World Cup 2022: Do recent England results matter?
Gareth Southgate’s men reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup and made it to the final of Euro 2020 but recent England results are a real cause for concern.
The 3-3 draw with Germany at Wembley was England’s sixth consecutive match without a victory; the longest winless run since the low point of Graham Taylor’s terrible tenure in 1993.
Failure to defeat Iran in the opening game of this year’s tournament would see Southgate equal the unwanted record of seven winless games set by Walter Winterbottom in 1958.
The winless run is especially unusual in the lead-up to a World Cup. When the Qatar showpiece kicks off on November 20, Southgate’s side will have accumulated an average of 1.13 points per game across the previous 12 months, which is the lowest of any England team heading into a World Cup.
While the timing of the downturn in the England results is unprecedented, we should remember that the quality of opposition has been tougher than in the past.
The Nations League groups teams of similar strength, with England having played Italy and Germany four times in competitive matches since the start of June. For comparison, Southgate’s side faced Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia and Lithuania in their only four competitive matches played in the year before the 2018 tournament.
How much should England – or indeed any out-of-form nation – be concerned about their prospects?
To answer that question, we have analysed every World Cup since 1998 (when the current 32-team format was established) to see how much pre-tournament – and early tournament – results matter.
Our first challenge is to factor in the quality of opposition, which can vary wildly in the build-up to a major competition. We have opted to track each team’s performances using the Elo ratings system, which is similar to FIFA’s world rankings but more consistent and reliable. Each team is given a rating that moves up and down proportional to their results, with wins over higher-rated opponents being rewarded more and vice versa.
By looking at whether a team’s Elo rating has risen or fallen in the year leading up to a World Cup, we have a simple means of quantifying whether they over or under-performed relative to expectations.
Big teams need to be in good form
Over the six World Cups from 1998 onwards there have been 58 teams who started the tournament as one of the 10 highest-ranked nations in the world according to the Elo ratings. Of these, 17 went on to reach at least the semi-final stage but only three did so after seeing their rating decline in the year before the tournament.
All four of the semi-finalists at the 2018 World Cup had more Elo rating points going into the tournament than they had a year previously. This included both England and Belgium who had not lost a game in the 12 months leading up to the tournament; both had risen four places in the rankings over this period.
Furthermore, three of the four teams in the semi-finals at both the 2014 and 2010 competitions had ratings that were trending upwards.
Overall, big sides with a positive ratings trend – indicating better-than-expected pre-tournament results – were over twice as likely to reach the last four, doing so 36% of the time compared to just 16% of those whose recent matches had been disappointing.
Those proportions are mirrored in the group stage, with just 13% of in-form giants failing to reach the knockouts compared to 37% of those whose ratings had dropped or remained the same.
Progress requires performance
We can cast our net slightly wider to look at how form predicts which nations will fare better than at the previous tournament.
There have been 63 teams in this period who made it to consecutive World Cups and started the latter as one of the 20 highest-ranked teams in the world. Of these, more than half of those whose Elo ratings were improving managed to go further in the competition than they had four years earlier.
This includes seven of the teams at the 2018 World Cup, such as eventual winners France and runners-up Croatia.
Meanwhile, half of the teams whose ratings had dropped in the year leading up to the tournament were eliminated earlier than they had been previously. Argentina and Colombia continued this pattern in 2018, both crashing out in the Round of 16 after some patchy pre-tournament form.
Argentina had suffered heavy friendly defeats to Spain and Nigeria while losses to Paraguay and South Korea had disrupted Colombia’s preparations.
Minnows also need momentum
Pre-tournament form can also boost the chances of outsiders. Of the 17 teams who started one of the last six World Cups ranked outside the top 50, there have been six who managed to win at least three points from their group games.
Five of these went into the tournament with rising Elo ratings and the sixth – Saudi Arabia in 2018 – secured their win against an Egypt side who were also ranked below 50th with a declining rating.
Furthermore, all three of the teams in this category who defied the odds to reach the knockout phase – along with three of the four who avoided finishing bottom of their group – had gone into the tournament on a high.
All three of those progressing from their groups against the odds were African nations during one of the last four tournaments, which bodes well for outsiders Cameroon and Ghana this time around.
A solid start is critical at the World Cup
With each nation playing just three group games at the World Cup, every match takes on extra significance as teams look to secure qualification for the knockout phase.
Looking back at England results, they have a history of starting slowly at tournaments – their 2-1 win over Tunisia in 2018 was just their third opening victory in eight attempts since the 1986 World Cup.
However, the Three Lions have only suffered defeat in two of those games, and history suggests that an opening draw is often enough for the top nations to qualify for the last 16.
Since the tournament was expanded to 32 teams in 1998, 97% of teams from Pot 1 that win their opening game go on to qualify for the knockout phase, as do 82% of those that draw.
This drops to 33% for Pot 1 sides that lose their opener, just as Germany did against Mexico in 2018. Despite winning their second game, the defending champions could not recover and finished bottom of their group.
Defeat in the opening game is even more damaging for the less-fancied sides in Pots 2 to 4, with only 9% of teams making it out of the group after losing their first match. Just over half (54%) of nations get through after an opening draw, rising to 71% among those that win their first game.
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