The Group Stage and Round of 16 were epically entertaining, but we can truly begin to consider which country will be crowned champion of World Cup 2014 now that we’ve arrived to the quarterfinals.
All eight Group Stage winners held serve, though every country (except for Colombia) needed late goals (Netherlands, France), late goals in extra time (Germany, Argentina, Belgium) or penalty kicks (Brazil, Costa Rica) to reach the quarters.
The flipside of a tournament that contains so many white knuckle moments is that there is a lot parity and that there probably isn’t an all-time great squad in the field.
One of my favorite parts of this World Cup, and there’s been many, is reviewing the Expected Goals work of Michael Caley. Expected Goals (xG) fairly simply is an estimate on the total number of goals a team can expect to score or give up by assigning a value based on shot location, how the shot was created and other important factors.
I like xG because it can approximate the eye test, while also limiting the value of low probability shots and eliminating the randomness of whether a goal is scored or not, regardless of its expected outcome.
I’ve gathered the match-by-match data for the eight quarterfinalists after their first four matches and here is their xG differential (xG for minus xG against per game) in order:
1. France: 1.53
2. Germany: 1.38
3. Brazil: 1.28
4. Netherlands: 1.08
5. Belgium: 0.94
6. Argentina: 0.63
7. Colombia: 0.15
8. Costa Rica: -0.04
There are two teams, France and Colombia, that immediately jump out when reviewing these results.
France struggled to qualify for the World Cup, needing a playoff against Ukraine in which they had to win 3-0 in the second leg in Paris. In the build-up, Didier Deschamps controversially left Samir Nasri off the roster and then Franck Ribéry was ruled out with a back injury. That's a lot of talent to be left behind, but the decisions have been proven correct.
Universally recognized as talented as they are young and combustible, France has scored in buckets and with some of the best run of play in the tournament. Karim Benzema has scored three goals and assisted on two more, taking his play to another level in which he’s asked to do more for country than he is for club at Real Madrid.
Paul Pogba is becoming everything you want from a young box-to-box midfielder, and they’ve been the most complete team (along with Germany though they have no fullbacks) in the tournament for me even though we have yet to see them play against an explosive attacking side.
For Colombia, the play of James Rodríguez and Juan Cuadrado has been remarkable and they have won their matches 3-0, 2-1, 4-1 and 2-0 – a clear run of dominating results.
They’ve looked like the most bulletproof side in a lot of ways, but xG tells a much different story: 1.8-1.1, 1.2-0.9, 2.0-2.4 and 1.3-1.3. The James’ goal against Uruguay is in the running for highlight of the World Cup, yet it’s not the type of goal Colombia can realistically count upon to be repeated.
Colombia’s 2-0 win over Uruguay was much closer than the scoreboard indicated and it also came after Brazil needed penalty kicks to beat Chile. There’s little doubt that Brazil has been disappointing in this World Cup, but let’s slow our roll a little bit on moving Colombia ahead to the semifinals. Brazil had a 2.7-1.1 advantage in xG against Chile with a ton of chances right in front of the goal, and the Alexis Sánchez goal they conceded came on a horribly sloppy play by Hulk.
Brazil also had a +1.4 xG edge against Mexico, a match that ended in a draw in which Memo Ochoa could not be broken. Their issues have been with Fred and Jo being unable to finish up front and that can change in an instant.
The legend of teams grows exponentially with each passing year as the image of raising the cup becomes greater than the details of the journey.
The 1994 Brazil team looked exceedingly ordinary in the Round of 16 against the United States until Bebeto scored in the 72nd minute, needed an 80th minute Romário goal against Sweden in the semifinals, and then famously won in penalties against Italy in the final.
The 2002 Brazil team went down 1-0 to England in the quarters giving up a Michael Owen goal before Rivaldo and Ronaldinho scored, while they didn’t score until a second half Ronaldo goal in the semis against Turkey.
Brazil remains capable of stringing together two or three matches in which they begin to convert their chances at a more realistic rate and run teams off the pitch as we remember them doing in the Confederations Cup last year.
Whether or not Brazil figures it out, the favorite in the World Cup final on July 13 will almost certainly be from their side of the bracket (BRA, COL, GER, FRA) regardless of which of the four teams makes it to Rio de Janeiro.
The Netherlands had legitimate question marks before the tournament began and they’re far closer to the side that narrowly defeated Australia and Mexico than they are the side that destroyed Spain piece-by-piece beginning with the Robin van Persie header.
Belgium has basically matched expectations with enough quality to play with anyone due to the individual talent of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, along with Thibaut Courtois in goal. Dark horses win by winning close matches.
Costa Rica is the obvious Cinderella at this stage. They earned their way out of a Group D that featured three combustible sides, but they were running on total fumes playing with 10 men to beat Greece. The Netherlands could 5-1 Costa Rica as they did Spain.
Argentina has been a disappointing mess that has needed transcendent moments from Lionel Messi to even reach the quarterfinals out of a weak group. It is impossible to overstate how incredible Messi has been in this World Cup. Any questions about Messi playing for country should be banished by this point.
The unfortunate thing about Argentina isn’t that Messi is playing on a squad that is lacking talent, it’s that Alejandro Sabella has gotten the tactics so horribly wrong.
Even though our expectations have changed considerably, I still wouldn’t bet against getting that Brazil/Argentina final.
The theme of this tournament hasn’t been Wikipedia over Steve Jobs as we expected, it’s been 10 guys waiting on their superstar to do something to save them. Messi, Neymar, James and Arjen Robben all fit that superstar billing and they’re unsurprisingly the top-4 statistically.
xG Epilogue for USMNT
The United States acquitted themselves well in the World Cup, reaching the Round of 16 and forcing Belgium into extra time with a mix of grit, five memorable goals and Tim Howard. They had clear opportunities to beat Belgium and could have faced a vulnerable Argentina squad entirely reliant on one guy, but this wasn’t one of the best 10 teams in the world.
Here's the USMNT xG results for the World Cup:
Match 1: USA 0.7, Ghana 1.6 (-0.9)
Match 2: USA 1.8, Portugal 1.4 (0.4)
Match 3: USA 0.5, Germany 1.4 (-.9)
Match 4: USA 3.0, Belgium 4.8 (-1.8)