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Group E in EURO 2016 is the worst one

Sebastian Wolsing
November 21, 2015

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Introduction

As we know, the qualification stage for the European football cup in 2016
is over and the teams are waiting for the upcoming draw for the group
stage. The tournament is played in France, and starts on the 10/6-2016. If
you are new to the concept of football tournaments, the things you need to
know are basically that teams qualify and get seeded into different seeding pots as seen in Table 1. The better teams are seeded into pots with low
numbers, and the teams with a lower seed are put into a higher-number
pot.
Each group (A-F) will consists of one country from each seeding pot, to
make the tournament more fair.

Pot 1
Pot 2
Pot 3
Pot 4
Spain
Italy
Czech Republic Turkey
England Russia
Sweden
Republic of Ireland
Germany Switzerland Poland
Iceland
Portugal Austria
Romania
Wales
Belgium Croatia
Slovakia
Albania
France*
Ukraine
Hungary
Northern Ireland
* since France is the host, they are already put into Group A.
Table 1: Seeding pots for EURO 2016

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The group E effect

When making the draw, most of us can make the assumption that it doesn’t
matter which group we end up in, it only matters what teams we face in
the group stage. But in this particular Euro cup, this is not the case.
If we take a look at the playoff-structure from when the group stage is
finished, the match-ups for the round of 16 looks like this:
(1A means the winner in group A, and 2F means the runner-up in group
F for example)
Match 1 2A vs. 2C
Match 2 1D vs. 3B/E/F*
Match 3 1B vs. 3A/C/D*
Match 4 1F vs. 2E
Match 5 1C vs. 3A/B/F*
Match 6 1E vs. 2D
Match 7 1A vs. 3C/D/E*
Match 8 2B vs. 2F
* decided by another table, see UEFAregulations (article 17.03, p.16)
Table 2: Structure of the round of 16
We can see in Table 2 that since we have six groups, with one winner and
one runner-up in each group, we only get 12 teams advancing to the playoffs. These 12 teams together with the four best third-placed teams form
the 16 participating in the playoffs. This means that the mathematical symmetry in the normal eight-group system they use in the FIFA world cups
can now not be used anymore.
From Table 2 we can conclude a few things:
1. The winners of group A, B, C and D get to face third-placed teams,
when the winners of group E and F move on to face runner-ups (A
clear disadvantage)
2. The runner-ups of group A, B, C and F get to face other runner-ups,
when the runner-ups of group D and E move on to face winners (A
clear disadvantage).
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3. Group A, B, and C gets the advantages of both.
4. Group D and F gets advantages of one, and disadvantages of the
other.
5. Group E gets the disadvantages of both.
This would in theory mean that teams that move into the playoffs from
group E already has a lower probability of reaching the quarterfinals just
by getting drawn into group E. For group D and F this means that they
will have a higher probability than the teams from group E, but a lower
probability than the ones from group A, B or C.
This can also be seen in Table 3, which illustrates what opponents the
different teams get in the first round of the playoffs.
Winners = 1
Runner-up = 2
Third-placed = 3
Group
Winner
Runner-up
Sum*

A
B C D
Third placed (3) 3 3 3
Runner-up (2)
2 2 First placed (1)
3+2=5
5 5 4
* lower value indicates higher difficulty

E
2
1
3

F
2
2
4

Table 3: Difficulty of round of 16
We see in Table 3 that teams from group E are at a bigger disadvantage
when it comes to moving through the round of 16.
If we look at the quarterfinal structure in Table 4 we notice one thing. The
winner of match 1 (from the first match in the Round of 16) and the winner of match 8 (last match in the same round) will be runner-ups from the
group stage, so the winners of match 2 and match 7 will automatically face
a runner-up in the quarterfinals.

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Match 9
Match 10
Match 11
Match 12

Winner of Match 1
Winner of Match 3
Winner of Match 5
Winner of Match 7

vs.
vs.
vs.
vs.

Winner of Match 2
Winner of Match 4
Winner of Match 6
Winner of Match 8

Table 4: Structure of the quarterfinals

If we look at what groups they come from, it could be one of the following:
1. Winner of groups A or D
2. Third placed team from group B/E/F*
3. Third placed teams from group C/D/E*
(*less likely since they face a winner in the round of 16.)
What we expect to see here is that the groups A and D will be at an
advantage in the quarterfinals, since the winners of group A and D will be
the only ones who can never face another group winner until the semifinals.

2.1

Summarizing

Summarizing, in theory one can expect the probability of becoming the
winners to be higher for a team from group A than a team from any other
group.
Table 5 describes the hardest way for each advancing team (assuming
the best ranked team always win). For example, in order for the winner of
group A to win the tournament, their hardest road to become champions
are one third-placed team (3), one runner-up (2) and one winner (1) →
3+2+1 = 6 in total. The higher this value is, the easier it is for the team (in
theory) to win the championship.

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Group
Winner
Runner-up
Sum*

A
B
C
D
E
3+2+1 3+1+1 3+1+1 3+2+1 2+1+1
2+1+1 2+1+1 2+1+1 1+1+1 1+1+1
10
9
9
9
7
* lower value indicates higher difficulty

F
2+1+1
2+1+1
8

Table 5: Difficulty of playoffs

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Simulations

Of course, simulations were made to illustrate this issue more. The following histograms show 100.000 iterations of EURO 2016 simulations and
the corresponding winners. The simulations are weighted so that the best
team gets a high probability of winning against the worst team.
We can clearly see that group E and F are at a big disadvantage compared
to the other ones.

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Figure 1: Simulations of 800.000 quarter-finalists (8 teams per simulation)
We can see that Figure 1 shows what Table 3 illustrated before, that
groups A, B and C have a much easier way of reaching the quarterfinals
than the other groups, and that group E trails behind.

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Figure 2: Simulations of 400.000 semi-finalists (4 teams per simulations)
Figure 2 shows the outcome of the quarter-finals, and that this way
of matching the playoffs (like said before) would increase the chances of
teams from group A and group D slightly in the quarterfinal rounds.

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Figure 3: Simulations of 100.000 winners
Finally, Figure 3 shows simulations which is in complete sync with Table 5, which shows the complete probability of winning the playoffs from
the different groups. Based on these results, it is 28% less probable that a
team from group E will win compared to a team from group A, which (to
me) seem to be outside of the ”fair game-range”.

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Improvements

So, how to improve the results? You could easily argue that this is not the
optimal way of organising a European championship, so what should you
do instead?
Well first of all you could start of by saying that a six-group system is
useless from a mathematical point of view, but that isn’t very helpful. You
could also state that 24 teams in a tournament where 16 teams advance
to the playoffs is not a good idea either. But there are ways of fixing the
problem.
The things UEFA want to take in consideration are:
1. Teams from the same group should not face each other in the first
round of the playoffs. (Condition 1)
2. The playoff-tree should be symmetric (i.e. three winners on one side
and the other three winners on the other side, same goes for the
runner-ups and the third placed teams) (Condition 2)
Trying to take this into account, we can draw the following conclusion:
• Six teams of first place → 6 ∗ 1 = 6
• Six teams of second place → 6 ∗ 2 = 12
• Four teams of third place → 4 ∗ 3 = 12
Since the sum of these (6 + 12 + 12 = 30) is not divisible by the number
of matches in the round of 16 (8), then the teams can not be symmetrically
distributed. However, if there would be four groups of six teams in each
instead, the sum would be 4 ∗ 1 + 4 ∗ 2 + 4 ∗ 3 + 4 ∗ 4 = 40 which is divisible by 8.
Since UEFA desperately want to make this work with six groups, then
we need to discard our first condition from before. We can then form a
symmetric playoff-tree by ranking all the the teams that advance by 1-16
(according to the way the best third placed teams are ranked), and then
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Match 1
Match 2
Match 3
Match 4
Match 5
Match 6
Match 7
Match 8

W(1)
R(2)
W(3)
W(6)
W(5)
W(4)
R(1)
W(2)

vs.
vs.
vs.
vs.
vs.
vs.
vs.
vs.

T(4)
R(3)
T(2)
R(5)
R(6)
T(1)
R(4)
T(3)

Table 6: Ranked-playoff structure

place them according to the normal way, as depicted in Table 6.
In Table 6, the best winner is denoted by W(1), best runner-up by R(1)
and the best third placed team by T(1).
Simulations of this (Figure 4 and 5) show that this playoff structure is
more fair, but maybe it is less practical for the teams. They would not
know where their matches were to be played until all of the group stage
would be finished. Still considering mathematical fairness, this is the way
to go. One could also argue for a winner/loser bracket system, but I think
it would cost too much to have so many games. Otherwise that would be
the best.

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(a) Quarter-finalists

(b) Semi-finalists

Figure 4: Simulation of Ranked-playoff structure

4.1

Final thoughts

One thing worth noting is that the ”rules” state that the host country is
supposed to be in group A, where there should be a higher probability
of winning. Also since the host country is automatically seeded in Pot 1
regardless of skill, one could argue that with this system, group A is a pot
of gold. When I watch the draw at the 12/12-2015, I will make sure to
cheer a little extra for the teams in Group E, because they will need it.

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Figure 5: Simulations of 100.000 winners with Ranked-playoff structure

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