The World Cup’s Group D is one full of traditional powers: the great Italy, the perpetually quite good but still disappointing England and consistently competitive two-time champion Uruguay. There is also Costa Rica, to whom every preview has given the “just happy to be there” card. I cannot disagree. This is very much a three-team group. Any stumbles against the Central Americans are unlikely to buoy Costa Rica but could end the World Cup dreams of the three bigger sides. My numbers rate this very close to a toss-up, but I do have a little bit of separation.
The margin of 0.9 projected points between my projected first- and third-place teams is thin. It adds up to projected qualification rates of about 70 percent for Uruguay and 65 and 55 percent for England and Italy, respectively. But it’s worth discussing briefly why I rate Italy as the weakest side in this group by a small margin.
First, Uruguay. As a caveat here, the model cannot account for player fitness. Soccer analysis has not reached a point where we can produce confident ratings of player value, so my model works only on the team level. But if striker Luis Suarez is does not play as he recovers from knee surgery, the South Americans will lose not only their best player but clearly the best player in the group.
If Suarez can play at his normal level, however, Uruguay has demonstrated that it’s a dangerous side. Its fifth-place finish in CONMEBOL qualifying required a trip to the confederation playoffs, which concluded with an easy win over Jordan. Placing fifth in South American qualifying should be contextualized, however. By my team ratings, every single non-qualified South American side (Venezuela, Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia) would have earned qualification if they played in the North American CONCACAF confederation. Uruguay won big games down the stretch on the road against Peru and Venezuela and at home against excellent Argentina and Colombia. These competitive victories clearly trump England’s resume, and while Italy has its Euro 2012 semifinal victory over Germany, there’s also a lot more that’s doubtful in the Azzuri record.
England and Italy had European qualifying groups of similar difficulty. Both sides set up negatively in some key away matches to avoid losing, and for both just that little sprinkling of anti-football got them through. Both were 6-4-0. But the underlying stats were different. England dominated a bunch of their matches, while Italy never dominated either the shot chart or the scoring, even in what should have been easy matches against the likes of Armenia and Bulgaria.
The following chart shows expected goals for and against for England and Italy in qualifying. I have removed matches against minnows San Marino and Malta.
Both sides played capable but unspectacular defense in terms of expected goals allowed, and England showed much more attacking prowess. I do not rate either England or Italy as particularly likely to go deep into this tournament, but England’s attack gives them a small advantage.
One of the key men in this attack is likely to be 19-year-old winger Raheem Sterling. The Liverpool prospect had a breakout season in the English Premier League. His underlying attacking numbers placed him solidly among the league’s elite midfielders, an incredible accomplishment for such a young player.
It is not clear whether England Coach Roy Hodgson will start Sterling or hold him in reserve as a substitute. While I see the youngster as deserving of a place in the English starting lineup, the idea of a fresh Sterling coming on in the 60th minute to terrorize the somewhat slow wide defensive players for Italy in Saturday’s opener could make a lot of sense. Recent analytical work by Colin Trainor and Daniel Altman has shown there is a massive “sub effect” where attacking players increase their per-minute output by 50 percent or more when used in substitute roles. Fresh legs against tired legs, in soccer, is a terrible mismatch. If Sterling comes on late in Saturday’s match in Manaus, don’t be surprised if he changes the entire dynamic of the match.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.