So far, the 2014 World Cup has provided goals on a scale unprecedented in this generation. As of 5pm on Thursday (before Belgium v Algeria), the average goals per game stood at 3.14. Pi anyone’s standards, that’s an impressive rate of return. No World Cup has averaged three goals a game since 1958.
But even that rate can’t be sustained – and, let’s face it, it probably won’t – with the exception of perhaps Cameroon, Greece and Iran, every nation, from big to small, has tried to get stuck in.
This is marked contrast from South Africa 2010, when many nations adopted a safety-first approach. Why might this be?
The short answer is that we can’t know for certain. But we’ve crunched some numbers, and here are some theories.
1) There are more teams with World Cup experience
We looked at how “novice nations” performed in the last 10 World Cups. We defined novices as World Cup debutants, and countries that hadn’t played a World Cup in the previous 20 years, and so were almost certain not to have any players with World Cup experience.
Predictably, countries who were new to the competition scored a lot fewer goals than established World Cup nations – less than half as many, on average.
Goals scored per game (since 1974)
Novice nations 0.87
Non-novice nations 1.78
But on the whole, games involving novices tended to be significantly lower-scoring on average, even taking into account the occasional thrashing (Portugal 7 North Korea 0, Yugoslavia 9 Zaire 0). This pattern has become even more pronounced since 1990, widely regarded as Zero Hour for turgid, defensive World Cup football.
Goals per game in…
Match involving novice nation
All other matches
This stands to reason. Teams who are new to the World Cup are more likely to be weaker or inexperienced, and more likely to exercise caution. They have a greater incentive to make the game tight and try to keep the score down.
There is only one debutant this time round: Bosnia and Herzegovina. That’s the same as in South Africa, when Slovakia were the only team making their first appearance. But that tournament also featured a number of World Cup novices: Algeria were making their first appearance in 24 years, New Zealand and Honduras their first in 28, North Korea their first in 44.
This time, with the exception of Bosnia, every country has played a World Cup in the last 16 years. Every country except Bosnia has a player in their squad with previous World Cup experience.
This is unprecedented. And it may go some way to explaining why teams have been so much more comfortable going on the attack
2) The overall standard of the field is higher, and there is a more even spread of talent
This tournament, 22 of the 23 top countries in the world rankings are in Brazil. Ukraine (16th) are the only absentees. In South Africa, the countries ranked 10th, 11th and 12th (Croatia, Russia and Egypt) were absent. Which was nobody’s fault but their own, but it did mean the overall standard of the tournament was reduced as a result.
Comparing the world rankings of the countries in this World Cup to the rankings of countries who were in South Africa reveals how much stronger this tournament is. The average world ranking of a 2014 World Cup nation is more than four places higher than in 2010. There is also less of a disparity in quality.
(Note for non-nerds: standard deviation is just a fancy mathematical way of working out how widely spread a set of numbers is. The higher the number, the more spread-out the field. )
World rankings of competing teams // 2010 // 2014
Average // 26.0 // 21.6
Median // 19.5 // 17.5
Standard deviation // 19.5 // 17.5
Simply put, the gap between the best and the worst has narrowed. The best countries aren’t as good as they were in 2010, and the worst countries aren’t as bad. The best team going into the 2010 World Cup was Brazil, with 1611 ranking points, and the worst North Korea with 285 – a difference of 1326. This time, the best team is Spain (1485 points) and the worst Australia (526) – a spread of 959.
Why is this relevant? Imagine you’re a no-hoper going into the World Cup ranked 105 in the world. You’ve got three of the world’s best teams in your group. What tactics are you going to play?
If you answered 5-4-1, then you’re correct. North Korea in 2010 didn’t so much park the bus as park an entire row of PT-85 tanks. It didn’t quite work, but at least they were able to return to their wonderful country at the first possible opportunity.
3) There has been a greater diversity of tactics
In boxing, they say that styles make fights, and a roughly similar logic could be held for football. The last World Cup saw an overwhelming bias towards the prevailing formation of the time, 4-2-3-1. Naturally, there are different sorts of 4-2-3-1, but by and large that was the blueprint, and only a few countries deviated from it: Mexico, Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile, the handful of countries playing 5-4-1 with an extra defender.
This time, 4-2-3-1 may still be the dominant force, but other styles are beginning to evolve. The United States under Jurgen Klinsmann play a midfield diamond. Louis van Gaal played a reactive, counter-punching 3-4-3 against Spain. Honduras even play 4-4-2, bless their little hemp socks. In fact, a lot of the smaller countries have gone with a variant of the two-striker system, from Ecuador to Chile to Nigeria.
How is this playing out on the pitch? More direct football – possibly as a result of the climatic conditions, which we’ll come to later – and more incisive passing. We asked Opta for the average number of passes leading to a goal in this World Cup compared to the last. The results are interesting.
Average passes leading to goal
Which suggests that teams are trying to move the ball forward quicker. That doesn’t necessarily mean long ball – the percentage of long balls is actually down on this World Cup so far – but it might indicate that teams are playing more effective key passes, or perhaps winning the ball higher up the pitch.
It also means fewer crosses are being attempted, and there are fewer fouls per game, possibly because games are less tight and compact.
Attempted crosses per game (open play)
Fouls per game
All tactical systems are, in a sense, about controlling space. When different formations come up against each other, you’re more likely to find space, rather than two teams cancelling each other out. Not that these statistics prove anything in themselves. Anyway, it’s just a theory.
4) This is a golden age of attacking football, and teams aren’t defending as well as they used to
Again, hard to prove outright. What is true is that in the big four European leagues – the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga, where more than 50 per cent of the players at the World Cup play their club football – the average number of goals per game has been increasing for some years. It is most noticeable in the Premier League, but it has been happening across the board.
Average goals per game
We live in a glorious age of attackers – Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez, Ibrahimovic, Cavani, Bale, Aguero, Robben, Ribery, Falcao, Van Persie, Neymar – and yet genuinely great defenders are thin on the ground. In 2007, when FourFourTwo magazine began their annual Top 100 Players In The World List, 10 of the top 30 players in the world were defenders. Now, there are just four, and even the best of them, Philipp Lahm, now spends most of his time in midfield.
All subjective, of course. But match statistics from these early games appear to bearing this out. So far this tournament, not only are teams scoring more goals, but they’re taking more shots. And not only are they taking more shots, but they’re taking their shots from better positions.
Total shots per game
Inside the area
Outside the area
And as we saw earlier, while there are fewer crosses being attempted, more headers are being scored, which again would appear to suggest either better crossing, better movement or worse marking.
2010 17.2% (25/145)
2014 22.7% (10/44)
To conclude: teams are scoring more goals because they’re taking more shots from better positions, and are getting worse at stopping the other side from doing the same. You might argue whether we needed 10 data tables and 1500 words to tell you that, but thanks for sticking with it.
5) More goals are scored in warmer weather
South Africa was cold. This World Cup has been pretty warm. Uncomfortably warm, in parts. Perhaps the conditions might be contributing to games opening up.
“Certainly they’re playing a part,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said. “It’s contributed to the openness of the competition, because games get spread in warmer climates. That’s why you’ve seen some pretty open games.”
Not so long ago, the Freakonomics guys studied how NFL teams performed in the cold. They found that as autumn turned to winter, pass completion percentage dropped – not a lot, but noticeably, from month to month. Between 2007 and 2011, pass completion rates dropped around 8 per cent between September and January. But here’s the thing. When the games were played in indoor stadiums, there was no discernable difference.
Another statistician, Brian Burke, noted something he called the “dome at cold” effect – where teams who play their home games indoors play significantly worse outdoors in cold weather. He also found that pass completion rates drop in cold weather, but that runners tend to carry the ball more yards on average.
Might this effect translate to football? South Africa would have been uncomfortably cold to a lot of warmer countries, which may have depressed their performance a little. American football and proper football are too different to make any meaningful comparison about pass completion, but the running statistic is more interesting. If teams run less in hot temperatures, it would make them less effective at pressing, and covering gaps in the defence. And more open space on the football pitch generally translates to more goals.
Nothing concrete, and like we said: just a theory.