Quantifying the Strengths of UEFA National Teams

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the strength of uefa national teams
Longford , Ireland - 10 May 2019; A UEFA flag at the 2019 UEFA European Under-17 Championships Group C match between Portugal and Iceland at City Calling Stadium in Longford. (Photo By Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

UEFA is the strongest football confederation, in both quality and quantity. Everyone has their own opinion of what team is the best. However, this article seeks to eliminate “opinion” from the equation by looking at it through a lens of stats, analytics and quantifiable data. At the time of writing, ‘expected goals’ are widely regarded as the most accurate metric to determine a teams’ ‘true’ strength. A better metric than the notoriously inaccurate FIFA World Rankings. Quantifying the Strength of UEFA National Teams will be done using expected goals (xG). Specifically, xG in 2019 European Qualifiers. A solid metric that will also be critically analysed in this article.

Analysing the Strengths of UEFA National Teams

An Introduction to ‘Expected Goals’

Through the words of Opta: “Expected goals (xG) measures the quality of a shot based on several variables such as assist type, shot angle and distance from goal, whether it was a headed shot and whether it was defined as a big chance. Adding up a player or team’s expected goals can give an indication of how many goals a player or team should have scored on average, given the shots they have taken”.

You know that time your team dominated the entire game without scoring, only to lose to a last-second goal? Your team may have been better, but they still lost. In a scenario like the one just described, the xG of the losing team would be significantly higher than the team who won. Expected goals give you an idea of which team ‘deserved’ to win, even if scoring goals is the only thing that counts in the end. 

The Flaws of ‘Expected Goals’

xG does not reflect the state of a match. Meaning if a team obtains an early lead they could choose to play more defensively. Which could result in the opposing team creating many low xG chances that give them a higher xG despite them being the weaker team. The Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham is a prime example of this. Because the Reds scored early, they opted to focus more on counter-attacks and defence. If the match remained 0-0 for longer, Liverpool would’ve played more offensively. xG does not consider this. Tottenham’s xG was higher, but most people would agree Liverpool were the better team. 

xG does not account for a defender’s position when a shot is taken. A shot from a certain area has the same xG regardless if zero or five players stand between the ball and the goal.

xG by Nation in 2019 European Qualifiers

Quantifying the strength of UEFA national teams requires numbers. This chart displays every nation that participated in qualification for the 2020 UEFA European Championship. “xG for” is the number of goals a team scored per game on average. “xG against” is the number of goals a team conceded per game on average. “xG difference” is “xG for” subtracted by “xG against”. Oddities on the chart will be analysed further down. Not all, but the most interesting ones. All this information is gathered from wyscout.com.

Bold = Qualified for UEFA EURO “2020”

Italics = Qualified for play-offs

Pos Team xG for xG against xG difference
1 Russia 3.29 0.63 2.66
2 Belgium 3.01 0.61 2.4
3 England 3.18 0.79 2.39
4 Spain 2.88 0.84 2.04
5 Switzerland 2.67 0.67 2
6 Italy 2.75 0.82 1.93
7 Portugal 2.63 0.85 1.78
8 France 2.35 0.6 1.75
9 Denmark 2.16 0.57 1.59
10 Austria 2.23 0.82 1.41
11 Germany 2.64 1.28 1.36
12 Croatia 1.99 0.79 1.2
13 Sweden 2.10 1.06 1.04
14 Netherlands 1.88 0.96 0.92
15 Bosnia and Herzegovina 2.19 1.3 0.89
16 Greece 1.92 1.09 0.83
17 Turkey 1.59 0.79 0.8
18 Czech Republic 1.7 0.92 0.78
19 Iceland 1.7 0.94 0.76

20 Poland 1.49 0.76 0.73
21 Slovenia 1.5 0.86 0.64
22 Wales 1.28 0.84 0.44
23 Serbia 2.04 1.68 0.36
24 Scotland 1.67 1.33 0.34
25 Finland 1.81 1.48 0.33
26 Albania 1.42 1.11 0.31
27 Norway 1.89 1.63 0.26
28 Romania 1.54 1.29 0.25
29 Republic of Ireland 0.99 0.84 0.15
30 Ukraine 1.36 1.31 0.05
31 Northern Ireland 1.28 1.43 -0.15
32 Hungary 1.15 2.36 -0.2
33 Israel 1.23 1.45 -0.22
34 Kosovo 1.33 1.7 -0.37
35 Luxembourg 1.27 1.65 -0.38
36 Belarus 1.38 1.8 -0.42
37 Cyprus 1.48 1.91 -0.43
38 North Macedonia 1.17 1.63 -0.46
39 Slovakia 0.95 1.43 -0.48

40 Kazakhstan 1.03 1.6 -0.57
41 Georgia 0.94 1.8 -0.86
42 Azerbaijan 0.72 1.68 -0.96
43 Armenia 1.28 2.41 -1.13
44 Faroe Islands 0.68 1.88 -1.2
45 Montenegro 0.81 2.19 -1.38
46 Bulgaria 0.74 2.16 -1.42
47 Moldova 0.56 2.14 -1.58
48 Estonia 0.8 2.51 -1.71
49 Lithuania 0.72 2.52 -1.8
50 Andorra 0.31 2.35 -2.04
51 Latvia 0.53 2.65 -2.12
52 Malta 0.47 2.87 -2.4
53 Liechtenstein 0.42 3.26 -2.84
54 Gibraltar 0.41 3.27 -2.86
55 San Marino 0.22 4.62 -4.4

 

Making Sense of the Rankings

Russia Arguably Overrated, But Great Nonetheless

Russia might seem severely overrated at first glance. One might be quick to assume the only reason they performed so well was that their qualification group was easy. But you must keep in mind they were in the same group as Belgium, so it was not an accident that Russia are ranked so highly, even though it’s unlikely they are the best team in Europe like their xG difference suggests.

Switzerland and Denmark Are Good

Switzerland might also seem to be ranked too highly. Denmark and the Republic of Ireland, also in their group, are good teams, though. Also, let’s not forget Switzerland came fourth in the 2019 UEFA Nations League. Denmark appears overrated at first. Until you realise they have not lost a game in 90 minutes since October 2016. This is, of course, no accident. Denmark are really good.

Rising Austria, Declining Poland

Surprisingly, Austria are ranked ten positions higher than Poland according to their xG difference, considering Poland finished ahead of them with six more points in their qualification group. This could be an indication that Poland has got luckier in their matches. Austria should expect an upward trend whereas the opposite is true for Poland.

Germany and the Netherlands Too Good for Each Other

Seeing Germany and the Netherlands ranked so low perhaps completely kills any credibility xG had. Except it doesn’t. Die Mannschaft and Oranje were in the same qualification group. Their xG’s are high (Germany’s being notably higher, though) which will hurt their conceded xG, slightly skewing their xG difference as a result. But the Netherlands, with an xG lower than Bosnia and Herzegovina and Greece, have reasons to be concerned. Developing their offence should be a top priority.

Bosnia and Herzegovina Extremely Unpredictable

Bosnia and Herzegovina do not seem to belong that high on the rankings. They finished fourth in their qualification group, behind Italy, Finland, and Greece. Perhaps an indication they were unlucky in European Qualifiers. It’s also worth pointing out they significantly over-performed their xG in the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League, yet now they significantly under-performed it. The same is true for Greece, even though they didn’t over-perform their xG a lot in the Nations League.

Lucky Ukraine and a Serbia That Needs Defensive Improvement

Serbia’s xG is extremely high, but their conceded xG is poor. If Serbia improve their defence, they could become serious contenders. Seeing Ukraine ranked as low as 30th is truly shocking. They won their qualification group, going undefeated and defeating Portugal in the process. But if you wanna trust their xG, they have performed better than they ‘should’ have. Expect them to decline.

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