Football/Soccer

Say ELO and welcome to new rankings and Uefa Nations League competition

Republic of Ireland's Seamus Coleman (left) and Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas during the international friendly in Dublin last week - predictably enough for both sides this year, it ended goalless.

RATHER embarrassingly, as someone who counts (ha!) himself something (not much, perhaps three-eighths) of a statistician, it had escaped my attention that Fifa has altered its methodology for calculating its world rankings.

On the up side, they have adopted a system previously advocated in this column, the ELO method, originally developed to rank (and file?) chess players.

Another bonus of the new way of ranking teams is that it will reduce the credibility of managers moaning about the unfairness of the system.

There were definitely flaws in the old way, not least that playing more friendlies, especially against a better standard of opposition, could cost you ranking points, so it was actually more advantageous not to play friendly games, and certainly not to test yourselves.

The managers of the two Irish teams, O'Neills Martin and Michael, have scoffed somewhat about stats and rankings recently, but there's no getting away from the fact that they've managed only three wins between them from 18 matches this year – and that there's been a complete absence of competitive victories

The Republic of Ireland's only win out of nine matches this year came at home to the USA, a team in transition, and one that also had failed to qualify for the imminent World Cup. They did grind out draws against Denmark (twice), Poland, and – natch – Northern Ireland, but were pretty ugly in doing so.

Northern Ireland have won two of their nine outings, but those victories came at home to South Korea and Israel, neither of whom are in the top 50 (indeed Israel aren't far off being outside the top 100).

Martin O'Neill pointed to the testing nature of their friendlies, away to Turkey, France, and Poland, but only the French are truly a level above his side.

The Nations League is all about pitting teams of similar standard against each other – and neither Irish side has come out of it well.

At least Northern Ireland have the consolation of putting in fairly good performances, displays which on other days might have brought them at least eight points - rather than none - from their four matches.

They were also clearly the better side in Dublin but, as the man says, they couldn't score furniture with a big nail.

The Nations League may be hard to understand but it's been easy to enjoy, because of the competitive element.

Had Sunday night's match at Windsor Park been a friendly it would have petered out in a plethora of substitutions in front of a half-full stadium. Instead, NI were pushing for a win, even though it was a ‘dead rubber', allowing Austria to snatch victory with a classic counter-attack.

Most football friendlies aren't worth a fig. Even the first meeting of the two Irish teams in front of a paying (and baying) crowd for more than seven years was a fairly lacklustre affair.

Not so the Nations League meetings of Germany and the Netherlands, or England-Croatia, or plenty of other games in this new competition.

It will be interesting to see how the Nations League concept plays out over the next few years.

There are similarities in its A-B-C-D format with the 1-2-3-4 Divisional set-up that the GAA brought back in for its National Football League a decade ago, albeit that Uefa has more teams and many more groups.

The GAA's change was prompted by complaints that the top teams weren't meeting each other often enough and also that weaker counties were merely cannon fodder for the big guns.

Division One has certainly flourished, completely confirming its participants' grip on the Sam Maguire Cup later each season.

However, there's been a groundswell of complaint from less successful counties that the format mitigates against them, preventing them from improving their playing standards, thereby cutting them further adrift of the top flight, or even from the top 16.

Having said that, certain counties are happy at how the National Football League allows them to develop and progress, Carlow being a prime example, Tipperary having also benefitted in recent years.

The Euro 2020 finals will hark back to one aspect of the old National Football League, allowing some of the lesser lights to take on top teams in the latter stages of competition.

Just as teams from Divisions Two, Three, and Four could meet Division One teams in the League quarter-finals, so at least one team from each of the Nations League C and D sections will take part in Euro 2020.

Already some soulless types have been moaning about this, failing to recognise and/ or care about what such participation would mean for the likes of Belarus, Georgia, FYR Macedonia, or even little Scotland.

Besides, with the Euros now at 24 teams (as it was two years ago in France), no half-decent side has any real excuse for not qualifying.

Indeed, there's an argument that, as with the 1-2-3-4 system in the National Football League, the new, complicated qualifying method for Euro 2020 can only be a boost to the higher-ranked teams.

Most of the 24 teams which have participated in Leagues A and B of the inaugural Nations League will probably earn one of the 20 automatic Euro 2020 qualifying places.

Any that don't might get another chance in the Nations League play-offs in late March 2020.

Northern Ireland and the Republic could be involved in the League B element of those matches.

Sure, there'll be one very low-ranked (League D) country at Euro 2020, and another from this year's League C, but it's the League C level sides which may be squeezed out of the Euros in the new system.

That could come back to bite the two Irish teams in a few years' time, as both have dropped down to League C for the next Nations League, in 2020-21.

However, the facts, and the stats, are that good performances on the pitch will be better rewarded than they were in the past, as long as you can turn pressure into goals and points, of course – but then it was ever thus.

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