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:
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:
ENG 0 ITA 1
URU 3 CRC 0
ENG 0 URU 1
ITA 3 CRC 3
ENG 0 CRC 1
ITA 1 URU 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.
ENG 1 ITA 1
URU 3 CRC 2
ENG 3 URU 1
ITA 1 CRC 3
ENG 1 CRC 3
ITA 2 URU 3
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.
ENG 1 ITA 0
URU 1 CRC 1
ENG 1 URU 0
ITA 2 CRC 2
ENG 2 CRC 2
ITA 1 URU 1
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.