Who played best at the World Cup?

July 14

(Associated Press)

Germany won Sunday’s World Cup final. It was a close-fought match that came down to finishing. Over the first 110 minutes, big chances were missed by Gonzalo Higuain, Benedikt Hoewedes, Lionel Messi and Rodrigo Palacio. Finally, with the second period of extra time winding down, substitute Mario Goetze found space between the Argentinian center backs. Andre Schürrle found him with a pass, and Goetze executed a perfect chest control and half-volley finish to score the World Cup-winning goal. It was a beautiful goal to match the quality of a great tournament.

This final provided another great example. Argentina created more big chances from open play than Germany. All of Messi, Higuain and Palacio got behind the German lines, one-on-one with the keeper, but none of them controlled the ball perfectly. In an even match like this final, the difference is often finishing. And finishing rates vary wildly. In the round of 16 against Algeria, Germany created eight big chances in regular time but converted none of them. The same team scored one of two against Argentina and won the World Cup. Game to game, chance creation remains a stable aspect of team play, while rates of chance conversion fluctuate.

This does not mean that Germany was merely lucky. Goetze’s strike was a wonderful moment of skill and a deserved goal. But if Germany had faced a more clinical Argentina, the match could easily have been over before Goetze even got a chance inside the box.

I wanted to take a look at the World Cup according to chance creation rather than finishing. Which teams were the best at creating chances for themselves, while denying chances to their opponents? I gathered expected goals numbers for each team and adjusted for quality of opposition. By these numbers, here are the ten best teams of the World Cup.

worldcup_ratings

Germany stands at the top. That’s always nice. The Netherlands and Argentina come out roughly tied in third and fourth. That seems fair, as it took a penalty shootout to decide their semifinal. France perhaps requires a bit of explanation. The French conceded only one big chance and about 0.6 expected goals to Germany in their quarterfinal match. Germany averaged more than four big chances and over two expected goals per 90 minutes in the rest of the tournament. While France did not create a ton, it was an even match against the champions decided by a single header.

In group play and against Nigeria in the first round, France never came particularly close to losing. Les Bleus laid a tremendous beating on Switzerland, who went on to take Argentina to extra time. These stats suggest that in another tournament, perhaps just in another bracket, we might have been celebrating France instead of Germany.

The two big surprises on the list are surely England and Bosnia, the Dragons provide a good example of the cruelty of the short tournament in soccer.

bosnia_map2

The opening match for Bosnia came against finalist Argentina, and its opening goal was pure misfortune, a deflected own goal. While Argentina was the better team on the night overall, it might have been an entirely different contest if a random bounce had not gone the South Americans’ way. Then against Nigeria, a perfectly good Edin Dzeko goal was incorrectly waived off for offsides, and several other good chances for a final strike went missing. Bosnia was the better side in both this match and its final group game against South Korea, but it came away with only three points.
Bosnia shows that sometimes, you really do just get unlucky. Bosnia had the talent to make a deep run in the tournament and played high-quality soccer for 270 minutes. But a bad bounce, a bad call, and a few missed chances sent the Dragons packing.

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Thomas Johnson · July 14

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