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.