Thoughts on a world cup final

If we do get a Germany v Netherlands final I’ll be pleased.

Some time ago I was researching the history of the sweeper and watched a lot of games from the sport’s past. One player I was particularly interested in was Franz Beckenbauer, so I made a point of digging out quite a few games he played in.

Beckenbauer, as we all know, was West Germany’s star player and icon, but he also ran Bayern Munich’s all conquering side from the early 70s. That team won the European Cup in 73-74 and 74-75, and the Bundesliga from 71-74.

Now, since then the Holland team has ascended into football’s pantheon on the back of the neat “total football” branding thing (also they were really good) but it’s almost as if the West Germany team of the time was just incidental to the game and played spoilsports to the Dutch masters, denying Cruyff et al the title their talents deserved. This is not the case at all: the West Germans, leaning heavily on that Bayern Munich side, was absolutely brilliant. I’ve watched a few games from the era and they had it all, a complete (and very attractive) football team. So yes, the Dutch missed the boat there and hasn’t won the World Cup since, but that West German side was red hot.

And if Holland don’t win we get a replay of the 1986 final, in which Argentina went 2-0 up, West Germany clawed back to 2-2, then Argentina nicked a winner. Another fine game.

So everyone’s a winner. Football’s so much more potent when it has a historical anchor. We’ve got that now.

Ross McCormack to Fulham

We needed this one.

If you look at the last nine sides to go down and what happened to them next, the signs aren’t good:

next up

The numbers in italics are what Fulham might be expected to achieve based on what’s happened before.

Clearly this is an exact science (a very long way from it) but when a team is as bad as Fulham were the next season tends not to be great. My very basic excel predictor suggested that we’d score 52 and concede 69 next year, which would land us in about 18th place, give or take. I do understand the limitations of this – teams change, after all, and a lot of teams do much better in the championship – but it does rather hint at the difficulties involved in transforming basket cases to super teams.  And look at the list above.  While there aren’t any clear clues about which teams improve and which stay bad, it can’t be a good thing that Fulham are going down with a worse defensive record than anyone else has had in the last three years, without the goals tally in attack that might justify this.

In short, we couldn’t just flop down and expect things to be better because we’d been up top a few years, because the playing staff really isn’t good enough for that. Our closest comparator was Wolves, who kept on going. Something needed to be done.

If there’s such a thing as a sure thing in the Championship, Ross McCormack is it.


His goalscoring record is remarkable, both in terms of its quantity and the extent to which he dominated Leeds’ attack. He partnered well with Matt Smith last year, as stereotypical a “big man” as you could hope to see, and I suspect this bodes well for Hugo Rodallega, who is better in the target man role than he looks like he should be. It should be an extremely potent combination.

What might it mean? Well let’s say Cauley Woodrow would have been good for 10 goals. A good number of Championship players score 10 goals. It’s a fair assumption for an unproven young player on a middle of the road team. Suppose that in the same games McCormack bags us 25. Suddenly we’ve gained 15 goals. (yes, yes, I know). If that means we score 67 and concede 69 then now we’re suddenly looking at a 10th place team, give or take.

THEN, if we can tighten up at the back and bring in a central midfielder then suddenly you’re looking at the play off places.

So it’s important that we did this and it could make a huge difference.  I suspect we need a signing of similar magnitude in the middle of the pitch but this is a big deal.


On luck

Just to think about luck a bit more. Suppose each team in England’s group was exactly equal. It’s actually not far off probably, all considered. What would happen then?

Every game would be drawn? No, not really, because football’s football isn’t it? Balls bounce in odd ways, luck goes here and there, and someone usually wins.

So I simulated 100 group stages.

Each team was exactly equal, e.g. they all had the same chance of scoring the same number of goals in each game.

After 100 tournaments the average number of points from the group were:

CRC 4.5
ITA 4.2
URU 4.2
ENG 4.1

That’s quite interesting already isn’t it? That in 100 tournaments we still get randomness effects. Costa Rica are the same team as England here, but owing to the randomness of all this are averaging 4.5 points per tournament, versus England’s 4.1.

Costa Rica went through the group unbeaten 22 times, whereas England managed the same thing only 12 times. (Italy 15, Uruguay 13). Remember, these teams are all equal strength.

So really, when you have four teams of roughly equal strength, pretty much anything can happen.

Let’s take a couple of tournaments at random:

Specimen 1:


Here England’s overly defensive play cost them dearly. They kept things tight but were beaten by the only goal of the game in all three matches. This proved that England lacked cutting edge, were too negative, and need to buck their ideas up. By the time they lost 1-0 to Costa Rica in game three they were already out.

Meanwhile the swashbuckling Uruguayans ripped minnows Costa Rica a new one, edged tepid England and played out a savvy mutually beneficial draw with Italy to finish up.

Costa Rica had bravely beaten England in the last game and had more than played their part in a 3-3 thriller with Italy, but that initial shellacking by Uruguay was too big a hole to get out of.

Italy did what they had to, beating England in Manuas, slipping against Costa Rica in that 3-3 game, and getting the point they needed in game 3.

Specimen 2:


England and Italy played out a predictable 1-1 draw in Manaus to open the group. Meanwhile, free scoring Uruguay beat Costa Rica 3-2. England thrill everyone with a big win in game 2, but take their eye of the ball in the crucial third game and lose their chance to progress.

Specimen 3:


Here canny England did what they had to do, eking out 1-0 wins against the big guns and holding off against a surprisingly talented Costa Rica in game 3 to qualify.

You get the idea.


The World Cup is a one off event.  When four equal teams come together pretty much anything can happen.  It’s too easy to fit the narrative to events (and of course that’s what we all do, and what journalists are paid to do) but really, in this situation, the four teams really were about even in quality.  Anything could have happened.  England didn’t prevail, but easily could have done so. It’s not proof of anything much that we didn’t.

Shootout wobbles

Saturday’s game reminded me of something I learned researching the Roy book.

Hodgson’s Inter got to the 1997 UEFA Cup Final, where they played Schalke 04 of Germany.

The Schalke coach, Huub Stevens, had an inkling that the game might go to penalties so put together a database of Inter players’ tendencies from 12 yards.   He gave this to his keeper, Jens Lehman, and of course the match did finish level (over two legs) and did go to penalties.

I would urge you all to quickly watch the clip below as it’s one of the clearest cases of a player being spooked you’ll ever see.  Lehman goes to Aron Winter (contrast the body language of the two players!) and apparently tells him he knows where the kick’s going. Winter, who looks like he’s seen a ghost, gently slides the ball wide.

Also worth your time is this from Twitter, suggesting that Tim Krul may have got into the heads of the Costa Rica players in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

Tightening up

I mentioned it in passing below, but by my reckoning Costa Rica caught their opponents offside 41 times this World Cup. There was a spell when basically Holland were caught every time they tried to attack. This, to me, really speaks for the value of hard work in defending. It has been noted in the newspapers that individually, the Costa Rica defence aren’t superstars. But they have worked really hard together to become a functional unit. Danny Murphy kept saying in commentary on Saturday that this doesn’t just happen by saying you’re going to be a good defence, you have to work really hard at it. We know all about that, don’t we? (I think the second highest in terms of offsides was Germany with 12).

Thing is, we can guess that this kind of organisation can happen quite quickly. Tony Pulis took over a Crystal Palace side that was full of empty-headed attack and turned that on its head, creating an organised, grizzly Crystal Palace side that became hard to beat quite quickly.

I bring this up again to (again) wonder why Fulham were so slow to fix last year’s problems. The team was so obviously bad that something really had to be done. Rene Meulensteen was effectively a skills coach at Manchester United, wasn’t he? In retrospect it’s hard to understand how he was considered to be the right man to fix Fulham’s issues.

I know this isn’t new but the more you think about last season the worse it gets. In the face of very obvious problems you at least have to have a stab at getting an answer. People moan about statistics but a number of (free) analytical websites pointed out very quickly that Fulham were becoming historically bad defensively. As in the worst in Europe. As in the kind of team that’s going to get relegated without much of a fight, according to Premier League precedents. So now, what’s the story here:

a) Fulham were aware of this information
b) Fulham were not aware of this information
c) It’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?

If a, something clearly had to be done to fix the defence. It wasn’t done. Is this because Fulham were aware of this information but didn’t believe it/felt themselves above this kind of thing, or that Fulham did believe it but assumed it would get better. Either way, it demanded a fix. There was no fix. If you believe Brede Hangeland, there was no attempt at a fix.

If b, you have to ask why not? Even if they don’t ‘like’ statistics – and I know very well that not everyone does – there was ample eyeball evidence that the defensive side of the game was horribly wrong. I hate to think that, like a lot of fans, the powers that be were fixated on the team’s attacking issues (many still believe that Dimitar Berbatov was the main problem).

Or c and perhaps d and all of this known and on the to-do list, but lost in the constant shuffle of managers and coaches?

I don’t know. But Jorge Luis Pinto could presumably have organised this team in no time. Would it have been enough? I think it would, yes.

It’s awfully easy to diagnose things in hindsight with no responsibility isn’t it? But even so.



Kvist on Magath?

I’m not sure of the source, but there’s an interesting line of tweets from a Danish poster on Twitter:

Martin Krag @martinkrag · 22m
“His professional capability and man management is on the lowest level I’ve ever experienced” – William Kvist on Felix Magath.

Martin Krag @martinkrag · 19m
Kvist on Magath: “We never knew what the plan was when we showed up for practice, who was in start XI, and didn’t train tactics before game”

Kvist: “My resistance grew day for day. If I haven’t had a contract I would’ve quit on the spot. No one deserves a coach like Magath”

Kvist: “At one time a teammate got to decide the content of the practice before an important game. Because it was his birthday” #Magath

Ruiz and running

On message boards sometimes people have had a dig at me for using statistics. I do understand the limitations of statistics in football, honestly I do. But I also understand that sometimes they tell us things that we wouldn’t otherwise know. They supplement what we see with our eyes. I understand that most people aren’t after “the truth” and aren’t that bothered that they need to see a statistical counterpoint to their dearly held belief, but while we have all these debates it always seems worth considering a variety of angles. And increasingly that means statistics, too.

As various books tell us (most famously now, Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking: Fast and Slow”) the human brain is actually pretty bad at evaluating a lot of things. It takes shortcuts all the time, which is important in so far as it helped man evolve into what it is today, but which can lead to evaluative issues. We all make snap judgements about footballers, and if we get it in our minds that “Ruiz is always losing it” our brains get excited when we see this happen in a game. So while Ruiz might only get caught on the ball twice in a match, that’s what we’ll take away because it conforms to our “Ruiz code”. our dominant image of Ruiz’s contribution will be him getting caught on the ball. So the other night I saw Ruiz probing and attempting lots of forward passes; another poster on TiFF said that he and his friends had noted how frequently Ruiz passed up the opportunity to play forwards. We were both looking at the same thing, but both looking *for* different things.

And for another thing, there’s really so much going on on a football pitch that we simply can’t keep up. I mentioned in passing yesterday that Bryan Ruiz, in contrast to popular perceptions, had run as far as anyone in Costa Rica’s games. We’ve been here before: I noticed in an away defeat at Southampton that, contrary to a lot of observers’ reports, Ruiz, while not involved, was hardly standing still. He was doing the exact opposite, making long and circular runs that were more or less useless. He wasn’t not trying; he just wasn’t making very intelligent attempts to get involved. Or put another way, he was probably trying too hard.

Which is why statistics can help. In this World Cup, FIFA is making available all kinds of information. So we know how far Bryan ran, and, despite Spigs’ challenge, we actually know that he wasn’t going at 5mph while running all this way. We also know that Ruiz passed forward and backwards, and that against Greece, for example, he found Joel Campbell 11 times, twice as often as anyone else did.