Does the Euro's lack of goals mean a lack of quality football?
PARIS -- One-hundred and eighty minutes of football -- plus injury time, of course -- for each of the 24 sides at Euro 2016, and there are some early conclusions to be drawn. Through the first two rounds of games, scoring is down compared to the same stage four years ago: From 46 goals in 16 games to 47 in 24, which is a pretty whopping dip, from 2.88 goals per game to 1.96.
OK, so the sample size is tiny, but it's still a number that jumps out at you.
Folks more versed in numbers than I am can probably dissect this better, but there is one factor which likely has played a pretty big part in the lack of scoring and that's the timing of the goals. Sixteen of them have come in the final 15 minutes and just two -- take a bow Fabian Schar and Gareth Bale -- have arrived in the opening quarter of an hour. Contrast this with 2012, when things were rather more spread out: five in the first 15 minutes and six in the last 15.
It matters because -- in an equation as old as time -- goals change games. Go a goal down, for whatever reason, and you will necessarily start chasing the game. That means you'll have more attacking intent (and usually firepower too) but you'll also be more vulnerable at the other end. Which, in turn, leads to more goals.
So if a goal changes a match and makes it more open, it stands to reason that the earlier the goal, the more time we'll have in an "open" game environment and the more goals we'll see. To some degree, there's an element of randomness to when the goals come. But you do know that if they come early, odds are there are more on the way.
That's likely one of the reasons for why scoring is down: the time of first goal has come late. Another was articulated on Thursday by Germany boss Joachim Low after his side's 0-0 draw with Poland.
"Teams are simply more defensive at this stage of the competition, and there is a fear of losing," he said. "Once you get into the knockout stage, that's replaced by a desire to win."
On top of that, there's a key difference with four years ago. The new format, with the four best third place teams qualifying for the knockout rounds, makes a draw more valuable than it was. Put a different way, a draw and a defeat in your first two games mean a win in your third almost certainly guarantees you a place in the round of 16. Four years ago, this was not the case, as the likes of Croatia and Russia were eliminated despite finishing on four points.
Naturally, teams being more defensive doesn't necessarily mean they play with less quality, but we tend to associate the two.
This leads us to another issue. The closest thing we have to the type of universal shared experience the Euros provide is the Champions League. Here too, at least in the knockout round, there is the kind of all-encompassing scrutiny we see at the Euros.
But the Champions League is, simply, qualitatively on a different plane from the Euros. It not only has more goals -- 2.75 a game this past season -- it also features a lot more quality. Go ahead and look at the three pre-tournament favorites (Germany, Spain and France) and ask yourself how many of their starting XI would get into the starting lineup of any of the Champions League semifinalists. Not many would be the likely answer.
Not only are Champions League sides qualitatively better, they also play better football. Part of it is down to the fact that they train and work together all season long, whereas their colleagues with national sides have only a few days every other month and a few weeks pre-tournament. And part of it is the fact that club coaches don't need to fit square pegs into round holes. They have the luxury of buying players to fit roles they need, whereas national team managers often have to figure out ways of shoehorning guys into the lineup.
With that as our benchmark, there's a certain observational bias. We're used to considering Champions League sides as the standard of "good football," which is something national teams can't live up to.
Another factor is simply the nature of Champions League sides. They tend to be, for obvious reasons, very good sides who do well in their domestic competitions. As such, they are used to playing attacking football, even though they may sometimes deviate from the script against bigger opponents in European competition.
But many of the sides in the Euros are purely counterattacking outfits, because that's what got them into the competition in the first place. That's how they play, because for all but the top half-dozen or so, that's what gets you through the qualifying grind.
So does this mean that the Euros are boring, defensive and lacking quality?
Not at all. Just don't be a snob by comparing any of the teams in France to Barcelona or Bayern. Accept this tournament for what it is: a competition for national sides expressing the football culture of teams from all over the continent.
And perhaps learn to love it in a different way. Neither Iceland nor Albania nor Northern Ireland will win points for style, but unless you're a cold-hearted grump, it's hard not to be engrossed in their epic clashes against more gifted opponents. Heck, when we watch the FA Cup and some lower league team parks two buses and hangs on for dear life against Manchester United, we call it the "magic of the cup," don't we?
Maybe that's the secret to fully enjoying these Euros. Treat them the way we would a domestic cup competition. Think of the group stage as a few warm-up friendlies followed by the real tournament, a straight knock-out from the round of 16.
And hope that Low is right: that once you realize you're three, two or one games away from the final, the desire to go for it will overcome the fear of screwing up.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.