I've long felt that statistics told us little about what happens on a soccer field. Over time, I've been convinced otherwise, at first by Voros McCracken, a noted and innovative baseball analyst who also likes and examines soccer. Voros once chided me for my position, saying that while perhaps the soccer statistics of the past were lacking, even they told us something, and while I always wondered where the soccer stats would come from, Voros accurately predicted the onslaught of new-fangled stats that give us a lot of concrete data regarding what happens on a soccer field. We can still argue over the importance of various items, but the information is there, it can be analyzed, and I was wrong.
Still, I'm going to call on a couple of really basic numbers here, then mention my own cockamamie notion. Euro 2008 was a smashing success, not just for fans of Spain, but for neutrals everywhere. Two years ago, I spent a month detailing World Cup 2006, and a fair criticism of that work was that I was too negative. Some felt I wanted perfection 100% of the time.
That World Cup and the just-finished Euro 2008 offer useful comparisons. I'll begin by noting that in the following, I am treating each match as having equal importance, which is nonsense ... the final was more important than the third matches in the group stage that had to bearing on the standings. But I'm not making any grand statements here, just trying to figure out why this tournament was so much better than Germany '06.
In that World Cup, there was an average of 2.3 goals per match. In Euro 2008, it was 2.5. This might seem like a minor difference, but the scoring of goals is so fundamental to the enjoyment factor of a match that even a fractional improvement is welcomed.
More to the point, in Germany two years ago, 7 of the 64 matches ended in a scoreless draw. At Euro 2008, only 2 of 31 matches were 0-0.
But my goofy subjective idea really brings it home. When I first wrote about this, I called it the "Best Match Theory." Again, this theory was meant to ignore context ... it gives no extra points to a final ... so it has its limitations. But it is a pretty clear way to spot the kinds of matches I enjoy. A "Best Match" must meet two criteria:
1) the margin of victory is one goal, or the match is a draw
2) at least one of the teams must score multiple goals
Blowouts don't make this list, although I personally found Spain's second-half dismantling of Russia to be darned entertaining. Scoreless bores don't make it either, even though you could say the teams were equals on the day. No, to be a best match, it has to be close, and there have to be at least 3 goals.
There were 11 "best matches" out of the 64 played at the 2006 World Cup. In the 31 matches of Euro 2008 there were 8 best matches. Around 26%, compared to around 17% in Germany.
It's an iffy "system" at best that doesn't consider today's final a "best match." I guess what the theory tells us is that if today's match had been a mid-season matchup of two middling clubs, a 1-0 result where one team outplayed the other fairly comprehensively wouldn't be remembered as a classic. That's what's wrong with the theory, because today's match was a classic, in large part because of the context. But if you want to know why I enjoyed this tournament, the theory helps explain it.
Here are the "8 Best Matches":
Turkey over Switzerland, 2-1. Heck with theories, you could say it a lot simpler by just noting that Turkey was always entertaining. In this match, they trailed the hosts at halftime, scored an equalizer early in the second half, and scored the winner in extra time. The definition of a Best Match, I'd say. ESPN seemed to agree ... they gave the match a 9 rating on a scale of 10, their readers averaged 8.1.
Croatia over Germany, 2-1. This wasn't quite as exciting as the scoreline ... Germany only got on the board late in the match ... but the context (Germany losing) was surprising enough to add to the quality, even if the "theory" doesn't care about that stuff. ESPN users rated it at 7.9.
Spain 2-1 over Sweden. Each scored a first-half goal ... Spain won it in the last minute. ESPN users had it 7.9, but their editors were less impressed (6.0).
Turkey 3, Czech Republic 2. Here are the Turks again. Trailing by two goals, they put in three in the last fifteen minutes to pull off the victory. The ESPN editors gave it the highest rating of 10, while the users averaged 9.6. An all-time classic.
Spain 2, Greece 1. The theory fails most clearly here. This was a meaningless match ... that Spain overcame a deficit to win in the 88th minute is what makes it a "best match," but their 1-0 win in the final was obviously better. Context does matter. Editors: 8. Users: 6.8.
Germany 3-2 over Portugal in the quarter-finals. Editors 9, Users 8.4.
Russia 3-1 over Holland. Doesn't exactly fit the theory, but it was 1-1 after regulation (at least kinda meets the first criteria) and Russia scored twice in the last eight minutes (meeting the second criteria). The editors only gave it a 7, but the users had it at 8.5.
Germany 3, Turkey 2 in the semis. The match of the tournament. Three goals in the last eleven minutes, including the winner in extra time. ESPN preferred the Turks-Czech match (Editors 9, Users 8.3).
I'd say seven of these eight were indeed top-flight. Add in Spain's last three matches (beating Italy on penalties after a scoreless draw that did suffer from Italy-itis, scoring three second-half goals to beat Russia, and the final against Germany) and you've got 9 or 10 good ones. Croatia-Turkey was scoreless for 118 minutes, so it's not going to make my list, but the two goals in the last two minutes were classic all on their own.
I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of matches here, but the point, I hope, is semi-clear: this was an entertaining tournament with more good matches than usual and fewer bad ones, plenty of drama, and a general lack of the kind of defensive play that is so boring (seeya later, Italy). Spain averaged 2 goals a match, and were rewarded with a championship, putting the defense lovers on their backheels for a change. I miss this tournament already.