Home > Tournament Statistics, World Cup > Teams that foul less, win more

Teams that foul less, win more

Based on our calculations, you can determine who won a match in the 2010 World Cup knockout rounds by looking at who committed fewer fouls.  In 11 of the 16 matches, the cleaner team won.  (We define “win” as a victory without resorting to a shootout.)  One team, Paraguay, committed fewer fouls than its opponent, Japan, and won in the shootout.  Two matches had teams tie on fouls committed.  And two teams played cleaner than their opponent but still lost.


If you define a positive outcome as either a non-shootout win or a tie (to be broken in a shootout), here are the odds that winning a statistic will coincide with a positive outcome.  Based, for the moment, on just the knockout round results.

    16 8 4 4 Total
Shots W 3 1 1 2 7
56% L 4 2 1 0 7
  T 1 1 0 0 2
SOG W 4 2 1 1 8
75% L 1 1 1 0 3
  T   1 0 0 1
  N/A 3   0 1 4
Min/S W 4 1 1 1 7
64% L 3 1 1 0 5
  T 1 1 0 0 2
  N/A   1 0 1 2
Min/SOG W 5 2 2 0 9
69% L 2 1 0 2 5
  T 1 1 0 0 2
FC W 5 3 1 2 11
86% L 1   1 0 2
  T 1       1
  N/A 1 1 0 0 2
APT W 4 2 2 2 10
75% L 3 1 0 0 4
  T 1 1 0 0 2

The table above identifies for each round (Round of 16, Quarters, Semis, Finals) how many matches were won, lost, or tied by the team that won the category on the left (Shots, Shots on Goal, Minutes of Actual Playing Time (Min)/Shot, Min/Shot on Goal, Fouls Committed, and Actual Playing Time.  If both teams tied in a category, that’s represented in the “N/A” row for that stat.


With the exception of goals scored, it makes sense that fouls committed would be a good indicator of who won a match.  But the exact reason isn’t clear.  Perhaps it is because of referee bias against a team — a referee could show favoritism by calling fouls against one side.  Perhaps it is a result of one team needing to foul to “keep up” with their opponent, a sign that their opponent is just outplaying them.  Or maybe desperation/annoyance sets into a team that’s already losing, causing them to foul more often than they would if they were winning.  Or similarly, a team that is winning may be more willing to hold back and play less aggressive defense to avoid jeopardizing their lead.

It also makes sense that shots taken is not a good indicator of a victory.  It’ is inherently less useful than the related statistic, Shots on Goal (which correlated to a 75% chance of a positive outcome).  And it takes no great skill to take a shot, especially one that does not find its way onto goal.

The success (75%) of Actual Playing Time could, like Fouls Committed, be a result of a team that is already winning playing keep away.  Or a sign that teams that can maintain ball possession are more likely to win matches.

Ultimately, this is just a first step.  I’ll add in the rest of the group stage matches and see if the same results hold.  And while Min/S, Min/SOG, and APT are unique to the 2010 World Cup, one could go back many years to identify whether the results identified here hold for Shots, Shots on Goal, and Fouls Committed throughout prior tournaments.  Moreover, this analysis is only considering a victory in a category but not the size of that victory.  Closer examination of the size of the disparity between teams might lead to “better” results for Min/SOG in particular.

If you have any thoughts, let us know.

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