Where did all the goals go? The 2014 World Cup set off to a flying start, but the knockout phase has been a relative drought, with just half the normal-time goals per game of the group stage.
The world cup flew out of the blocks, with 14 goals in the first 3 games. While this rate was unlikely to last, the group stage still bagged a very respective 2.83 goals per game – the highest average seen in the group stage since 1958. But then this seemed to flip on its head in the knockout phase.
The 12 knockout games so far (the last 16 + quarter finals) have provided great entertainment, but weigh-in at a measly 1.33 goals per game, in normal time. Less than half the goal scoring rate of the group stage. As a result, half of the all the knockout games (6/12) have been forced into extra-time.
Is this normal?
My first thought was whether a reduction in goals per game through the tournament was just normal. Plausible reasons seemed to include – more evenly matched teams, tactical response to the games being knockout and various consequences of more increasing pressure in the later stages.
The historic averages below are based on The Ecomomist’s great all-time World Cup goal-time interactive. Data goes back as far as 1986, such that all competitions have a single group stage and either 52 or 64 competing teams. Quarter finals have not been included, as 4 games seems too few to form a very meaningful average for comparison, in this case.
Looking back to 1986 the camp is divided, with 4 tournaments having an increased last 16 average – 4 decreased. So, no clear answer on whether ‘fewer goals per game in the last 16 is normal’ based on this set, but enough to show that 2014 is definitely extreme. This year’s tournament switches from the highest goals per game in the group stage, to the lowest normal-time goals in last 16 phase.
2014 Last 16 goals – more in added and extra time, than in the first 90 mins
The pie chart below shows the split of goal-times in this years knockout phase to date (12 games of last 16 and quarter finals). To seemingly emphasise the normal-time relative drought, there have been more knockout phase goals scored in added time and extra time than in first 90 mins of normal time – 11 vs 8. Later goals may be more common, but such a high ratio is surely extreme – more analysis is required to be sure.
Why is 2014 so extreme?
More analysis is required to answer this one. One extreme factor for 2014 is the tough ambient conditions. Is it plausible that teams astutely eyed an opportunity to overhaul technically superior teams on fitness grounds, if tactically, games could be extended into extra-time? It would be interesting to compare 2014 playing conditions at the other low goal average tournaments (1990, 2002, 2006) to see if this stacks.
Despite such few normal-time goals, the knockout phase has produced some awesome entertainment. Much like the old ‘overtaking in Formula One’ debate, perhaps showing that you don’t need goals for a good game – particularly with penalties lurking at the end! It will be interesting to see if the final 4 games continue in the same vain.