Thursday, 15 October 2015

Euro 2016 Qualification

We interupt this conference liveblog for me to talk about something that's been bothering me.  The group stage of Euro 2016 qualification finished this week.  England were the first team to qualify, and have become I think only the sixth team ever in European Championship qualifying to notch a 100% record.  However, pretty much all discussion of England's campaign has been met with "well, they had an easy group".  And, while I'm not claiming they got a hard group, I don't think this really stands up to scrutiny.

In judging the group, the first thing to note is that England were one of the top seeds.  The seeding coefficients were based 40% on qualifying for the 2014 World Cup; 40% on both qualification and the finals for Euro 2012; and 20% on both qualification and the finals of the 2010 World Cup.  Note that these things had to be decided before the 2014 finals, so the necessary plans could be done.  Looking at those three campaigns, we have:
  • An unbeaten qualifying campaign for 2014, where only Germany and the Netherlands scored more and only Spain conceded fewer;
  • An unbeaten qualifying campaign for 2012, followed by reaching the quarter-finals unbeaten and only losing on penalties;
  • Winning 9 out of 10 in qualifying for 2010, with the only defeat coming after qualification was assured; and, while the performance in the finals was disappointing, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands where the only European teams to progress further.
In short, all this says that England being seeded, i.e. ranked in the top 9 European teams, was the correct choice.  This then lead to England being guaranteed to avoid the other top seeds: Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Russia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The only fair way to judge England's draw is to compare it to what might have happened.  My case is that England got lucky with their 4th and 6th seeds; had typical draws for their 2nd and 5th; and got a 2nd seed that was arguably stronger than average, and certainly no worse.

Let's start with the 2nd seeds: Switzerland.  The most immediate thing to note here is that Switzerland and Belgium were the only teams from this pot to progress past the group stages at the 2014 World Cup.  That immediately should show that they weren't an easy draw, and could be used to say the reverse.  Indeed, I remember Switzerland actually being ranked above England by FIFA at the beginning of qualifying.  Even without taking the finals into account, the UEFA seeding ranked the Swiss the 5th best second seed of 9, right in the middle of the pack.

The 3rd seeds were Slovenia.  None of the 3rd seeds qualified for either 2014 or 2012 finals (Poland played in 2012 as hosts).  None of them even managed the play-offs for 2014.  Slovenia, along with Turkey, Serbia, and Slovakia, did qualify for the 2010 finals.  This is probably why UEFA ranked them 3rd among the 3rd seeds; again, pretty much typical for this pot.  In retrospect, you might argue that Poland and Austria were the teams to avoid.  But was this clear in advance?  Note that Poland were in England's 2014 qualifying group, and only managed to beat San Marino (twice) and Moldova (once), finishing fourth.  Austria had a better campaign, finishing 3rd in a group with Germany, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland.  But then, Slovenia finished 3rd in their group also.  Finally, even if we accept the notion that you could have predicted Poland and Austria being dangerous in advance, avoiding 2 strong teams is more a case of not being unlucky than of being particularly fortunate.

The 4th seeds were Estonia, and here it is fair to say England were lucky.  UEFA ranked them second-weakest of the 4th seeds.  More to the point, England could easily have drawn Wales, Scotland or recent bogey team Montenegro.  Finland and Bulgaria are also tricky teams.  Indeed, while Belarus were ranked below Estonia, it's not obvious that they would have been a preferable draw.

The 5th seeds were Lithuania.  Here, you can point to avoiding Northern Ireland and Iceland, who both went on to qualify automatically and comfortably.  Still, among the other teams in this pot, Lithuania don't look especially worse.  UEFA ranked them 4th, again a pretty typical place.

Finally, the 6th seeds were San Marino.  Only Gibraltar has a worse record in international football, so England was "lucky" in this sense.  But without meaning disrespect to any of the teams in this pot, we would expect to take 6 points off any of them.  Of all the seeds to get some good fortune, this is the least relevant.

So what are we left with?  Of the five teams England was drawn with, three are typical for that seeding pot.  Since the same could be said about England, it was the most average group there.  Further, one of the weaker teams came from the mostly-unimportant last pot.  It's also easy to argue that the second seeds, England's main challengers in the group, were stronger than expected.

Now, that does make it clear that England did not get a hard group either.  And you could say that in being lucky with the 4th seeds and not being unlucky with either the 3rd or 5th seeds, there was some good fortune.  But I think the origin of the claim doesn't come from this.  It comes from several factors; a general underestimation of the Swiss (who in addition to their 2014 escapades, were the only team to beat Spain in 2010) and of Slovenia (a country I think most Brits would struggle to find on a map).  But mostly it's a desire to play down England's results.  Partly this is merited by the fact that England won't be favourites in France, and I'd expect another quarter-final appearance.  But partly it's from the slightly odd attitude that if England aren't winning everything, they must be awful; and any evidence to the contrary must be denied.

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