Goals galore, but stats show defenders are holding up at World Cup 2014

Every keeper’s nightmare. Sebastiao Moreira/EPA

The 2014 World Cup has been celebrated for the number of exciting, high-scoring matches it’s given us. It started with four goals in the opening game as Brazil defeated Croatia 3-1. Then, who could forget the dramatic 5-1 demolition of Spain by the Netherlands? Equally memorable was the France-Switzerland group game which produced seven goals with France winning 5-2.

But before we conclude that the World Cup has seen a move towards greater emphasis on attacking football, we should put the 2014 World Cup finals in historical context and compare goals scored in this tournament with previous ones.

The group games and the round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup have produced 154 goals from 56 games. When comparing with previous tournaments, the best comparison is to use the average goals per game which takes account of the changing structure of the tournament over the years – the current 32-team, 64-game format was only adopted in 1998, having expanded from 16 teams to 24 teams in 1982.

The 2014 World Cup has so far averaged 2.75 goals per game. This is markedly higher than the previous two tournaments and indeed even with eight games still to be played, more goals have been scored in 2014 than in the whole tournament in 2010 (145 goals, 2.27 goals per game) and 2006 (147 goals, 2.30 goals per game).

But it was the low number of goals scored in 2006 and 2010 that was unusual, not the number of goals scored in the current tournament which is on a par with the 1994 and 1998 tournaments and, going further back, very similar to the tournaments in 1962, 1966 and 1982. The 1970 Finals were higher, averaging 2.97 goals per game. And, of course, the average goals per game in 2014 is nowhere near the levels achieved in the 1930s and 1950s.

A full comparison will need to wait until after the tournament ends since the final games tend to see fewer goals scored. This is already evident in the round of 16 games which have averaged 2.25 goals per game compared to 2.83 goals per game in the group games. The decrease in goals scored per game is even greater if the comparison is limited to the first 90 minutes. Of the 18 goals scored in the round of 16 games, 11 goals have been scored in normal time which translates to only 1.38 goals per game.

Attacking drivers

Attacking effectiveness in football ultimately depends on gaining territory and then translating territorial gains into scoring opportunities. A statistical analysis of all 112 team performances in the 2014 World Cup so far shows that the two most important attacking drivers of goals scored are shot production – the number of shots per attacking third entry – and shot accuracy – the percentage of shots on target. The other key drivers of attacking effectiveness are the number of penalty area entries, the number of completed passes, and work rate, particularly high-activity distance covered.

The reasons for the fall in the number of goals scored in the round of 16 can be attributed to a reduction in the number of completed passes as well as distance covered. Perhaps playing so many games in a relatively short period of time and often in conditions of high temperatures and high humidity is beginning to take its toll – both in work rate as well as technical accuracy.

Defence

But, of course, the number of goals scored depends not only on attacking effectiveness but also the defensive effectiveness of the opposition. Hard-working teams who are well organised defensively, able to retain the ball and keep it away from their defensive third, and have a good goalkeeper, will concede fewer goals.

This is confirmed statistically by the data for the 2014 World Cup. Better defence in the round of 16 games has been a key factor in the reduced number of goals scored with more saves, more successful tackles and more successful clearances than in the group games.

So, the 2014 World Cup Finals have not just been about attacking football. Winning the beautiful game depends as much on defence as it does on attack. The team that lifts the World Cup on Sunday 13 July will be that team that is best able to combine creativity in attack with organisation in defence, and possess both a lethal finisher and a great shot-stopping goalkeeper.