2018 World Cup: Ranking the Groups Through Advanced Analytics
With the World Cup squads for all 32 competing nations now official, we now know exactly who each country will be bringing to Russia this summer. The final ins and outs could certainly impact teams and, on a larger level, their four-team groups.
That being said, as the June 14th kickoff draws near, let's take a look at the strength of the eight groups using our nERD score, which measures overall team efficiency and acts as an estimate of a team's expected goal differential against an average (0.00 nERD) international team.
Based on combined nERD, which group reigns supreme among them all?
1) Group B: 11.62 nERD
Nations: Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Iran
Key Fixtures: Spain vs. Portugal - June 15th and Portugal vs. Morocco - June 20th
At first glance, it makes sense that a group with both Spain and Portugal would be the strongest. Since the 2008 Euros, these two teams have combined to win four of the last five major international championships. Individually, Spain rank second in nERD score and Portugal rank sixth.
However, the real reason this group tops the list is the relative strength of Morocco and Iran. Despite having limited World Cup success, Morocco have the 18th-highest nERD score, and Iran have the 26th-highest. This places both of them above more experienced nations such as Mexico, Australia, and Costa Rica.
While the overall strength of this group is high, it may offer little in terms of drama. Our numbers give both Spain (94.64%), and Portugal (62.42%) an excellent chance of advancing to the Round of 16. With a 26.64% chance of advancing, Morocco have the 12th-worst odds to survive the group stage, and Iran, at just 16.30%, have the 6th-worst odds of doing so.
The main drama in this group will come early in the tournament, when Spain and Portugal meet on June 15th in a match that will most likely determine the winner of Group B. Outside of that, the most intriguing match is Portugal versus Morocco on June 20th, which would be an elimination match for Portugal should they lose to Spain.
2) Group C: 10.77 nERD
Nations: France, Denmark, Peru, Australia
Key Fixtures: Peru vs. Denmark - June 16th and France vs. Denmark - June 26th
The second-strongest group also features two teams with top 10 nERD scores in France (fifth) and Denmark (ninth). Rounding out the group is Peru, who have the 19th-highest nERD score, and Australia, who have the 34th.
Like Group B, Group C's top two teams are far better than the tournament average, and doesnt include any of the 10 weakest teams in the field. Even as the worst team in the group, Australia have considerable World Cup experience, having made every tournament since 2006. Peru are an intriguing side playing in their first World Cup since 1982, and are fully capable of beating both France and Denmark. This is especially true now that their captain, Paolo Guerrero, is eligible to play this summer after having his doping ban temporarily lifted.
Due to that, the potential for an upset is slightly higher in this group than in Group B. We give France an 87.79% of reaching the Round of 16 and Denmark a 65.49% chance of doing so. At 34.59%, we give Peru a much better chance of pulling an upset and advancing than Morocco, but at only 12.13%, Australia's chances of doing so are the fifth-worst in the tournament.
With France and Denmark avoiding each other until the final game of the group, there is a chance that both will have already secured advancement by then. If that is the case, they will be competing for first place, and potentially to avoid playing Argentina -- the favorite of Group D -- in the Round of 16. However, if either of them fail to get a result against Peru, then they could be in danger of going home when they meet on June 26th.
3) Group F: 10.49 nERD
Nations: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Key Fixtures: Germany vs. Mexico - June 17th and Sweden vs. Mexico - June 27th
The current world champions headline the third-strongest group, which is chock-full of experience. Germany's experience is evident, and Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea have a combined 38 appearances in the World Cup. In terms of their nERD ranking, Germany are 4th, Sweden are 8th, Mexico are 27th, and South Korea are 43rd.
Group F is another group highlighted by its top two teams. On paper, this group appears more competitive than Group C, but our numbers give Sweden a better chance of advancing than Denmark, and Peru a better chance of pulling an upset than Mexico. That said, Mexico have made the Round of 16 in each of the past six World Cups, and are certainly capable of extending that streak this summer.
The defending champions should advance with ease, and our numbers give them a 90.75% chance of doing so. Sweden have an excellent chance of making the knockout stages (75.53%) while Mexico's look slimmer (24.04%) and South Korea's dismal (9.68%).
Due to scheduling, this group is set up for drama. Sweden and Mexico will both face Germany and South Korea before meeting each other in the final match of the group on June 27th. Baring an upset over Germany, their match on that day will determine who moves onto the Round of 16, and who goes home. If things go as planned, it will be one of the marquee fixtures of the group stage.
4) Group E: 10.38 nERD
Nations: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Key Fixtures: Switzerland vs. Serbia - June 22nd and Switzerland vs. Costa Rica - June 27th
Group E is top-heavy. Its total nERD score is only marginally behind Group F, but Brazil is doing the heavy lifting with their number-one overall score. Switzerland (22nd overall), Serbia (33rd), and Costa Rica (46th) all rank well behind Brazil.
While this group should be a breeze for our tournament favorites, the competition for second place should be fierce. In 2014, Switzerland lost in the Round of 16 to Argentina, and Costa Rica advanced all the way to the Quarterfinals before falling to The Netherlands. Serbia don't have any prior success to hang their boots on, but they produced excellent results in qualifying, with only 1 loss and a plus-10 goal differential in their 10 matches played.
We give Brazil a 98.33% chance of reaching the Round of 16, the best odds in the tournament. At 53.41%, Switzerland have the worst odds to advance of any team projected to survive the group stage. Following them is Serbia with a 31.48% chance of advancing, and Costa Rica round out the group with a 16.78% chance of survival.
Every match from this group will carry significance, as the race to second place is wide open. If Switzerland lose to Brazil in their opener, they will have their backs against the wall the rest of the way, culminating in their showdown with Costa Rica on June 27th. While the overall strength of this group is high due to Brazil, the drama will come via the other three sides.
5) Group G: 9.09 nERD
Nations: Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama
Key Fixtures: England vs. Tunisia - June 18th and England vs. Belgium - June 28th
Like Group E, Group G is also top-heavy, but the weight is shared between Belgium and England. Belgium rank 3rd in nERD score while England rank 10th. On the other end of the spectrum, Tunisia rank 53rd and Panama rank 65th as our worst team in the tournament.
This group is the most polarized in the entire tournament, and the only one to feature two top-10 teams and two bottom-5 teams. In terms of advancement, there should be little drama. We give Belgium a 96.66% chance of making the Round of 16, and England an 88.04% chance, which is the best odds of advancement for any team not projected to win their group. On the other side of the coin, Tunisia have a 9.79% chance of advancing while Panama, who are making their World Cup debut, have just a 5.51% chance of surviving, the worst odds in the tournament.
If an upset is to happen in this group, it will happen early, when England meet Tunisia in their opener on June 18th. England have been known to struggle on the largest stage, and Tunisia's best chance is to make them play a tight, physical game early on in the tournament. Outside of that matchup, this group gives us the crown jewel of the group stage when Belgium and England play on June 28th. If all goes as planned, the match will determine the winner of Group G, but if England slip up early, elimination could be on the line. Either way, it will be a must-watch event.
6) Group H: 9.06 nERD
Nations: Poland, Colombia, Japan, Senegal
Key Fixtures: Japan vs. Columbia - June 19th and Poland vs. Columbia - June 24th
Group H's construction is very similar to Group G. With nERD ranks of 11th and 16th, respectively, Poland and Columbia are miles above Japan, who rank 30th, and Senegal, who rank 54th.
Despite the range of their nERD scores, Japan's relative strength makes the odds of advancement for this group much closer than in Group G. At 83.29%, Poland have the best chance of making the Round of 16, followed by Colombia with a 69.55% chance of advancing. At 30.98%, Japan have the best odds to advance of any team not ranked as a top-two team within their own group. On the other end of the spectrum is Senegal, who, at 8.18%, have the second-worst odds to make the Round of 16.
In order to advance to the knockout stages, Japan will need a result against Colombia in their group opener on June 19th. A loss would allow Colombia to breathe easy and know they don't have to secure points against Poland to survive. Regardless of the outcome of their openers, the key match for this group will be Poland and Colombia on June 24th. If there is a winner, they will most likely secure advancement and first place in the group. The losing side would likely be forced into a do-or-die situation in their final match of the group stage.
7) Group D: 8.83 nERD
Nations: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
Key Fixtures: Argentina vs. Croatia - June 21st and Iceland vs. Croatia - June 26th
Despite having one of the best players in the history of soccer in Lionel Messi, Group D is the second-weakest group. Along with Group A, it is one of the only groups to not feature a top-10 team in terms of nERD rank. Argentina are ranked 11th while Croatia rank right behind them in 12th. Rounding out the group is Iceland in 42nd and Nigeria in 47th.
The runners-up from the 2014 World Cup have lofty ambitions and all the individual talent you could ask for, but they are in poor form after a dismal qualifying campaign that saw them wait until the last round to secure their place in Russia. Croatia also had a rocky road to Russia, finishing second in their qualifying group to Iceland and needing to defeat Greece in a playoff to advance. Despite the distinct advantage they hold over Iceland and Nigeria in terms of experience, both Argentina and Croatia are far from sure things to advance.
We give Argentina an 80.34% chance of reaching the Round of 16, the worst odds of any team projected to top their group. At 78.50%, Croatia's chances are right behind Argentina's. In their World Cup debut, we give Iceland a 24.32% chance of making it past the group stage, far better odds than (Panama) the only other country making their World Cup debut. At 16.84%, Nigeria have the eighth-worst odds of reaching the Round of 16 in the entire tournament.
The first match of intrigue in this group will be when Argentina and Croatia meet on June 21st. If both have success in their first match, then they will be competing to secure advancement and place a firm grip on the top spot in the group. The second-most intriguing fixture is on June 26th, when Iceland meet Croatia. After finishing above them in their qualifying group, Iceland won't fear Croatia, and there is a chance they will be fighting for second place and a spot in the knockout stages. If that is the case, this could be one of the most memorable matches of the summer.
8) Group A: 7.62 nERD
Nations: Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
Key Fixtures: Russia vs. Egypt - June 19th and Uruguay vs. Russia - June 25th
Group A comes in 1.21 nERD below the next-closest group. Ever since the draw, the historical weakness of this group has been discussed, and our numbers reinforce that discussion. Uruguay, the top team in the group, rank 17th on nERD. That places them behind not only the top team from every other group, but also the second-best team from every group except Group E. Russia, the second-strongest team in the group, rank 35th on nERD, the 10th-worst rank in the tournament. For a team that weak to have two teams -- Egypt (44th) and Saudi Arabia (56th) -- in the same group with a worse nERD score is unprecedented.
Due to their favorable draw, we give Uruguay an 86.16% chance of advancing to the Round of 16. Behind them, with a 57.75% of advancing, is Russia, followed by Egypt with a 38.11% chance of advancement, and Saudi Arabia with a 17.98% chance of doing the same.
While the soccer on display may not always be pretty, this group could produce some excellent drama. How much drama depends specifically on Egypt's megastar Mohammed Salah's recovery from a shoulder injury he suffered in the Champions League Final in late May. If he is able to play effectively, this group is wide open.
The World Cup opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia might be one of the most-watched, worst-played games in the history of soccer. The true intrigue in this group lies in Russia's meetings with Egypt and Uruguay. Assuming they don't slip up against Saudi Arabia, Russia will most likely be playing to secure a spot in the Round of 16, while Egypt will be trying to avoid elimination. If Egypt are successful in doing so, then Russia will be fighting for their tournament lives against Uruguay on June 25th, making for an excellent contest.