Ranking the World Cup Groups Through Advanced Analytics
In the World Cup drinking game - assuming it exists - no phrase is likelier to get you messed up like a snake in lawnmower than “Group of Death”. It’s an easy cliche to trot out when describing the tournament’s toughest draw, evoking the image of a grisly battle of attrition between world footballing powers. Here is a breakdown of how each group stacks up, according to their numberFire nERD score.
1. Group B - 10.07 nERD
It’s no surprise to learn that this year’s Group of Death (drink!), as determined by the groups’ cumulative nERD scores, is Group B. Never before has a World Cup group contained both of the previous tournament’s finalists, until this year. Group B has defending champions Spain, runners-up the Netherlands, and a very talented Chile. Oh, and Australia too, I guess.
In addition to the highest overall nERD total, there is also a fair bit of parity in Group B, which means it’s probably best to avoid trying to pick the winner(s) to emerge. While Spain is the favorite, there's less separation between them and rivals Netherlands and Chile than most groups’ number one seeds, and both are more than capable of taking a point from their matchup with La Roja.
2. Group G - 9.40 nERD
Coming in second among group nERD ratings, much to the chagrin of American fans, is Group G. It’s no surprise, with the FIFA-ranked number two and three teams, Germany and Portugal, respectively, along with the best team from Africa, Ghana, joining the top team from CONCACAF. Upon closer examination, however, advancing out of Group G is not impossible.
After all, you don’t have to run faster than the bear - you just have to be faster than the guy next to you. American fans should be hoping that the Germans clobber Portugal and Ghana, not only to deprive those teams of vital points but also because they play the Germans in the third and final game of the group stage. If Germany has already advanced to the knockout round, there will be less motivation for them to play their best XI. In a tournament where games come thick and fast, particularly in the miserably hot and humid climes of Brazil, teams who are able to rest players most certainly will.
The first Group G game against Ghana will be absolutely critical for the United States’ chances, as three points, coupled with a Portugal loss, would put them in a great position to make it out of the group. That's no easy task, especially considering the Ghanaians have eliminated the USA in the previous two tournaments, but with the mercurial Jozy Altidore rejuvenated after a two-goal performance against Nigeria, the United States can certainly hang. There's no doubt revenge will be on their minds.
3. Group E - 8.98 nERD
Group E might not look like much on paper but France, Ecuador, and Switzerland make up a formidable top three in a group that also contains Honduras. The French are a team with longer odds than one might expect from such an enormous wealth of talent. Even with Franck Ribery missing out due to back problems, Les Bleus are stacked at every position. They represent great value as the fourth-highest nERD rating, on par with Germany at 3.04 and just behind Argentina. They are a lead pipe lock to advance from their group, despite their poor showing in 2010 in South Africa.
4. Group F - 8.88 nERD
It’s unlikely that Bosnia-Herzegovina can win the Group F over Argentina, but a closer look at the relative nERD scores shows the tournament’s biggest discrepancy between the second- and third-ranked teams within a group. Bosnia-Herzegovina is very likely to get results against their two other opponents, Nigeria and Iran, and thus have a very high probability of advancing, even if their all-out attacking style sees them 4-0 losers to Argentina in the group’s opening game.
5. Group C - 8.85 nERD
Aside from Brazil and Argentina, there's no team more certain to advance to the knockout round than Colombia. Despite their talisman, Radamel Falcao, not making the final 23-man roster, Colombia has among the deepest attacks at the tournament, and were fortunate to be drawn into a rather easy group. They should beat Japan, the group’s second-best team, by a clear goal, and could wallop the other two teams, Ivory Coast and Greece.
Who takes second is anyone’s guess - the Ivorians may be the most talented of the remaining teams, but their terrible luck at major tournaments suggests a fatal flaw in their side. The group is a fascinating clash of styles and watching how things shake out will be great entertainment.
6. Group A - 8.83 nERD
Hosts Brazil may as well not even play until the knockout stage, as they are perhaps the safest bet in history to make it to the second stage. Who joins them in the round of 16 will be fun to watch. Mexico has advanced in an astounding six straight World Cups, but they needed divine American intervention to even qualify for this year’s tournament.
The Mexican team has been a mess, an endless carousel of hirings and firings and will rely on mostly domestic-based players. Croatia boasts an impressive amount of talent for such a small country, including one of the best central midfield partnerships in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, but they did not have a good qualifying campaign. Both teams should easily handle Cameroon (and their tournament worst 1.02 nERD), and it could come down to how few goals they each lose to against Brazil.
7. Group D - 8.74 nERD
It will come as a surprise to see Group D, with such traditional powers as England, Uruguay, and Italy, along with Costa Rica, rank so low in cumulative group nERD rating. It likely means a very tight group, with close games between the top three teams. England, under manager Roy Hodgson, have played dreadful football, but the gaffer has managed to grind out results, and the analytics suggest the same will happen in Brazil.
A lot will depend on the fitness of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, one of the tournament’s most talented and tenacious forwards. El Pistolero, who tied the Premier League scoring record this past season, underwent knee surgery just a few weeks ago but claims he will be ready to go. Italy have been a classic Jekyll-and-Hyde team the past decade, though their nERD rating suggests they will exceed expectations to even make it out of the group. It doesn’t help that Ricardo Montolivo, a talented central midfielder, will miss the tournament due to a recent injury in a warm-up game.
8. Group H - 8.47 nERD
Ranking last in total nERD is Group H, headed by popular dark horse pick Belgium. The group is rounded out by a decent Russian team, along with lowly Korea and Algeria, who should have very short tournaments. Belgium is not a traditional power, but their roster is loaded with players from Europe’s top leagues. Their lack of options at outside back will eventually get the best of them, but they have young, exciting talent everywhere else on the park that should see them easily top the World Cup’s easiest group. The Belgian central defense and goalkeeping might be the deepest of any team and starlets Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Januszaj will make any defense nervous.
Russia, led by one of the most accomplished managers in soccer history, Fabio Capello, are lesser known by fans than most teams, simply because their roster is filled with players from the Russian domestic league. There is plenty of skill and athleticism in the team, with such prodigious talents like Alan Dzagoev and Alexander Kokorin. It’s worth noting that Russia finished their World Cup qualification campaign ahead of Portugal.