goals’ or ‘xG’, a measure of the quality of attacking chances based on how many similar shots in the past have been scored, only Scotland have created less per game.

Football stats companies like Opta now record expected goals alongside traditional stats like shots on target or possession.

Spain, who England will face in the final should they beat The Netherlands, have created more xG than anyone bar Croatia.

Attack isn’t everything, however. Croatia, you may remember, were eliminated at the group stage, along with Czechia (fourth in the creative chances metrics). Austria (third) went out in the first knockout round.

The case for the defence

While England’s attack has been poor, it has one of the tightest defences, third only to fellow semi-finalists France and hosts Germany in terms of the fewest amount of high-quality chances they’ve allowed goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to face.

All of the tournament’s four semi-finalists are in the top seven best performing defences, perhaps vindicating Gareth Southgate’s suggestions that it may a better indicator for success at tournament level than attacking prowess.

What does it mean in terms of winning?

You probably remember where you were when you watched England face Italy in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley.

What you might not remember is that you were watching a clash between that tournament’s two tightest defences, but just the sixth and ninth best attacks.

Spain were best going forward again that year, while the likes of Poland and even Scotland, both eliminated at the group stage again, had better attacks than England who were a couple of penalties away from winning the whole thing.

In 2016, expected goals as a concept had not yet become mainstream enough for it to be recorded by Opta.

But winners Portugal conceded just one goal in the knockouts. They also only won one match in normal time in the whole tournament, against Wales, suggesting that other parts of their performances might have been lacking like England’s have.

Spain didn’t concede in the knockouts at all when they won in 2008 and did even better when they defended the title in 2012, conceding just one goal in the whole tournament.

Greece also one-niled themselves the whole way through the knockouts for their incredible surprise victory in 2004.

As Michael Owen once famously said, if teams don’t score, they hardly ever win. But the last 20 years of history shows us that if teams don’t concede, they have a really good chance of winning the Euros.

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.

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