Are defences dominating this World Cup?

Attacking teams sell tickets, but defensive ones win games.  So far, the 2014 World Cup is not the exception, especially considering that after the fireworks of the group stage, knockout clashes have resulted in many draws, and a dearth of goals, with only five in the quarter-finals.

After all, the history of the World Cup teaches that the team that had the best defence (and not even the best attack) won 42% of the games, while the one with the best offense only 21% (exactly as the teams that have both the best offense that the best defense, with the rest who took home the World Cup having neither one nor the other). In theory, therefore, teams with a better defence are twice as likely to win the competition.

To remind us, we only need to analyse the quarter-finalists in Brazil. The four teams that conceded fewer shots, except France, have gone trough. Of these Les Bleus have ended their tournament as the second team with fewer shots on target conceded (SOTCON), 2.4, against Brazil’s 2 per match – an excellent performance, but not enough to beat Germany. The progress of Deschamps squad was not helped by the fact that France was the third team for SOTCON. Against France 4 shots were enough to produce a goal, only fewer were needed against Brazil (2.5) and the Netherlands (3.75). All of this is confirmed by France’s third last save percentage between the teams which reached the quarter (75%, worse only Brazil with 60%, and Holland with 73.3%); this against by its SOTCON, the second of the group for Les Bleus. In other words, statistically France has conceded few scoring opportunities. But these were good one, easy to score goals from. Proof is Germany’s goal, with Varane failing to match Hummels’ strength; evidence of how an individual weakness can ruin the work of a group.

France’s statistical blip of is most likely explained by this event. Statistically, however, the Costa Rica story is more difficult to tell. Here we have best defensive record of all the teams in the quarter-finals (only 2 goals conceded), and the highest save percentage (91.7%) – with their goalkeeper Keylor Navas going home with a 90% record. And Costa Rica was also the team that best used the offside trap: 41 times in 5 games, with two masterful peaks: 11 against Italy and 13 with Holland. Italy’s Balotelli and his substitute Immobile were judged offside 6 times each, a record in the tournament until the quarterfinals, when van Persie top them with 9. So, why Pinto’s men left us? Because logic dictates that he had milked all his team technical ability. Also, perhaps, because his team had the worse SOTCON. In other words, it is true that to score a goal against Costa Rica 12 shots were needed (basically double those of second placed Germany, with 6.3), but it is also true that the 34.29% of these shots were on target. And those were far too many for even Navas to save.

Aside these two statistical blips, the four teams left in the competition are very close to the standard of a tournament that could be decided by the best defence. The Brazil one may not look impressive, it has the lowest save percentage (60%), but, as mentioned, this is the team that has conceded fewer shots on target per game and has the best SOTCON, an impressive 16.67%. This suggests that to beat Julio Cesar (at least with Thiago Silva on the pitch) a hell of a shot is required.

Germany is third last in shots conceded per game and SOTCON, but has the highest save percentage after Costa Rica, an impressive 84.2%, which means that to score a goal against Neuer 6.3 shots on target have been necessary so far. Much the same is true for Argentina, which gives away 3.4 shots on target per game but has the third save percentage (82.4%). If anything, it is much more difficult to explain the semi-final place of Holland (at least in a defensive key). The Dutch have the second-last and the penultimate SOTCON save percentage (73.3%). So far, they have conceded a small number of shots per game (3), but one wonders if that is going to continue against Messi and company?

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