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Thursday, April 29, 2010
Difficult to win on defense alone

By Paul Carr
ESPN Stats & Information

As the World Cup approaches, rosters are coming into focus, and fans continue their efforts to determine which players can provide goals and which players can prevent them.

How much of each element does a championship team need? To nobody's surprise, a look at past winners reveals what is expected of top teams: A champion needs a certain competency in both aspects of the game in order to win the World Cup.

On the offensive front, the ability to average two goals a game is vital. Thirteen of 15 winners have done so, and every eventual champion has scored at least 1.6 goals per game at the tournament, with the low mark set by Brazil in 1994. The last six winners have all posted at least two multigoal games in the group stage, with five of those teams scoring three goals at least once.

In the knockout round, a team simply must be able to score multiple goals. Since the round of 16 began in 1986, four of the six most recent champions had at least two multigoal games in the knockout stage, and all six had at least one. No surprise here. A team isn't winning much without scoring goals.

Taking these numbers and comparing them to qualifying statistics, we can see which countries need to step up their games. Six countries failed to score 1.6 goals per game in qualifying: North Korea, Argentina, Algeria, Paraguay, Australia and Uruguay. The marquee name on that list is obviously Argentina, which scored multiple goals only once in its last seven qualifiers. Portugal is another favorite that surprisingly struggled in qualifying, scoring only 1.6 goals per game and netting three goals only twice, with two of those games coming against Malta.

Defense provides another benchmark for prospective champions. Fourteen of the 18 winners have allowed less than one goal per game, and only one has let in more than 1.3 goals per contest. That notable outlier was 1954 West Germany, which allowed an astonishing 2.5 goals per game at the highest-scoring World Cup ever. Scoring over four goals per game helped West Germany to its first title. Not coincidentally, this was the only World Cup that used the quirky group stage format in which the two seeded teams in each group played only the two non-seeded teams.

Again looking back to 2010 qualifying, every country proved itself defensively during the campaign. No country allowed more than Chile's 1.2 goals per game, and only two other countries gave up more than a goal per match. Notably, that pair was Argentina and Uruguay, both of which perilously find themselves on the wrong end of both lists.

When the knockout stage begins and elimination looms, a solid defense is even more valuable. Since the round of 16 began in 1986, every champion has posted at least two shutouts in its four knockout-stage matches, and the last winner with fewer than two total shutouts was 1970 Brazil.

Historically, the ability to score may be more correlative to a World Cup title, but only marginally. Seventeen of the 18 champions have ranked among the tournament's top 5 in goals per game, with 1994 Brazil the exception at ninth. Only 14 of 18 winners have finished in the top 5 in goals allowed per game. But the worst of these, 1954 West Germany, still ranked eighth in the tournament.

The bottom line is that diversity is necessary to win a World Cup. Switzerland didn't allow a goal in 2006 but still went home after the round of 16. Conversely, Spain has been among the top 3 scoring teams in the group stage of three consecutive World Cups but has only one quarterfinal appearance to show for its pile of goals.

Renowned for its organization, reigning champion Italy executed a championship blueprint in 2006, stringing together four straight shutouts. The Azzurri also ripped off three goals against Ukraine in the quarterfinals, then added two more against Germany in the semis. To win the 2010 World Cup, a country will once again likely need a complete team, capable of both a strong offensive performance and a stalwart defensive effort when the games matter most.

Paul Carr is a researcher for the ESPN Stats & Information group.