The teams with legit World Cup upset potential
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 18 World Football issue. Subscribe today!
Analytics offers a basic recipe for winning soccer: Treat the game like it's hockey, and play like you're the Russians who brought the idea of puck control to the NHL in the '90s. Dribble with discipline and make sharp passes and you will build possessions. The more touches you amass, the more shots you can take. And the more shots you take, the more goals you will score. Spanish clubs popularized a tiki-taka style of play rooted in these concepts a decade or so ago, and the formula led Germany to an undefeated World Cup in 2014. That German team had the second-largest possession percentage among all squads competing in Brazil -- and the biggest goal differential.
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But what if a team isn't Germany or Barcelona or the old Red Wings? An underdog can't hope to hog possession against superior clubs, so if you're looking for big surprises in this summer's World Cup, focus on teams that excel at defensive obstruction instead.
You see, Cinderellas typically triumph by using high-risk/high-reward tactics, like shooting 3s in basketball, which increases the variability of a team's scoring. In soccer, scoring is so low that an underdog should be especially sure to take extra chances on defense, because if they pay off, even a pretty weak David can keep a clean sheet against a Goliath, securing at least a tie. And two statistical measures of successful defensive gambling -- tackles and offsides drawn -- correlate meaningfully with long-shot success. Tackles are turnovers without fouls, and offsides drawn are essentially turnovers with the added benefit of free kicks.
Various squads across the globe, from Uruguay to Leicester City in the EPL to the Swedish women's national team, have built around patient defense and counterstriking. Iceland, though, truly elevated obstruction to an art form in the 2016 Euros. In the group stage, it faced three of the world's top 20 teams and advanced, charming fans around the globe, despite holding the ball less than 30 percent of the time. In its knockout match against England, Iceland had 16 tackles with 31 clearances, 18 interceptions and 3 blocked shots. That defensive aggression turned an enormous 439-755 possession deficit into an 8-18 gap in shots taken into a 5-4 edge in shots on goal, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- and Iceland won 2-1.
Look at the upcoming World Cup from this giant-killers standpoint and -- beyond Iceland, which still obstructs better than anyone -- two sides stand out. Since Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden's leading career scorer, retired from international play in 2016, his absence has compelled the Blue-Yellow to focus on defense and teamwork, and it shows in their stats. In 12 qualifying matches, Sweden pitched seven shutouts, including two against Italy in which Swedish players kicked the ball away from their goal an astounding 99 times (and knocked the Italians out of the World Cup for the first time since 1958). An unrecognized strength: Sweden also lured opponents offside 2.59 times per 90 minutes, by far the most of any qualifier. The Swedes likely will battle Mexico for second place (behind Germany) in Group F, and the two units are just four slots apart in the World Football Elo Ratings.
The numbers also show it's tough to break through Egypt: The Pharaohs ranked third among advancing teams with 14.3 tackles per 90 minutes in qualifying matches, never allowing more than one goal in any game. Further, they're in Group A, by far the weakest in this year's draw. Russia is in that group too and has received the bulk of publicity about catching breaks from easy opposition as well as home-field advantage. In fact, betting markets see the Russians as nearly twice as likely as Egypt to make it to knockouts. But these clubs both rank around No. 50 in the world, according to the Elo ratings -- and in March, Russia got blown out of friendlies against Brazil in Moscow and France in St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, Egypt's Mohamed Salah, who led the EPL with 32 goals before suffering a sprained shoulder in the Champions League final, might be back in time to help his team.
Even with Salah, Egypt is so defense-minded that many fans have criticized coach Hector Cuper's style as boring even though Cuper got the team back into the World Cup for the first time since 1990. But that's the thing about underdogs in soccer. To win, they have to create rising tension, not rising scores. They have to wait, wait some more, take their shot and then, like a boxer with an early knockdown of the champ, hang on for dear life.