Friday, 18 October 2013

England Qualify For Brazil 2014. How Hodgson Defied The Odds.

Waldemar Fornalik and Roy Hodgson led their respective teams out at Wembley on Tuesday night at the conclusion of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. Of the two, Fornalik, looked relaxed and at ease and was almost certain to be sacked regardless of the result against England. Roy Hodgson knew that only a win against Poland would prevent a unwelcome visit to the November playoffs before the trip to Brazil could be confirmed.

The odds had been stacked in favour of Hodgson reaching game ten in a relatively comfortable position at the initial drawing of the 2014 qualifying groups. Despite this kind draw, the anguish etched on his face was evident, as forward after forward snatched shots wide of a gaping goal in the opening half. Jan Tomaszewski sat in the stands and the specter of 1973 hung over a nervy opening half hour.

Back in the more relaxing surroundings of Rio in July of 2011, an out of place France in pot two had been avoided during the initial draw for the nine qualifying groups and Group H had pitched England in with four lowly ranked teams from pots three to six, with only Montenegro, ranked second to France in pot two, appearing to represent a less than ideal group rival.

The random element in drawing qualifying groups, often years before the final match is played has been excellently documented by Simon Gleave here and the mechanics of the procedure illustrate how arbitrary group makeup can become. Poland, England's final group opponents were one ranking place away from being in pot 5 rather than pot 4. In addition as Simon points out, Ukraine may have started the draw process as FIFA ranked 45 and a place in the bottom two of pot 3, but they ended the campaign, over two years later ranked 20th in FIFA and a seeded playoff side.

So the fluid nature of national sides can see the protracted timescale of a qualifying campaign transform the strength and difficulty of each group.

The pained, first half expressions on Hodgson's face were possibly down to an appreciation of the chances of a favourable outcome materializing on the night. A 73% chance of an England victory was a huge comfort blanket against a national expectation that tends to think in more stark outcomes, where defeat (or a draw) is virtually inconceivable, but that still left ample room for a two game shootout in November if randomness drew 74 or above.

Even greater levels of  World Cup "certainty" were overturned at Wembley in 1973. Coincidentally, and largely irrelevantly, also against Poland, as the product of numerous, low quality chances, repelled by a massed defence and marshaled by a future Polish politician, could only equal the goal count from one, clearer cut Jan Domarski shot on the rapid counter.

Certainty of outcome, as Hodgson may have reflected, only arrives after 93 minutes of actual play, no matter how much ability and national entitlement is bought to the table. Somewhere in the mass of possible, probable and improbably outcomes on Tuesday, lurked a quickfire Polish break that ended with a shot that squirmed under a largely untroubled English goalkeeper....but on this occasion, under the full glare of live, HD TV, the ball rolled uncomfortably wide of the target.

Defying the odds is usually expressed as being exclusively the preserve of the underdog, but every result defies some outcome, even if it is "only" the 27% chance that Tuesday evening's result would send Hodgson's England into an unwanted two legged playoff. In topping Group H, England turned the combined uncertainty and myriad of possible combinations of results from thirty qualifying matches played across 13 months into the certainty of confirmed qualification.

It is difficult to make an intuitive guess at the likely true size of the task faced by each team at the outset of qualification. The average FIFA ranking of England's opponents on the day of the draw was 84 and this had been pushed out to 89 by last week, as Montenegro fell and Ukraine rose. The task faced by England ranged from the near certainty of victory at home to San Marino, up to barely deserved favouritism on the road in Ukraine.

The final margin of group victory, a single point, hardly denoted a simple, alarm free passage.

Simulating the Group H qualifying matches, using the relative abilities of each side at the time of each individual match, allows us to record the range and frequency of both finishing position and points totals that may have been achieved by each team. With it comes a better understanding of the odds Hodgson's England defied to claim their spot in Brazil.

The 22 points actually gained by England was their second most likely points haul (~10% of the time), behind 23 (14%). 75% of the time, the 22 points were sufficient to send England straight to Brazil, either as outright winners or winners on goal difference. 20% of the time they fell into the playoffs when amassing 22 points. Once every 60 occurrences, 22 points was insufficient to place them any higher than 3rd place in the group and their World Cup campaign ended, as in 1973 with a final match against Poland. It is only when 25 points are breached that the need for a playoff begins to entirely disappear. A perfect 30 points certainly guarantees qualification, but England only met that target once in every 50 or so of the simulated leagues.

The lowest ebb for England was a fifth place finish in the six team group, occurring once every 200 or so iterations with a points total of around 13. It is a sobering thought for all aspiring national team coaches, that you can be demonstrably the best side in the group, favourite in all 10 of your matches and still, on very rare occasions, finish below Montenegro, Ukraine, Moldova and Poland.

No amount of iterations could force San Marino above England. 21 minutes of barely believable supremacy against the founders of the game in Bologna seems to be as good as it will get for FIFA's perennial minnows and England's national footballing pride was maintained, at least in the virtual world of number crunching and spreadsheets.

Possible Finishing Positions For England From Simulations of Group H.

Position in Group H. Frequency per 100.
Top. 61
2nd. 22
3rd. 12
4th. 4.5
5th. 0.5
6th. 0

The bottom line, for a nation obsessed with World Cup qualification is the 61% figure, denoting the likelihood that England might turn a favourable draw into a top of the table finish. A further 22% of the time England fell into the playoffs and as one of the likely seeded sides, they would expect to progress to the finals by this route well in excess of 50% of the time. So as a conservative estimate, Hodgson has just completed a campaign where his chances of successfully negotiating a route to the 2014 finals could be put at around 75% prior to a ball being kicked.

It may not have felt like it on Tuesday night, as Hodgson waited for Rooney to temporarily discarded his padded headband before heading England into the lead, but his side went into the final match with an improved chance of qualifying compared to their chances at the outset. Their 73% chance of winning the match, combined with a 27% chance of entering the playoffs if victory wasn't achieved, equated to a near 90% chance of appearing in Brazil via the route of either automatic or playoff progression.

The possibility of a hoped for outcome had increased, but the anxiety had been compressed into one single match, rather than spread over a 13 month campaign.

Poland, as widely expected sacked Fornalik and his coaching staff following their 4th place finish and a respectable 13 point haul. A 3rd or 4th place finish was almost equally their most likely outcome in the group. Fornalik's side had a near 70% chance of occupying one of those positions in the final group table, but they did fall 4 points below their most likely tally of 17 league points.

Where Hodgson had inexorably, if at times unconvincingly, dragged his team over the line, Fornalik failed to build on his side's meagre 10% chance of qualifying and with it went their World Cup hopes, his job, those of his collegues and judging by his demeanor on Tuesday night, the ever present pressure of turning possibles into probables and finally into certainties.  

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