England’s World Cup: A statistical analysis

Since England‘s exit from the World Cup in the round-of-16, much has been written and said by journalists, pundits and the players themselves about what went wrong. Much of this has been based on observation and opinion, and informed by a tabloid feeding frenzy which has been as much about sensationalist headlines and selling newspapers as it has been about any kind of truth or accuracy.

Now that the dust has settled, I have done a statistical analysis of England’s performances at the tournament, with the aid of the statistics section of the FIFA website. So here is my analysis of England’s 2010 World Cup, based purely on the numbers. (Any numerical errors are strictly my fault!)

Summary

Played 4. Won 1, drew 2, lost 1. Goals for 3 (Gerrard, Defoe, Upson), Goals against 5.

Group phase: USA 1-1, Algeria 0-0, Slovenia 1-0.

Round-of-16: Germany 1-4.

England’s group stage results exactly mirrored their games in 1990, when they opened with a 1-1 draw against Ireland, then drew 0-0 against Holland before finally beating Egypt 1-0. Crucially, though, their results in 1990 were sufficient to win their group; this time around, Landon Donovan‘s last-gasp goal against Algeria meant the USA pipped England to top spot.

The less said about England’s second round exit, the better.

Goals

In attack, England struggled to score late in games, and particularly from distance. All three of their goals were scored from inside the penalty area – they were one of only 12 teams not to score a goal from outside the box – and all came in the first half of games (between the 4th and 36th minute).

Until the Germany game, they had not conceded a goal in the second half of their matches either, so you could have been forgiven for switching off all the group games at half-time – you wouldn’t have missed anything. Switching the TV off at half-time against Germany would probably have saved some pain too.

None of the other teams who reached the last 16 scored fewer goals than England.

Only one of England’s three goals came from open play: Steven Gerrard‘s 4th-minute goal in the opening game against the USA. After that, they went 356 minutes without another goal from open play. (Or, at least, none that was allowed …)

Shooting

England did not have a problem creating chances. They had 65 shots in their four games, good enough for 9th overall. Their average of 16.25 shots per game was higher than all but six teams.

Frank Lampard - 16 shots, no goals

However, their goalscoring threat (such as it was) revolved primarily around three players. Frank Lampard (16), Gerrard (13) and Wayne Rooney (13) mustered 42 of England’s 65 shots between them – but only one goal. No other player had more than four efforts.

Their shooting accuracy was also excellent. Their 31 shots on target was joint-7th overall, and only Argentina achieved more shots on target per game. And they hit the target with 48% of their efforts – only Japan, Slovenia and Holland were more accurate.

Mind you, a few inches can make all the difference. England hit the woodwork three times – yes, one of them was that Lampard shot – the joint-highest total in the entire tournament.

In possession

English footballers are often accused of lacking technique compared to even relative minnows, but England were generally slightly better than average statistically. They were ninth overall in terms of passes attempted, passes successfully completed and completion percentage (73%).

Frank Lampard in particular was criticised for perceived poor performances, and the stats suggest there is some truth in that. From the centre of midfield, he attempted more passes (254) than any other England player and completed a decent 78% of his passes, but his passes were generally short and either sideways or backwards – he passed more to midfield colleagues Gerrard (36 times) and Gareth Barry (28) than any other, but notably also targeted Glen Johnson (23) more often than Wayne Rooney (20).

Steven Gerrard completed just 64% of his passes

By contrast, Gerrard made a similar number of passes (250), but completed only 64%, a poor ratio at first sight. But more of his passes were aimed forwards than Lampard’s – for instance, he passed to Rooney 29 times,versus just 17 for Ashley Cole. He also attempted more long passes (66) than anyone else, which helps explain his lower completion rate.

The highest pass completion rate for a non-defender belonged to Aaron Lennon (79%). By contrast Joe Cole, widely considered to be England’s most skilful user of the ball, completed just 50% of his 28 passes, the lowest rate in the team. By comparison, Spain’s average pass completion rate was 80%.

When in possession, they also averaged 14.8 solo runs per game to rank 13th (Spain led the way with 25.4 per game) and lost the ball 3.25 times per game in tackles, slightly worse than average (22nd). Arguably, this last number should be higher rather than lower, as teams which lost the ball more frequently than England tended to be among the most ambitious attacking sides: Spain, Brazil, Portugal and Chile, for instance. Both Lampard (12) and Gerrard (nine) made plenty of solo runs, with both full backs also offering support (Johnson six, Cole five).

Surprisingly, while England were the tournament leaders in terms of corners per game (8.75), they were only 10th-highest in terms of crosses per game (16.8). Whether this is a good or a bad thing is unclear – Spain and Germany were more prolific crossers of the ball, but so too were Italy, France, Greece and Algeria.

Our players were also proficient at getting the ball into the box, with 6.75 deliveries into the penalty area per game, the 7th-highest average. However, only one of the eight quarter-finalists (Spain) provided more penalty box deliveries per game, so perhaps patience rather than the direct approach is the way forward.

For a striker who leads the line, someone needs to teach Emile Heskey the offside rule. He was caught offside five times, versus just three for Rooney. Perhaps indicative of a lack of movement and ambition behind the strikers, no England midfielder or defender was caught offside during the tournament.

Overall, England mustered 62 attacks in their four games – at an average of 15.5 per game, only Spain and Italy were more prolific in this respect. Their attacks came from all over the pitch too: 19 from the left, 20 from the right and 23 centrally.

So the problem is not getting forward, or even creating chances, or even getting shots on target. It is about converting quantity into quality, turning attacks into goals.

Defence

England seemed to specialise in last-ditch defending, or at the very least an over-reliance on booting the ball clear from the back. As a team, they made 56 clearances, the 3rd-highest total in the entire tournament and the 5th-highest per game average behind four teams (Algeria, Slovenia, Nigeria and Switzerland), all of whom tellingly failed to survive the group phase.

Jamie Carragher won none of his five tackles

They are indisputably a much poorer team when they are not in possession. Despite a reputation for hard work and physicality, they were among the least effective tacklers at the World Cup. They attempted 30 tackles (joint-10th overall) but won the ball only seven times (joint-26th, and 15th among the 16 teams in the knockout stage).

Jamie Carragher attempted more tackles (five) than any other England player, but did not win possession once. Ashley Cole was the only player to win possession in a tackle more than once.

Overall, this suggests that England need to focus more on better positional and team defending and rely less on the blood-and-thunder glory of spectacular tackles.

Discipline

England were not particularly ill-disciplined. Their six yellow cards ranked below the tournament average, and they were one of 20 teams not to have a man sent off.

They also committed just 51 fouls, which at an average of 12.75 per game was bettered by only four teams.

However, the perception that Glen Johnson has poor positional sense and tactical judgement seems justified. The right back committed 11 fouls – no one else had more than five – and was booked twice (Carragher was the only other player to see yellow twice).

Emile Heskey, the 335th-best player at the World Cup

Overall performance

According to the Castrol Index used to quantify overall player performance, Steven Gerrard was England’s best individual, ranking 39th. Only two others – Lampard (64th) and Johnson (78th) – featured in the top 100. Wayne Rooney was 130th; Emile Heskey 335th.

It is clear that England under-performed at the World Cup, both individually and collectively. But the fact they ranked as average or above average in many key statistical categories suggests that maybe things are not quite as bad as they seem. The challenge Fabio Capello and his coaching staff face is how to convert these largely encouraging – or, at least, not discouraging – stats into improvements in the only numbers that matter: the ones on the scoreboard. Over to you, Fabio.

About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

7 Responses to England’s World Cup: A statistical analysis

  1. Bob says:

    Good Summary…..

  2. Tse Ndex says:

    Quite a good and comprehensive summary. Does the FA employ someone to deal with for technical use by the manager? http://tsendex.wordpress.com

    • Tim says:

      I have no idea. You would have to hope so. What I’ve done is pretty rudimentary – obviously there is a whole load of Opta (or similar) data that can be used to conduct much more in-depth analysis. We were going to introduce something called the “Capello index” to help monitor individual performance, but there was a huge uproar in the media about it and it was quietly dropped. Typical. It’s not just FIFA who are resistant to using technology to improve the game …

  3. Lies, damned lies, and statistics…

    What don’t they measure?
    – attitude
    – first touch / control. Passes may have been technically completed, but too many times the recipient simply mis-controlled the ball and lost it. Rooney would have topped that index…
    – coherence. England rarely looked like a team who knew what they were all supposed to be doing.

    • Tim says:

      All very true observations. If you could measure “coherence”, we would have been 31st just ahead of France.

      But I find it interesting how so many of the tabloids’ pet peeves – our passing is too poor, we don’t create enough chances, we need to get the ball into the box more – are patently untrue when you look at the stats. But since when have the papers ever allowed facts to get in the way of a good old-fashioned witch-hunt, eh?

  4. mrshev says:

    Excellent analysis.

    The most depressing result of your breakdown is the average-ness of England. We seem to get most of the basics right but fall short of making the later stages of the competition because we cannot score goals or defend well enough to compete.

    What next? I feel that this is the end for a generation of footballers and the next one will take on the challenge (god help them). We seem to be missing an out-and-out goal scorer, a boss in midfield and a couple of stout, quick defenders. Goal keeping wise – we just need someone to own the shirt.

    • Tim says:

      True, we are fairly average in a lot of respects, but from the way you read it in the media sometimes, you would think we were the worst team in the tournament – which clearly we weren’t. (The data clearly shows, for instance, that our passing was actually pretty good.)

      It amazes me the fuss that was kicked up over the so-called Capello Index. Data analysis is a critical tool in a coach’s armoury – Arsene Wenger has used it for years, and no one belittles him for it. Of course, there is more to the game than numbers – the stats don’t show the damaging impact of England’s lack of cohesion, or the fact that, while we were broadly quite good, in critical moments we tended to come up short – Heskey missing when one-on-one, Robert Green’s fumble, Lampard’s ghost goal. But this is a long-established weakness in the English psyche, nothing new. And, in very simplistic terms, it is why the Germans always do better than us at World Cups, because their mentality expects success rather than hoping for it.

      Time to bring in some of the kids who aren’t carrying all the emotional baggage, methinks.

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