Group D Under the Microscope: England and Italy’s Possessive Powers

Group D throws three former winners of the competition – England, Italy and Uruguay – into the mix with underdogs Costa Rica. It would appear to be a three-way battle for the two qualification places, but how will these teams go about their business in Brazil based on their statistical characteristics?

Costa Rica burst into the consciousness of the football world by reaching the 2nd round of the 1990 tournament held in Italy, overturning Scotland and Sweden in the process. They prefer a strategy of containment rather than all-out attack, conceding just seven goals in ten games during the last qualifying round, and seeing less possession than their opponents in nearly every 15-minute period of matches (the exception being 30-45 mins).

Mauricio Castillo

When they do come forward, midfielder Michael Barrantes, currently playing in Norway, will be key to the operation. Barrantes averages the highest number of ‘building attack actions’ (65.4) per game with a large share of these (26.7%) classed as ‘good’, the 2nd highest in the squad. Along with on-loan Arsenal striker Joel Campbell, Alvaro Saborio of Real Salt Lake could be a goal threat – he was the Central Americans’ top scorer in the final qualifying round with seven goals and also has the highest average number of goals and shots per game.

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The big selection issue which arose from the announcement of Roy Hodgson’s England squad was the exclusion of 107-cap left back Ashley Cole in favour of 1st choice Leighton Baines and the speedy youngster Luke Shaw as back-up. The decision left some scratching their heads but our data shows the likely reason why Hodgson opted to leave out a player with experience in five major tournaments.

It is clear from our ‘average position pitch map’ that England rely heavily on the left-back position as an attacking outlet: Baines is the 5th furthest forward of any player on this graphic, based on data extracted over England’s qualifying games, while Cole lags approximately 15 metres behind him. Furthermore, Baines averages 4.5 chance creation attempts per game to Cole’s 1.0 – Baines’ success rate is 30% compared to 0% for Cole.

Baines

So we can see Cole’s comparative lack of attacking threat could have cost him a place on the plane, and that England’s overlapping full-backs are a major weapon that their opponents must negate – Baines and right-back Kyle Walker register the highest average of crosses per game in the final third (3.4 and 3.1) of any full-backs in Group D during their qualifying campaigns, although Walker was left out by Hodgson.

Four-time winners Italy have built their past successes on tactical acumen, a near-impenetrable defence and the ability to keep the ball. They will carry these attributes into Brazil 2014 – Italy, along with England, are the only Group D teams to have dominated possession in all time periods of their qualifying matches and share an almost identical number of minutes in the early stages of attack per game – 23.4 to England’s 23.5.

Italy San Marino Soccer

Firebrand striker Mario Balotelli is likely to be the focus of Italy’s attacks and the man for opposition defences to mark. He averages the highest number of shots per game of any striker in the group – 5.3. Meanwhile playmaker Andrea Pirlo is the team’s top ‘deliverer’ with a high of 47.1 completed passes per game on average, with the most popular recipients Daniel De Rossi, Ricardo Montolivo and Leonardo Bonnuci.

Counter-attacking Uruguay come into the tournament with one of the most feared attacking assets in their armoury – Luis Suarez – a player attracting the attention of the world’s top clubs after his 31 Premier League goals this term, and they will need his clinical finishing.

Suarez

They created the least average number of chances per game of any Group D team – 10.0 – but also boast the highest conversion rate with 14% of ‘chance’ situations resulting in goals compared to England (11%), Italy (9%) and Costa Rica (8%). The lack of chances is likely to be down to a low possession average which is less than their opponents in all time periods and scenarios (winning, drawing or losing) of matches.

Group D is another intriguingly balanced set of teams, and appears to be a battle between the European philosophy of ‘dominate and destroy’ and the South American ability to ‘snatch and grab’.

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