So, for all the kerfuffle, England qualified for the 2014 World Cup with relative ease. Six wins and four draws, 31 goals scored and only 4 conceded, this looks like one of the better records of the qualifying teams. For example, only the Netherlands had a better goal difference in European qualifying, and only Spain and Belgium conceded fewer goals (3) in qualifying.
The bookmakers now have England at 20-1 to win in Brazil, which sounds about right- i.e. not very likely. As we document in Soccernomics, English supporters, egged on by the press, are likely to go through a roller-coaster of ever increasing expectations culminating in a rapid descent to a cold bath of reality when England are knocked out, in all probability at the quarter final stage. In the aftermath there will be much wailing about England’s fallen status in world football.
Greg Dyke, the new head of the Football Association, the governing body in England and the organization responsible for the England national team, got his wailing in early last month. In fairness to him his speech was thoughtful, and careful not to make accusations which could not be backed up.
However, he did seem to embrace the popular English narrative of persistent failure attributable to the rising share of foreign players in the Premier League:
“In the future it’s quite possible we won’t have enough players qualified to play for England who are playing regularly at the highest level in this country or elsewhere in the world. As a result, it could well mean England’s teams are unable to compete seriously on the world stage…
English football – and in this context I mean football played by Englishmen – has got a problem which is much bigger than just not doing well in a couple of tournaments. As I’ve said England is already short of players who regularly turn out at the top level for their clubs and are qualified to play for England but the real problem is that, year by year, the position is getting worse.
Let’s look at the numbers. Twenty years ago 69% of all the players starting matches in the Premier League were qualified to play for England… Ten years later that figure was down to 38%. Last season, another ten years on, the same figure was down to 32%.”
The logic of this should be set out explicitly:
- To have a successful English national team you need a large number of players qualified to represent the England team playing in the Premier League
- The number of English qualified playing in the Premier League has fallen dramatically since the creation of the Premier League
- As a result the performance of the England national team has not improved, and may have deteriorated
Only the second step in this logical chain can actually be supported with the data, and even this statement needs careful consideration. But the real place to start is the third point. Since the creation of the Premier League the performance of the England team has not stagnated or deteriorated, but has in fact measurably improved. There are many ways to cut the data, but every one points to the same conclusion.
The starting point for any analysis of the England team is always 1966, when England won on home soil. The Premier League started in 1992, but it would be unreasonable to blame the Premier League for the failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the USA, and probably equally unreasonable to credit the Premier League with England’s relatively strong performance in Euro 96 played in England. So let’s compare England’s performance in the last 8 competitions (Euros and World Cup) between 1998 and 2012 against (a) the 13 tournaments between 1966 and 1992 (b) the 8 tournaments between 1978 and 1992.
|Group of 16||1||1*||2|
|Did not qualify||5||2||1|
|* round 2 in 1982|
England in the World Cup and Euros 1968-2012
Compared to its earlier performances, the one let down by England is its failure to reach any semi-finals since 1998, but on every other criterion it is doing much better. The main point is that between 1968 and 1992 England failed to qualify 5 times, while since 1998 it has failed only once. This surely makes a much larger difference to the fans than failing to progress from quarter final to semi-finals. Note that in 13 attempts between 68 and 92 England reached the quarter finals four times, something they have achieved in only 8 attempts since 1998. Or to compare the eight tournaments before and after the start of the Premier League, England failed to get beyond the group stage in 5 out of 8 attempts, but has endured a similar failure only twice in recent history.
We can also see improvement at the level of the individual games. Between 1966 and 1992 England played 82 qualifying games, won 51, drew 19 and lost 9, giving a win percentage (treating a draw as half a win) of 75.6%. Since 1996 England has played 74 qualifying games, won 50, drawn 15 and lost 9, giving a win percentage 77.7%. This is a statistically negligible difference, but in the finals themselves the England team has performed much better in the Premier League era. Between 1968 and 1992 England played 32 games in finals, won 12, drew 9 and lost 11. Since 1998 they have played 29, won 13, drawn 10 and lost 6.
Critics might argue that these figures are biased because there are now more teams that qualify including more minnows. I think the argument actually goes in the opposite direction- there are fewer pushovers today than in the past, but a better way to look at this is to compare with the performance of other teams that England would see as equals. For these purposes Germany is almost immediately the comparison made. The fact is that Germany has performed better than England fairly consistently, but the English still insist on the rivalry. So let’s compare the relative performance of the two national teams before and after the creation of the Premier League.
For these purposes I have included Euro 96 in the Premier League era- since Germany won the tournament and defeated England in the semi-final that’s actually making Germany look better in this era.
|Group of 16||1||1||2||0|
|Did not qualify||6||1||1||0|
Comparing England and Germany in international competition
In either period the performance of the German team is clearly better than England’s. But the gap is perceptibly narrowing. With 8 German finals out of 14 attempts between 1968 and 1994, there is no comparison. Germany’s record of 6 semi-final appearances since 1996 is still noticeably better than England’s but the gap is not so large. Germans worry that they have not won a major international tournament since 1996, and they have twice exited at the group stage. The current team is undoubtedly strong, but in fact any northern European team must be an outside bet for Brazil.
Another way to make the comparison is to give points for each level of achievement. This is somewhat arbitrary, but on almost any points system the gap between England and Germany has narrowed dramatically in the Premier League era. For example, if we give 60 for winning the cup, 50 for being the losing finalist, 40 for losing in the semi-final, 30 in the quarter-final, 20 in the round of 16, 10 in the group stage and zero if you did not qualify, then between 1968 and 1994 Germany accumulated 580 points to England’s 190- three times as many. Since 1996 on this basis Germany has 330 points and England 210- still almost 60% more, but the gap is not nearly so large. This is both because England got better (more points from fewer tournaments) and Germany got worse (fewer points per tournament).
Win percentages confirm the same story. In qualification there is little statistical difference – Germany’s percentage as risen from 80.1% to 83.8%, while England’s has risen from 75.6% to 77.7%- these are negligible differences statistically. In finals the German win percentage has fallen from 69.2% to 67.4%, while England’s has risen significantly from 51.6% to 62.1%
Whichever way you cut it, the gap between Germany and England has narrowed in the Premier League era. Indeed, the Germans restructured the governance of the Bundesliga in 2000 to give the clubs more power, largely in imitation of the Premier League, and it has often been commented that the current German team plays in a Premier League style.
So if England are getting better, should the FA be giving the Premier League all the credit? Certainly the Premier League has helped the English in general to shed some of their more insular instincts and to learn from international practice, but there are other factors too. Statistically, the two foreign coaches Sven-Goran Erikkson and Fabio Capello stand out for their ability and Roy Hodgson, who has spent so much of his career abroad, may turn out to be equally successful. But certainly Greg Dyke ought to be focusing on the benefits of the Premier League rather than the costs.
As Simon Kuper recently pointed out in the Financial Times, the fact that England have 65 players starting in the Premier League “is a huge number, more than any other nationality in the world’s toughest league. Englishmen get ample experience of top-class club football. Croatia, Uruguay and Portugal dream of having 65 starters in the Premier League.” A squad of 65 ought to be large enough to produce a competitive national team. The BBC recently make a big show of revealing that English players played only 32% of minutes played in the Premier League, but in fact this is far ahead of any other nationality- the French came second with a mere 8%.
Because of its financial dominance of world football the Premier League has the largest share of the world’s best talent and arguably produces the most consistently high quality football of any league. Actually Simon’s argument is that the Premier League is so competitive that too many of the players are exhausted at the end of the season and that England would be better off having more players competing in less intensive leagues in other countries.
This is how Greg Dyke puts it:
“Now all this comes at a time when very few English players are themselves playing overseas – we are not Belgium or Holland where most of their top players are playing abroad or even France, Spain or Italy who are now frequently exporting significant numbers of players. Almost uniquely amongst the top footballing nations virtually all of our top players are playing in their home leagues so if the best of our emerging young players can’t get a game here it means we do have a serious problem.”
That is why he floats potential policy changes such as
“looking at if it’s possible to introduce quotas, in legal terms a complex matter but one which should be explored. We should also examine how the current work permit system operates – and it is worth pointing out that roughly 30% of the players who received work permits this summer did not meet the standard criteria – and we should review the loan system to see if it can be made more effective in terms of developing players.”
It seems to me this is a dangerously insular view. British universities, for example, are full of academics from other countries – is that harming the quality of British intellectual achievement? Well, a Brit just won the Nobel prize for physics, and most British academics I know would be horrified at the implications for British educational standards if there was a policy of keeping out foreigners. In fact, lots of British academics (like me) do go to work abroad at some point in their career, which seems like a healthy way to absorb international best practice. I think the FA should be paying more attention to ensuring that young English talent is willing and able to embrace overseas experience in the same way that German, Spanish or Argentinian players, among others, have adapted to playing in England.
This has been a long rant- so quickly to summarise:
- England’s performance in international competitions has improved significantly since the advent of the Premier League- it is catching up with longstanding rivals, but it should always be remembered that in the 1970s and 80s is was far, far behind.
- The improvement in the standard of play in England due to the arrival of so many foreign players in the Premier League is probably one of the largest contributory factors
- While the share of English players in the Premier League has fallen, it still easily large enough to generate a highly competitive national team. However, it might be a matter for concern that so few English players seem willing or able to play in overseas leagues- this is an aspect of player development that might well benefit from the attention of the FA.