How Twelve’s algorithm understood the World Cup


It has been an amazing World Cup.

And for us at Twelve, it was more than ‘just’ the football. It was a chance for us to test the algorithm we have been developing for the past year.

The World Cup as a test set

Football is a difficult game to quantify. Indeed, many TV pundits and journalists claim that numbers can’t do justice when assessing player performance. While we accept that it isn’t easy, we don’t see why it isn’t possible. We believe that statistics give an extra edge in understanding football and, when used properly, can give just as much insight as a human expert.

The key to achieving insight is using the right numbers. And that is what we aim to do with Twelve. As data scientists would describe it, the World Cup has been a ‘test’ data set for us. We  fitted (or trained) our model on club football and now we have tested how the model fit on data from the World Cup.

It was a tough test, because we did it live via our rankings pages and our match app. The aim was to see how well the model rankings captured the assessments of our users and those  in the media.

Now the tournament is over I’ll explain where we have succeeded and where we have more work to do.

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The Golden Ball winner is decided… (or is it?)

It has been a funny World Cup for the superstars. Messi performed well and scored a beautiful goal against Nigeria, but Argentina were already on the ropes at the group stages and were dealt a knockout blow by France. Ronaldo had his hat trick against Spain, but went the same way as Messi in the last 16. Neymar made it to the quarter finals, and despite the fact he dominated that match, he will be remembered mostly at this tournament for the 14 minutes of playing time he spent rolling around the ground. These three can count themselves lucky. Despite amazing performances, Toni Kroos didn’t even make it past the group stages with Germany.

So who is the real star of this World Cup? The Twelve Bot has a very clear answer: Luka Modric.

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Sweden 1-0 Switzerland: the Swedes can deliver more goals

The pattern is familiar throughout football. A player shoots over and the crowd sighs, the people watching at home swear and the TV commentators say that “at this level” the finishing has to be better.

This was the picture for Sweden in the first half against Switzerland, as it had been in their first half against South Korea and Mexico. Sweden had created chances but they hadn’t been converted. The worst culprits, singled out by the pundits at halftime, were Emil Forsberg and Marcus Berg. Why do they keep missing or having their “weak” attempts saved? And quite soon the talk turns to a certain rather tall gentleman who now plays his club football in Los Angeles. The cry is the same as it has been since 2002: “in with Zlatan”!

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Sweden 1 – 0 South Korea: Granqvist leads with passion and numbers

Sometimes a contrast is drawn in football between passion and statistics. We are told we can’t capture the commitment of players by numbers alone.

When we see a player like Andreas Granqvist run out to represent his nation, this narrative is easy to understand. The Swedish captain made his presence felt from the start, pushing his team forward after a nervous first 15 minutes.

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