Who does the data say will win Euro 2021?
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Making predictions about sport is hard. Making predictions about football is harder. Making predictions about international tournaments is even harder still.
While the weekly grind of club football provides a regular supply of fresh data, fluctuating performances and variable results to sink our teeth into, these biennial jamborees exist almost in a world of their own.
Clubs who are coached to the letter bring a degree of reliability. They might not win every game, because football’s low-scoring nature guarantees variance, but once a coach has been in place for some time we quickly get a feel for how they will approach games. There is a deluge of publicly available information, which in turn barely scratches the surface of the data and feedback the professionals have at their fingertips behind the scenes.
That data is more scarce and spotty at international level. The top nations rarely play each other in games of significance, despite Uefa’s best efforts with the Nations League. Qualification campaigns are spread over such a long period that a team’s early fixtures can seem irrelevant by the time a tournament arrives.
Coaches have little time to work with tired players. Their tactical approaches tend to be fairly vanilla and conservative as a result, leading to many low-scoring matches that hinge on moments.
While the quality of football may be a notch down from the Champions League, this sense of democratisation and levelling arguably makes international tournaments the sport’s greatest spectacle.
Despite all the pitfalls, Telegraph Sport has attempted to find out what makes a Euros winner to help us predict this year’s champion team. How much significance should be assigned to form, experience, age, time the manager has been in his job, world ranking, the quality of club players come from or the relative merits of defence and attack?
We have shown our working. Even if you disagree with our final verdict, hopefully the trends and patterns identified below can help you make an informed prediction of your own.
The Fifa World Rankings cause a great deal of consternation. How much stock can we place in a system which rewards accumulative results over a long period when it comes to evaluating a team’s chances in a knockout tournament?
For example, Belgium have topped the world rankings since September 2018 despite France winning the World Cup that summer, and their golden generation are yet to deliver a major tournament.
Furthermore, historical comparisons can be misleading due to frequent changes in the way rankings are calculated. Since 2018, Fifa have used a modified version of an Elo system, used in Chess, with points added or subtracted from a team’s rating after each game.
The full version of the Elo list is published as an alternative set of rankings to Fifa’s. When Telegraph Sport tried to predict the World Cup winner three years ago, we used the Elo system as the more advanced model and extended it back through history.
Euro 2021 Wallchart Predictor
We found that the team ranked No 1 in the world going into the World Cup does not tend to win it. In the past 18 editions, dating back to the 1950 World Cup, only Brazil in 1962 have been victorious as the highest-ranked team on the planet. Perhaps struggling with the weight of expectation, six of the last 18 world No 1s going into the World Cup have crashed out at the group stage, including Germany in 2018. Only three world No 1s have reached the World Cup final.
The European Championships though, is slightly less perilous for the top ranked nation, with a smaller competition played in familiar climate and environments reducing variables.
While the Euros have produced some high profile shocks, notably Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004, three of the last six winners have been the top ranked European nation in the Fifa standings. Since Denmark’s triumph, every Euros winner apart from Greece have been among the four highest-ranked European nations. In each of the last six Euros, the highest ranked nation has made it through the group stage, unlike at the 2002, 2014 and 2018 World Cups.
World or Uefa ranking of tournament winners
Verdict for Euro 2021: The winners of five of the last six editions have ranked in the top four European nations. Those teams this year are Belgium, France, England and Portugal, which is hardly groundbreaking news and is accounted for in the bookmakers’ odds. Belgium are the top ranked team, and the No 1 nation have won three of the last six Euros. It all depends how much weight you give to trends, which by their nature tend to come to an end. Perhaps we are overdue a shock and Denmark and Turkey look the most likely to spring a surprise.
As England know better than most, flying through qualification with a succession of high-scoring, convincing wins counts for little when the summer tournament kicks off. Qualification campaigns begin around 18 months before the finals, during which time half the team can change due to form, injuries and new players emerging.
England’s first European Championship qualification game featured Michael Keane, Eric Dier and Dele Alli, none of whom are in Gareth Southgate’s tournament squad, plus Jordan Henderson who is struggling with injury. How relevant is that 5-0 win over Czech Republic, who England face in their third group game this summer?
No team has won the Euros having qualified via the play-offs. Every winner since 1980 finished top of their qualification group, with the exception of Denmark who qualified in 1992 due to Yugoslavia being barred from the competition due to an active civil war. Before 1980, there was a different qualification format involving a group stage and then a two-legged ‘quarter-final’ to reach the final tournament, so a line has been put through these editions.
No Euros winner has lost more than two qualification games. The last four winners conceded just five, six, eight and four goals in qualification. As we shall see later, tournament winners are often pragmatic sides built on solid foundations.
Qualification form of Euros winners
Verdict for Euro 2021: Nobody had a better qualification record than Belgium, who won 10 of 10 group games scoring 40 and conceding just three in the process. England, France, Germany and Spain also topped their groups with ease, which comes as no surprise.
Interestingly, Holland and Portugal both finished second in their groups, but look teams capable of bucking the trend of Euros winners qualifying as group winners. Both lost just a single game and conceded fewer than a goal a game. Turkey were also a promising runner up, finishing two points behind France.
However, results in qualifying are not something to fixate on when picking a Euros winner.
Since 1966, the World Cup has never been won by a team that had not previously won an international tournament.
The story of the Euros however, is quite different. There is real substance to the notion that the Euros can be the competition where perennial bridesmaids finally become the bride.
For six of the last nine winners, it was their first tournament success (well, almost – Spain did win the 1964 European Championship when it was a far smaller event, but 2008 was their first tournament proper).
Antonin Panenka’s famous penalty won Czechoslovakia their first and only tournament at the 1976 European Championship (Czech Republic would go on to reach the final of Euro ’96 and the semi-finals of Euro 2004).
It is strange to think of France as a fading force, but that they were before Michel Platini led them to Euro ’84 glory on home soil.
Holland finally won the tournament their dazzling football and rich player production line deserved at Euro ’88, defeating their old nemesis West Germany in the semis before Marco van Basten’s breathtaking volley won the final against the Soviet Union.
Denmark and Greece were not so delightful for neutrals, but their team spirit and obdurate defending saw them lift the title in 1992 and 2004 and win their first and only tournaments.
Portugal became the latest team to repeat the feat by beating hosts France in the Euro 2016 final, a form of redemption for losing to Greece in Lisbon 12 years earlier.
How much tournament pedigree do Euros winners have?
Verdict for Euro 2021: If you want to follow the theme of first-time tournament winners, Belgium are the outstanding candidate and time is running out for this generation of players. After 56 years of hurt, an England triumph would feel like a maiden tournament success. As time goes by, there are fewer and fewer major nations without a title to their name. Croatia and Turkey have gone close in the past, and could be dark horses.
We are often told that experience is important in international tournaments, helping teams and individuals deal with the weight of pressure and expectation. Moreover, coaches have limited training ground time to work with, so it helps to have self-sufficient players who know their role and position rather than raw talents who need their hands held tactically.
The average age of the players making up World Cup-winning squads has remained largely consistent since 1950, it is about 26 years old. The same is true at the Euros, with each of the last eight winners having an average age of 26 or older. The youngest was Spain in 2008 at 26 years exactly, right at the start of their cycle of success which yielded the 2010 World Cup and another Euros in 2012. The oldest was Greece in 2004 at 28.3, which fits with our memory of them as a band of grizzled battlers.
Average age of Euros winners
It is worth remembering though, that average age is an imperfect measure of a team’s maturity. A nation could have a 40-year-old back-up goalkeeper who does not play a minute in the tournament, and push up the squad’s average age. It is worth looking into which players are actually expected to play.
Verdict for Euro 2021: England have picked their youngest ever tournament squad with an average age of just 25. Despite the tournament being delayed by 12 months, many judges believe it may have come too soon for Southgate’s team who have not been course and distance. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Belgium are now one of the oldest squads in the tournament with an average age of 29. Key players Axel Witzel, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are now into their 30s with Kevin De Bruyne celebrating his 30th birthday during the tournament.
Average age of players by year and stage reached in tournament, Euros and World Cups
Other leading contenders seem in the right age bracket, with France looking ominous at close to 27. The youngest players in their squad are Kylian Mbappe and Sevilla centre-back Jules Kounde at 22, with just six of 23 outfield players aged 30 or older. N’Golo Kante, Antoine Griezmann and Wissam Ben Yedder are 30, Moussa Sissoko 31, Karim Benzema 33 and Olivier Giroud 34.
International squad experience
A valid riposte to concerns about the callowness of youth is that today’s young players are more experienced on the international stage than those of the same age in previous years. In short, there are more international matches than ever before and it is easier to win caps. Incredibly, West Germany’s world champions of 1954 had an average of seven caps per player, which would be unthinkable in the modern game.
Four of the last five Euros winners have averaged more than 32 caps per player, with Spain the most experienced with a whopping 47.8 caps per player in 2012. That was the final triumph of a group of players who had grown up together: Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Portugal also had an experienced core to rely on, with a squad average of 36.9 caps, a number boosted by Cristiano Ronaldo’s mammoth tally. Bruno Alves, Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho, Joao Moutinho, Nani and Ricardo Queresma all had 50 or more caps.
The most inexperienced of recent Euros winners was actually the Dutch in 1988. Two of their most experienced players were Ronald Koeman and Ruud Gullit, who at the age of 25 had won 23 and 34 caps respectively, relatively few by today’s standards. Van Baasten had made just 19 senior appearances and seven members of the squad had fewer than 10 caps.
Average caps per player of Euros winners
Verdict for Euro 2021: Belgium are the most experienced team, averaging in excess of 50 caps per player which would make them the most experienced team to win the competition. Portugal and France are the next most experienced with 40 and 38.6 caps per player which is right in the range of previous winners.
England have just 20.4 caps per player – only Scotland, Hungary and Czech Republic are more inexperienced (strangely enough, Scotland and Czech Republic are in England’s group). Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Kyle Walker and Harry Kane are the only players with more than 50 caps to their name and Henderson is an injury doubt.
A common theme with tournament winners is having a core of players who are part of one or two successful club sides. This may seem a fatuous point – the best teams having the best players – but it is an interesting dynamic and something that may have handicapped England where the talent is spread around more than one or two clubs.
Spain won three tournaments with Barcelona’s midfield three in the heart of their team, plus the likes of David Villa and Cesc Fabregas, supplemented by some big characters from Real Madrid. Germany’s 2014 World Champions had seven Bayern Munich players in their squad and four from Borussia Dortmund. Bayern had won the Bundesliga and made it to the Champions League semi-finals in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup, having been European champions in 2013 when they met Dortmund in the final.
This year, Premier League winners Manchester City and Champions League winners Chelsea are the two clubs with the most representation in the tournament, with 15 players each.
Man City and Chelsea draw for team choices
Verdict for Euro 2021: Southgate has been denied the chance to work with his City, Man Utd and Chelsea contingent in the build-up to the tournament: four from United, four from City and three from Chelsea.
France are not especially reliant on players from one club, with Bayern Munich the most represented in the squad with four players: Benjamin Pavard, Corentin Tolisso, Kingsley Coman and Lucas Hernandez. Coincidentally, France play their opening group match against Germany at Bayern’s Allianz Arena.
Spain have not picked a single player from Real Madrid for the first time in major tournament history. There are only three Barcelona players in Luis Enrique’s final squad too, so it is a far more disparate and diverse group than we remember.
Holland have five Ajax players and three each from PSV Eindhoven and AZ Alkmaar, which could hold them in good stead. Italy have just four players in their squad who play abroad.
Portugal have more players from Wolves than from Sporting Lisbon, Benfica or Porto. Belgium have perhaps been held back by the way their talent is scattered all over Europe, with Dortmund and Leicester the most represented in their squad at three each.
Of the leading nations, Germany have the biggest quota of players from a single club with eight from Bayern Munich who won the Champions League just over a year ago. There are doubts about their on-pitch identity and a difficult transition period under Joachim Low, soon to depart, but this could count in their favour.
Managerial experience and pedigree
Each of the last six World Cup-winning managers have had at least 20 years in the business prior to the tournament, and experience also seems to pay at the European Championships. It should be noted that survivorship bias could be at play here: if international jobs are mostly occupied by older managers then of course tournament winners will be managed by older managers.
Nevertheless, these are the facts: each of the last eight coaches to win the Euros had at least 17 years of managerial experience. The most experienced by this measure was the pioneering Rinus Michels, who Holland managed to coax back into football 35 years after his first coaching role to led them to Euros success in 1988. Richard Moller Nielsen with Denmark in 1992, Otto Rehhagel with Greece in 2004 and Luis Aragones with Spain in 2008 also had more than 30 years in management under their belt. The least experienced during this period was Berti Vogts, Germany coach in 1996, who had nevertheless been in management for 17 years.
Years in management before winning Euros
Verdict for Euro 2021: According to history, this measure rules out Gareth Southgate’s England, Frank De Boer’s Holland, Roberto Martinez’s Belgium and even Luis Enrique’s Spain due to a lack of managerial experience. It is worth remembering that while Southgate’s first job was 15 years ago with Middlesbrough, it was one of only two roles he held before becoming England manager. Surely someone will come along and reverse the trend though?
Didier Deschamps with France, Joachim Low’s Germany and Roberto Mancini’s Italy are in the sweet spot. Portugal’s Fernando Santos is the senior statesman with 34 years in management.
While a lengthy CV seems to help, a manager does not necessarily need to be in post for very long to have an impact at international tournaments. Prior to France and Deschamps in 2018 (six years) and Low and Germany in 2014 (eight years), the previous three World Cup-winning managers have needed two years or fewer in the role.
At the last eight Euros, while no winning manager has been in charge for more than six years, all have been in charge for two or more.
Years in job before winning Euros
Verdict for Euro 2021: While Southgate’s history may count against him, he is coming up for five years in the England job which feels about the right time to make a breakthrough. This metric suggests we can put a line through Holland, who Frank De Boer only took charge of in September 2020. Denmark are fancied to upset a few but Kasper Hjulmand has only been their manager since last year.
Enrique and Mancini have had two and three years respectively to imprint their ideas on Spain and Italy which looks promising. Low, Deschamps and Santos have had long stretches in charge – 15 years, nine years and seven years respectively – but does that bring the risk of things going stale?
Prioritise solid defences over thrilling attacks
Finally, it is worth stressing that defences tend to win tournaments. The winners of the last eight tournaments have conceded fewer than a goal per game, with four of them conceding fewer than a goal every other game.
While we remember Greece 2004, Italy 2006 (World Cup) and Portugal 2016 for their obduracy and defensive rigour, it is sometimes forgotten that Spain’s success was built on giving up mere crumbs to opponents and defending through possession. As the influence of penetrative forwards Fernando Torres and David Villa waned, this possession – though admired for its technical precision – was often rather sterile. Spain conceded just two goals at the 2010 World Cup, winning three consecutive knockout games 1-0 before beating Holland 1-0 in extra time in the final. At Euro 2012, they conceded just one goal in six games.
The secret to winning major tournaments lies in defence – not attack
Spain did score two goals per game in both of their European Championship triumphs, but that average was helped by a couple of flurries: they scored seven in two matches against Russia in 2008 and in 2012 they put four past Ireland and then Italy in the final. The only team in the last eight tournaments to average more than two goals per game was Germany at the 2014 World Cup, though their average was boosted by putting seven past Brazil. In their other knockout games, they rode their luck to beat Algeria 2-1 in extra-time, beat France 1-0 in the quarters and Argentina 1-0 in extra time in the final thanks to Mario Gotze’s goal.
This is a notable contrast with the top level of European club football: the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Ignoring last year’s Covid-induced format, seven of the previous 10 Champions League winners averaged more than two goals per game in the knockout stages and the final. Three of those 10 winners managed to lift the famous trophy while conceding more than a goal per game. The most ‘international like’ of recent Champions League winners was Real Madrid in 2016, who conceded an uncharacteristic 0.43 goals per game while scoring just 1.29. Less surprising is that Jose Mourinho’s Inter in 2010 are next, though they still scored more goals than Spain did at that year’s World Cup despite their contrasting philosophies.
Functional football gets the job done in summer tournaments
Verdict for 2021: Germany and England both look fragile defensively and a worry for Belgium is that their best defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are ageing, with Vincent Kompany retired.
The same can be said of Italy where old warhorses Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are still relied upon. Inexperience could well prove Spain’s problem in this department – their four central defenders have 21 caps between them.
Aside from their devastating attacking talent, this is the main reason why France are favourites. They have ludicrous depth at centre-back, and most of them are the right age and athletic profile. Each of France’s defenders are between 22 and 28.
Defending is also the reason Turkey and Denmark are fancied as outsiders. Turkey conceded just three goals in 10 games in qualifying with the Danes conceding just six in eight. Confusingly, Turkey conceded at least two in seven of nine matches between October and March and were relegated in the Nations League, so they will need to rediscover solidity.
Denmark’s centre-backs are Lyon’s Joachim Andersen, Champions League winner Andreas Christensen, Milan’s Simon Kjaer and Southampton’s Jannik Vestergaard. They will be screened by Thomas Delaney of Dortmund and Spurs’ Pierre-Emile Hojberg which looks a sound base. Turkey will likely partner Juventus’ Merih Demiral and Leicester’s Caglar Soyuncu at centre-half with Lille’s Ligue 1 winning right-back Zeki Celik alongside them.
So who will win Euro 2021?
Starting among the favourites, we are putting a line through England and Belgium. Southgate’s side are exciting but are still a little green and lacking defensive stability. At the other end of the spectrum, we think the 12-month delay has hurt Belgium’s golden generation with first-choice defenders and Eden Hazard looking past their best.
The importance of defensive diligence also sees us rule out Joachim Low’s Germany, who rather like England have some precocious talent but look too open. Spain and Italy have very good managers with notable achievements at club level, and have the midfield to control long periods of a game against any team, but lack a vintage centre-forward. If they can keep enough clean sheets, they might be able to squeeze out some one-goal wins out and therefore should not be discounted. Frank De Boer is off-putting when considering Holland’s chances.
Download banner: Euro 2021 football wallchart
There is a reason France are favourites, and we are not going to dissent from the view they are the most likely winners. Their squad is of prime age, their collection of centre-backs plus N’Golo Kante should be able to keep the back door shut as tournament winners need to do and while Deschamps is not the most exciting coach, he is competent and his players happily adapt their natural games for him.
They do have a tough group alongside Germany and Portugal, the European Championship holders who could be France’s closest challengers on paper. Since winning the tournament five years ago, Portugal have added Ruben Dias, Joao Cancelo, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota and Joao Felix to their squad. They still have some old heads and a wise manager, so there is not much to dislike.
We do however, fancy France might face a surprise name in the final. This Euros is quite open, and the hectic club schedule which preceded could prove a leveller and favour some of the smaller nations. With a vastly experienced manager, eight clean sheets in qualifying and number of players who have achieved great things with their clubs this season, we think Turkey could be that team.