‘He’s Had Easy Runs’: Have England Been Lucky or Brilliant Under Southgate?

by Max Carter Keall

Normally at Christmas time, pubs across the nation are crammed with holiday-goers and festive shoppers, with the gentle tones of Slade floating in the air, but this year all anyone is confronted with is the ever-hopeful cry of ‘it’s coming home’.

England’s World Cup run has been at the forefront of national conversation for weeks, with every armchair pundit telling you that this year is special, that this team is like no other and that Gareth Southgate is the man to finally bring our beautiful game back to these shores.

However as football gets more and more data-focused, a recent statistical model has suggested that this, unfortunately, may not be England and Southgate’s year. Indeed, to paraphrase a common saying, ‘without data you’re just another hopeful England fan with an opinion’.

This data in this report is centred on two questions, initially what is England’s probability of winning knock-out games at international tournaments and subsequently the reasons why. These tournaments are all about winning and the data delves deeper into the percentage of the ‘top’ international football sides winning games when it really matters.

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Statistics taken from major tournament matches involving the traditionally most successful 11 sides (France, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, England, Uruguay and Belgium) tells us each nation’s win probability since 1992. Ominously for England it is France who come out on top with a 63 percent chance of winning, with Spain and Brazil tied in second on 59.5 percent.

England come in at a lowly ninth place, just above Uruguay and Belgium, with a win probability in knock-out tournament games of just 43 percent — an alarming read for diehard Three Lions fans. That’s a difficult pill to swallow and could go some way to explaining why England have failed to win a major international tournament since 1966. As a result of this failure, whenever the World Cup comes around the English media and wider population collectively turn their eyes to one man: the manager.

Gareth Southgate’s job has never been an easy one, having to satisfy an increasingly expectant nation with immediate success and results all while pitted against the best the rest of the world has to offer. He faced, and still faces, incredible scrutiny over every decision he makes, whether that be in his team selection, his formation or even what he’s wearing, with many calling for his resignation before this World Cup in Qatar.

‘But what about our semi-final in Russia and the Euros final against Italy? This is the perfect time for us to win,’ cry the England faithful, ‘Southgate is a tournament specialist, we’re in safe hands!’

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Here the second question comes to the fore, analysing England’s win probabilities and why they won games at the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020 under Gareth Southgate. This model pits the chance of England winning a tournament game against the opposition’s world ranking and whether the game is home or away. Unsurprisingly, England won the games at the 2018 World Cup in which they had a greater than 50 percent win probability.

However these were against opposition ranked much lower than them in the world rankings: Tunisia, Panama, Colombia and Sweden. When England faced the few sides who were closer to their world ranking (Croatia and Belgium (twice)), they had a less than 50 percent win probability. They lost both.

Does this suggest the team’s success could have been nothing more than a result of good fortune and probability rather than any managerial genius form Gareth Southgate? Similarly, at Euro 2020, aside from a Croatia side they had already met in tournament football at the World Cup, England beat the lower-ranked sides of Scotland, Czech Republic and Ukraine. Here, the model suggested that playing at Wembley for all but the Ukraine tie meant their win probability was boosted.

The venue seemed to play a huge factor in the chance of winning as when facing Croatia in Russia, the probability of a win sat at 49 percent, but when facing the same opposition at home it rose to 69 percent. This is hardly a shocking revelation as it is obvious that you have more of a chance of winning a game against a worse side, particularly when you play at home, but it suggests that Gareth Southgate’s England may not be the brilliant knockout force that we all might want them to be.

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The data points out that the role of chance, so whoever you face in your route through a major tournament, means that judging a manager on pure success may be a poor indicator of how effective they are.

It raises questions as to whether Southgate has passed any genuinely difficult knockout tests, losing the biggest games (the semi-final against Croatia and the final against Italy) in crushing fashion. Those armchair pundits can now add stats to their drivel.

This report puts Southgate’s achievements into cold hard data, but if there’s one thing we have come to realise about his tenure is that Southgate excels at the intangible things: the spirit of the group, the collectiveness of the team, a willingness to trust young players.

With all this in mind this tournament continues to raise the nation’s hopes, and it is difficult not to get caught in the fervour. When the next game comes around I, along with everyone else, will still be quietly whispering that hallowed phrase…

‘It’s coming home’.

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