As the World Cup heads to the knockout rounds there are three teams that remain head and shoulders above everybody else. Brazil, France and Spain remain the most likely teams to walk away champions, but each are doing it in a fairly unique way.
The Swashbuckling Attackers
Although Spain’s names remain largely the same, and the team’s reliance on an overabundance of skilled midfielders hasn’t changed, this isn’t your slightly older sister’s Spain. Gone are the days when Spain strangled matches with defensive possession and carefully built just enough well-constructed attacks to put teams to the sword. This Spain is considerably different. Spain’s attack is fantastic. During the group stage, against three relatively strong defensive teams in Portugal, Morocco and Iran, Spain dominated. They managed to both create a high number of shots and create really really good chances. They took 16 shots per game, the fourth most of any team in the group stages, which is a good number on it’s own, but it’s absolutely fantastic when combined with their 0.14 expected goals per shot, the highest of any team in the tournament. Fascinatingly Spain are no longer the impossibly patient attacking team that the world has become accustomed to. The addition of Diego Costa up front combined with some more attacking thrust from Isco has ended up seeing Spain progress the ball much faster (with a little bit of encouragement from Morocco’s pressing style mixed in). Only 13 teams in the group stage played at a faster pace (moved the ball forward faster before taking a shot) than Spain. The team has done an incredibly job of getting high quality non-headed shots from point blank range, in part because of their set play execution. Diego Costa, Iago Aspas and Isco (from a throw-in) all scored after getting the ball delivered to their feet in murderously good position. It’s hard to contend with a team that’s that well equipped to pick apart a defense. If Spain have a weakness it’s that their back line is shakier than it has been in recent memory. While they haven’t conceded a ton of shots this tournament, 7.67 per game is the fourth fewest of the 32 teams, they’ve been decidedly mediocre about conceding good shots. The 0.09 xg/per shot that they’re giving up is pretty average, and 12 teams are stingier. That’s not bad, per se, being a stingy team in terms of conceding shots while also being a behemoth in attack is certainly one way to win. It’s just not the way Spain has done it for the last decade. The Dogged Defenders N’Golo Kante is quite possibly the best defensive player in the world, and France, carried by the midfield superstar, have been the best defensive team at the tournament. They are not conceding shots, seven per match is behind only Uruguay in the tournament and also not conceding good shots, 0.03 xG/shot conceded is the second lowest in the tournament. While Didier Deschamps decision to start Blaise Matuidi in an advanced position against Peru was extremely conservative, it certainly worked as intended. Matuidi shut down the left side of the pitch, and strangled Peru. In general France have done an excellent job at pressuring opponents all over the pitch, it’s not pretty but it entirely shutting the field down. Combine Kante in midfield with a defensive presence like Matuidi ahead of him, add in a conservative set of fullbacks and you get a France team which barely lets the ball into the middle third of the field, much less into their own defensive territory. It may not be pretty, but it’s effective. France are frustrating. Rather than leverage Kante’s defensive skills to give more freedom to the rest of the team, they’ve chosen to reinforce them. That shackles a lot of their most creative attacking players. Paul Pogba is often restricted from getting forward into dangerous areas (although he’s still managed to play an integral part in three goals for France), and the fullbacks are often held more in reserve than many modern teams. Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe are left to fend for themselves rather than feed off of a supremely talented supporting cast. Also, one of the preferred fullbacks has been Lucas Hernandez who is basically a center back. That perfectly understandable frustration shouldn’t obscure the fact that the strategy is working so far. France has been a dominant defensive team. And while it’s tempting to suggest that this defensiveness won’t hold up against better opposition, at least for the next two rounds they don’t have that much to worry about. In the round of 16 they take on Argentina who struggled to create against the likes of Iceland and Nigeria, and then they get the winner of Portugal and Uruguay, two teams that despite their potent forwards, focus on playing strong, positionally sound, defense. France are set up to grind their way deep into the tournament. They’ve made their tactical bed and they’re happy to lie in it. Kante, supported by a cadre of defensive first players build a fortress, then the attackers tack on just enough to get the job done. The Balance of Brazil If Spain are the most attack oriented favorite and France are the defensive side, then Brazil is the team that seems to have the balance just right. Defensively they’re conceding 0.50 xG per game, behind only France and Uruguay. That breaks down into conceding the fourth fewest shots at 7.33 and the fourth lowest xG/shot conceded at 0.07. On the attacking side of the ball their profile is a volume based one. They took 19.67 shots a game which was behind only the dearly departed Germany, and had a fairly average 0.10 xG/per shot which trailed twelve teams. Though put it all together and you get 2.01 xG per game which is the third highest in the tournament. Brazil’s numbers are almost certainly colored by just how extremely they had to chase the game against Costa Rica. After drawing against Switzerland in the first match, Brazil’s tournament life was flashing before their eyes as the CONCACAF side put in a dogged first half performance. But, at halftime you can see the flip switch, and at the hour mark they completely took over, even though the goal didn’t come until injury time. While Brazil are well balanced between defense and attack, they aren’t particularly well balanced across the field. The presence of Neymar on the left wing colors everything that the team does. The effect is exaggerated by Coutinho playing on the left of the midfield trio as well. An outsized chunk of Brazil’s attack is currently coming from the right feet of those two stars. It’s a precarious balance to walk. Neymar is Brazil’s best attacker, and Coutinho has already scored twice this tournament. But, as Brazil gets deeper, if they start to hit better defensive teams, their overreliance on such a specific parcel of real estate could become a concern. For now though, they’ve been excellent on both sides of the ball, and despite having a difficult time breaking finally breaking through against Switzerland and then Costa Rica, remain the favorite to win the whole thing.
Finally, we’ve arrived at the game of the tournament: England-Belgium. We avoided the worst case scenario where the winner would get the winner of Brazil-Germany, but there is still an advantage to losing this game. Because of this, I made a slight modification to my tracking. For this game I assumed the market draw odds were accurate, and bet accordingly. Nate is betting on Poland (who are out), and Panama (who are out, facing Tunisia who are also out). That bet on Panama is huge for a “meaningless” game, but that’s how it goes. Sweden’s win swelled Nate’s bankroll to $1,363,592. I’ll go over where the future’s stand on Friday. Be warned, when we get to Goldman Sachs and Opta it’s not going to be pretty.
We’ve reached the showpiece game of Group G, the one that everyone picked out when the draw was made back in December. It also might be a non-event.With both England and Belgium having already qualified for the knockout stages, there have been questions of how seriously each side should take it, with some even advocating a deliberate attempt to lose in order to slip into the easier side of the bracket. Germany’s exit from the competition complicates things on this front somewhat, but there’s still a case to be made for finishing second. On the Belgian side, manager Roberto Martinez has said that “there will be major changes against England”, and while England manager Gareth Southgate insists that “we want to win every game”, it has been widely reported in the country’s press that there will be a number of alterations to the lineup. England for their part have been largely comfortable throughout the first two games, generating 2.06 expected goals per game and only conceding 0.72. The team has stuck to the 3-5-2 system it tried before the tournament, and generally hasn’t shown frailties. The only concern would be the second half against Tunisia, in which the North African side switched to a similar formation frustrated England’s build up play. Due to the lack of creative passers in the England squad, the side is very reliant on the structure of the system, so there isn’t much to do if it fails. This is particularly noteworthy as Belgium themselves employ a 3-4-3 system with the potential to frustrate England’s structure. That would require Belgium to be well organised, though, and there hasn’t been much evidence of tactical discipline from them.A lot has been said about England’s proficiency from set pieces, attempting various clearly pre-planned routines and scoring from many of them. There is evidence, though, that the effectiveness of this might be hiding a lack of quality in open play. In the game against Panama, England only managed to register a single shot in the box from open play, a largely fortuitous Ruben Loftus-Cheek attempt from range which deflected off an unaware Harry Kane. This can be seen quite clearly in the two shot maps below. The image on the left is all the xG England have so far generated from set pieces, while on the right we can see the much less impressive xG from open play.One potential reason not to get too worried about this is that England were facing two sides in Tunisia and Panama that defend with a very deep block. England’s attacking players are generally more comfortable running into space and receiving the ball than progressing it themselves, so it’s possible that a higher pressing side will allow them to create more on the break. And while there have been concerns about defensive concentration lapses in the tournament so far, England did look solid in the past year in friendlies against better sides Germany and Brazil. This is entirely hypothetical for the time being, but there is at least some reason to think that this team should be able to perform against the better sides in the competition.In terms of the changes that are likely to occur for this game, Fabian Delph may be a wise inclusion. It seems likely that Eric Dier will come in for Jordan Henderson, and while there are areas in his game in which he is superior to the Liverpool captain, mobility is not one of them. Delph’s energy should be able to make up for the loss of Henderson in this regard. Furthermore, his positioning is naturally more conservative than the other players who have played the central midfield role so far, which may at times mean England form more of a double pivot with Delph and Dier. As Belgium’s 3-4-3 system employs two attacking midfielders (usually Hazard and Mertens, though they may be rested), a slight midfield tweak could help nullify their effectiveness.In terms of what Belgium might offer in this game, the number of expected changes clouds any predictions of how effective they might be. With their strongest eleven, they have been utterly dominant so far, with their 2.6 expected goals per game the strongest of any side in the tournament, and an expected goal difference per game of 1.57 matched only by Spain. Unlike England, this has been nicely balanced between set pieces and open play, showing a variety of options to break sides down. (As before, the image on the left shows xG from set pieces, while the map on the right shows xG from open play).There remains a sense, though, that this success is built almost entirely on the back of individual talent. In the opening game for example, they were only able to generate 0.66 expected goals in the first half against a very unimpressive Panama, before Dries Mertens’ brilliant 46th minute strike changed the course of the game. The 3-4-3 system that Roberto Martinez has favoured seemed designed to be able to use all of Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen in the same side, but Kompany has so far been injured and Belgium have instead used Dedryck Boyata at the heart of the defence. With the back three then necessitating direct winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco at left wing back, and attacking playmaker Kevin De Bruyne sitting deep in a double pivot, it’s not clear who is benefitting from this shape.Furthermore, there’s evidence that the players are either struggling to understand the defensive responsibilities of the system, or just uninterested in doing the required work. The central midfielders have been seen far out of position, for example, which hasn’t caused huge issues so far but could easily be exposed by a side such as England that can cause problems on the counter. This could be caused by a lack of effort and discipline. Alternatively, it could be that asking Kevin De Bruyne, typically fairly advanced as a “free eight” in Manchester City’s midfield three, to hold a disciplined midfield position he has never been seen in at club level isn’t a recipe for success.None of this is very surprising considering the identity of the manager. In Roberto Martinez’s time in the Premier League, his Wigan and Everton sides went about attempting an admirably expansive game plan to often less than ideal results. One of his central ideas was to move more creative players into deeper roles, presumably to improve the side’s passing from deep areas, and this seems to be behind the De Bruyne switch. The problem with this is a lack of time. At club level, he at least had time to coach the players into what he wanted from them, even if it seemed like the coaching wasn’t hugely effective. Here, De Bruyne is essentially being thrown straight into a new position and being asked to make it work. If the Manchester City man starts in this game, it might be worthwhile to experiment in moving him into the forward line, in the role he played earlier in his career. This would allow someone more accomplished in the tactical challenge of playing central midfield, such as Mousa Dembele or Youri Tielemans, to give the side a better balance that will likely be needed in the knockout stages.Granted, all of this stuff is on the margins, and it’s hard to look past the Belgians’ dominance over the first two games. This team remains absolutely crammed full of talent, and they should be able to cause problems for any team in the knockout stages. In some ways they find themselves in the opposite position to England, with a number of great creative passers and dribblers that can easily break down teams with their individual quality, but little in the way of cohesion. With the identity of the two teams, it seems likely that Belgium will dominate possession in Kaliningrad. England’s better organisation could have the potential to keep the possession in largely ineffective areas, however, and this could be the kind of game in which the centre backs end up passing to each other a lot. With neither side needing to win, this might not bother either country too much, and unfortunately a fairly dull game could be in order.Header Image Courtesy of the Press Association
By far the most surprising element of the 2018 World Cup has been the inability of Germany to get out of what looked to be a fairly soft group. At least part of that perception is that any group that includes Germany looks hard for the opposition and soft for themselves. Much like Brazil, they are favoured for every tournament they feature in and simply never fail, with semi finals, finals and trophies the norm. Until now. How they contrived to fail on the big stage remains a mild puzzle at least part of which can be attributed to the unfortunate ability of three games to fail to accurately represent team quality. Let’s take a look at their shot maps: The most obvious thing to note here is an expectation of 5.5 goals compared with a reality of just two. No team took as many shots as Germany in the group stage, but the actual quality of those chances was under par. An xG per shot of 0.08 in open play is distinctly below average (around 0.095) and below what you might expect from a decent side (the better Premier League sides were up towards 0.12 per shot this last season). The obvious hook here from the South Korea game was the succession of missed chances from what looked like clear headers in the centre of the box. Mario Gomez, Mats Hummels, Leon Goretzka and Thomas Muller all got their heads to the ball in such positions and despite the best of those chances appearing to be gilt edged, they still spec out as relatively low conversion attempts, somewhere in the 0.15 to 0.20 range. The commentator may demand that they “must score” but probabilities disagree. Given that the single best chance location that Germany carved out in this game involved Hummels wiggling past two defenders in the six yard box, it’s hard to be super positive about their chance creation. A pre-tournament gripe, certainly from the Anglo-centric press and fanbase was the lack of Leroy Sané in the squad, and an inability to beat men wide via dribbling was a notable German absence. Mesut Özil, stationed centrally, completed five dribbles against South Korea and had a solid creative game–just without outcome– but neither of Marco Reus or Leon Goretzka were able to stretch the opposition. There is also an element of Germany’s play that impacted at both ends: speed. In attack, of Germany’s 73 shots, only 16 of them emerged within ten seconds of them gaining possession: that 22% rate is the lowest of the any team in the competition. Germany got plenty of the ball, but they did not attack quickly. Part of this is a function of being a strong passing team trying to break down defensive units, but at no point did it appear that Germany had new ideas towards how to combat their lack of goals. The world waited for them to score, Germany lumbered on, apparently a blunt force and it never came to pass. In contrast, as was starkly apparent in the Mexico and South Korea games, Germany were vulnerable to quick breaks. They left acres of space in midfield, particularly down their own right side where Joshua Kimmich was often stationed high up the pitch. The 44% of shots allowed that came within ten seconds of a new possession ranks as below average (12th worst) and supports what was only too apparent to a viewer’s eyes. The two South Korean goals skewed any broad numeric analysis of the shots allowed by the German defence, but overall, the goals allowed broadly matched expectation, and in terms of xG conceded, Germany were again firmly mid rank. Sami Khedira and Thomas Müller had noticeably quiet tournaments but Timo Werner’s contribution did not match that one might expect from the number one German striker pick. Compare his shots map from over 260 minutes to Mario Gomez’s from around 80 minutes: The bottom line remains that neither scored, but Werner clearly suffered in finding the space to get on the end of final balls. It all enters the melting pot of “reasons why” but if your main striker can’t score or even get shots off at a rate commensurate to the dominance of the ball that Germany enjoyed, there is likely a link missing in the chain. Failure has struck Germany square in the face and it feels like a typical lesson regarding squad transition. The core of this team have been together for eight years, and the virility of the 2010 World Cup debut has now given way to sterility as they age together. There has been talk of the German group using advanced machine learning in an attempt to leave no stone unturned, but this failure feels far more like a traditional football error. Revere your champions for too long and your team will not progress or transition. It takes some guts to cast out highly decorated legends, but as the repeated underperformance of recent World Cup winners shows, hard decisions may well be the ones that bear the greatest fruit. For now, Germany will have to lick their wounds. Their national team structure and support group remains extremely solid and will regroup and rebuild. The message here is that the time to do that is now. Thanks to Euan Dewar for additional data work hereHeader image courtesy of the Press Association
If you just looked at Germany’s expected goal numbers you’d think they were extremely unlucky to be eliminated in the World Cup. That’s a good reason to not just look at expected goals numbers.
In their three group stage games, Germany averaged 1.84 xG per game. Only Belgium, Brazil, England and Spain averaged more. Defensively they weren’t quite as strong, they gave up 1.17 expected goals per match. That was pretty average for the tournament, 15th give or take a rounding error. Put it all together and you get the sixth best xG difference in the tournament. Hard not to look at just that numbers and come to a very simple conclusion. If the team with the sixth best xG difference doesn’t make the last 16 teams there’s nothing much to be done. Bad luck happens, shrug your shoulders, go get ’em next time.
This, of course, would be an incredibly incomplete analysis. Let’s take a look at the games individually. Here’s the Mexico match which started it all off.
Two important things to note. When the game was even, Germany trailed from an xG perspective before they conceded and started trailing from an actual goal perspective. The bulk of their xG accumulated as they were chasing the match, ultimately unsuccessfully.
And, hey, what do you know, they same thing happened in their second match
Germany were not only chasing the match, but chasing their survival in the tournament and ultimately they snuck ahead thanks to all that pressure, and an amazing set piece strike from Toni Kroos.
Match three is a bit of an eye of the beholder situation, and also demonstrates the limits of game state analysis in a tournament structure. Germany needed to win to advance, they started the match accordingly. As the match progressed they were increasingly (correctly) playing tactically as if they were down a goal.
And, of course, they kept missing. It’s certainly reasonable to look at the entire match and understand that Germany were unlucky not to score, but also that if they had scored earlier, their xG total would likely have ended up lower as they switched modes to preserve their lead.
Imagine a world where Germany came out and scored against South Korea in the first minute. It’s obviously impossible to know exactly how the rest of the game would play out but, at a minimum it’s hard to imagine that protecting a lead with advancement on the line, two forwards, Mario Gomez and Thomas Mueller would have come on for two midfielders in Sami Khedira and Leon Goretzka. Of course, the flip side is also true, if Germany weren’t ramping up the pressure and desperately chasing the game, they certainly wouldn’t have been so wide open, like Manuel Neuer in midfield leaving an empty net wide open, in the dying minutes of the match.
Small sample size isn’t just a problem when it comes to the difference between goals and xG, it’s also a problem when it comes to what xG says about teams themselves. It takes only a passing understanding of xG to look at Germany and correctly point out that they were unlucky not to score more. But, it’s also true that if they had not been unlucky, then on the attacking end their xG would have been more modest.
Three games is only three games, and it can only tell us so much about at team. In the same way that goal scored and conceded don’t tell us the whole story and there aren’t enough matches to even out the whims of the finishing gods, so too there aren’t enough matches to get past how the whims of the finishing gods can influence xG. We don’t know what Germany’s xG totals would have looked like if they hadn’t spent so much time chasing matches. But, what we do know is that in two games, against two teams they were supposed to be better than, they played roughly equally until falling behind.
Over the course of a season, of course, these things even themselves out. Sometimes a team will chase a handful of games in a row, and sometimes they’ll be chased. Sometimes they’ll get exceptionally hot or exceptionally cold for a match or two or six, and that will impact their xG totals, but eventually, the finishing evens out, and so does the xG. Not over three matches though, and especially not over three matches when a team spent one of them chasing the match from kick-off.
There are two separate ways that xG is predictive. We talk a lot about the first, that it’s better at predicting future goals than just about anything else out there. But, there’s a second factor as well, and that’s that xG is very predictive of itself. Generally speaking, teams find their xG levels fairly quickly and those levels remain fairly stable going forward. That’s why the metric can underpin predictive models. But, even if xG is a fairly reliable fairly quickly, it’s not settled after only three games. And even if it was, outliers remain, and part of the task of doing analysis involves looking at outliers and evaluating whether there’s any reason for their outlier status…like say spending an entire game running up the xG score specifically because there’s no actual scoring going on.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to say anything definitive about Germany in just three games. We can’t say for sure whether a more normal slate of games would have served to increase or decrease their xG difference, but it certainly could have changed it. Over three games, looking at xG without the context of what happened will often lead to getting the wrong impression. Statistical tools are great, but the smaller the sample size the more they need context. And the World Cup is an absolutely tiny sample size.
More than any other team, Los Ticos helped build Nate’s bankroll. Nate has remained loyal to them, although it might prove to be fruitless this time around. Sweden is the big, potentially realistic, play of the day. Mexico were so close to qualifying, but now need to muster at least a draw to be assured of advancing. As for Serbia or South Korea, a draw would be an impressive result.
Nate dealt with some enormous swings yesterday, looking like he was going to finish at $614,505 at one point. Goals from Nigeria and Croatia put him in position to finish at $1,665,976. Then things swung back against him before a late Croatia goal led him to finish the day at $1,199,022. The swings are steep when you sail the full-Kelly seas.
After a good day Nate’s bankroll is up to $1,175,479, and he’s taking it out for a spin. I locked these in last night, and while three of them have had positive line movement, he’d be betting over 20% of his bankroll on Peru as of 9:25 AM today. We’re going to see big swings every game. Croatia has already advanced. Peru has been eliminated. Nigeria (and Argentina) are playing for their tournament lives. Of course, none of this will compare to England-Belgium, but we’ll get to that in a few days.
The World Cup is about winning, but what exactly?In theory, it’s about winning matches. Win all your matches and you’ll win the World Cup. Simple. But that’s not the only way. A team just needs to escape its group then survive all of its knockout matches to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy. Seeding normally makes this de minimis strategy compatible with the idea that winning is a necessary good. A sequence of upsets, however, can disrupt this equilibrium. At the point where the runner up in a group will face an easier draw, what’s the point of trying to win your group?A perfect storm is brewing at the 2018 World Cup that threatens to turn this thought experiment into a serious question. After a loss to Mexico and a last-ditch win against Sweden, Germany could easily enter the round of 16 as a runner-up. Brazil, while shaky, remains in the driver’s seat to advance as its group’s winner. Should both of those things come to pass, things could quickly devolve. The winner of Belgium and England’s group would be on track to face the winner of a Brazil-Germany match in its quarterfinal. The runner-up, meanwhile, would be looking at a quarterfinal against the winner of Mexico versus Switzerland or Serbia.By the by, Belgium and England are both through to the next round and will meet on Thursday in Group G’s last game.
IT’S TIME FOR SOME GAME THEORY
Barring a grievous string of injuries or the outbreak of war, Belgium and England would both be favoured against any of their possible opponents in the round of sixteen. Belgium (85.4) and England (83.7) are sixth and seventh, respectively, in FiveThirtyEight’s World Cup SPI ratings, which serve as an adequate measure of team strength. Colombia, which has the highest SPI rating (80.5) of their possible challengers, is notably less strong. All things being equal, one might rather face Senegal, or Japan than Colombia, but the worst-case scenario wouldn’t be that bad. As a runner-up, you can hardly ask for better than being favoured in a knockout round.Something much, much better is on offer in this scenario. The gap between the trajectory of Group G’s winner and that its of runner-up, as measured by SPI, would only grow more stark in the quarterfinals. The group’s winner would be a significant underdog against either Brazil (92.8) or Germany (90.6), two of just three teams with ratings in the 90s. The runner-up, on the other hand, would be in line to face one of three teams with SPI ratings between 78.1 and 73.8. A round of 16 match in which your team is favoured, albeit not by as much as it could have been, is a very small price to pay for a possible quarterfinal where your team has a significant edge.That small price might not even have to be paid. Colombia lost its opening group match to Japan and incurred the added strain of playing 85 minutes with just ten men. Despite a comfortable win against Poland, it may not win its group. It’s therefore plausible that the runner-up of England and Belgium’s group could have an easier round of 16 pairing before being comically favoured in its quarterfinal instead of facing the matchup from hell. Team strength is obviously not destiny. The strongest team, by SPI or any other metric, does not always win. The case for England or Belgium losing on purpose is indeed based on that reality; Germany losing to an inferior Mexican side was the inciting incident for this whole sequence. When thinking about the opportunities presented by different parts of the World Cup bracket, it’s at least worth considering that teams aren’t as strong or as weak as their pre-tournament projections suggested. For that reason, targeting the slightest of edges in a future pairing wouldn’t justify the practical and reputational risks of losing on purpose.The difference between the prospects for Group G’s two survivors is hardly marginal. Even if measures of team strength overstated Germany and Brazil’s superiority over England and Belgium and their superiority over Mexico, Switzerland, and Serbia, you’d be hard pressed to explain away the majority of these differences after just two matches. The truth lies somewhere between the group stage’s piddling sample size and broader measures of team quality, albeit closer to the latter. The case for not tanking would effectively require you to believe that it’s smarter to take your chances against a slightly-worse-than-advertised Brazil and Germany than better-than-expected versions of Switzerland, Serbia, or Mexico. Good luck with that. For England and Belgium, the smart move is still to lose that final group match.
THE PERFECT STORM
The partial equilibrium view of this World Cup, with its exclusive focus on the Belgium-England match, assumes other teams wouldn’t use their final group matches to escape the bracket’s hellish section. If they could also avoid facing a murderer’s row on the way to the semifinals, other teams might also consider working the bracket to their advantage. The different impediments teams from other groups face, however, reveal the strange confluence of events needed to make tanking a viable option. Collectively, they may also explain why tanking has not been a major issue at past tournaments.The random sequencing of groups and matches works against most prospective tankers. Russia and Uruguay faced one another in Group A’s final match on Monday having already qualified for the next round. After two rounds, they could each have potentially faced one of Spain, Portugal, and Iran. For Russia and Uruguay, the difference between facing Iran or an Iberian team could justify tanking. Moreover, they wouldn’t have had to worry about overshooting and finishing third since their group was already settled. But they kicked off four hours before Group B’s final matches. Kremlin jokes notwithstanding, they couldn’t know if they were targeting Iran or in all likelihood tanking just to face one of two superior teams anyhow. (In the end, Russia was trounced by Uruguay and Iran went out after drawing with Portugal.)Brazil faces the opposite predicament. By the time its final match kicks off, Germany’s group will have been settled. If Die Mannschaft are runners up, Brazil might reasonably conclude that tanking in order to face either Belgium or England in the next round is a good idea. The exact matchup would be unknown, but one can argue that both options are significantly better than a match against Germany. After two rounds, Brazil’s group has three teams that could still advance. An attempt to finish second, but definitely not third, would leave the Seleção dependent on events in another match. (Ask USMNT fans what that feels like. I dare you.) That risk is a strong deterrent against tanking.Belgium and England are perfectly positioned to decide whether or not tanking is a worthwhile strategy. The luck of the draw has them playing the penultimate group, so they’ll know if a Brazil-or-Germany quarterfinal remains on the table and be able to plan accordingly. Belgium and England also have the good fortune of sharing a group with Tunisia and Panama, two of the three weakest in the tournament per SPI. The sequencing of matches, moreover, means that England and Belgium have their group wrapped up before playing one another in their toughest matches. The order of the tournament’s groups and the matches within those groups are both of strategic importance. Unlike the different seeding tiers teams are drawn from, these factors are fundamentally random. Belgium and England just got lucky. If ever a team is going to target a side of a tournament’s bracket by losing on purpose with no uncertainty or risk of missing out on the next round, this is it.
A PRIMER ON THE RATHER COMPLICATED ART OF LOSING
Losing a football match is not usually a complicated task. It’s one of the few things even Tim Sherwood can be trusted to do. But losing a tournament match on purpose is trickier proposition. For one thing, if two teams have the same incentive to lose a match, they can’t just stand down and wait for their opponents to score. Actual tactics are involved. Even if a team gets those tactics right, it still cannot know how FIFA might react.The sort of gamesmanship at issue here is distasteful but not clearly forbidden. It is conceptually different from match fixing insofar as there’s no collusion or benefit to another party. Sporting bodies nevertheless tend to oppose these hijinks.The NBA reportedly helped engineer strategic losing aficionado Sam Hinkie’s exit from Philadelphia. RIP The Process. After a favourite’s early loss skewed the bracket at the 2012 Olympics, multiple badminton pairs racked up comical faults to avoid the looming murderer’s row. It was rational, but undignified. Eight players were ultimately kicked out of the tournament. TheBadminton World Federation cited them for “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BztVgr5yuYw Football also frowns on these tactics. The Premier League fined Wolves in 2010 and Blackpool in 2011 for fielding weakened teams to maximize their chances in future fixtures. One might find succor inthat rule subsequently being loosened, but theEnglish Football League just introduced a similar measure. UEFA, meanwhile, has opposed players provoking suspensions at opportune times to have clean their slates before the Champions League gets tough.Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos were fined for this in 2010 while Jose Mourinho received a two-match ban.Dani Carvajal served a one-match ban after wasting time to get that crucial yellow card in 2017. In all these cases, officials deemed a setback incurred in one match in order to improve a team’s overall chances in a competition as fundamentally anticompetitive. That’s not encouraging for Belgium and England.FIFA could probably find some rule on its books to punish a team that lost to gain an edge. It is not, however, clear that it would dare expel prominent teams from the World Cup. The 1982 Disgrace of Gijón, which was distasteful but had an added whiff of collusion, went wholly unpunished. FIFA’s continued spinelessness is generally a safe bet. England and Belgium would still have to consider possible repercussions when deciding to throw their match. Purposely losing is an act of regulatory brinksmanship. Some sort of punishment after the tournament could be a fair price to pay for a much easier path to the final. Expulsion, which is even worse for a team’s chances than facing Brazil or Germany, would make the whole exercise counterproductive.A team seeking to lose on purpose would therefore be loath to say as much.Roberto Martinez says Belgium will aim for first place, which is what he’d say whether or not it was true. Seeing as teams tend to rest their starters once they’ve qualified out of their group, FIFA would struggle to sanction England and Belgium for doing what many of its peers do. Starting the like Jamie Vardy and Michy Batshuayi, however, is not a guaranteed recipe for failure. (If only England had called up Joe Hart!) Getting players sent off would seem to be an obvious way of increasing a team’s chance of losing, but the suspensions would leave either side with a shortened bench in the next round. That may be a palatable risk against teams from Group H, but it’s a risk nonetheless. In the slightly longer term, yellow card totals don’t reset until the semifinals. Throwing a match without comical own goals would likely alter Belgium and England’s tactical outlook in the rest of the tournament.Accessing the easier side of the bracket was always going to come at a cost. Managing a tricky card situation is probably the lowest and most palatable price on offer. It’s also the safest strategy. England and Belgium go into their final match tied on points, goal differential and goals scored. This is another advantage teams that might want to target an easier pairing don’t usually have. If they draw their head-to-head match, the relevant tiebreaker would be fair play. Belgium currently has three players on yellows compared to England’s two. This is not an insurmountable gap. There’s no guarantee FIFA would look kindly upon such gamesmanship — the underlying act and intention remains the same — but drawing a match with lots of yellow cards is less aesthetically displeasing to many than losing on purpose and scoring own goals.Few teams have ever stood to gain as much by throwing a World Cup group match. No two teams may have ever been in a better position to engineer their way onto the easy side of the elimination rounds. What, mind you, would be more England or Roberto Martinez than winning when trying to lose?Header Image courtesy of the Press Association
We’ve reached the point of the tournament where teams want to advance, but perhaps not win the group. We’re going to see some odd incentives in the Belgium-England game, and perhaps in some of the other games as well. Strange incentives abound. Nate’s current bankroll is $1,041,850
The 2018 World Cup storylines just keep on coming. Despite the tournament not having he same spark in open play that it did in 2014., the groups stage has had its fair share of drama. Uruguay were a popular dark horse pick by pundits yet they’ve been less than impressive even with their perfect points tally, the 2014 World Cup finalists in Argentina and Germany are on the brink of exiting in the group stages, Belgium haven’t slipped up yet, and there’s a pathway emerging for one of Mexico and whoever finishes second in Group F to make the semifinals, which would’ve been beyond what was expected of each of them coming into the tournament.
Germany’s Continuing Solidarity Issues
Germany may have out shot their opponents by a margin of 44–20, but there’s a level of panic surrounding the 2018 iteration of the team that hasn’t been seen in German football in over a decade. Of course, the healthy shot differential doesn’t come close to telling the entire story, and it obscures the fact that their shot quality on both ends has made it where the balance of there performances much closer to even with their opposition. It also doesn’t account for the several failed Mexico counter attacks, which could’ve made things worse. And, it doesn’t help that Germany needed an injury time wonder goal by Toni Kroos to keep alive any reasonable chance of progressing into the round of 16.
What emerged for the second straight match is the total lack of a support system in place to defend transition opportunities. While Sweden didn’t have anywhere near the collective amount of speed and dribbling that Mexico did, which allowed them to tear Germany to bits, they were still able to create good shooting opportunities because of similar issues. Germany had an aggressive approach to their buildup where only Antonio Rudiger would be in his own half while Jerome Boateng would be tasked with pinging passes from a higher position with the fullbacks providing length in the final third.
In fairness, Sweden’s lack of explosive athletes suggested this would be the match to get away with that type of strategy, except that didn’t happen which makes the problem that much more glaring. Another problem with Germany was the lack of men who were in between the lines of Sweden’s forward and midfield lines, which made it even harder to put some form of resistance on Sweden runners when they saw opportunities to create transitions.
I’m not sure what Germany can do at this point to change things considering how deeply committed they are to playing an aggressive buildup based almost solely around the passing and movements of Toni Kroos. Perhaps moving to a midfield three could ease things a little with another body there to slow things down, but we’re starting to see the drawbacks of having an offense revolve around one man, even if that one man is as awesome as Toni Kroos is.
More Set Piece Trickery
Goals from set pieces have started to dry up just a tad from the rapid pace we saw over the first few days, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t seen some cool tricks being pulled from set piece plays. There have been a couple of routines pulled off by major sides, starting with the one unveiled by Spain versus Iran that also had the delightful bonus of creating a proper goal-line scramble at the end of it.
There are a couple of things which makes this routine pretty cool, one that’s been used in alternativeversions domestically:
There’s David Silva migrating to the near post to receive the pass and initiate the cut-back where having a left-footed player increases the chance for the pass to come off successfully, especially in the case of someone like Silva who’s an awesome passer
Sergio Ramos makes a curling action to get himself open for the shot attempt, almost akin to shooters in the NBA coming off screens to get themselves open for their shot.
This wasn’t the only interesting routine to have happened over the past few days. Serbia had their own neat, multi-layered routine against Switzerland which ended in a near goal. Serbia had Dusko Tosic positioned near the edge of the penalty area and created a runway for him to sprint into the heart of the 6 yard box for a diving header, which he missed on. Three Serbian players in some form shift to the right while Nemanja Matic drifts off to the left.
You can’t talk about set pieces without talking about England, who have done enough cool things that they could warrant their own entire post at this point. Their first goal came from a corner routine that looked fairly similar to the one used by Serbia. The difference being that Ashley Young set a pick for John Stones to get a head of steam for his header, with his teammates creating the lane to run into.
And then England one-upped themselves by doing this later on for goal #4, the equivalent of a set-piece heat check after their prior successes.
https://gfycat.com/SafeIllegalAtlanticridleyturtle The 2018 World Cup: come for the gravitas, stay for the set piece wizardry.
Belgium: So Far, So Good:
From a pure statistical standpoint, there hasn’t been a team that has combined shot volume with good locations like Belgium has done in their first two games. Granted, both of those games have come against Tunisia and Panama, which makes you take their performance with a grain of salt. They did some of this in Euro 2016, where they piled on shots and scoring chances against lesser teams before their eventual exit against Wales.
But, you can only beat the teams in front of you, and to this point, they’ve done their job. During the competitive portion of the match, Belgium were able to get traction during buildup play by having players in close proximity within the half space areas, which allowed for combination play and quick 1–2’s into more dangerous areas of the pitch. Romelu Lukaku in particular was quite good, laying the ball off before darting into goal scoring positions (related note: Romelu Lukaku is very very good).
There were also times when the game devolved into chaos ball where Tunisia either were counter pressed immediately by a Belgian player or simply gave the ball away under little pressure. Belgium frequently had an unsettled Tunisia defense to run at, and in a game where transition opportunities are high between the two sides, the difference in talent level was so grand that Tunisia got burned by playing with fire.
We’ll start to get a better idea of Belgium once they play England, and whether or not Roberto Martinez can truly silence the critics who don’t think he’s the man most equipped to maximizing Belgium’s collective talent level as a squad, but it’s been smooth sailings so far which is all that can be asked considering the chaos that’s gone on for other heralded teams at this tournament.
There is a stereotype that comes with African sides that the way they play is based on “pace and power”, which is a dangerous way of thinking. It gives little depth to teams like Senegal and ignores how they actually play and function. This isn’t to say that Senegal don’t have pace they can rely on, because a side that employs both Ismaila Sarr and Sadio Mane certainly has speed to be utilized in both attack and defense, but to simply think of them as just athletes on a pitch is naive at best, and quite problematic at worst.
For the majority of the match against Poland, Senegal put forth a very credible performance in how to create a stabilized defense while playing four attack minded players. Poland often look bereft of ideas in how to punish Senegal’s lopsided 4–3–3 defensive setup. Whenever Grzegorz Krychowiak dropped back to form a 3v2 with his center backs, Alfred N’Diaye and Idrissa Gueye made sure that there weren’t any passing lanes offered up to Piotr Zielenski to receive the ball and turn to make his next action. If Zielenski received a pass, he was immediately pressured into passing backwards to a teammate. Combine that with the effective work done by Sadio Mane and Ismalia Sarr to nullify opposition fullbacks and Poland basically generated nothing of note until their late flurry in the last 20 minutes.
Senegal similarly constricted Japan during the early portions of their next match. Senegal started off by defending in a much more traditional 4–3–3 with the addition of an extra central midfielder in Babou N’diaye. There was a lack of space available for Japan in the middle of the pitch making it hard to receive a pass and have enough time to turn and do something. That, in turn, meant that they had to slowly circulate the ball or just try and ping long passes (their first goal came from one such long pass down the wing). In particular, there was a clear emphasis on putting pressure on the ball by Senegal whenever they were in their own half to regain possession. As the match went on, Japan were able to slowly build more attacks that bypassed Senegal’s front line into some open space. One effective method was having a player drop deep which attracted Senegalese pressers opened up space for Japan to carry the ball forward.
What happened in the second half should set off some alarm bells for Senegal ahead oftheir match against Columbia. Japan found way to start making passing moves through the middle of the pitch and they’re significantly less talented than Colombia. To this point, Senegal have made it work defensively in ways that go beyond tired African football tropes, only giving up 18 shots through two games and the shot quality on average has been low enough that coach Aliou Cisse will largely be happy with what’s gone on. We’ll see whether this lasts when they play Columbia with a round of 16 spot on the line. (Header image courtesy of the Press Association)
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