By the end of day six, the struggles of the home nation were center stage, with Canada having just gone a second straight game without an open play goal. But rewind seven hours and move two times zones east, from Edmonton to Ottawa, and it was one of the 2015 Women’s World Cup’s favorites who sat in the tournament’s spotlight, only instead of building on its 10-0, opening game demolition over Cote d’Ivoire, world No. 1-ranked Germany let the rest of the world see some cracks in the armor.
Or, more fairly put, Norway exposed those faults. Over the first 40 minutes of Thursday’s opening game, Euro 2013’s finalists played their expected parts: Norway the rugged, resilient resister; Germany the overwhelming, over-skilled overlord. That the game reached halftime 1-0 Germany was as much a testament to soccer’s inherent uncertainty than anything Norway was doing right. Leaning heavily left before switching play to the right, Germany was Germany-ing them all over the field, seemingly pulling Norway’s midfield and defense out of position before it exploited space on an opposing front.
Here’s the first half passing from Germany’s left flank, Alexandra Popp and Tabea Kemme, compared to the team’s right side of Simone Laudehr and Leonie Maier, whose activity came noticeably further upfield:
Germany continued with that approach in the second half, but something had changed. Instead of building attacks from outside its final third, the passes on each side were starting from deeper …
… and Norway’s midfielders were able to win balls and play their passes from higher up the field. Here’s a half-by-half comparison of the successful passes from Norway’s midfield:
The biggest difference between those two charts is a number: 8. Veteran Solveig Gulbrandsen was kept on the bench in the first half, the result of the 34-year-old attempting to play two turf games on short rest. When she came on in the second half, though, the game changed. Whether that was because of coincidence, German fatigue or merely the veteran’s influence, the second period belonged to the Norwegians, with their efforts eventually allowing Maren Mjelde to take a point with this gem:
As the game eased toward its 1-1 end, the feeling was undeniable. Norway had played the world’s best team to stalemate, each team scoring 10-8 rounds in each half. With just a little hindsight, though, the push really shouldn’t seem that remarkable. These two met twice in Euro 2013. Norway won the first, 1-0. Germany won the more memorable meeting, the final, but it was another close game: 1-0, again. Now, after Thursday’s 1-1, the first and 12th-ranked teams in the world have played 270 minutes in major competitions over the last 25 months. The aggregate score is 2-2.
And if Thursday’s second half is any indication, if could have been worse for Germany. Look at all the passes Norway’s midfield and attackers failed to connect in the second half, many of which were through balls that, given time to play them as midfielder Dzsenifer Maroszán abandoned partner Simone Laudehr in front of Germany’s defense, Norway could have converted into shots.
But because it failed to do so, Norway’s expected goals charts looks like this:
Perhaps that flatters Germany. It may also be a flaw with looking at a shots-based system like expected goals. It doesn’t capture the close calls that don’t end up in shots. At the same time, it’s a reminder. Norway did control that second half, but it didn’t create the same type of chances that we say from the Germans. Maybe instead of a 10-8 round, its was a 10-9. The team still controlled that second half, though.
Maybe the Dutch couldn’t recover in time. At least, Thursday against China, it appeared as if the team came out flat, were pressed (literally) by a superior game plan, and never got into the match. In the 91st minute, it cracked, failing to properly defend a ball lofted into the penalty area, allowing Wang Lisi to give the Chinese a deserved 1-0 victory. The favored Dutch had fallen.
The Netherlands wasn’t such a huge favorite that Thursday’s result was a shock, but after a convincing if superficially close 1-0 win on Sunday over New Zealand, a young Dutch team appeared to have its footing under it. Not so. China outshot the slim favorites 27-8, kept 60 percent of the ball and forced seven corners to the Dutch’s three. Moreso than the one-goal margin the Dutch claimed on Sunday, Thursday’s 1-0 severely flattered the losers.
For the Netherlands, it was probably just a bad game, one fostered by some ill-advised lineup and tactical choices. For China, however, it was a further proof of concept for an exceptionally young squad. After a strong opening performance against the host nation (a 1-0 loss), head coach Hao Wei’s team came back with an equally adapt game plan, one that made the Netherland’s legs look tired thanks to the energetic attacking of Han Peng and Tang Jiali (in the second GIF):
But back to that young team. China’s roster features four players who are 26 years old – the oldest players on its squad. Seventeen of the team’s 23 players were born after Jan. 1, 1990. By that measure, Han’s team has one of the largest collections of young talent in the tournament:
Nigeria and Mexico each have 19 players born in 1990 or later, but China and Colombia are just behind. At the bottom end of the range, 2011 finalists Japan and the United States have four and three, respectively. Each team may need a new, large injection of talent before the next World Cup.
Superficially, there doesn’t appear to be link between age and performance here. While it’s true that teams near the bottom of this chart tend to be the better ones (Germany being the perpetually scary exception), age is probably not the causal mechanism. Accomplished players are allowed to stay with their national teams late into their primes because they’re good, not because they’re old.
But the chart does give teams like Nigeria, China, and the Netherlands reasons to be particularly happy with their early results. Each team has at least 15 players who where born after 1989. Each team has already taken at least a point in this competition. Add in a talented Australian team that played a good half against the United States and you have a quartet of teams that could develop into major threats come France 2019.
Canada’s no mystery
The host nation’s best players through two games: midfielder Sophie Schmidt, and central defender Kadeisha Buchanan. Having yet to give up a goal, goalkeeper Erin McLoad might be ranked third, though if that top three continues, Canada will not make the run it hopes at this World Cup. It might not even make it to the quarterfinals.
That’s because, after Thursday’s 0-0 with New Zealand, Canada has gone the first 180 minutes of this tournament without an open play goal. Thanks to a late penalty against China on Saturday, the hosts escaped their opening game with three points, but the greater body of work has been disappointing. Against its group’s two weakest teams, Canada’s scored only once.
And perhaps bigger red flag? The team was this close to losing last night:
There is, however, a huge silver lining – the shots ratio. Though the attempts Canada is generating aren’t necessarily dangerous …
… they are numerous, as well as disproportionate. The team has outshot its opponents 24-10 – 10-1 in shots on target. It’s kept 60.5 percent of the ball. If anybody was going to score an open play goal in these games, it was going to be Canada.
That it hasn’t broken through brings us back to the one, redundant, broken record reality of the team: It really needs Christine Sinclair to score goals. And if she’s not scoring goals, she still needs to be one of the team’s best players. Through two games, Sinclair’s been a positive, but Canada’s attack is still sputtering. She is neither scoring goals note setting them up.
The team’s other main threat, midfielder Diana Matheson, is on the roster, but because of injuries, she’s unlikely to make a major impact this tournament. One of the team’s former threats, Melissa Tancredi, has been doing stuff like this:
Having taken a break from soccer two years ago to pursue her chiropractic degree, it’s unclear Tancredi will regain the form that earned her 22 international goals.
Which, unfortunately, brings us back to Sinclair. When you’re a team’s best player, life is hard enough. Defenses are built to stop you. When you’re a team’s only threat, life’s even worse. Add in the pressure of playing at home and finishes like this …
… become a major problem. A big, potentially tournament-defining problem.
It’s one that can be solved at any time – after all, Sinclair has 154 international goals – but the worst case scenario is scary. If Sinclair continues misfiring against the Netherlands, Canada could lose its group. That could send it out of the easier, bottom half of the knockout round bracket into the top, where Germany, the U.S. and France will likely land. That would mean a quarterfinal meeting with the U.S. or, if both the Netherlands and China win their final matches of Group A, a Round of 16 meeting with Germany.
A lot of that depends on how other groups finish, but in Group A, first place is particularly important. It’d mean a Cameroon (probably) then Norway route to the semifinals, where you’re guaranteed not to face one of the tournament’s three favorites.
Without goals, though, Canada would find itself in the other half of the field, where its hopes of making a second straight major tournament semifinal could quickly dissolve.
Thailand got its first senior competition win in history, a 3-2 win over Cote d’Ivoire, but not without a couple of gifts:
This was each team’s easiest match of the tournament, but given some of Thailand’s results over the last year, Cote d’Ivoire had reason to believe it should win. But that reason didn’t outweigh a goalkeeping blunder and a terrible call. As a result, Thailand has a decent chance of making the second round, while the Ivorians are left to deal with a second demoralizing result.
Groups C and D resume play, bringing the United States back into action. Its toughest game of group stage, against former head coach Pia Sundhage and new rock-in-its-sock Sweden, is the second game of Winnipeg’s doubleheader, with the defending champions playing the night cap in Vancouver:
- Australia vs. Nigeria, Group D, 5:00 p.m. Eastern, Winnipeg, FOX Sports 1
- Switzerland vs. Ecuador, Group C, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, Vancouver, FOX Sports 1
- United States vs. Sweden, Group D, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Winnipeg, FOX
- Japan vs. Cameroon, Group C, ,10:00 p.m. Eastern, Vancouver, FOX Sports 1
Where we stand
With their easiest games coming, Germany and Norway look destined to finish one-two in Group B, while all four teams still have a chance to claim top spot in Group A: