Jun 7, 2018
Jun 7, 2018

Using wage data to assess the quality of World Cup teams

Using player wage data to assess the quality of World Cup teams

Who are the best teams at World Cup 2018?

Who are the best players at the World Cup?

How weak-links could decide the tournament

Using wage data to assess the quality of World Cup teams

Which are the best teams at the 2018 World Cup? In this article player wage data will be used as a measure of team strength and player quality. Which teams rely the most on one player? Which teams are potentially underrated? Which group is the “Group of Death”? Read on to find out.

Why wages are a good measure of player quality

Objectively measuring player quality is a difficult task but a necessary one if bettors are to fully understand the ability of the World Cup sides. The transfer market value of players is often used to assess this and is a reasonable way to judge player quality.

However, the weaknesses of using market value become pronounced when it comes to looking at a tournament that takes place over a short period of time.

For example, arguably the best right-back at the tournament is Brazil’s Dani Alves. Alves has been in the world team of the year for the past seven seasons but is only rated at £5.4 million in transfer value. This is due to his age (34) limiting future resale value.

Since the World Cup is just over a month long we are less concerned with Alves’ long-term prospects, causing transfer value to become misleading for the purposes of predicting the tournament (Alves will miss the tournament through injury. See the pre-tournament update at the bottom of this article for how this may impact Brazil's chances).

One measure of player quality that is useful when assessing players at the 2018 World Cup is their wage level. This figure is less age-dependent and therefore more strongly reflects the current ability of the player. This is important for assessing the quality of players at different stages in their career.

As an example, transfer market valuations suggest England’s Kieran Trippier is valued at almost three times as much as Dani Alves. However, Alves’ (~£226,000 per week) wages more adequately show his superior ability over Trippier (~£40,000 per week). This is an important distinction to make if we are attempting to find the quality of teams at the tournament rather than simply those with the greatest transfer values.

For this reason wages are perhaps the strongest predictor of performance available aside from bookmaker odds. Economist Stefan Szymanski is one of many who have found a strong correlation between wage expenditure and average league position.

Using such a well-established performance indicator should help to isolate any undervalued teams at the tournament.


The wages of the most likely first choice eleven for each qualified team were collected from public sources. Where no such information existed Football manager data was used as an approximation.

All values are approximations but they are realistic estimations at the players’ actual market salary. Obviously inflated salaries from the Chinese Super League were ignored as an extra step to ensure the validity of the data. Where possible wages for these players were instead taken from the player’s previous contract.

Who are the best team at the World Cup?

To isolate any outliers the average wage per starting player from each country has been plotted against their outright winner odds on the graph below. Panama’s average wage was so low it skewed the graph so they have been excluded from the data.

Player quality vs World Cup outright odds


There was a strong 0.91 correlation coefficient between player wages and outright odds. This makes sense since the best players will be paid the most and the best teams have the best players. For comparison the official Fifa World rankings have a 0.55 correlation coefficient with the odds.

It is interesting to see the home advantage possessed by Russia reflected on the graph. The odds imply they have a similar percentage chance of winning as Colombia despite a player quality more in line with the unfancied Japan.

The presence of favourite-longshot bias is also demonstrated by the graph. The top five favourites are all above the trendline whilst most of the longshots are below it, suggesting the market perhaps undervalues the favourites.

What should be remembered when looking at this data is that group difficulty will have an impact on the outright odds. Morocco and Tunisia seem to be the sides most affected by this. They possess squads with superior ability to those the odds rank on a par with them but due to a tough path out of the group stage they are unlikely to be successful.

The outliers that look more promising are Senegal and Serbia. Both sides possess players of a better quality than the odds would suggest, with Serbia edging ahead of Switzerland as the second best team in Group E and Senegal only marginally behind Group H rivals Poland and Colombia.

“Cracks and Pavones”:  Looking at soccer as a weak-link game

In “The Numbers Game” authors Chris Anderson and David Sally demonstrate how upgrading a team’s weakest link by one standard deviation has a greater impact upon success than doing the same to its strongest player.

They use the example of Real Madrid’s expensively assembled Galacticos, such as Zinedine Zidane, known as “Cracks” who lined up alongside cheaply acquired players like Francisco Pavon. The authors demonstrate how it was the “Pavones” of the team, rather than the superstar players, who had the biggest impact on how successfully the team performed.

With that in mind it will be useful to know which teams are most reliant on superstars and may be defeated by the presence of an inferior “Pavon” in the side.

Percentage of wages earned by highest paid player


The country most dependent on a superstar player is, somewhat surprisingly, Iceland. Everton’s Gyilfi Sigurdsson earns almost half of the starting eleven’s total wages. Egypt are another relatively lowly ranked side who depend upon one player. Mohamed Salah alone accounts for around 47% of their total wages.

Portugal, Brazil and Argentina are high up on the list due to the huge wages paid to their superstar players (Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar) but they have other good players in the side who are relatively well remunerated.

Saudi Arabia, Spain, Russia and England lack a standout superstar performer but demonstrate that the best player in the team is not always an indicator of quality. Spain and England are well balanced and are among the highest ranked teams in terms of overall quality whilst Saudi Arabia and Russia are subpar.

Percentage of wages earned by lowest paid player by team


Spain again rank well suggesting they are the most balanced team in the competition. Their Lowest earning starter (Dani Carvajal) makes more than the average player from 23 of the competing countries. Once again Panama and Saudi Arabia seem reasonably balanced but actually just possess equally weak players all over the pitch.

To back up the findings in “The Numbers Game” the percentage of wages earned by the lowest paid players correlates with the betting market more strongly (0.812) than those of the highest earners (0.725).

If soccer is indeed a weak-link game this makes Spain a very strong candidate for the trophy. This finding makes logical sense when comparing Spain to Argentina who are another contender for the overall trophy.

Spain’s supposed weak-link, Carvajal, is a four-time Champions League finalist. In contrast the outstanding Lionel Messi has to rely on fullback Nico Tagliafico to step up from playing eredivisie soccer. In the recent fixture between the two sides Spain defeated a Messi-less Argentina 6-1, highlighting the potential difference in quality between the teams when Argentina’s talisman is unavailable.

A combination of a high total team value combined with a valuable weakest player is probably a good indication of a side possessing a strong chance of winning the tournament. Spain, Germany and Brazil score well on both fronts so should be the teams to watch out for in Russia. Croatia also appear to be a particularly well-balanced side with a high total wage figure.

The value picks highlighted by the total wages data perform less well here. Senegal and Serbia’s star men (Sadio Mane and Nemanja Matic) will have to contend with two of the weaker starting goalkeepers in the tournament. Despite their outfield talent the countries’ success could be decided by the dependability of these keepers at key moments rather than a moment of magic in attack.

Perhaps superstar players can have a bigger impact in a short competition like the World Cup but the likes of Messi and Colombia’s James Rodriguez will need to be at their absolute best to overcome deficiencies elsewhere in their teams.

Which group is the “Group of Death”?

The “Group of Death” is the one considered to be the toughest in the tournament. Using the wage data we can find out which are the toughest and easiest groups in the competition.

In terms of overall quality Group B is the strongest. The opening fixture between powerhouses Portugal and Spain is rated as the highest quality match in the group stages. However, this is hardly a group of death considering the huge quality gap between the second and third best teams.

Group B

Group B


Wages (£)











In terms of the best quality team likely to be eliminated Group H is more worthy of the “Group of Death” title. Should things play out as the wages indicate, Senegal would be eliminated despite possessing the 14th most valuable starting 11 in the tournament. The Africans would be the second highest quality side in three of the seven other groups.

Group H

Group H


Wages (£)











Which Group is the "Group of Life"?

The easiest group in the tournament, otherwise known as the “Group of Life” is most likely Group A. That group is the weakest in terms of player quality and is likely to see the lowest quality qualifier for the round of 16. Russia's home advantage is not reflected by the wage data which may make this group tougher for the other three teams than it appears.

Group A

Group A


Wages (£)











Biggest underdog

Belgium (£1,278,000) vs Panama (£29,500)

The tournament’s most uneven game sees Belgium, the fifth highest paid team, face Panama who are the lowest ranked team by wages. This could be a promising match for Belgium’s Golden Boot contenders.

Closest match

Sweden (£400,000) vs Mexico (£395,000)

The wage data suggests Sweden against Mexico is the closest game in the group stages. Group F could see the tightest battle for second place with both teams ranked very closely by the wage totals.

Potential value

Serbia at 2.969* (£534,000) vs Switzerland (£466,000)

Senegal at 2.650* (£527,000) vs Japan (£290,000)

The potentially underrated Serbia and Senegal could offer value. They are not fancied by the betting market to defeat teams ranked below them in terms of player quality.


Using wage data is a good way to get an overall view of the teams but is by no means perfect.

Whilst total wages correlates very strongly with success in league soccer, where the best teams have time to rise to the top, tournament soccer offers a greater amount of variance since one defeat to an inferior team can eliminate a country.

Equally, tactical setups and managers perhaps have a bigger part to play at the World Cup since international teams have less time to form a cohesive team. Iceland have overachieved in recent times due to selecting a consistent, well-drilled side which has allowed them to outperform their ability level. Perhaps their weakest link will perform above his usual level of quality due to the way the team is structured.

Some players’ wages will also not completely reflect their skill level. Young talents (such as Serbia’s Sergej Milinkovic Savic) may be underpaid in relation to their quality due to signing their contracts prior to a period of improvement. Equally some players may be overpaid due to previous successes or potential that has failed to be met.

Egypt’s Mohamed Salah is one example perhaps of wages lagging a little behind an improvement in player quality. The Egyptian is likely to secure a large salary increase the next time he negotiates a contract.

There will also be some discrepancy between wages paid in different nations due to different tax codes and emerging leagues using higher than market wages to attract talent. This is especially worth bearing in mind when analysing a team like Saudi Arabia where domestic teams pay inflated wages to maintain the country’s best talents.

However, the strong correlation with the betting market shows that these limitations have a limited impact on the overall data and provides a promising way to break down the teams ahead of the tournament.

Despite its strengths the data does benefit from some human analysis. For example, whilst Croatia possess a strong starting eleven their squad depth is below the standard of the leading contenders which may have an impact as the tournament progresses.

Adapting to injuries: Pre-tournament update

Since the first publication of this article there have been some key developments involving the potential lineups for each team.

Some injuries to important players have weakened a couple of the sides. Dani Alves (mentioned at the start of this article) will miss the World Cup through injury. He will be replaced by either Danilo or Fagner who are both a considerable step down in quality from the PSG right-back according to the wage data.

In fact, due to the absence of Alves, Brazil’s starting eleven has been overtaken by Spain’s as the tournament’s most valuable regardless of who replaces him in the side.

Alves’ absence is far from the most damaging however. An injury that could have a much bigger impact on a team is the one sustained by Egypt’s Mohamed Salah.

Salah is rated as easily their star player according to the data, earning around 47% of the starting lineup’s total wages. If the Liverpool winger cannot participate in the tournament it will be a huge blow to Egypt’s chances.

Equally the absence of Youssef Msakni (32% of total wages) affects Tunisia’s quality to the extent that manager Nabil Maloul claimed losing the attacker is akin to Argentina competing without Lionel Messi.

Whilst the wage data suggests that’s not quite the case (Messi accounts for around 43% of the Argentinian lineup’s wages) his absence is comparable to Poland losing Robert Lewandowski or Colombia lining up without James Rodriguez. Their Group G opponents will certainly benefit from Tunisia missing their best attacking player.

One team that has received a huge boost is Peru. Paolo Guerrero’s ban has been overturned and he is now able to start at the World Cup. The striker is their highest paid player and his presence significantly increases their chances of progressing from Group C.

The availability of star players can alter a team’s overall quality significantly. This demonstrates that the countries with talent distributed more equally around their team should be less prone to catastrophic injuries in the lead up to and throughout the 2018 World Cup.

Conclusion: Who are the best teams at the World Cup?

Promisingly the wage data correlates strongly with the betting market which somewhat legitimises any outliers highlighted.

The overall tournament winner is very likely to come from the ten highest paid teams with Brazil and Spain looking particularly strong. Serbia and Senegal offer potential value picks considering their ability combined with relatively kind group draws.

Those subscribing to the importance of a team’s weak-link when judging team quality will most likely be interested in Spain as a potential tournament winner. They possess the competition’s highest paid lineup and the highest rated weakest player (assuming Dani Carvajal is fit to start) which are both strong indicators of success.

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