How lucky were Poland in 1973?

On Tuesday evening, Poland host England for the sixth time in World Cup qualification, and the eighth time in qualification for either the World Cup or European Championship. The England team have won three of the last four qualification matches in Poland, drawing the other. Their only defeat in their 17 internationals against Poland came in the very first qualification match between the two, just over 39 years ago in June 1973. It is that 1973 World Cup qualifying campaign which I would like to discuss here.

As I discussed in my previous article, England and Poland both had enormously bad luck in being drawn together in qualification for the 1974 World Cup. The only teams ranked higher than them by the ELO ratings were World Cup holders Brazil and 1972 European Champions West Germany. As neither of those two had to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, this meant that the two strongest European teams, England and Poland, ended up in the same group along with Wales.

The first match between the two took place in Chorzow and is notable for a dreadful mistake by captain Bobby Moore which led to the second goal. Moore was 32 years old by then and it was not unusual for him to make errors of this magnitude. He is also the player diverting the free kick past Peter Shilton for Poland’s first goal of the match. Alan Ball became the second England player ever to be sent off in an international and the first in a World Cup qualifier. Steven Gerrard’s sending off against Ukraine last month was only England’s fourth red card in qualification for the World Cup.

The infamous match between England and Poland though is the 1-1 draw at Wembley four months after Poland’s sole victory against the English. I wanted to analyse just how lucky Poland were in this match so I asked fellow member of the Soccer Analysts group Mark Taylor from the excellent blog The Power of Goals to help me. Mark has developed a shot outcome model from Premier League data and he has applied it to the chances we can find from that qualification match.

According to reports which can be found on the internet, England had 35 shots that night to Poland’s two. This suggests that England were well on top and should have won the match easily. However, those raw numbers say nothing about where those shots were from and what the chance was of them being on target, blocked or scored. This is where Mark’s model comes in.

Mark has only been able to find 22 of those 35 England shots but he did find both of Poland’s opportunities. His results are shown below:

In order to account for the 13 missing shots, I have arbitrarily chosen to give them each a 0.1 probability of being scored bringing England’s expected number of goals from their 35 shots up to 4.47. Let’s be conservative though and assume that this equates to four expected goals. Poland’s expected goals from their shots come to 0.19. So, a scoreline of 4-0 to England in 1973 would have been a fair reflection of the play. As Mark has pointed out to me, the fact that Poland opened the scoring was crucial. If England had scored first, they probably would have won comfortably, particularly considering that Poland’s goal was from a breakaway with England desperately attacking.

As I discussed in my two previous posts, the way that qualification groups were decided in the 1970s increased the chances of luck in a single match in deciding who qualified. Due to improvements in these methods, this is far less likely to happen now. England have met Poland on many occasions since but they have never been so closely ranked as they were in 1973. Poland went on to finish third at the 1974 World Cup and their performance there has largely been forgotten due to the “total voetbal” of Johan Cruijff’s spectacular Dutch team. England have met Poland many times since but have never had the same problems in qualification, largely due to there always being at least 10 places between them in the world ranking. In fact, this has even grown over recent years which perhaps explains that England’s record against Poland since 1996 is five wins and a draw. England are currently ranked fifth in both the FIFA rankings and the ELO ratings whilst Poland are 40th with the ELO and 54th with FIFA, making the gap between them larger than ever.

The hype generated by matches between the two countries is unlikely to let up though, not least when the two countries meet next year. It will be the final qualification match for both in Group H, two days short of the 40th anniversary of that terrible night at Wembley for England and Sir Alf Ramsey.

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12 Responses to How lucky were Poland in 1973?

  1. Maniek says:

    Ranking is only a ranking. First of all England shouldn’t be so high in FIFA rank. Come ooon. Now you have the weakest team in last 20 years! In 90’s you’ve had Gazza, Ince, Shearer, Scholes, Sheringham, Cole, McManaman and many, many other great players. Now you have a few not bad players (mostly old ones like Gerrard or Lampard) and in my opinion only 2 real word class players: Rooney and Hart.

    Second of all we have now great trio Piszczek – Blaszczykowski – Lewandowski. You could see them playing in CL match City – BVB. Blaszczykowski is our captain and because of injury he won’t be able to play against England. For our team it’s a great loss. Maybe that names aren’t familiar to you but I can assure you that they are very good players. We didn’t have such a good players in last 20-25 years!

    And in the end i must admit that of course England is the favorite. But i think that there is a big chance that you’ll be disappointed by final result tommorrow 🙂

    • There is plenty of criticism of the FIFA ranking but I never see alternative suggestions. The fact is that another (very respected) ranking, the ELO ratings, also has England at number five. I think we can assume that these are a reasonably accurate assessment, not least because studies have shown these rankings to have good predictive abilities.

      I am very happy if England have two world class players at the moment, particularly if one is a goalkeeper. England is certainly the favourite but anything can happen in football as 1973 illustrates. A Poland victory would certainly be in the top five surprise results of qualification so far. I will write a short article saying what those five are actually.

      Anyway, good luck tomorrow and thanks for taking the time to read.

      • Maniek says:

        You’re saying: “not least because studies have shown these rankings to have good predictive abilities.”

        But I can’t understand why a team which didn’t play even in quarter-finals in last 10 years is in top 5 of FIFA ranking? Not to mention semi-finals.
        Besides for the FIFA ranking the only think which counts is the result. Ranking doesn’t watch matches. For instance at the last tournament you achived good result with France when you had only one shot on target. It certainly was not a good match in the execution of England. The same with Ukraine – good result, poor performance. Not to mention match with Italy where “a fair result” would be 2:0 or 3:0 for the Italians. But 1:1, 1:0, 0:0 looks not to bad for FIFA ranking.

        Keep in mind that Poland didn’t play in Euro qualifications what always have bad influence for teams position in the ranking. By 2 years we were playing only friendly games.

        England is for sure better team than Poland, they have better players and better position in rankings. And as it was said England is the favorite. But take a look at not distant history of Polish qualification. We managed to beat teams from top 10 of FIFA ranking in last few years. Specifically: Portugal in 2007 (they had 9th place in the ranking and they were 4th team on the globe at the time), Czech Republic in 2008 ( 8th place ). And in my opinion it can happen again, cos England is in difficult moment, has many injuries, we are playing home and there is a good spirit in our team.

        Anyway I will look into your blog tommorow and I’ll comment the match 🙂 Let the better win! 🙂

      • Quite simply, rankings take account of all matches and not only major competitions – although these weigh more heavily in the calculations. England have been generally strong in terms of results but fail to win (although do often draw) in major competitions. There is a certain amount of luck required to reach the latter stages of a competition for all but the strongest teams. This is why there is little stability in general in the teams that get there except those that are the absolute top.

        I think the tactics of England against France were spot on but it is true that doing that is unsustainable. At the Euros, England did not lose and whilst they had some luck against Italy, another analysis by Mark at Power of Goals gave the expected score of that match as 2-1 to Italy. This is simply because many of Italy’s shots were speculative from distance which have a low probability of being scored. England in contrast had one of the best chances of the match in the first half. That was a quarter-final by the way.

        I accept that Poland could be underrated given the lack of qualification matches and Poland away is certainly tough. As I said before, I would be happy with a draw. Anyone can beat anyone in football. This has been shown time and time again. Enjoy the match.

  2. Marcin says:

    How lucky Chelsea London was in CL semi finals in 2012 :)? Think about it. How many goals for Barcelona would be “a fair reflection of the play”? What a stupid calculator!

    • I’m not entirely sure of your point here. Of course Chelsea were lucky against Barcelona – I have a post lined up on Chelsea in the Champions League actually. They were also lucky in the final. The calculator I have used, while not perfect, helps to quantify this. A lot of this blog is about luck. Come back for more if you are interested in this phenomenon.

      Oh, and good luck tomorrow of course.

  3. Maniek says:

    Well it was… shocking game 🙂 ha ha! 🙂

  4. Maniek says:

    Pitch will be for sure in bad condition. It’s bad since a 1st match on this beautiful stadium. All teams who had played at National Stadium were complaining about it. During Euro tournament Polish federation could blame UEFA who was the pitch supervisor. Since then grass was changed 4 times and it’s still bad. Specialists are saying that it’s because of high stands, a large roof over the stands, lack of sun and air for grass. But Polish fans aren’t buying this explenation. The stadium cost 500 milion euro so they shoul find the solution that would allow teams to play under the right conditions. There is plenty bigger stadiums in Europ which cost less and have no such a problems.

    About yesterday – scandal and shame. Polish officials say that it’s FIFA’s fault, that roof couldn’t be closed without permission from the delegate. But who cares? The picture ran around the world, now we are a laughing stock, we built stadium for 500 milions euro with a roof and we postpone match because of the rain. How stupid it sounds!

    Match at 17PM won’t have this great atmosphere, stands won’t be full. And whoever loses will refer to yesterday’s events.

    • Sounds similar to the Ajax Arena in Amsterdam where the grass doesn’t grow properly and the pitch has to be replaced regularly during the season. However the Arena was built some time ago so the lessons should have been learned.

      As for the roof situation, I’m afraid you are right. A roof that can’t be closed if it is raining is obviously a problem. Someone also said that they had expected heavy rain but not a downpour. What???

  5. Aristotle says:

    A really insightful article. I did not know that England and Poland were the best two FIFA ranked teams behind Germany at the time. People may complain about the rankings, but they provide an a rough guide. Perhaps, the best team in Europe at the time was Holland. The fact that Poland came third in 1974 and could have possibly reached the final (they went down 1-0 to W. Germany on a rain-drenched pitch) is surely evidence this ranking was quite accurate.

    That England should have one that night is beyond reasonable doubt. The fact they went out to a really good Polish side was no disgrace. The England team of the 1970s which is vilified because they failed to quality for two World Cups was, in my view, a far better side relative to the best of the world at that time (Holland, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Italy) than the England side of today.

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