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Balls, bonanzas and blowouts: a statistical look at the World Cup

It's no secret that soccer criticism often lacks the statistical rigour of North America's favourite sports. Baseball has existed in a Moneyballsian post-Bill James world for decades, while basketball, hockey, and football have become similarly statistically inclined. North American audiences have come to expect this type of analysis from their sports writers, and some soccer writers have taken to breaking down soccer into a more digestible, empirical game.

Considering the number of upsets and the seemingly high scoring margins – and that we're now into the elimination phase of the World Cup, with only 12 teams left as of Monday morning – we've collected data on the entire history of the World Cup, right back to the first 18 games in 1930. The statistics below offer a glimpse at what you might expect from teams in the coming weeks, and how likely we are to see more blowouts during the knockout phase.

Win:loss ratio – 20 years

Win:loss ratio over the last 20 years for the final 12 teams

A very straightforward indicator of past success, this chart shows how knockout-phase teams have fared in the past five World Cups. Brazil has by far the highest ratio at 6.75, almost one-and-a-half times that of Germany, in second place at 4.0, with the Dutch, French, and Argentines unsurprisingly close behind.

Ratio of goals scored:allowed – 20 years

Ratio of goals scored:allowed over the last 20 years for the final 16 teams

Once again, Brazil is at the top of the chart with 2.69 goals scored for every goal they allow. Germany and France, both with solid World Cup performances so far, come close in second and third place respectively. Costa Rica – regarded as one of the tournament’s dark horses, and sitting at 0.75 – is 0.03 points above the last-placed United States, who over the last 20 years have only managed to score 0.73 goals for every one scored against them.

Average goals per game – 20 years

Average goals scored per game during the group stage and the entire tournament

Commentators and veteran viewers have both noted how high the number of goals seems during this World Cup. The average number of goals per game supports that – 2014 has seen an average of 0.7 more goals per game compared to 2010. To put it in perspective: 145 goals were scored during the 2010 World Cup. As of the Costa Rica v. Greece game, the 2014 World Cup (with another 12 games to go) has also seen 145 goals, putting it in fifth place for World Cup with most goals scored.

World Cup blowouts – historical

Average goal difference and number of games where four or more goals were scored for one side

It isn't a World Cup without an occasional goal-scoring bonanza. Historically, blowouts have come in waves, with certain Cups seeing as few as three to five games where a team has scored four or more goals. The 1954 World Cup saw an incredible number of blowout games; more than 15 blowout games were played that year. Perhaps surprisingly, the widest goal margin ever during a World Cup happened in 1982: El Salvador lost to Hungary in the round-robin stage 10–1.

Blowout game percentage – historical

Percentage of games where one side scored at least 4 goals

Over the years, blowouts have become much less common. During the first 30 years of the World Cup, the number of blowouts as a function of total games played was much more variable. As professional soccer became more established and particularly uneven games became less common, the proportion of blowouts diminished considerably.

Blowout game percentage – 20 years

Percentage of games where one side scored at least 4 goals

Interestingly, this World Cup has seen almost twice the proportion of blowout games compared to 2010. With the number at 13%, fans currently have a one in 7.7 chance of witnessing another high-scoring game.

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