FIFA 2014 World Cup

US Autopsy - World Cup 2014 by Matt Hartley

By Matt Hartley (@Libero_Or_Death)

Well the transfer rumors coming off the back of the United States’ World Cup are ending in a depressingly familiar half-exciting, half-exasperating muddle. A steady flow of rumors about foreign suitors for Matt Besler ended with the revelation that he could choose between the damned (Fulham) and barely spared (Sunderland). Little wonder that being a one-club legend in Kansas City was more appealing.

We can still salivate over where DeAndre Yedlin might end up, and while that is a totally valid use of your day, he will be more of a project for clubs like Roma or Lyon than an immediate contender for playing time. Just because the US went further than England doesn’t make Yedlin better than Glen Johnson, does it? Anyways, a few interesting statistical tidbits:

Goalkeeper

Howard - sure, he made a record-setting 16 saves against Belgium, but his best was the recovery to save from Eder after he misjudged Nani’s shot. That kept the score at 1-0, allowing the US to take advantage of their best 90 minutes of soccer and get the result that would see the US out of the group.

The most incongruous stat for Howard was his distribution distance of 30 meters. This was the second shortest among teams that made it out of the group stages, but was that part of the US game plan? While Jozy Altidore’s absence affected the ability to play long, if Klinsmann had instructed his players to build from the back, it didn’t quite come off, as the United States was 8th out of the 16 second round teams in passes completed per game. Things broke down too quickly when the US had the ball, leading to a rather high amount of chances for the opposition.

Center Backs

Thankfully, the US centerbacks were pretty adept at protecting the castle. In examining how the centerbacks did, CBI (Clearances+Blocks+Interceptions) nicely conveys how busy our defenders were, and we’ll look at that stat in its per90 form.

Besler - I wrote a World Cup preview piece for Paste in which I posited that due to having the most secure spot on the backline, Besler would have to be the rock for the US. He finished with a very respectable 13.83 CBIp90, good for fourth in the tournament. In fact, finishing ahead of him was…

Omar Gonzalez, emerging from what seemed to be a long-term demotion to rack up a  15.07 CBIp90 rating, coming from an outstanding 12.14 clearances per 90. The US was certainly relying on Omar to dominate as they conceded the flanks and allowed crosses to rain in.

The third primary center back for the US, Geoff Cameron, was 11th overall for CBIp90 with 12.60. Spending time in midfield as well, Cameron is well on his way to using that versatility to become the American Phil Neville.

Main thing to touch on:

Looking at the top 20 defenders by the CBI metric, there aren’t a lot of big names there. Medel has a good background, Vlaar at Villa, Cameron at Stoke, Nigeria’s Omueruo is on the books at Chelsea, and a couple of guys in Ligue 1. Hell, there are four current MLSers in the top 20 CBIper90 rankings. If the US really wants players to move to “big” clubs, then the national team will need to start producing more performances that aren’t backs-to-the-wall, man-the-pumps nonsense. Matt Besler had a really damn solid World Cup, and his options were the 14-20 slots from the Premier League. It’s certainly a chicken and egg situation, but it makes you hope that Juventus will come in for Erik Palmer Brown so that we can see some US players grow into regular slots at teams that seriously compete for the Champions League.

Fullbacks

This can be the hardest position to judge in the game, I think. You’ve got to be all things to all people at fullback, and that can make the position difficult to analyze. For the US there seemed to be a fairly clear hierarchy going into the tournament:

    1. Fabian Johnson, the best player for all 10 outfield positions

    2. DaMarcus Beasley, well, we like him better than Chandler

    3. Timothy Chandler, the source for a million overstated concerns about   German-Americans’ Americaness

    4. DeAndre Yedlin, there for the experience.

Of course, Beasley played solid two-way ball, Johnson was a useful offensive tool while on the field, and Yedlin became one of the breakout players of the tourney. Since the United States played a very narrow midfield for large swaths of the tournament, offensive contributions from the fullbacks were always going to be vital to our success. Looking at key passes, Fabian Johnson ended up with a .90 KPp90, which was 36th among defenders, placing him behind such noted playmakers at Vincent Kompany, and oh holy crap, DeAndre Yedlin.

That’s right, our little roadrunner, with his limited minutes, contributed a very nice 2.27 KPp90, good for fourth among Squawka’s defenders, and that’s right, one place ahead of Glen Johnson. Sign him up, Brendan!

Midfield

This was the part of the field where the United States’ struggles seemed rather stark. The US ended up with 326.5 completed passes per game, which put them smack in the middle of the 32 team field, and above Brazil, Costa Rica, and Colombia. But looking at things a little more closely, the United States played in its own half 34% of the time, more than any other country, and 22% in the opposition’s half, fourth worst in the entire tournament.

Looking at individuals, Michael Bradley came in for a lot of criticism, but despite playing mostly in a new role further up the field, he managed to complete more passes per 90 (47.77) than Luka Modric (46.00), Sami Khedira (45.36), and Steven Gerrard (44.09). Sadly, this involvement didn’t translate into chance creation, as Bradley finished with 0.67 KPp90, somewhere in the 139-160 range overall. Sure, there’s where Ronaldo finished, but so did Gary Cahill.

Jermaine Jones did everything, winning 65% of his aerial duels, 54% of his take ons, and running a very competitive race for the USMNT’s “Holy crap, I can’t believe that went in” award.  Alejandro Bedoya and Brad Davis weren’t statistically significant, while Kyle Beckerman finished 14th among midfielders in the CBIp90 metric. Graham Zusi provided two assists, but otherwise seemed very forgettable. There just wasn’t a lot to hang our hat on offensively.

In Closing

The United States failed to make the transition to a more progressive style of play this World Cup, but the US did show that they can defend fairly well. Klinsmann’s challenge will be to integrate more players comfortable with keeping and moving the ball through midfield to ally with a decent defense and a serviceable striker corps. There’s a lot of potential in the pool to meld into a strong corps for Russia 2018. I’d expect Fabian Johnson to become a full-time midfielder in the future, and see extended run-outs given to players like Julian Green, Joe Gyau, and Will Trapp. Future columns will look at the players who are making a strong case for the national team, starting with September’s friendly in Prague against the Czech Republic

Brazil: better than you think! by Drew Olsen

Admittedly, it hasn't felt like Brazil has played all that well this World Cup.

The referee seemingly made its two-goal victory over Croatia a more relaxed finish than it should have been; against Mexico, the fourth-place team from CONCACAF, it only managed a draw; and Cameroon was just low-hanging fruit. The host team then took a lot of flak for its play in the Round of 16 against Chile, especially for its performance after halftime. Indeed, Brazil conceded a silly goal on a defensive giveaway, and Chile had chances to win that game.

But I'm here to tell you that Brazil has played better that it has looked. Too often, it seems, the scorelines heavily influence our praise and criticism of what's happening on the field.

Brazil dominated Group A in terms of Expected Goal Differential (xGD), and recorded the second-highest tally of any team during the group stage. Brazil's 1.05 xGD during even (tied) gamestates ranked fifth among the 32 teams. You might have expected better from the hosts, but most teams only played about 130 minutes in such gamestates. That's a big enough sample size to get a general idea of which are the best teams, but too small a sample to split hairs over the top five.

Croatia - June 12th

Against the Croats, a penalty awarded to Fred on what appeared to be a dive marred what was actually a solid performance by Brazil. Up to that controversial call, Brazil had earned 1.4 Expected Goals (xGoals) to Croatia's 0.4, dominating in quantity and quality of shots. Even after taking the lead on the penalty, Brazil still edged Croatia in xGoals the rest of the way, 0.30 to 0.24---a differential that matches what we'd expect of teams that were leading in this tournament.

Mexico - June 17th

Mexico is a better team than their last-second World Cup qualification (and that commentator) would suggest. It led the CONCACAF Hexagonal (the Hex!) in shot ratios and is currently ranked 13th in the world in the Soccer Power Index (though some of that improved ranking is because of their tie against Brazil). Despite a disappointing 0 - 0 tie on the scoreboard, Brazil's 1.4 xGoals again dwarfed that of its opponents. Mexico totaled just 0.5 xGoals.

Cameroon - June 23rd

There's not much to say about this one. Brazil's 1.9 xGD against Cameroon was the third highest discrepancy thus far in the tournament, trailing only France's drubbing of Honduras and Germany's handling of Portugal. It should be noted that both France and Germany enjoyed a man advantage for the majorities of those games.

Chile - June 28th

For Chile, the scoreboard and their well-developed rapport with the woodwork are clear indications that they could have won this game. However, the opportunity creation department informs us that Brazil probably should have won, as it did. 94 percent of this game's shots were taken during an even gamestate, either 0 - 0 or 1 - 1, and Brazil outpaced Chile during that time by a full expected goal. Even after halftime, when Brazil looked disorganized and sloppy, it still edged Chile 1.1-to-0.7 in xGoals.

Perhaps Brazil has not "looked" the part of tournament favorites during its first four games, but its shot creation numbers suggest it is definitely playing like one of the best teams. Add that to their pre-tournament resume, throw in the home-field advantage that's not going away anytime soon, and there is little doubt that Brazil is still the favorite to win this World Cup---maybe not with a majority of the probability, but definitely with a plurality.

The Manaus Effect by Jared Young

During the United States' game against Germany on Thursday, it was hard to go 10 minutes without hearing Ian Darke or Taylor Twellman mention Manaus and its effect on the players. The US Men's National team played its previous game against Portugal in the "Jungle City," as did Italy, England, Croatia and Cameroon, before each dropping three points in their next games.

Business Insider pointed out that those first four teams to play in Manaus lost by a combined score of 10 - 3, though it conceded the tiny sample size. A Washington Post article cited the same statistics, and pondered the possibility of a curse in Manaus. The Independent, based in the United Kingdom, noted on June 24th that each of the seven teams that played in Manaus lost its next game. That was confusing since only six teams had played in Manaus to that point, and only four of those had actually played a "next game." But whatever. #stats Graham Zusi, Sporting Kansas City's All-star midfielder and starter for the USMNT, wasn't having any of it, stating "I don’t think it was that bad to be honest. When it got down to it, at night it cooled off and the humidity wasn’t as bad. I think after about 24 hours the bodies felt great." Hugh Laurie would tell us that everybody lies, especially athletes on record, but there might be something to Zusi's statement. Below is a chart depicting the average temperature, humidity and heat index for each game site. The weather stats were taken from Weather Underground at the beginning of the second half of each game.

City  Games  Temp  Humidity  Index
Fortaleza 4 82.4 62% 85.4
Salvador 4 80.2 73% 83.5
Manaus 4 79.3 81% 82.1
Natal 4 78.5 83% 80.7
Cuiaba 4 78.4 66% 79.1
Brasilia 4 77.5 43% 78.7
Sao Paulo 4 69.4 55% 78.3
Belo Horizonte 4 76.1 40% 77.8
Recife 4 77.5 86% 77.8
Rio De Janeiro 4 75.7 71% 76.6
Porto Alegre 4 65.8 71% 75.5
Curitiba 4 64.0 79% 71.5

It's reasonable to theorize that more extreme environments take their toll on the human body, even professional athletes. But if we're going to get serious here, we need to consider all locales that were exceptionally uncomfortable. Manaus actually ranked third in average heat index, and had a lower average humidity than fourth-place Natal. Italy and England were the first to play in Manaus on June 14th and sparked the notion that it was a hell hole. But while they were duking it out in Manaus, Costa Rica and Uruguay were playing in Fortaleza, number one on that list up there. Though it was less humid to start the second half in Fortaleza, it was actually hotter, and Fortaleza's halftime heat index beat that of Manaus by a few points, 87.3 to 84.6.

It turns out that teams which most recently played in Natal, Salvador or Fortaleza---the other three extreme locations---did alright. Those teams outscored their opponents by a combined five goals. That makes it hard to believe that the conditions of Manaus were responsible for the downfalls of Italy, England and Croatia, though that still leaves the possibility of a non-weather-related curse.

To make this a legit study, there are some other factors we need to control for, and that is why God invented linear regression. Using ESPN's (Nate Silver's) Soccer Power Index, I controlled for each team's overall ability, and then I measured the effects of extra rest and past-game heat index on the goal differential outcome. The output is below:

Variable Estimate P-Value
Intercept -0.37 15.8%
SPI Ratings Differential 1.01 0.1%
Additonal Days Rest (home) -0.21 68.1%
Heat Index Differential 0.01 74.3%

If you're not a linear regression kind of person, then basically what that chart up there says is that neither the heat index of the teams' past games nor any rest discrepancy seemed to matter during this tournament. At least not in terms of goal differential. But we know that goal differential is finicky, and Expected Goals are a better indicator of team performance. Good thing we've got our World Cup Expected Goals data up and running! If we measure team performance by some Expected Goal Differential statistics (xGD), then we get these linear regression outputs:

Expected Goal Diff Estimate P-value Even Expected Goal Diff Estimate P-value
Intercept -0.06 61.9% Intercept 0.01 88.4%
SPI Ratings Differential 0.46 0.1% SPI Ratings Differential 0.34 0.2%
Additional Days Rest (home) 0.13 57.0% Additional Days Rest (home) 0.17 37.0%
Heat Index Differential 0.00 79.7% Heat Index Differential 0.00 86.3%

Again, regardless of whether we look at overall xGD or even-gamestate xGD, there are no statistically significant effects due to extreme heat index figures from past matches. Expected Goals data are obviously not a direct measurement of how heat impacts the athletes' bodies, but they should be a stable representation the teams' relative strengths during a match.

The Swiss were the last team (that is still in the tournament) to play in an 80+ heat index environment, but I wouldn't expect that to matter much based on what I've shown above. What will matter is that Argentina is much better. Talent has trumped the heat index so far this World Cup.

 

 

World Cup Draws: United States, Mexico, and the Netherlands by Drew Olsen

Of those three teams, it's the United States's draw that incites the least of my frustration.

Search for "world cup draw" on Google, and you'll find mostly opinions that the U.S. Mens National Team found itself in the group of death, as if there can only be one. But as many pointed out before the draw, the USMNT was not likely to get into an easier group. Coming from Pot 3, the USMNT was at a disadvantage already due to being in the weakest pot. Using ratings from Nate Silver's Soccer Power Index (SPI), here are the average ratings by each of the four pots:

Pot Rating Standard Dev.
1 85.9 5.0
4 79.7 3.3
2 76.2 8.0
3 73.7 3.5

Since teams from the same pot could not meet in the group stage, the USMNT couldn't draw any teams from its own pot. Thus it automatically got zero chance at playing some of the weaker teams in the opening round, leaving us praying for one of Switzerland or Belgium from the ranked Pot 1 to ease our path to glory (no such luck).  Additionally, all Pot 3 teams got a slightly higher chance of meeting two European teams in the group stages due to that additional UEFA team moving from Pot 4 to Pot 2. Pot 3 teams eluding a European team from Pot 1 may still have gotten Italy or England (I can't tell which one) from Pot 2. Costa Rica drew the short straw on that one.

If you look at Nate Silver's  ratings, you'll notice that most Pot 3 teams got pretty raw deals. Below are the chances that each team advances to the knockout round, as well as the average ratings for the other teams in their respective groups. Pot 3 teams are bold and italicized, and data came from Silver's own model.

Team Difficulty Knockout   Team Difficulty Knockout
Australia 86.6 2.0%   Italy 81.0 44.2%
Algeria 77.1 11.4%   Mexico 78.9 45.3%
Iran 81.8 18.9%   Ivory Coast 78.7 49.8%
Honduras 81.2 20.4%   Bosnia 79.3 52.6%
Cameroon 80.6 22.3%   England 80.3 57.5%
Japan 80.4 24.2%   Ecuador 78.2 64.7%
Costa Rica 82.2 28.8%   Uruguay 79.6 69.5%
Ghana 81.9 28.8%   Russia 71.6 72.6%
Nigeria 80.6 31.2%   Chile 79.9 74.3%
Croatia 79.7 32.9%   France 77.3 78.4%
Switzerland 79.7 36.5%   Belgium 71.1 79.1%
South Korea 73.8 36.9%   Spain 79.4 82.8%
United States 81.2 39.3%   Colombia 76.2 86.5%
Portugal 81.1 39.3%   Germany 78.0 91.8%
Greece 79.3 39.5%   Argentina 75.6 97.3%
Netherlands 81.3 41.0%   Brazil 73.9 99.6%

Relative to its stature in the world---17th best according to the SPI---the United States drew arguably the second-hardest group of opponents, second only to the Netherlands*. Though the USMNT may be in a group of death, the Netherlands are definitely in the group of death---and on the outside looking in. But it's our neighbor to the south that draws the most frustration. In terms of average group difficulty, the only North American side to get a relatively decent draw was Mexico. Mexico will just have to be better than Croatia and Cameroon in the group stage. Even after pissing all over themselves in CONCACAF qualifying, the Mexicans now have the easiest path of any Pot 3 team.

The Dutch side is the ninth-best in the tournament by the SPI, and yet it drew two of the best teams in the Cup, Chile and Spain. The Oranje, the team of my birth country, have been left sadly with just a 41-percent chance at making the knockout stage. The Mexican side is ranked 26th in the world, finished fourth in qualifying, and has a better chance to advance than the Netherlands.

Oh, FIFA.

*While Australia, Iran and Costa Rica all drew harder opponents on average than the USMNT, they were not as highly ranked themselves as the USMNT. In other words, it was expected that worse teams would get tougher opponents because they don't get to play themselves.