Tim Howard’s odd odyssey against Ghana

The United States match against Ghana felt odd, didn’t it? After years of focus on ball possession the United States could barely string together consecutive passes. After all the worrying about the inexperienced defense, the backline held like a tight string and almost pulled off perfection against an onslaught of attack. But the combination of those two circumstances, coupled with a remarkable early goal by Dempsey led to a very odd night for Tim Howard.

Howard actually led the USMNT in touches in the match with 61. A goalkeeper. With touches. So far, the 61 touches leads the World Cup for a goalkeeper. The average has been 32. The second highest was Bravo’s 58 touches during Chile’s 2-0 smashing of Spain. The games were similar in that both Chile and the United States scored first against a team that would ultimately dominate possession. That can and did lead to an odd night for our goalkeeper.

In the Ghana match, Beasley was second to Howard with 60. The 102% ratio of goalkeeper touches to highest player touches is also the highest of the World Cup. But that got me thinking. What is a typical ratio?

I looked at all 20 games of the World Cup played through June 18th. The average ratio was 45% goalkeeper touches to highest player touches. The standard deviation so far is 20%. That puts Tim Howard’s number at 2.8 standard deviations from the mean. Assuming a normal distribution, that implies the goalkeeper should have the most touches on a team just once in 400 games. That’s less often than once per MLS season. So it’s not unheard of, but it’s pretty irregular, and it definitely highlights some of the oddities of the United States win over Ghana; an early goal and a team that fails to keep possession, resulting in a backline and goalkeeper that were very busy.

Taking the touches analysis a bit further, I looked at the influence of certain positions having the most touches. I split the outcomes into games where Goalkeepers or Defenders had the most touches and where Midfielders or Forwards had the most touches. Some interesting things pop out even though the sample size is small.

Leader in Touches Team-Games Goals For Goals Against
GK or D 19 1.37 1.84
Mid or FW 21 1.62 1.19

There is a pretty clear advantage so far when a midfielder or forward leads the team in touches. Certainly there is a cause and effect issue at play here. Is this the result of one team’s dominance over the other, or is it really more important to have the ball at the feet of the attacking players more often?

Of the 20 World Cup matchups thus far, eight of them included one team being led in touches by a defender while the other team was led in touches by a midfielder or forward. In those games, the team which was led in touches by a midfielder or forward produced a record of 5-2-1 (W-D-L).

Again, it’s too early to read too much into this data,  but it will be interesting to follow through the tournament. The data does open up thoughts of tracking where touches are occurring on the pitch and how that might help describe outcomes or predict them.

No matter what, Tim Howard was more involved than any player for the United States on Monday night. Neither he nor the American fans felt comfortable throughout the match, and the touches data justifies that sentiment.

USA versus Ghana: Gamestates Analysis

In analyzing MLS shot data, I have learned that—with small sample sizes—how a team plays when the game is tied is a strong indication of how well it will do in future games. The US Mens National Team spent just four-and-a-half minutes tied Monday evening, the epitome of small sample sizes. In case you were curious, the US generated two shots during that time worth about 0.13 goals. Ghana did not generate a shot over those 4.5 minutes.

The next most-important gamestate for a team is being ahead. With at least 17 games of data in MLS, knowing how well a team did when it was leading becomes an important piece of information for predicting that team’s future success. Almost 95 minutes were spent with the US in the lead, a time in which the USMNT took six shots worth 0.5 goals to Ghana’s 21 shots worth 1.7 goals.

Though MLS is definitely far below the level of even a USA-versus-Ghana match, I think a lot of the statistics from our MLS database still apply. I wrote a few weeks back about how away teams that were satisfied with the current gamestate went overboard with their conservative play. I think that could apply to the World Cup, as well. By most statistical accounts, USA versus Ghana was a fairly even matchup going in, yet the US played an annoying conservative style after going up a goal early. It gave up a majority of possession to Ghana in the attacking third, completing just 81 passes to Ghana’s 171 in that zone—not to mention the US being tripled up in Expected Goals when it was ahead.

Granted, Expected Goals likely overestimates the losing team’s chances of scoring. But not by much. In even gamestates in MLS, we see that teams are expected to score 1.29 goals per game, and they actually score 1.30 goals per game. Virtually no difference. However, when teams are ahead they are expected to score 1.79 goals per game, yet they only score about 1.60—an 11-percent drop. This discrepancy is likely due in large part to defenses being more packed in and capable of blocking shots. Indeed, teams that are losing have their shots blocked 27 percent of the time, while teams that are winning only have their shots blocked 22 percent of the time.

All that was simply to say that Ghana’s 1.7 Expected Goals are still representative of a team that was in control—too much control for my comfort level. Even if we assume it was really about 1.5 Expected Goals against a defensive-minded American side, that still triples the USA’s shot potential. Either the US strategy was overly conservative, or Ghana is really that much better. I’d like to believe in the former, but it’s picking between the lesser of two evils.

It just doesn’t make sense to me to play conservatively to maintain the status quo. It invariably leads to massive discrepancies in Expected Goals, and too often allows the opposition an easier way to come back.