England’s predictable World Cup results suggest beating France would be a surprise

The most enigmatic team at World Cup 2022 were clearly Japan. They were eliminated in the second round, and their basic record of two wins, one draw and one loss is, on paper, fairly unremarkable.

The peculiarity, of course, came from assessing those results against specific opponents. Japan’s scores were essentially a mirror image of what you would have expected. They defeated Spain and Germany — two of the top-six favorites heading into the competition — but managed to lose to Costa Rica, considered the 32nd-favourite. It was a curious, almost illogical sequence of results, and yet it’s the kind of situation football throws up regularly. There are, presumably, lots of Japan supporters saying things like “typical us”, and “we never do things the easy way”. Football results regularly found expectations.

Historically, though, England are the complete opposite of Japan at World Cups. England aren’t a brilliantly unpredictable outfit who outwit the big boys, then flop against minnows. They are very simple, and do precisely what you expect. They don’t wobble against small sides. They roughly match the performance of fellow sides on the fringes of the favourites. They tend to be eliminated by the first serious contender they face.

To test this theory, we can compare England’s World Cup results to the position of their opponents in FIFA’s world rankings at the time. Those rankings aren’t perfect and because they were introduced in the early 1990s, we can only use them as a measure from the 1998 World Cup onwards. But that still takes into account 32 matches, a decent sample.

Here, in chronological order, are the results. The color coding is simple — green for victories, orange for draws, and red for defeats. The strength of the opposition is denoted by red for a team with a single-figure ranking, orange for a side ranked between 10th and 19th, and green for a team ranked 20th or below. A penalty shootout loss is denoted by an asterisk, a penalty shootout win is donated by two asterisks.

England World Cup results, 1998-2022

year

Opponent

Rank

Result

1998

Tunisia

25

2-0

1998

Romania

13

1-2

1998

Columbia

17

2-0

1998

Argentina

5

2-2*

2002

Sweden

19

1-1

2002

Argentina

3

1-0

2002

Nigeria

27

0-0

2002

Denmark

20

3-0

2002

Brazil

2

1-2

2006

Paraguay

33

1-0

2006

Trinidad and Tobago

47

2-0

2006

Sweden

16

2-2

2006

ecuador

39

1-0

2006

Portugal

7

0-0*

2010

USA

14

1-1

2010

Algeria

30

0-0

2010

Slovenia

25

1-0

2010

Germany

6

1-4

2014

Italy

9

1-2

2014

Uruguay

7

1-2

2014

Costa Rica

28

0-0

2018

Tunisia

21

2-1

2018

Panama

55

6-1

2018

belgium

3

0-1

2018

Columbia

16

1-1**

2018

Sweden

24

2-0

2018

Croatia

20

1-2

2018

belgium

3

0-2

2022

Iran

21

6-2

2022

USA

15

0-0

2022

wales

18

3-0

2022

Senegal

20

3-0

This table is available on desktop. If you click on “rank”, you can order those 32 games by the opposition’s world ranking. And, when you do that, a fairly obvious pattern emerges. When England face “green” opponents, they generally win. When they face “red” opponents, they generally lose.

And here’s the tally of whether the two categories match up. The three pink rows account for the results you would expect, the four silver rows show when there was something of a surprise, and the two blue rows indicate how many genuine shocks there have been.

Opponent Result Matches

Green

Green

11

Green

Orange

3

Green

Red

1

Orange

Green

2

Orange

Orange

5

Orange

Red

1

Red

Green

1

Red

Orange

2

Red

Red

6

And from those 32 matches — World Cup 1998 onwards — in 22 (69 per cent) of them, England’s result is precisely what you would expect according to the strength of the opposition.

There have been three occasions when England have faced weak opposition and only drawn — all of them 0-0. The first was actually a perfectly good result, as a goalless draw against Nigeria in 2002 meant England qualified for the knockout stage, and the third was essentially a dead rubber against Costa Rica in 2014, as England had already been eliminated and fielded a reserve side . Therefore, of the draws, only the 0-0 with Algeria in 2010 can be considered a truly poor result.

The only time England have completely flopped against (on paper) weak opposition came in the semi-final at the last World Cup. Croatia were ranked just 20th in the world, and England were defeated in extra time. Perhaps that ranking slightly underestimates Croatia’s quality, but it does illustrate quite how simple England’s path to the final was.

In eight matches against “orange” opposition, England have, sure enough, drawn five. The positive results came against Colombia in 1998 and Wales this year. The defeat came at the hands of Romania in 1998.

And in nine matches against “red” opposition, England have won only one — the 1-0 group-stage victory over Argentina in 2002, thanks to David Beckham scoring a penalty won by Michael Owen from The Athletic columnist Mauricio Pochettino.

In fact, even the two draws against serious opposition were ultimately defeats on penalties, against Argentina in 1998 and Portugal in 2006. So if you consider those games to be losses, then England have lost eight of their nine matches against top-ten opposition since the FIFA rankings were introduced.

What’s the reason for this pattern? Maybe that’s a silly question, trying to find a reason for things generally going as you’d expect. But the experience of Japan (or Spain and Germany) shows that’s not always the case. England don’t suffer defeats as shocking as Argentina’s against Saudi Arabia, nor do they defeat stronger opponents the same way Belgium, for example, did against Brazil four years ago.

Maybe it comes down to the fact England are, in tactical terms, always rather beige. They’re not a high-risk attacking side who pile forward in numbers and leave themselves exposed at the back — that type of approach probably increases the chances of a shock result.

Also, they’re usually not a flexible side who vary their approach in response to the approach of their opponents. Teams who work backwards from the opposition are often effective at blunting strong sides, but lack a positive identity to break down weaker opponents.

England are always just themselves; their approach is designed to suit their own players. There’s rarely enough tactical ingenuity to defeat a stronger side, but the quality of individuals is usually good enough to defeat weak opponents. It doesn’t bode well ahead of a meeting against fourth-ranked France, and perhaps demonstrates that some tactical flexibility, and a focus on blunting the opposition, might be in order.

(Top image: Harry Kane reacts to elimination by Croatia in 2018, photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)

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