Scotland Set to Qualify for Euro 2024 and English Football’s Increasing Emphasis on Passing


Stat, Viz, Quiz is the weekly Opta Analyst newsletter. Our latest edition includes numbers on Scotland qualifying for Euro 2024, passing numbers in English football and interesting stats on Premier League draws.


There were scenes of jubilation in the away end at Estadio La Cartuja last Thursday as Scott McTominay bent a free-kick into the far corner of Spain’s net, allowing Scotland to dream of a famous win. Then VAR intervened and poured cold water on the celebrations, with Spain ultimately winning 2-0.

That merely delayed the party by a few days, though, as Spain then became Scotland’s BFF after beating Norway 1-0 on Sunday, meaning Steve Clarke’s men are heading to the 2024 European Championship. Some might put a lazy Braveheart reference here, but we like to think we’re above such things (wipes off face paint).

In this week’s SVQ, we take a look at Scotland’s journey to sealing their place in Germany, while we also analyse the English football pyramid and how the season has started stylistically.

There’s also the quiz part of the SVQ trident, while our Ask Opta question is all about stalemates, or a lack thereof.

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STAT: Power of Scotland

Scotland have won 15 of their last 19 competitive international matches (D1 L3), despite that controversial 2-0 loss in Spain last time out.

It wasn’t long ago that the Scotland national team perennially missed out on the big stage. Sightings of them at major tournaments were even rarer than those of the Loch Ness monster (general sightings, that is; we’re not suggesting ‘Nessie’ should also be qualifying for major tournaments).

Their qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup was not the worst, winning five of their 10 games (D3 L2), but they ultimately finished third behind Slovakia. To rub salt into the wounds, England won their group, as Scotland faced up to the fact they would go beyond 20 years without appearing at a major tournament.

Despite another third-place finish in qualifying for Euro 2020, their performance in the Nations League gave them a place in the playoffs, and they then beat both Israel and Serbia on penalties to advance to the tournament.

A disappointing Euro 2020 experience was merely a bump in the road as they impressed in World Cup 2022 qualifying, finishing second in their group and again making the playoffs. They were beaten 3-1 at Hampden Park by Ukraine, though.

Steve Clarke has undoubtedly developed the team’s identity and confidence since he was appointed in May 2019, and that has been evident during their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign. Scotland won their first five games, including victories over Spain and Norway.

Scotland Set to Qualify for Euro 2024 and English Football’s Increasing Emphasis on Passing

Scotland actually won five games in a row in all competitions between March and September. Though they have lost their last two (friendly vs England and qualifier vs Spain), Spain’s 1-0 win in Norway on Sunday sealed qualification for both La Roja and Scotland.

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Clarke’s men face 2022 World Cup runners-up France in a friendly on Tuesday as they look to avoid losing three games in a row for the first time since a run of four between June and October 2019.

Scotland can start preparing for next year’s European Championship in Germany. If they keep developing the way they have been, perhaps they can even become a regular feature at major tournaments… (starts reapplying face paint).


VIZ: Slow and Steady Wins the League?

Team style comparison top four leagues
Viz by Jonathan Manuel

You’ll be familiar with the fable of the tortoise and the hare. They had a race, with the latter speeding off, and the former insistent that being “slow and steady” was the best approach, and he was right.

Of course, it was the hare’s carelessness that was to blame more than anything else. We’re not sure we could beat Max Verstappen’s Red Bull in a race with our Hyundai i10, to be honest (though never say never).

There is a trend for slowing things down that can be seen throughout English football this season, though.

In June, we looked at the various playing styles from the Premier League to League Two to compare and contrast, with interesting results.

Given football is an ever-evolving creature, we thought we’d check to see if there’s been any further developments so far in the 2023-24 season, and this week’s above viz suggests that, yes, there have.

The Premier League, Championship, League One and League Two have all seen an increase in passes per sequence, while also seeing slower average attacking speed upfield. This has been a growing theme in the Premier League in recent years, and you can see it filtering down the English Football League. It seems to stem from an overall increase in passes attempted.

For example, in League Two last season, Swindon averaged the most passes per game at 457.9. So far this season, Notts County lead the way with an average of 606 passes per game. In fact, there are seven teams currently averaging more passes per game in League Two this season than Swindon’s tally from last season.

In League One last season, Ipswich unsurprisingly led on passes per game with 487.2, with Charlton Athletic back in second on 439.3. It’s not quite as drastic as the league below, but there has still been an increase: Portsmouth (492.9), Bolton Wanderers (490.7) and Bristol Rovers (490.5) are ahead of Ipswich from last season, and a total of nine teams are averaging more than Charlton did.

It’s the same story in the Championship last season, with then Russell Martin’s Swansea City averaging the most passes per game with 594.3, followed by champions Burnley on 565.6. Middlesbrough were the only other team to average more than 500 passes per game (503.6).

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Martin is doing it again at Southampton, even if results haven’t yet followed, averaging 634.4 passes per game, followed by Leicester City – coached by Pep Guardiola’s former assistant Enzo Maresca – who average 633.1. Six further teams are averaging over 500 passes per game.

It will not shock you to learn that Manchester City averaged the most passes per game last season in the Premier League (659.8), with Liverpool second (589.5) and Brighton third (560.0). City’s total is actually slightly down in 2023-24 so far (657.1), as is Liverpool’s (536.38, though having four players sent off in eight games could be why) but Chelsea’s is up (617.4), as is Tottenham’s (574.3) and Brighton’s (573.4), even though they’ve slipped from third to fourth overall.

Not universally (hello West Ham) but generally, teams are passing more and playing slower. It will be interesting to see if these numbers hold throughout the season. There are, of course, variables that could bring them back down closer to last season’s levels by next May.

Was the tortoise in the children’s story executing his own version of tiki-taka? Tortoise-taka, perhaps? Who knows?


QUIZ: International Quiz of Mystery

As it’s another international break, we thought we’d also give you a break from Premier League quizzes. Let’s test how much attention you pay to international football. First question, what is Luxembourg’s average xG in the second half of games played in the first half of the year… just kidding.

To paraphrase David Brent, here’s the real quiz.

1. How many goals did Scotland score at Euro 2020?

2. Argentina (1st) and Brazil (3rd) are the only non-European teams in the top 10 of the latest FIFA world rankings (updated 21 Sept). Who are the next highest non-European team in the rankings?

3. Prior to France’s friendly with Scotland on Tuesday, how many goal involvements does Kylian Mbappé have in his last 23 international appearances? A) 21, B) 27, or C) 34?

4. England host Italy at Wembley on Tuesday for the first time since the Euro 2020 final. When was the last time England beat Italy on English soil?

5. Which team has scored the most goals in Euro 2024 qualifying so far?


Ask Opta

This week’s question came to us via email from Paul Fenton, who asks: “With both Manchester United and Manchester City eight games into the season without a draw, what’s the longest draw-free streak at the start of a season? Additionally, what’s the fewest number of draws a team has had and where did they finish on the league table? While we’re at it, who has had the most draws in a season?”

That’s cheating slightly Paul as that’s three questions, but it’s an interesting topic so we’ll allow it.

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Do you have a stat-based question you’d like Opta to answer for you (and everyone else) in a future edition of SVQ? Email us at editors@theanalyst.com or message us on X @OptaAnalyst with #AskOpta and we’ll pick the best one.

Answer:

The record for the most games to start a season before drawing their first Premier League game belongs to, by some distance, Tottenham. In the 2018-19 season, Spurs did not draw a single league game until March, when they were held to a 1-1 draw by Arsenal, meaning they went 28 games without a stalemate. The only other game they drew that season was on the final day against Everton (2-2). They did not draw any of their 19 away games (W11 L8). The next most was Bolton Wanderers in the 2011-12 season, who did not draw any of their first 18 league games.

Most games before first draw PL

As for the records for fewest draws in a season, they are as follows:

2 – Manchester City (2018-19 – finished 1st)
2 – Tottenham (2018-19 – finished 4th)
2 – Sheffield United (2020-21 – finished 20th)

And the records for the most draws in a season (all from 42-game seasons):

18 – Manchester City (1993-94 – finished 16th)
18 – Sheffield United (1993-94 – finished 20th)
18 – Southampton (1994-95 – finished 10th)

For 38-game seasons:

17 – Newcastle United (2003-04 – finished 5th)
17 – Aston Villa (2006-07 – finished 11th; and 2011-12 – finished 16th)
17 – Sunderland (2014-15 – finished 16th)

In terms of this season, yes, both Manchester clubs are yet to draw a game, with seven other teams having drawn just once.

Bournemouth vs Chelsea on 17 September was the first game in the Premier League this season to finish 0-0, with none of the 46 games played before then having ended without a goal.


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Quiz Answers

1. One (Callum McGregor vs Croatia – a 3-1 defeat in their third and final game)

2. USA (11th place, one ahead of Mexico)

3. C) 34. Mbappé has 29 goals and five assists in his last 23 appearances in all competitions for France.

4. 2-0 in a World Cup qualifier on 16 November 1977

5. Portugal – 32 goals scored


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