Has all the fun gone down the WC? Let's examine the stats
Looking at the tournament over 84 years, we can gauge whether this is likely to be one to remember or forget
There are few opportunities in life to tune in at a pre-appointed time to watch history being written. One such opportunity is the World Cup.
Between now and the evening of July 15, a brand-new chapter in footballing folklore will be written as the 21st World Cup, this time staged in Russia, plays out.As well as being a global festival of football, World Cups are also useful markers in determining how the sport is developing. Staged every four years, there’s just enough of a gap in between them for styles of play to undergo noticeable shifts.By viewing World Cups as mini time capsules it is possible to identify not only how the World Cup has changed over time, but how the game itself has evolved since 1930.
With the help of Opta Sports, we’ve sifted through 84 years of data to find out if the World Cup is as exciting as it used to be and if Russia 2018 is likely to be one to remember, or forget.
We’re seeing fewer goals
The first games of the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 rather set the tone for the tournament as a whole. Eight goals were scored as France beat Mexico 4-1 and the US saw off Belgium 3-0 on the opening day.
Champions Uruguay smashed in 15 goals in four games en route to becoming the first world champions, including a 6-1 victory over Yugoslavia in the semifinals. The tournament finished without a single draw, a ratio of 3.9 goals per game and with an average winning margin of 2.7 goals.The next four editions of the tournament – Italy 1934, France 1938, Brazil 1950 and Switzerland 1954 – saw even more goals with averages of 4.1, 4.7, 4 and a whopping 5.4 per game respectively.
Switzerland 1954 remains the most goal-heavy World Cup on record with an average winning margin of 3.3 goals. Pub quiz aficionados will know that the tournament also featured the game with the most goals ever scored at a World Cup (Austria beat the hosts 7-5 in the quarter-finals) and the game that holds the joint record for the highest winning margin (Hungary beat South Korea 9-0 in the groups).By these standards recent World Cups have been tame affairs. The number of goals scored per game has declined more or less consistently since 1954 and now hovers around the 1.7 mark.
If goals were your sole measure of excitement you could rightly claim that World Cups were better in the good old days of yore. However, as anybody who has ever watched primary school children play football will tell you, goals alone do not guarantee excitement or (especially) quality.
Most right-thinking fans would agree: there’s more to football than goals.
The standard has improved
To further reinforce the point that more action doesn’t guarantee better football matches, you need look no further than how the number of shots taken per game correlates with the number that went in.
In 1966, the first year for which we have this data, there were an average of 39.3 shots on goal per game – 30% of which were on target, and 7.1% of which ended in the back of the net.
In the 48 years (of bitter hurt) between then and 2014 there was a general decrease in shots per game at World Cups but a general increase in the proportion of those shots that resulted in a goal. In other words, players take fewer but better shots these days.Brazil 2014 is the perfect example of this with the lowest shots per game for any World Cup since 1966 (26.5) but the highest conversion rate (10.1 per cent of shots went in) over the same period.
The advancements in expected standards of fitness and off-field professionalism in football over the past half-century is obvious – the modern footballer is undeniably faster and stronger than in the 1960s as well as being less prone to dubious extracurricular pursuits. But it seems that the general standard of play has also improved, especially among the weaker sides.The improvement in shot conversion rates is indicative of this, but more telling is the decline in winning margins over time.
Back in 1930 the average (the average!) winning margin in a World Cup game was by three goals, rising to 3.3 goals at goal-tastic Switzerland 1954. Like most World Cup goal stats, the average winning margin has declined since then and has hovered around the 1.7 mark for the past six tournaments.
Games are undeniably tighter these days, with weaker teams able to put up more of a defensive fight than in the past. The standard has improved.
The rise of possession as king
But does a narrowing of results necessarily result in a more exciting sport? The answer, for many of the people who endured the chess-like passing games at South Africa 2010 has to be a resounding “no”.
Weaker nations have, in the main, been able to avoid drubbings of late by improving their defensive solidity rather than their attacking prowess. The organisation required to deploy two patient banks of four on the edge of the 18-yard box can be taught in a way that Lionel Messi’s match-winning capabilities cannot.
As such, weaker teams are increasingly likely to deploy a defensively orientated 4-5-1 formation, challenging their opponents to break them down and hoping to grab a goal on the counter.The stronger teams, in response, have also tended to drop a striker (and in some cases all their strikers) so that they can control the midfield and, crucially, keep possession of the ball.
These shifts have come to the fore at the most recent World Cups with the stats showing a marked reduction in the number of teams employing variations of 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 towards a clear increase in variations on 4-5-1.
The average World Cup game consequently involves more passes these days – 856 per game in 2014 compared with 766 in 1966 – but with a smaller percentage of these passes happening within the final third.Critics of this style of play would argue that much of this possession is toothless, with lots of inconsequential sideways and backwards passes. Brazil 2014 was the first World Cup in which fewer than 15% of passes took place in the final third as teams passed around in midfield.
A constituency of tactics aficionados may baulk at the notion that these midfield battles constitute unexciting football. Spain only scored eight goals on their way to lifting the cup in 2010 – the lowest total for any winner – but, with three major tournament victories in a row, have a clear claim to being the best international side yet to play the game.
Done right, as Manchester City did in their record-breaking Premier League win this year, the possession control freak model can be a symphony of finely tuned movement. However, it must be said that, done wrong, it can result in a great deal of stodge (step forward Louis van Gaal).Another interesting side-effect of the midfield battle is the blurring of responsibilities from position to position. As Joe Hart will attest, the increased importance of passing has meant that greater skill on the ball is demanded from those playing in less traditionally attacking roles.
The reduction in the number of strikers on the field has also led to goals being shared more evenly, with attacking midfielders required to step up as goal threats.
In the early World Cups the average goal scorer managed about two goals per tournament, whereas for the past four tournaments the figure has been less than 1.5. Before Ronaldo’s eight-goal campaign in 2002, the last time a single player had scored more than six goals was Poland’s Grzegorz Lato in 1974.Although today’s format involves playing one more game than Just Fontaine did in 1958, today’s tactics make it seem unlikely that his 13-goal record at a single World Cup will be broken any time soon.
Greater player protection
All this delicate interplay is only made possible due to the protection afforded to players by modern referees.
The 1990 World Cup in Italy was notorious for its defensive football and plentiful fouls, leading to an altering of the laws of the game.
Designed to promote more attacking football these tweaks included the advent of a red car for a “professional foul” and alterations to the offside law which gave more leeway to the attacker. The backpass rule was also implemented after the World Cup in 1990.
The changes resulted in far fewer fouls per game at USA 1994 which coincided with a longer-term crackdown from referees, who began dishing out cards more readily from the late seventies.
In 1978 a card was produced for every 24 fouls compared to one for every 10 fouls at Brazil 2014.
So what can we expect in Russia?
World Cups are no longer the goal-fests they once were. But while goals and shots have decreased, the overall standard of play has undoubtedly improved since 1930 with matches becoming significantly tighter and the quality of shots improving.
Games are also more tactically complex with technical midfield battles and highly organised defensive lines. This has led, as in 2010, to a tendency for football that can be appreciated on a cerebral level but is hard to have an emotional connection with. Unless you’re Spanish.All, however, is not lost. The best players in the world have greater protection than ever before to express themselves and win games for their team. With a decreased likelihood of being kicked into an early retirement it’s up to the Messis and Ronaldos of the world to be at their incisive best to break down stubborn defences.
Brazil 2014 was a refreshing change from South Africa 2010 because of players like James Rodriguez being able to affect games with moments of brilliance that deservedly allowed their teams to progress. As a result, 2014 had the most goals since 1998 and the best shot conversion stats for any World Cup since at least 1966.
At the same time, the improved tactical awareness of the weaker sides means that it’s never been more likely that having an off day could send you crashing out of an international tournament in embarrassment. Iceland 2 England 1, anyone?
All this means that the stage is set for Russia 2018 to be an historically great tournament – if the match winners can step up.
– © The Daily Telegraph