Can Russia Continue Their Improbable Run at the 2018 World Cup?

The host nation has made an impressive run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Is that where Russia's journey will end?

In a World Cup that has been full of surprises, among the biggest ones is the fact that Russia is still standing, while Spain, Germany and Argentina have all been sent packing.

The hosts came into the tournament as the lowest ranked team in the field in terms of FIFA rankings, and it would have been reasonable to question if they would have even made the tournament had they not qualified automatically. But here they are.

Russia made it out of by far the weakest group in the tournament, before stunning Spain on penalty kicks in the knockout round. Despite having the homefield advantage and making it this far, the Russians still face long odds.

They are 20-to-1 to win the tournament, giving them the second-lowest odds of doing so (ahead of Sweden at 25-to-1). This translates to a 4.8% chance of them lifting the trophy.

Our numbers paint an even bleaker picture as they peg the Russian title odds at just 0.72%.

The chances of Russia being the first host to win the tournament since 1998 do not look good, but at the same time, there do seem to be some factors in its favor.

Russia is obviously at home, and there is evidence that suggests host nations do have a real home field advantage at the World Cup. Its quarterfinal opponent is Croatia and while the Croats are favored by half a goal, only Russia itself and Uruguay rank lower in our power rankings among the final eight.

The Russians are also on the easier side of the bracket -- its potential semifinal opponent will either be our ninth-ranked team, Sweden, or England (10th). Neither is a pushover, but the other set of quarterfinals includes three teams in the top four in our rankings (No. 1 Brazil, No. 3 Belgium and No. 4 France).

Given these factors, should Russia’s title odds be higher and, if not, how did the hosts get this far in the first place?

The Story So Far

Opponent Goals For Goals Against Shots For Shots Against Total Shot Ratio
Saudi Arabia 5 0 14 6 0.70
Egypt 3 1 12 13 0.48
Uruguay 0 3 3 16 0.16
Spain 1 1 7 24 0.23
Totals 9 5 36 59 0.38

The Russians are still standing largely due to an unsustainable combination of luck and finishing. They surged out of the gate with comfortable wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two of the seven worst teams in the field by our numbers, before getting seriously outplayed against quality competition in Uruguay.

Even these early wins were probably more comfortable than they could have been. Russia has converted 8 of its 36 shot attempts into goals, good for a 22.2% conversion rate. In its first two games, it shot nearly 27% (Russia’s other goal came on an own goal in the Egypt match).

Generally, we would expect a team to shoot around 10%, but this can vary given the quality of its shots. Russia’s high conversion rate does not seem to be the product of creating an especially high number of good chances, as its expected goals total is much lower than its actual tally of nine.

Excluding its penalty kick against Spain, InfoGol has Russia at 3.9 expected goals, while Michael Caley has them at 3.3. Both models agree that nearly all the damage was done in Russia’s first two games, and even here, the underlying numbers are not as impressive as the goal totals.

Opponent Goals Scored InfoGol xG Caley xG
Saudi Arabia 5 1.93 1.9
Egypt 3 1.44 1.1

The expected goals numbers do not include the own goal against Egypt, but that miscue is another example of Russian fortune this summer. Uruguay throttled Russia to close out the group stage, but the hosts had already qualified for the next round and a date with Spain.

That match was a bizarre one, as the heavily favored Spaniards got on the board thanks to an own goal in the 11th minute, but did not actually log a shot attempt until the 44th minute (despite having more than 74% of the possession in the first half).

Russia equalized in the 41st from the penalty spot, and while Spain continued to dominate possession in the second half and racked up eight shots to Russia’ two, none of the chances it created in regulation were particularly good.

Spain sprung to life in extra time, when it posted more shots (13) than it did in the preceding 90 minutes (11). A number of these looks were actually solid ones -- four were non-headers inside the box, while Russia conceded just three such shots in regulation, per WhoScored.

None of these shots found the back of the net and the match went to penalties, where Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev’s match-winning save became one of the moments of the tournament.

What's Next?

Looking ahead, it seems incredibly unlikely that Russia will continue to score at the pace it has. The hosts have almost double the amount of goals we would expect them to have, given the location and type of shots they have gotten off.

There has been overachievement on the defensive side as well, though it has been less extreme than that of their offense. Opponents have just 5 goals on 59 shot attempts against Russia (including the own goal conceded to Spain), which translates to an 8.4% conversion rate.

This is lower than average, but with the exception of the Uruguay match, Russia has generally done a good job at preventing big chances (Russia has allowed 5.8 xG per InfoGol and 4.3 xG per Caley, excluding the penalty it allowed to Egypt).

Akinfeev and the defense will be tested in the quarterfinals by Croatia, which comes into the round ranked fourth in the tournament with eight goals scored (to go along with about 7 xG). Expect Croatia to be on the ball for much of the game, as Russia has faced a possession deficit in each game at the World Cup. It has seen less than 40% of the ball in the tournament, while Croatia has a possession rate of 52.9%.

Russia seems certain to get outshot for the fourth consecutive match, making it imperative for the hosts to create high-quality chances when they do get the ball. While Croatia has allowed only 2 goals on 54 shots this tournament, its non-penalty expected goals against total of 4.9 (per InfoGol) is not quite as impressive.

While we should realistically expect the Croatian defense to regress, the same can be said about the Russian attack.

Overall, while the Russians have certainly impressed at the World Cup, given how their results seem to be outpacing the process, their status as longshots appears warranted.