Kevin Pullein's guide to the Euros: Why qualifying form can be unreliable
Analysis and philosophy from the Soccer Boffin
I like international tournaments. I prepare for them with great discipline. I prepare for them with great discipline by not watching any of the qualifiers.
What happens in qualifiers, in my opinion, does not tell you anything of real use about what will happen in the tournament. But if you watch you can easily fall into the trap of thinking that it does. Here, I think, ignorance of what came before can be a help rather than a hindrance when you are wondering what might come next.
England won the World Cup in 1966 and were semi-finalists in 1990 and 2018. They also reached the semi-finals of Euro 96.
England’s chance in 1966 had not been highly rated by English fans. Hopes rose as the tournament progressed. Nor were expectations high in 1990, 1996 or, by the standards of recent times, 2018.
England qualified for the 1990 World Cup by finishing second in a group behind Sweden. They won only three qualifiers – at home to Poland and home and away to Albania. In pre-tournament warm-up games they lost at home to Uruguay then drew in Tunisia.
In a build-up game before Euro 96 England scrambled to a 1-0 win over a Hong Kong Golden Select XI.
They qualified for the 2018 World Cup reasonably well, with eight wins, two draws and no defeats, but in a group where all of their opponents were much smaller countries – Lithuania, Malta, Scotland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
It is not only England whose fortunes before a tournament might give no clue as to how they will fare at the tournament.
I compared performances in qualifiers and at the tournament for the last six European Championships – 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016.
First I ranked performances in qualifiers. I did this by points per game. The qualifier with most points per game I ranked as one, the next best as two, and so on. Then I ranked performances at the tournament. I did this by stage reached. The winners I ranked one, runners-up two, beaten quarter-finalists 3.5, because they could be said to have finished either third or fourth, and so on.
There was next to no correlation between the position in which teams qualified and the position in which they finished at a European Championship. Admittedly some qualification groups would have been harder than others, and sometimes it might have been possible to tell which ones. Even so, I think we are deceiving ourselves if we reckon that qualifiers can tell us anything really worthwhile about what teams might produce when they get to the European Championship.
Why are qualifiers for all practical purposes useless as predictors of a tournament? Here are two of the reasons.
In qualifiers teams play opponents who are mostly a lot worse than those they will face at the tournament – certainly a lot worse than those they will eventually meet if they go far in the tournament. Imagine that Premier League teams played a selection of different non-league opponents. The results would tell us next to nothing about the relative merits of the Premier League teams.
And qualifiers, like tournaments, involve only a small number of games. Conclusions drawn from small samples are the ones that are most likely to be wrong. For no reason that you or I will ever fathom, a team who looked ordinary in qualifiers can suddenly look great at a tournament. And the other way round.
The role of chance in international football
Scores at Euro 2020 in all likelihood will be determined partly by skill and partly by luck. Why do I say this? Let me start my answer by asking you a question.
How often in a group at a European Championship will team A beat team B who then beat team C who then beat team A?
If there were differences in skill between all teams, and results were determined only by skill, it would never happen. If there were no differences in skill between teams, and results were therefore decided entirely by luck, it should happen five per cent of the time. I will explain why in a moment.
How often has it happened during the group stages of a European Championship? Three per cent of the time – that is to say, in three per cent of all sequences in which a first team played a second team who then played a third team who then played the first team.
I studied every European Championship group phase – from 1980 up to 2016. Twenty-six per cent of games were drawn. If there were no differences in skill between teams then in each game there would have been a 26 per cent chance of a draw, a 37 per cent chance of a win for this team and a 37 per cent chance of a win for that team. The chance of team A beating team B, then team B beating team C, then team C beating team A, would have been 37 per cent x 37 per cent x 37 per cent, which is five per cent.
In any sport if two competitors have the same skill then the result of a contest between them cannot be decided by a difference in skill – there is none. It must be decided instead by luck.
At a European Championship sometimes there can be other influences on the third round of group games. If team A won their first two games they might have qualified already and field reserves against team C, who might still be able to qualify themselves if they can get something from this game.
Even after allowing for such situations, however, there are still many others in which results suggest that international football at tournaments is at least as much like a game of pure luck as a game of pure skill – as much like roulette as chess.
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