Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Extremely Early World Cup Preview, Part One

Last week soccer celebrity David Beckham and hometown girl Charlize Theron gathered in South Africa to fondle Sepp Blatter’s balls. Yes, it was the World Cup draw, an event that combined the pageantry of high-stake bingo with the pacing and coherence of Sabado Gigante. The draw set up 8 round robin groups for the first round of the tournament, to be held this (southern hemisphere) winter in South Africa. For more info on the setup, check out our draw primer.

Now that the groups are set, we can finally take a real shot at analyzing how the tournament will shake out. We’ll split our pool predictions into two parts, and then try predicting the knockout rounds. Given our traditional reliance on Nate Silver-driven prediction systems, we’ll put a star by the teams his Soccer Power Index predicts to advance.

Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay*, France*

We start with what conventional wisdom sees as the most wide-open group, featuring the host team, two former winners (yes, Uruguay won, albeit back in 1930), and a team with a good track record in the group stage.

The host team has never failed to make it to the knockout round. However, the home team has also never been as bad as South Africa. The only real competition is the ’94 U.S.A. team, and they had the advantage of a smaller field that let a higher percentage of teams make it out of the group. SA has Everton (ENG) winger Stephen Pienaar and then a whole bunch of guys who weren’t athletic enough to make the rugby team. They will get a pride-salvaging point off of someone, but won’t advance.
Mexico clunked through qualifying under a succession of oddball coaches before getting hot this past summer and winning the Gold Cup. The SPI is leery as a result, but Mexico have more talent than most teams and experience playing at altitude, where a number of the SA group games will take place. We like them more than most, assuming their talented young players keep developing (see below).

Uruguay really had to grind during qualifying, only making it in after an inter-region play-in win over Costa Rica that was marred by a blown offside call. SPI loves them, I think because they have two strikers succeeding in tough club leagues—Diego Forlan in Spain and Luis Suarez in the Netherlands. But there’s not much else there, nor have they impressed on the field recently. They’ll keep grinding, but they can be beaten.

France . . . well, shit. They got in through the playoffs after a ridiculously blatant handball was uncalled against Ireland:
But they still have star power, with Thierry Henry leading a stable of attacking talent. The problem is that they haven’t recovered from the twin blows of Zinedine Zidane’s retirement and Raymond Domenech’s hiring as coach. Domenech has admitted to using astrology to help determine tactics, and appears to command the same level of respect and affection in France as Ronald McDonald. The question is whether the players can overcome their coach over the next six months.

Key to the Group: We think the group will be decided on unusual ground—in England, during the course of the ongoing Premier League season. Traditionally, few Mexican players go abroad, instead playing their trade in the solid-but-unspectaular Liga Mexicana. Unsurprisingly, this has led to solid-but-unspectacular national teams.
Recently, though, two young, deeply talented Mexicans have made their way to English clubs. Carlos Vela and Gio Dos Santos (of rivals Arsenal and Tottenham, respectively) have more natural talent than any other players in CONCACAF. Their impact at the national level has been muted, however, largely because of their youth and the physical nature of CONCACAF play. For Mexico, the big question is whether they will get enough PT in the equally physical Premier League to get primed for a breakout in SA. Says here that they will.

Advancing: Mexico, France

Group B: Argentina*, Nigeria*, South Korea, Greece

This group pits three completely crazy teams against the single most boring team in world football.

Argentina are France with more talent: like France, they flailed around during qualifying, only to make it in during the last round, and like France they are coached by a complete madman in legend Diego Maradona. So just take the France prediction and round everything up by 15%.

Nigeria have been the team most likely to win or lose a game 3-0 for years, and just saw their youth team reach the youth WC finals. A young Nigerian team, playing in front of sympathetic fans in SA, is almost certain to result in goals coming on both directions.

South Korea have one legit stud (Park Ji-Sung of Man United) and a bunch of random guys with pouffy dyed hair, one of whom apparently idolizes English players and engineered a trade to a Scottish club as a result. Again, fun guys.

Greece, on the other hand, hate goals like they hate eyebrow waxes. The surprise winners at Euro ’04, where they seemed to take 7 shots all tournament and score on 6 of them, they will be looking to capitalize on the mistake that one of the other teams will make at some point.

Key to the Group: In past World Cups, teams from the host continent have experienced a boost in performance, However, there’s not much precedent for WCs held outside of Europe or North/South America. Asian teams arguably did better than expected at Korea/Japan ’02, but the effect might have been distorted by the dual-host system, which gave an extra Asian team a home-country (as opposed to home-continent) advantage. If the home continent advantage materializes, Nigeria should pull through. If not, watch the Koreans

Advancing: Argentina, South Korea

Group C: England*, USA*, Algeria, Slovenia

Just a great draw for the U.S.A. Obviously all things considered you’d rather see South Africa as the seeded team, but Algeria and Slovenia are as good as the U.S. was going to do out of the other draw pots.

England ripped through qualifying, albeit in a weak group, as they finally seemed to come together under their new (Italian) coach Fabio Cappello, and they’ve caught the second-most favorable draw of any team in the tournament. They’ll sail through this round, and will only become interesting in the knock-out stage.

Algeria is not good, having got in only by squeaking through a one-game playoff against rival Egypt (and I mean RIVAL—an Algerian coach lost an eye in a postgame brawl with an Egyptian player a few years ago) played in neutral Sudan. One expects that the market for holiday travel packages for the game among U.S. soccer fans was fairly sluggish. While Silver’s system gives Algeria the home-continent boost, I don’t see it—Algeria is a LONG way from South Africa, so the travel isn’t much easier, and the two countries have little in common culturally. Plus, Algeria’s 2-0 and 1-0 wins over Egypt don’t look that impressive in light of the U.S.’s 3-0 demolition of Egypt in the Confederations Cup. Pass.

Slovenia don’t have much in the way of skill on the ball, but have a lot of size and their players have been playing together pretty much since birth. They got in by beating Russia in a playoff, thanks in large part to the fact that Russia managed to get two red cards at home in the deciding game.

The U.S.A. might be the hardest team to predict in the draw. They’ve been alternating fantastic performances (the Spain and Brazil II games in the CC; impressive road wins late in WC qualifying) with terrible ones (the Brazil I game in the CC; the shellacking of the JV team by Mexico in the Gold Cup final; recent lousy exhibition losses at Slovakia and Denmark). Plus the team’s top defender, Oguchi Onyewu (Inter Milan) is hurt and might not be 100% for the WC, and one of its two top strikers, Charlie Davies, broke his leg in a car accident and will probably be out. Here's the car in the aftermath (seriously):

So, yeah, he's probably out. The U.S. is a different team with those guys on the field.

Key to the Group: The U.S.-Slovenia matchup. The U.S. matches up poorly against England, because the U.S. plays much the same style as England (high-effort, counter-attacking, heavy-tackling), just with worse players. But against Slovenia even an injured U.S. team should have the two best players on the field in Landon Donovan and Tim Howard. The problem is that U.S. has done really, really poorly against physical Euro sides over the years. In addition to the two recent friendly losses there have been bad WC results against the likes of Poland and Romania. The U.S. gives away too many dumb fouls to aerially superior teams, and lacks a free-kick specialist of its own. But if the U.S. is ever going to break through, it will be against this very mediocre Slovenia team

Advancing: England, USA

Group D: Germany*, Australia, Ghana, Serbia*

This is another very “flat” group, as you can make solid arguments for any of Australia, Ghana, or Serbia behind Germany. Zee Germans again aren’t all that impressive on paper, but again breezed through qualifying and again will farfegnuge their way through the group.

Australia is the U.S.A. with better weather and sillier accents. Like the US, Australia are the sort of high-effort team that nobody really wants to play, but one that will struggle to see much of the ball against more talented teams. They will almost certainly steal a result against somebody in the group, though it’s tough to predict exactly where.

Ghana might have the two best players in the group in midfield duo Michael Essien (Chelsea) and Sulley Muntari (Inter Milan), and they should get good crowd support in SA. But Essien and Muntari are each more destroyers and distributors, not scorers for their club teams, andit’s unclear whether Ghana have a striker capable of scoring against what should be three very well-organized opponents. I see at least two draws in Ghana’s three games; it’s that wild card last result that will make the difference.

The Serbs, well, they’re mean and crazy--sometimes that’s enough to see you through. Serbia won its Euro qualifying group, though that had more to do with the collapse of France and the weakness of the rest of the group than anything else. Silver’s SPI trusts those qualifying results a lot, though, and puts them above Australia and Ghana.

Key to the Group: Hell, I don’t know. To me, this is the hardest group to pick, even harder than the Group of Death, because here there are 3 teams vying for 1 slot behind Germany, while in the GoD, there are 3 teams vying for 2 slots. It’s going to come down to who gets the calls and who gets the bounces.

Advancing: Germany, Ghana

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