World Cup Group Qualification
Russell Degnan

As per the last world cup, but this time more interactive, and theoretically better. The axes show the goal difference in the final group games. The flag shows the team that ought to be in the place. This cannot show where two teams are equal, and therefore puts the team with the current highest goals scored - taking into account the minimum ascertained from goal difference - in the highest place.

+5+4+3+2+1Draw+1+2+3+4+5
+5
+4
+3
+2
+1
Draw
+1
+2
+3
+4
+5


Football 24th June, 2014 02:01:25   [#] [0 comments] 

Australia v Netherlands
Russell Degnan

Another match in which the commentators have fallen over themselves to praise Australia for their ability to concede easily, while looking occasionally threatening. The Netherlands set up in a similar formation to that used against Spain, and it led to exactly the sort of frenetic long-passing game predicted. The down-side for Australia is that leaving, as Michael Cox noted, "a series of 1 v 1 battles all over the pitch", played into the hands of the Dutch strengths: van Persie's skill and Robben's pace, and a lost-ball and missed lunge was sufficient for an early concession.

Netherlands playing five at the back also made it theoretically more difficult for crosses to find their mark, but Cahill came up with something remarkable to immediately equalise. His play in the two games making you wonder if his career in the midfield has wasted a natural number-9, good at getting on crosses and holding the ball up.

Unlike Spain, conceding Australia possession is dangerous, as they put numbers forward and have pace on the wings. Australia should have scored with Bresciano, and later Leckie - though that was on the break. Those chances are ones Australia can ill-afford to waste, especially as defensive errors continue to haunt.

The Dutch switched formation and had more of the ball, particularly Sneijder and Depay, the latter knocking a simple ball to an Persie when he was played onside and scoring from distance when not shut down.

All told, Australia scored two relatively fortunate goals - a brilliant volley, but don't count on it, and a penalty - and conceded three from sloppy back play against a side who could afford to wait for those opportunities, and knew they could take them. As good as it looks to be streaming forward, there is a naivety in Australia's approach; a looseness that allows good teams to cut them apart, and there aren't any sides in this world cup with the quality to overcome conceding two soft goals (or more) per match.

Spain lacked any of their usual verve and movement against Chile, but it would surprise if they can't find something for this game. If so, Australia will offer them plenty of small openings, and a blowout is entirely possible. Their lack of pace can be exploited though, and Australia has shown glimpses of quality in this world cup. It would be out of character for them to leave anything on the park.

Football 21st June, 2014 17:22:44   [#] [0 comments] 

Australia v Chile
Russell Degnan

Expectations were low at this world cup. After the maulings by Brazil and France that led to managerial change and the grim acceptance that the old guard was done, and the group draw that could barely have been more difficult, none thought Australia anything but rank outsiders to progress. A draw in any game would perhaps count as a success, a good showing sufficient to provide hope in a young side. Against Chile, we got the latter, but we shouldn't be happy.

To anyone that asked I said we'd probably come away from the first match asking "what if". This wasn't based on prevailing form but a long history. Australia rarely fail to rise (or fall) to their opponents. They've done so against better teams than Chile, with less technically accomplished players. But they also rarely fail to concede soft goals, or come away from the inevitable defeat with the local media back-slapping them for going toe to toe with a superior teams.

Here is the point though, one I've made before and will again: unless you get the result, who cares?

Honourable losses still see you to the exit. And what-if losses based on a persistent failure to keep the opposition out aren't that honourable. They are a failure to reach your potential.

Australia could not have started worse. Whether for nerves or the raucous Chilean anthem, it took two concessions before they managed more than two controlled touches. The immediate turnovers making it easy for Chile to maintain a press even in the heat. Both goals combined some Chilean skill with defensive panic. The first should never have led to an open shot, the second had two defenders chasing one man. Two mistakes, two goals. Even the best team in the world would struggle from there.

Fortunately the goals seemed to give Australia time to regroup. Theirs is a simple tactic. Get wide where they have pace and space; cross to Cahill. But Bresciano is the key. The only player capable of killing the ball in traffic and distributing. He is let down by too few players finding space close enough to provide an outlet or quick return ball. Once he worked his way into the game, Australia was matching Chile through the midfield.

For the next hour, Australia, as widely noted, played well, and in the manner of socceroos teams gone by: aggressive (both Milligan and Jedinak were booked), fast and dangerous on the cross. They have little else and Chile eventually shut down the distribution from the wings. Australia were arguably unlucky not to equalise by then, but this is the tactic of a side who holds firm and wins on the break, not one chasing the game. Chile could afford the extra defenders.

What Postecoglou will do against the Dutch is a mystery as they are set up to completely negate Australia's width, and their three man attack will feast on errors. Against Spain, and in the warmups they played the ball quickly from deep, which could signal an ugly, but frenetic game if both sides abandon any sort of buildup through the midfield. That could suit Australia. Despite the opening matches, the Netherlands remains Australia's best chance of a result.

Football 15th June, 2014 20:18:34   [#] [1 comment] 

Decisiveness of matches in the WC group stage
Russell Degnan

Watching the world cup is a complex business. There are too many games at too many odd hours to watch everything and remain gainfully employed, but it can be hard to decide whether to stay up late to watch an obscure CONCACAF side play a European superpower, or crawl out of bed for a showdown between a pair of star strikers and their traffic cones come team-mates.

If quality is all you're after then the answer is obvious, but the most interesting games are those both teams need to win. In a previous post I defined match meaning as

the total change in probability that each team will qualify for the next round based on the result of a single game.

For a knockout match between two evenly matches teams this will be 1: 2x(0.5x0.5 + 0.5x0.5). A knockout where one team is 70% likely to win will be 0.84: 2(0.7x0.3 + 0.3x0.7). For a group stage, the calculation is more complex, so a monte-carlo method was employed:

Meaning = | P(Qual) - (P(Win)xP(Qual|Win) + P(Draw)xP(Qual|Draw) + P(Loss)xP(Qual|Loss)) |

Total meaning being calculated for all four teams in the group, for each game.

Match probabilities were calculated using the Elo Ratings. Historically, draws are normally distributed around the rating difference: ~40% for evenly matched teams, with a standard deviation of 200. The win/loss probabilities are taken from the Elo formula on the site.

The results indicate that the least interesting match will be Brazil vs Cameroon, the home side being near-certainties to qualify, and the latter unlikely to overcome Croatia and Mexico. The most: Croatia vs. Mexico, being a virtual knock-out, followed by Bosnia-Herzegovina vs Nigeria, the two middle sides in a group containing Argentina and Iran. A full list of qualifying probabilities, and predicted match meaning follows:

Group A
BrazilCroatiaMexicoCameroon
98.51%39.93%49.40%12.25%
BrazilCroatia12 June0.150
MexicoCameroon13 June0.386
BrazilMexico17 June0.161
CroatiaCameroon18 June0.381
BrazilCameroon23 June0.046
CroatiaMexico23 June0.453
Group B
SpainNetherlandsChileAustralia
84.45%61.43%43.18%10.99%
ChileAustralia13 June0.341
SpainNetherlands13 June0.304
NetherlandsAustralia18 June0.352
SpainChile18 June0.363
NetherlandsChile23 June0.406
SpainAustralia23 June0.182
Group C
ColombiaGreeceIvory CoastJapan
71.18%47.41%42.65%38.51%
ColombiaGreece14 June0.375
Ivory CoastJapan14 June0.431
ColombiaIvory Coast19 June0.388
GreeceJapan19 June0.423
ColombiaJapan24 June0.386
GreeceIvory Coast24 June0.402
Group D
UruguayCosta RicaEnglandItaly
59.95%19.75%64.84%55.20%
UruguayCosta Rica14 June0.383
EnglandItaly14 June0.364
UruguayEngland19 June0.333
Costa RicaItaly20 June0.421
UruguayItaly24 June0.380
Costa RicaEngland24 June0.402
Group E
SwitzerlandEcuadorFranceHonduras
57.74%55.20%67.30%19.56%
SwitzerlandEcuador15 June0.375
FranceHonduras15 June0.370
SwitzerlandFrance20 June0.367
EcuadorHonduras20 June0.402
SwitzerlandHonduras25 June0.384
EcuadorFrance25 June0.390
Group F
ArgentinaBosnia and HerzegovinaIranNigeria
89.85%43.13%31.08%36.15%
ArgentinaBosnia and Herzegovina15 June0.330
IranNigeria16 June0.396
ArgentinaIran21 June0.286
Bosnia and HerzegovinaNigeria21 June0.440
ArgentinaNigeria25 June0.321
Bosnia and HerzegovinaIran25 June0.407
Group G
GermanyPortugalGhanaUnited States
85.68%60.75%14.19%39.28%
GermanyPortugal16 June0.281
GhanaUnited States16 June0.333
GermanyGhana21 June0.197
PortugalUnited States22 June0.378
GermanyUnited States26 June0.358
PortugalGhana26 June0.395
Group H
BelgiumAlgeriaRussiaSouth Korea
72.21%21.06%72.46%34.06%
BelgiumAlgeria17 June0.369
RussiaSouth Korea17 June0.390
BelgiumRussia22 June0.268
AlgeriaSouth Korea22 June0.330
BelgiumSouth Korea26 June0.418
AlgeriaRussia26 June0.377

Football 12th June, 2014 22:48:18   [#] [0 comments] 

Australia v Serbia
Russell Degnan

I don't have much to say about this game that hasn't been said elsewhere, but, for closure, it is worth finishing things off. This was a typical Australian performance, attacking without controlling the game, giving chances but largely stopping the opposition from scoring (bar the inevitable soft goal), scoring without any particular beauty, and fighting until the end.

Pim Verbeek will no doubt leave us now, wondering why he tried to mould a footballing team so foreign to his preferred manner of play. That we seem capable of playing in only one manner means Australian fans are doomed to suffer the frustrations and joys that the team brings.

This campaign was a failure - the second round should be the aim, even if going further is a matter of luck. But it wasn't a total one. Qualification, firstly, and third in the group are successes of sorts, even if you hope for more, and even if, with a bit more luck, we could have had more - perhaps much more, in a quarter boasting Uruguay, South Korea and the USA.

Finally, on a completely unrelated note, the comparative failure of Africa (at home) has hidden the resounding success of Asia, with two teams moving forward. Given those two continents relative ability to foster the game, don't be surprised if we have an Asian champion before an African one.

Football 26th June, 2010 00:41:11   [#] [0 comments] 

World Cup Group Qualification
Russell Degnan

Presented without further comment, for my own benefit. Top diagram represents first place, bottom second. Both possible teams are represented where decided on goals scored.


Football 22nd June, 2010 12:42:15   [#] [2 comments] 

Australia v Ghana
Russell Degnan

No team is a more natural to the role of plucky losers than Australia. No doubt everyone involved in Australian soccer is happy and comfortable with the situation: last in their group, extremely unlikely to qualify, but teeming with righteous indignation.

Naturally, the Kewell send-off is the main talking point, not least because Australia had dominated the game up to that point, and for long periods after, against a poor Ghanaian side.

The law is suitably unclear, but it is not a foul unless the handball was "deliberate". Given the shot from 8 yards, Kewell's reaction time (roughly 0.2s), and the speed of shot (probably 24 m/s) it is impossible for Kewell to either avoid the ball or make a play at it. The determining factor therefore is whether Kewell had his arm in an unusual position, such that he could have expected the ball to hit it. Clearly, as the photo shows, that is not the case. His hand might have been out a little, but his upper arm couldn't have been much closer to his body.

As always with football, plenty of these are given (plenty of referees are rubbish and most players are unfamiliar with the laws). But if it was a foul, it was a penalty, and it was a red card. Triple punishment is a bitch.


On a related note, this is one of several football laws that are poorly implemented in comparison with other sports.

  • Advantage is either given or play is stopped. The rugby union approach, where play continues until no advantage is clear (lost possession/out of play) and then play brought back, would improve several things. Not least, there would be less advantage to diving for a free kick when, if given for minor contact, a player could get both the free kick and the goal scoring opportunity.
  • Non-deliberate Handball gives a clear advantage to a defending side. Basketball plays foot contact as a side-ball, unless advantage is played. An indirect free kick from outside the penalty area would have been more appropriate for Kewell's contact.
  • Time-keeping is just a mess. The fourth official should do it. Time should also stop when the ball is out of play during injury time to save the pointless time-wasting.
  • More referees/linesmen and/or video refereeing would be a huge improvement. Basketball is played on a much smaller area, and it has two referees. Mind you, there is no point having a referee at all if minor infringements go unpunished, unless the player crumples to the ground. FIFA have made a rod for their own back for the joke they have made of shirt-pulling and incidental contact.
  • A sin-bin rather than sending-offs. As usual, the haphazard display of cards is having far too big an effect on the results.


But back to Australia. They played their natural game against Ghana, getting numbers forward (a sloppy goal), harassing the players on the ball (fouling indiscriminately), and pumping the ball long. Australia makes up for a lot of poor technique and organisation with effort, but we also fail to score from opportunities where a clinical finish is required, and give up soft goals from sloppy play. Ghana's build-up to the goal was a typical example of this, where Wilkshire and Emerton failed to stop the cross, despite having an opportunity to put the ball out for a corner.

Ultimately, Australia should ave won, even with 10 men, which makes the draw galling, as now we depend on either a Ghana win, or a thumping result by either Germany or ourselves (or both) to get through. Unlikely.

Football 20th June, 2010 12:38:43   [#] [2 comments] 

If football was organised like cricket
Russell Degnan

Like Dileep Premachandran, I've several times suggested that cricket could learn a lot from football, not just in terms of the world cup - the forthcoming edition of which promises to be an utter debacle - but in several other ways: its regional focus, its qualifiers, its willingness to accept mismatches and in the centrality it gives to domestic competition.

But what if it was the opposite, what would football look like then?

  • There would only be ten "full member" sides playing international football: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay. France, Italy, Germany, England, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. But most people would be a bit dubious on Uruguay, who've been crap for years, the Netherlands who were only admitted to stop their players going to Germany and Portugal, who were only admitted to bolster the 'latin' bloc.
  • Almost all football would be organised bilaterally. To make the most money, England, Germany and Brazil would play each other 10 times per year; and the other teams, reluctantly, for a couple of games every 5 years. There would be the occasional, very very reluctant game against teams outside the full members.
  • Players would rarely, if ever turn out for their clubs, who, lacking any star power would attract no support and depend on handouts from their national board. All players would play in their home country, except for a handful of vagabonds, who don't play internationals.
  • Except for a handful of "test" grounds, no stadium would hold more than 20,000 people.
  • There would be a world cup every year, either only amongst the full members, or with the full members (who automatically qualify, and therefore never play anyone outside the top 16), or with a handful of "minnows". Players for the minnows, who only get to play well trained, organised and technically skilled players every four years are routinely thrashed.
  • Teams who wish to attain "full member status" must be able to create a domestic league of the same standard as current full member leagues. That their domestic markets are tiny is irrelevant.
  • Players from outside the full members regularly switch allegiance to full member teams, even during the world cup - and can't go back. (Which admittedly, does happen a little).
  • Two of the world cups are 7-a-side tournaments, which are popular because those games tend to have more goals.
  • The meaningless and increasingly unpopular 90 minute game has been "modified" to attract spectators. For the first 15 minutes of the game, and in a nominated 10 minute "power-play" the off-side rule is modified so a team can only have 3 defenders in their own half. In addition, defenders cannot stand in the line between the ball and goal during free kicks, to encourage spectacular long-range shots.
  • Strikers must be substituted after 15 minutes. Not sure why, actually.
  • Having found a sudden love for domestic 7-a-side football, administrators would organise a league, but play it on 150 consecutive days, instead of in weekly rounds, to maximize the amount of televised games.

Alternatively, England would run the game and internationals would be the exclusive preserve of the home nations. Perhaps their historical indifference to the world cup was more of a blessing than we realise?

Football 19th June, 2010 17:37:39   [#] [5 comments] 

Australia v Germany
Russell Degnan

Predictably, the immediate coverage of Australia's hammering by Germany has been an over-reaction to a shoddy loss. And, admittedly, it couldn't really have gone much worse. The worst bit was that we were lazy and disorganised in defence, and, needless to say, Germany have a knack for cracking weak defences. The second worst bit was losing Cahill to a rash but not red-card offence. The third worst bit was shipping four goals, which ends any hope of sneaking through on goal difference. The loss itself wasn't that important, we always expected to lose, but must continue to hope that Germany keep on winning, to even out the competition for second-place.

It is the defence Australia has to worry about. The midfield was nowhere to be seen, leaving the Germans free to time simple balls in behind the defence for the cut-back. The first and fourth goals were classic examples of this problem, with noone picking up the run, nor more crucially marking the players joining from midfield. Frankly, given how frequently the Germans got free inside our penalty area, we were lucky not to let in more.

Tactically, Australia is ill-suited to play on the counter-attack, being both likely to concede goals regardless of the formation and unable, for lack of technical proficiency, creativity and pace to score on either the break or via the leading forward. Nevertheless, after five minutes it still appeared to be a sensible option, as Australia started well. You cannot win on the counter if you concede easily, and unfortunately, I have yet to see an Australian side that doesn't do that. Klose's goal being yet another demonstration of Schwarzer's frustrating inability to command the box and let in unnecessary goals, even if he saves several others.

That all said, Verbeek can be expected to turn out a different lineup for the next two games, against sides Australia are not only capable of defeating, but now have to defeat, which should force his hand. The evidence against Germany suggests Australia remain a team whose best, if not only, chance of scoring comes from the wings, and that means getting players forward.

Football 14th June, 2010 14:33:09   [#] [5 comments] 

So that`s that then
Russell Degnan

Like a goodly proportion of other people, the sight of a Spanish referee pointing to the Italian penalty spot was enough to make me instantly despondent last night. Since neither a little gallows humour [1], nor a little random destruction [2] made me feel much better, I'll have to settle on dispassionate analysis.


There is an inevitability about Australian losses in these sort of big games. They are preceded by endless comments on how we shouldn't be under-estimated by our superior opponents; then, during the game, Australia plays well to look like getting a win, before, well, not winning, because of a silly tackle, defensive or goal-keeping lapse, dodgy refereeing decision, or spectacular goal; then everybody comes out and says how well we played, and how unexpected it was, and how unlucky we were, and how we've now "proven" we can match it with the world's best.

And it is crap.

SBS is to blame. They love to hark back to the days when noone liked soccer in Australia and persist with some myth that football is a persecuted minority sport, and the national team a bunch of amateur battlers. They aren't, and it isn't. Until a year ago, the national league was little respected, and did not deserve to be; it was run by incompetent petty political hacks. But the national team has drawn big crowds and bigger audiences since the mid-90s, when the combination of wall-to-wall World Cup and European Championship coverage in '94 and '96, and a resurgence in the popularity of English football there and here [3] led to a general (if slightly superficial) interest in the sport.

With the possible exceptions of Bruce Arena and Alvaro Recoba, no-one of any credibility has under-estimated Australia in a decade. Plenty of people thought they'd make the second round. If the analysts were surprised by anything, it was that Australia did it in the haphazard, high-risk manner they did. And that was as much a result of our tendency to give up soft goals, and our inability to convert chances, than any particular attacking flair. It should have been much easier than it was.


To the Italian game then, where several soon to be prevalent myths should be punctured: Italy did not under-estimate Australia, they watched how we played and chose their game plan accordingly; Australia did not "out-play" Italy, the game was close, the result could have gone either way, but possession of the ball and pumping said ball into the box repeatedly should not be confused with the likelihood of the ball hitting the back of the net. Italy were good for the win, and tactically superior for much of the game. Unlike the Croatia game though, and no doubt to the bemusement of all Australia's new fans, this was one for the connoisseur.

The Australian game plan has been the same since Hiddink took over. A 4-5-1 or 3-5-2 depending on circumstances. A high posession game, trying to feed Viduka or cross for the late runs of attacking midfielders. It meant selecting players who were fast and fit over players with better skills -- Wilkshire over Skoko for example. It is effective enough, although Australia -- particularly Kewell and Bresciano -- had been wasteful before this game. Having watched Australia's barn-storming efforts in the group games, Lippi was tactically astute in his efforts to counter it.

To date in this World Cup, the Italians had been more open in play than usual, but they shut down against Australia, and for good reason. By playing deep in midfield they slowed Australia in attack, setting the tempo to suit their style. It also meant that Viduka was generally triple-teamed or more. For all Australia's possession they lost the shot count, and that is significant.

Generally speaking, the game had three phases. For the first thirty minutes Pirlo killed us. Australia played both too deep -- giving Pirlo far too much time on the ball to distribute long balls to his strikers -- and too short -- leaving Toni to take on Moore and Neill one on one. Italy's best chances occured in this period, and only Schwarzer saved Australia from having to come from behind again.

Credit to Hiddink -- though not much, as he'd be a poor manager if he didn't make the change -- the next 45 minutes belonged to Australia. Pirlo was pressured, his distribution became erratic and Australia dominated both possession and had their best chances (albeit wasted by shooting straight at Buffon). Materazzi's dismissal obviously helped. Under normal circumstances the tackle should have been a yellow, not a red, as he wasn't the last defender, and the challenge, while late was not dangerous. But with cards flowing like water from an alpine range in this World Cup, he can have no complaints.

For all that possession though, Australia not only didn't score, they hardly threatened. This again, was a personnel thing. Fast, fit players are great, but we have a history of playing ones who are also rubbish at distribution. None of Chipperfield, Wilkshire, Cullina, or Sterjovski can cross, and it was no surprise that the only real threat was Bresciano (who played an excellent game). As Adam rightly pointed out too, Viduka needs support. He is an excellent player (when fit), holds the ball up well and a good finisher from close range; but Viduka won't drop deep, dodge a defender and crack in a shot from thirty yards. By not playing Aloisi from the start, Hiddink sacrificed a lot of attacking options for patient build-up and control [4].

Ine introduction of Totti changed the game again. Italy started to break in numbers, and for all their vaunted fitness, Australia were stretched several times, became sloppy, and left too much space. Given Australia could still make substitutions, you have to question Hiddink's tactics. If he was waiting for extra time, then Australia shouldn't have been so far up the park; if not, then why leave on tired players?

Finally, the penalty. It was a cynical dive, no question, but I've seen them given often enough, particularly in Serie A. Neill shouldn't have been off his feet; forcing Grosso to pass should have been enough. It sucks to lose that way, but ultimately (and here is my point), Italy played Australia the way they wanted, and won the game.


So I am not happy, not because of the tragedy of it all, but because we shouldn't be happy with anything other than a win. The days are finished when Australia was incapable of getting a result against quality opposition -- even superior opposition which Italy is. A good looking loss is still a loss. Putting the ball into the back of the net more often than your opponents is much more satisfying.

I liked the style Australia played for much of this World Cup, but the results (a win, a draw and 2 losses) were no better than average, if not worse than that. As I put it in an sms after the Brazil game:

Fuck this honourable loss shit. I want to win


[1] I wanted to trip over someone in an exaggerated manner then say "don't mind me, I'm Italian", but decided not to.
[2] As is now traditional, I kicked a rubbish bin. It made a nice sound too.
[3] Australian football, like many things, is very English. Most of the overseas players play there, and for all the 'ethnic' talk, most football supporters here are of English descent as well.
[4] A very Dutch way of doing things, except good Dutch teams [5] always had a Cruyff, Van Basten or Bergkamp to create something from nothing as well.
[5] Ironic too, that after the Netherlands friendly the Dutch were a lovely team and Australia derided as uncultured hatchet men. Yet, four games later the opposite is true.

Football 28th June, 2006 02:10:57   [#] [4 comments] 

  [next -->]