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Final update on the Women’s World Cup: is football coming home again?

The Women’s World Cup kicked off on 20 July with 32 teams vying to lift the trophy. It is now down to the final two – England and Spain – who will play for the title on Sunday. The Lionesses are the slight favourites, but the final is expected to be close.

On Sunday morning, England will play Spain in the World Cup Final. Since the outset of the tournament, England – the 2022 European Champions – have had a chance, although not a great one, of making it this far.

In mid-July, before the group stages, we said that the Lionesses’ chances of reaching the final were 23%. We gave their opponents, Spain, just a 10% chance of making to the final two.

At that point, the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) was the clear favourite. We predicted that they had a 56% chance of making the final and 39% of winning the tournament. Many others agreed that they were the favourites. After all, the USA had won the previous two World Cups and have won four of the eight previous World Cup titles. With their star players, they have dominated the women’s game up to now.

And, indeed, they dominated matches during this World Cup. The USWNT had 52% of possession, on average, in their matches, and 6.5 more shots on target (and 15 more overall) than their opponents. Yet they won just one match, drawing their other three and losing to Sweden by the finest of margins in a penalty shoot-out.

Football is a low-scoring sport, which is arguably a large part of its allure. But this means that a team can dominate a match and still lose. Over the years, the USWNT has enjoyed supremacy in a sport where there were more goals than might ordinarily be expected (at least, if one’s expectations are formed by viewing the men’s game).

The women’s game, though, has converged towards the men’s, and arguably at an increasing rate in recent years. A fairly sound metric to capture the competitive intensity of football matches is the mean goal difference. This tells us, on average, how close the teams were.

In the men’s game, this mean was above two until the early 20th twentieth century before falling to around 1.4 since the Second World War. In the first five Women’s World Cups from 1991 to 2007, the mean goal difference was above two goals (2.8, 2.3, 2.5, 2.4 and 2.3).

The final World Cup prior to an expansion to 24 teams in 2011 had a mean goal difference of 1.5. The figures for the competitions in 2015 and 2019 were 1.7 and 1.9 respectively. The 62 matches so far in 2023, after an expansion to 32 teams, have yielded a mean goal difference of 1.8. In the knock-out stages, this has been just 1.5 on average.

Expansions mean that weaker teams will enter competitions – but also that they gain the opportunity to develop, increasing the depth of competition in the sport. A metric of this greater competitive depth is that across the 371 international women’s matches in 2023 so far, the mean goal difference has been 1.9, hence little different to that in the World Cup, and below two for the first time.

The women’s game internationally is much more competitive now than it has been at any point in its history. This has been exemplified, arguably, by England’s route to the final of the World Cup – along which they have beaten teams from every continent.

From an opening, narrow (one-goal) win over Haiti, they were matched and arguably outplayed by Nigeria in a drawn match in the last 16. Another narrow win in the quarter-finals over Colombia (with a one-goal margin) was followed by a two-goal win in the semi-finals over Australia. Their only big win came against China with a final score of 6-1.

Such tight games mean that the best teams can go out by the finest of margins. The USA will remain ranked first. Their aura of invincibility has undoubtedly been shed, but equally the strength of the women’s game around the world has been emphatically displayed this last month.

What about the remaining matches?

On Saturday, Sweden are the favourites over Australia in the third place play-off. Sweden have a 70% probability of winning with 1.6 expected goals, compared with 0.7 expected goals for Australia.

The final, on Sunday, looks set to be incredibly tight. There is little to separate the sides. Spain’s tougher run to the final (beating the Netherlands and Sweden) means that their Elo rating (1255) has crept closer to England’s (1295).

England have a slight advantage and a 47% chance of winning to Spain’s 37%. That leaves a 16% chance that, like in the men’s World Cup last year, it will come down to penalties to separate the sides.

England’s expected goals are 1.2, compared with Spain’s one. It seems unlikely then that there will be a goal feast like the men’s final provided last year, but that does not mean that the game will be any less tense or exciting as these two highly evenly matched teams line up against each other.

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Author: James Reade
Photo by Dziurek for iStock.
Editor's note: This is an update of a piece published on 14 August and available here.
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