Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/06/17/world_cup_holland/

World Cup: Holland to win, Spain to slump

We know the score. Yes

By Robert Blincoe

Posted in Science, 17th June 2010 10:51 GMT

World Cup Stats Spain is chewing on the chorizo of defeat thanks to Switzerland's 1-0 victory yesterday, and history shows this result is a major setback.

In the last 40 years only one top 10 team has won a World Cup group after an opening game defeat. Only four have finished in the top two. The tournament favourites Spain now face a serious group H struggle to move to the next round.

But should Spain really have been the tournament favourites? They were according to bookies and pundits, but the UK's top soccer statistician has Holland as the top team, after its form in the final set of friendly matches saw it sneak past Spain and Brazil.

Dr Ian McHale is Senior Lecturer in Statistics in the University of Salford. He and his team are also behind the Actim Index, which is the official ratings system of the English Premier League. This is an objective rating of players using official match statistics, not one based on subjective notions such as flair - not to be confused with the Sky-linked Opta Index.

McHale did some modelling of the teams in the lead-up to the World Cup. He used an 'ordered probit' model (an ordered regression model, stats fans) to estimate the probability of the three outcomes of a match - whether the result will be a win, a draw or a loss.

You can mark his working out here in an article he wrote for the Institution of Engineering and Technology. This doesn't include his final number crunch on the World Cup which put Holland top.

The Reg caught up with Dr McHale at half time during the Spain – Switzerland game. At the time he was saying “It's beautiful to watch, Spain do know what they're doing”, and hypothesising that someone like Owen Hargreaves would have been better for marking Spain's Xavi out of the game, than Frank Lampard.

His model only uses the results of previous International games, the number of goals scored, and and location of game. Weighting comes from Fifa's database of team rankings.

Things that favour a team are: if they're at home; or haven't travelled too far; are ranked higher than the opposition; if they're an improving team according to ranking; the seriousness of the game (friendly or major tournament - better teams take major tournaments more seriously); and if they've been winning recently.

“I've got a database of 9,000 international match results over an eight-year period,” he says, viewing his research as a way of showing statistics can be interesting, and seeing whether the “market is efficient”.

And the list is...

Knowing whether his forecasts have been any good should be obvious, but as a statistician McHale has got other measures to consider, and is going to write a paper on it. “There's only going to be one winner, so the statistics will be clever. I've got all these probabilistic forecasts before the World cup happened," he said. "I'll know all the results from the tournament, so how do I test whether my forecasts were any good."

Here's Dr McHale's top 10 (prior to start of tournament)

1.Holland

2. Spain

3. Brazil

4. Argentina

5. France

6. England

7. Germany

8. Nigeria

9. Portugal

10. Slovenia

Meanwhile, back to Spain's predicament. Stats-crunching sports analysis firm Bettorlogic has revealed that Spain are the 14th Top 10 ranked team since 1970 to lose their opening group match. The bad news is that only one of those teams (Germany in 1982) have won the group. Of the six teams who managed to qualify (46 per cent), two did so in third place, not current qualifying positions.

Should Spain qualify but fail to win the group, they are likely to meet Brazil in the next round. Oh dear.

Spain were in a similar position 12 years ago when they lost to Nigeria and then drew their second group match but a win against Bulgaria in the final match wasn’t sufficient to qualify. Eight years ago, France, Croatia and Portugal all failed after losing their opener, even though Portugal and Croatia won their second group matches.

If Spain win their other two group matches, they will join Germany and Argentina (both in 1982) as the only teams of the 14 to do so. Of the six teams that did qualify, three went out in the second group stage (none won their first match of that stage and two lost); England lost in the quarter-finals in 1986; but Argentina (1990) and Italy (1994) both finished as runners-up. ®