Thoughts from the South - World Cup, Week One Whinges

Thoughts from the South
Thought No. 3
World Cup, Week One Whinges

Though I am not sure if I have yawned at any of the matches, one of the 'big stories' of the World Cup was the remarkably conservative style of play displayed by many of the teams. In the 16 opening matches there were a total of 25 goals. An average of 1.57 goals per match, which is about the equivalent to one goal being scored every 60 minutes.

There have also been a high proportion of draws. Of the sixteen matches played only ten produced a clear winner, and in six of those it was a 1-0 win. Of the six draws, two were nil-nil. Of course, some draws were more exciting than others - the New Zealand / Slovakia match was particularly entertaining, New Zealand equalising in the last minute of stoppage time. (But the referee did not look kindly on the goalscorer taking his shirt of in celebration, and so he received a yellow card to go along with his goal!)

There have been some other exciting games. England versus USA was a pretty fun scrap. Some say the result didn't reflect the fact that England played a lot better. Well, that may be so - I think England will beat Algeria and Slovenia without too much trouble.

Germany versus Australia was fairly classic if only because it was such a shamelessly swift destruction. It's not often the English feel sorry for an Australian football team, but this was very almost the exception.

I didn't see Brazil vs North Korea, but have heard that it was a pretty good match.

Spain versus Switzerland was a rather messy affair and, sure enough, provided a classic 'World Cup upset' in which an obscure team beats the tournament favourites. Spain had won 35 out of their last 36 matches and were the champions of Euro 2008, so the idea that a bunch of mountain mercenaries could overcome this Armada wasn't so much 'legendary' as comical. It was the kind of match that makes you lose faith in football, if only for 90 or so minutes.

Spain have a reputation for being technically good but always collapsing spectacularly in every tournament.  Euro 2008 was the exception that proved the rule. This presumed tendency to 'blow-up' annoys me. It reminds me of these poker players who say 'yeah, I'm really really good when I'm in the zone, but I always end up titling (getting angry and playing badly) and then losing my stack', or graduates who say 'well, I would have got a first... had I worked harder!'. Well, part of what a first classification measures is the ability to work hard. Though raw talent is required, it has to be channelled correctly. And in football, part of being a winning tournament team is to actually be able to win tournaments. It sounds obvious, and that's why it's so annoying. If they were that good they wouldn't choke in the late stages of a tournament. Same with poker tournament players.

But aside from the matches I have mentioned, there has been a fair bit of dullness: Portugal vs The Ivory Coast perhaps being the dullest of them all, though Italy versus Paraguay was a rather tight (stingy) affair too, the goal on each side being scored only through set-pieces.

But this got me wondering - how significant is the first game inertia in determining how cautiously the two sides play? The argument goes that no team really wants to lose their first match. Unless they are clear favourites over their opponent, often it's better to settle for a draw and then try to get a few more points off their next opponents. A team that draws its first match, loses its second and wins its third will win 4 points, which is often enough to qualify to the knock-out stages. A team that draws the first two games and wins the third gains 5 points, which is almost always enough to qualify. But if that first game is a defeat, then it is that much harder to get a good momentum going in the second and third games, as the sense of pressure is intense, demoralising and debilitating. Not every team will do well simply because they are required to - there's always the rather important issue of the other team.

What I would like to know is how the first sixteen matches of this World Cup compare to those in previous years. Should we expect the next sixteen matches and the sixteen matches after that to be rather more viewable and rather less tedious? Did previous World Cups suffer a similar first-match inertia?

(N.B. for those who are confused, there are 48 matches in the Group Stages. There are eight groups, each of which has four teams. Each team plays each other team in its group once, so there are six matches in each group in total, each team playing three matches. The matches are played in blocks, such that each team plays its first match, after which each team plays its second, after which each team plays its third.)

To answer my questions I've decided to rack out a few more statistics. They won't be as complicated as last week's, and should tell the story a little more clearly.

Were the opening matches in 2006, 2002 and 1998 equally boring? Did the excitement pick up a little during the second and third matches for each team?

I will use a pure goals/match figure as my point of comparison. I choose these three World Cups in particular as their first rounds have the same structure to our own World Cup.

First Games: 47 goals (2.94 per match)
Second Games: 44 goals (2.75 per match)
Third Games: 46 goals (2.88 per match)

First Games: 46 goals (2.88 per match)
Second Games: 35 goals (2.19 per match)
Third Games: 49 goals (3.06 per match)

First Games: 39 goals (2.44 per match)
Second Games: 36 goals (2.25 per match)
Third Games: 42 goals (2.63 per match)

First Games: 25 goals (1.56 per match)

So we can see from this that the opening round (First Games) in 2010 are significantly less fecund in goals than the previous three World Cups. Interestingly, this set of data shows no sign of the 'first-match intertia' that we have taken as a given in this world cup. Indeed on average the Second Games seem to produce the most conservative scorelines.

So is this what the beautiful game has become? Perhaps. But I expect the Second Games to be rather more exciting. The first match of the Second Games has already occurred, and it was one of the best so far: Uruguay 3 South Africa 0.

There are currently ten teams sitting on 0 points (including Spain) but all the twelve teams on 1 point (and the ten on 3 points) have a realistic chance of breaking through. And where there's a chance, there's a goal. Hopefully several in each game.

Prior to Uruguay's breakthrough, Group A was classically tight, with each team on one point. Each team had drawn their opening game. The only other group where this has happened is Group F, which contains Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. So something to look out for there.

Oh, and England play tomorrow. Don't worry about the result. England will get whatever they deserve.


royalfish said...

Second Games: 42 goals (2.63 per match)

Post a Comment