Tuesday, 28 June 2016

You've Probably Got It Wrong About England: They Are Overachieving, Not Underachieving


England's 2-1 defeat at the hands of Iceland last night was perhaps their biggest ever tournament low (although I have to say, congratulations Iceland - well played!). For years England's supporters have lived in the past glory of 1966. Ever since, we find that before each new tournament there is half-hearted confidence that this might be the year we emulate our World Cup win at Wembley.

But then, surprise surprise, every two years you can pretty much guarantee that England loses to a nation with whom we've been in conflict during a war - it's usually Germany or Argentina. Then once we get knocked out everyone laments how close we were this time around; losing on penalties (Stuart Pearce , Chris Waddle, Gareth Southgate and David Batty, look away now), or by some incident on which the game turned (David Beckham's sending off for lunging at Diego Simeone, Rolandinho's freak lob over David Seaman, Wayne Rooney's sending off followed by Cristiano Ronaldo's wink, and Lampard's shot that went over the goal line but wasn't given).

In the past a scapegoat, an instance of injustice or a narrow margin has been identified to cushion the blow of our elimination. But in recent tournaments, things have changed. To my memory, the last four tournaments (including this one from which we've just been eliminated) have been entered without very much hope or expectation, and the team has been pretty sub-standard in each of them.

However, all that said, it's actually quite probable that we are expecting too much of our football team - after all, it's no use considering whether a team is better or worse than expected without first asking how well they should be expected to do. When we ask such a question, things change a bit. After reading a book called Soccernomics a while back - a book full of interesting statistics - we find that, in actual fact, from 1972 England only tend to win about two thirds of their matches (England's record during that period is P402, W208, D113 and L81, so if we treat a draw as half a win, then England's overall win ratio is 66%).

The reality is, winning only 66% of your games makes it highly unlikely that you'll win a tournament outright because you're going to come up against teams whose win percentage is in the 70-80% range (Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands).

Averaged out over a few knockout matches in a single tournament England's chances with a 2/3 ratio are quite slim (66% then 44% then 30% then 20% in respective rounds). As an average that's only a 20% chance of winning the tournament, but in reality it's slimmer than that, because in knockout stages when they're playing better teams their win probability will sometimes be less than 66%  

But the story doesn't end there, because the authors of Soccernomics (Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski) have worked out a way to determine whether fans are being too hard on England or not. And it turns out they are, because England, believe it or not, are not under-achieving, they are actually over-achieving.

Using three key data points relating to countries: income per head, total population and international experience, and a whole chapter's worth of explanation that space here doesn't permit, Kuper and Szymanski have a formula which maps how well a nation's football team is expected to do, where the more average income per person, the better; the larger the population of the country, the better; and the more games played against other countries, the better - with all three combined constituting the better chance a team has of being successful.

Plugging England's vital statistics into the equation, it turns out that on average our football team is doing slightly better than they should have been doing. When Kuper and Szymanski analysed England's income per head, total population and international experience, they found that after running the numbers England should score on average 0.63 goals per game more than their opponents.

In the period from 1980 to 2001 England's win ratio was 65% (taking a draw as half a win), and during that period it emerges that England outscored their opponents by 0.84 goals per game on average, which is 0.21 more than expected. In other words, in the period when England fans had frustration after frustration because their team was 'under-achieving' they were actually over-achieving.

Finally, in recent times, I wonder if England's poor performances have been in some part down to fatigue. The English teams play a greater number of competitive games than their continental neighbours, in a very fast-paced and no doubt energy zapping league.

An interesting statistic is that prior to Euro 2016 in the past six tournaments England scored 25 of their 38 goals in the first halves of matches, but even more significantly in the matches in which they went out of the tournament they scored 8 out of their 9 goals in the first half.

The England team is badly under-performing in the 2nd half of their big matches. This could be because their players suffer from fatigue after such a demanding season, or because they play at the Premier League pace in the first half of internationals and then run out of juice in the second half - but either way it seems highly possible that these things are a factor in England's tournament results.  

All in all, (the Iceland defeat excepted) the next time you feel like declaring that England should be doing better in tournaments than they are, just remember that not only are they doing slightly better than they are expected to do, they are also doing so while being tired bunnies too.



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