Euro 2024 goals from long distance buck the trend and the football has been so much better for it | Football News

With the first round of games at Euro 2024 now complete, the entertainment level has been high. One of the reasons for that has been the sheer number of long-range goals. 11 so far have come from outside the penalty box.

The goal glut began with two of Germany’s five goals on the opening night coming from distance. That set the tone. Romania scored a couple of their own against Ukraine, Nicolae Stanciu with an early contender for goal of the tournament.

Mert Muldur’s outrageous volley for Turkey against Georgia on Tuesday might just have topped that but does not even count towards the tally – coming from just inside the area. No matter, because the next two did, Arda Guller curling in a beauty.

Long-range goals rarer now in Premier League

Only 11.5 per cent of goals were scored from outside the penalty box in the 2023/24 Premier League season, the lowest number from records dating back to 2010/11.

This is extremely unusual. There were only 17 goals from outside the penalty box at Euro 2016, that number rising to 19 at Euro 2020. But there were 51 matches played at those tournaments. Euro 2024 has seen 11 such goals in only 12 matches.

In their own review of the previous European Championship, UEFA concluded: “This seems to indicate a continuing inclination to work the ball into areas more likely to produce a goal rather than the low-percentage option of striking at goal from distance.”

That is what makes this interesting. There was a time when goal of the month montages would routinely include a collection of thunderous strikes from long distance. The trend now is towards something more intricate. This bucks that trend.

Fewer shots from outside the box is seen as a consequence of the rise of analytics and the expected-goals data now so popular in the game. This analysis highlighted what should have been obvious. Shots from distance are much less likely to succeed.

As a result, coaches have increasingly discouraged it. Couple that with the preference for retaining possession, choosing passes over shots, and the result is that the percentage of shots being taken from outside the box has been decreasing.

Premier League data shows that this past season saw a record low percentage of long shots. It has been gradual over the past decade but significant. From 44.9 per cent of shots coming from outside the box 10 years ago, the number is now 32.8 per cent.

It is being coached out of the game.

Why has Euro 2024 been different? The boring answer is sample size and there will surely be some regression to the mean as the tournament progresses. But 39.2 per cent of the shots have been from outside the box. Something is going on here.

Germany's shot map from their 5-1 win against Scotland at Euro 2024
Germany’s shot map from their 5-1 win against Scotland at Euro 2024

Two theories come to mind, one psychological and the other tactical.

Firstly, the psychological explanation. The emotion of representing your country at a major tournament cuts differently. Visualisation is a huge element of the game for many players and they have been thinking about this summer for months, perhaps years.

Who could blame them if, when the space opens up, they interpret this as the big moment that they had been envisioning for so long, their chance to be the hero of their nation. When that opportunity comes, they do not want to be left wondering.

Romania's Nicolae Stanciu, fourth left, scores the opening goal during a Group E match between Romania and Ukraine at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament in Munich, Germany, Monday, June 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Nicolae Stanciu’s magical moment for Romania against Ukraine at Euro 2024

Perhaps the tactical explanation is more compelling because it highlights another key difference between the trend at club level and the reality of the international game. Club football has become so coached now that rogue decisions are frowned upon.

Increasingly, it is about those prescribed patterns in the final third of the pitch, designed by the world’s best coaches. This football has turned the best players in the world into automatons who know where every team-mate is without even looking.

International football? This is a relatively wild environment. The relationships on the pitch are not so fully formed, the next passing option not always available. And besides, there is no super-coach on the sideline ready to scream if it is ignored.

Turkey attempted a tournament-high 11 shots from outside the box in their win over Georgia at Euro 2024
Turkey attempted a tournament-high 11 shots from outside the box

Most would accept that club football has long since become the pinnacle of the game, the UEFA Champions League being the competition in which the sport is played to its highest standard. But more fun, more spectacular? On this evidence, not necessarily.

Euro 2024 has been all the better for those ambitious efforts. And, intriguingly, there is some statistical evidence emerging that teams might actually be justified in shooting more regularly than they now do. It could be that the dial needs shifting back.

A paper for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2021 entitled ‘Leaving Goals on the Pitch’ explored this possibility and reached just such a conclusion. It was introduced with a quote from Johan Cruyff. “You can’t score if you don’t shoot.”

That research found that there were areas outside the box from which teams could add between 0.5 and 1.5 goals per season to their overall total if they increased their shot frequency in those zones by 10 to 20 per cent rather than attempting another action.

Passing might lead to a better chance. But, of course, it might not. Eschewing that shot comes with the risk that the better shot never arrives. Indeed, they found that even the very best teams would benefit from not trying yet another pass in certain situations.

Those teams that are not Manchester City? For them, the reasons to take that shot are even more persuasive. Perhaps intuitively, Romania’s players recognised it. Six of their nine shots came from outside the box. That willingness to have a go changed the game.

Romania's unusual shot map from their 3-0 win over Ukraine at Euro 2024
Romania’s unusual shot map from their win over Ukraine at Euro 2024

Would they have been better off waiting for a better chance or picking out a team-mate? Perhaps. Romelu Lukaku will certainly wish that Leandro Trossard had picked him out rather than pulling the trigger on two occasions in Belgium’s defeat to Slovakia.

For now, let’s welcome this wilder style of football with its maverick decision-making. Here’s to Florian Wirtz and Emre Can, to Razvan Marin and Lukas Provod, and all those players who have lit up the first round of group games in Germany.

There has only been one goal from outside the box in a European Championship final in over 30 years, scored by Eder for Portugal in their extra-time win over France at Euro 2016. Maybe it is time for Euro 2024 to finish how it started and deliver us another.

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