The Women’s World Cup opened its knockout round Saturday with the tournament’s most telling result to date. Germany, the favorite going into the final 16, dominated Sweden, scoring two times in each half and missing a handful of chances that could have produced another famous 7-1. With forwards Célia Šašić and Anja Mittag both running their tournament goal totals to five, the world’s best team moved into the quarterfinals with a 4-1 win over a dominated Swedish squad.
“We were clearly the better team and that’s why we won …,” Germany head coach Sylvia Neid said before offering a polite if sporting understatement. “I think (Sweden) did well but we didn’t allow them to make much of it.”
It was the end of a terrible tournament for the Swedes, a team that arrived at Canada 2015 as the fifth-ranked team in the world. Four games, no wins, and no convincing results will leave head coach Pia Sundhage in doubt. The exit was far too early for a team some picked to claim its first title.
But it was also the only loss for a team that had faced a second-ranked United States, an Australia team that finished second in Group A, and Nigeria, a team that had some fearful of its attack before the teams actually took the field.
Despite that opposition, the eye test was never flattering for Sweden, which is why you may hear a lot of debate about the quality of Germany’s result. Let’s walk through the problem:
Sweden had looked bad all tournament …
Only Germany, the United States, France and Japan came into this tournament with a higher FIFA ranking than Sweden. That’s three favorites and the current world champions. Unbeaten against the U.S. since head coach Pia Sundhage took over in 2013, Sweden was arguably the tournament’s most dangerous dark horse.
Part of the team’s charm was striker Lotta Schelin, a terror for Olympique Lyon in France who was a ghost in Canada. Midfield creator Kosovare Asllani got injured in game one and never had an impact on the tournament. Star defender Nilla Fischer was a shell of the player we see for Wolfsburg, while midfield backbone Caroline Seger was often left on an island by the team’s setup (only two players in the middle of the field) as well as her teammates’ performance.
Sweden did navigate the tournament’s toughest group without a loss, but it also failed to win a game. Without most of its stars performing to their expected levels, Sundhage’s team was left to tough out draws. Against Germany, there was no toughing out to be done.
… but the results were merely disappointing, not terrible.
Let’s not exaggerate how bad Sweden was in group stage, though. Did it play like the No. 5 team in the world? Far from it. Did it play like a team that was destined to be blown out today? Hell no.
Only one team kept the U.S. off the scoreboard in group stage, and that was Sweden. Australia and the U.S. combined to score three goals against Nigeria; Sweden matched that in 90 minutes. The most embarrassing result of the round, that 3-3 draw with Nigeria, was largely due to one unexpected performance from an otherwise reliable player. It was an outlying result.
Sweden put in a group phase performance that had a series of mixed messages, but it wasn’t terrible. Those players are going to go home branded by this Germany result, but today’s scoreline exaggerates how bad Sweden really was.
That’s why there’s going to be debate about what this 4-1 win means, …
Some are not going to buy that, though. “We don’t need to see Sweden actually lose to know it played poorly,” some might say, an appeal to the eye test I normally tolerate. Even in this case, I agree: Sweden looked bad.
At some point, though, you have to acknowledge the collection of evidence. In three games in the tournament’s toughest group, Sweden hadn’t lost. It hadn’t won, either, but the case for the team being terrible (e.g., losing) just wasn’t there. Sweden had an even goal difference in those games, and in terms of shots on target, it’d only been out-shot by one (9-8) in group stage.
If Sweden was so bad, where was the evidence? Particularly given Fischer’s collapse in game one, the overall body of work doesn’t look so terrible. The eye test is notoriously susceptible to prejudice, bias, and unfortunately in sports, narrative. Where is our objective confirmation?
It would, however, be foolish to completely dismiss that eye test. That’s why there’ll be a debate. Was Sweden a worthy opponent for Germany? It all depends on how you read the evidence.
… but it’s important to remember: The result could have been a lot worse.
I humbly submit the three open play goals Germany scored (the second was a penalty converted by Šašić) …
… as well as a collection of near misses from the first game in Ottawa (you don’t have to watch them all; this is a quantity-play):
And among the tournament’s other favorites, no result marries this combination of ass-kicking and quality opposition.
We identified five other favorites when we broke down the knockout round field earlier this week. Their most impressive results were:
- Norway’s 4-0 win over Thailand;
- Japan’s 2-1 win over Cameroon;
- the United States’ 3-1 win over Australia;
- Brazil’s 2-0 win over South Korea;
- France’s 5-0 win over Mexico.
None of Thailand, Cameroon, South Korea or Mexico are even third-level contenders in this tournament, while Australia largely outplayed the U.S. before the favorites gained control in the game’s second half.
Germany, on the other hand, out-shot the world’s fifth-ranked team 25-4. They put 11 shots on target – two more than Sweden had allowed in the previous 270 minutes. The final score was 4-1, but as the GIFs above show, Germany could have scored six, seven, or more.
This game wasn’t close. It was a throttling, one handed to a team that’s better than the scoreline told. It’s clearly the most impressive result of the tournament.
It is always possible for a game to both feature a very, very bad team and a very, very good one, …
This is probably the biggest thing to remember in the face of the “but Sweden was terrible” caveat. When one team plays as well as Germany, yeah, the other is going to look terrible. Welcome to #sporps. Good performance make lesser ones look bad.
Even if you want to ignore the broader indicators and just focus on Saturday, you have to acknowledge that relationship. A bad team rarely looks bad on its own. A bad team has to be made to look bad by a good one. And when that good one is instead an elite one, you get results like today’s. You can have both terrible and good on the same field.
… particularly when the matchups so obviously work against one team.
Against Nigeria and Australia, we saw Sweden’s defense struggle against pressing from opposition forwards. Unfortunately for Sweden, Germany may be better equipped than anybody to exert that type of pressure, something we saw produce the first goal.
Célia Šašić is a beast of a No. 9, and Anja Mittag may be the ideal player to take advantage of her damage. Sweden was particularly susceptible to being trounced by this duo, but Germany’s approach also works against the rest of the world.
Against Sweden’s back line, though, the pressure was particularly effective. Here are all the interceptions and recoveries Opta tracked for Germany in Sweden’s half of the field:
And, as a point of reference, Sweden’s interceptions and recoveries in Germany’s half:
Perhaps the secret of Norway’s relative success against the Germans (1-1-1 in major competition over the last 25 months) is its willingness to play long balls, live without possession, and rely on more direct play . It’s not exactly an en vogue style, and even head coach Even Pellerud says he wants to move away from it, but against a team with Germany’s strengths, it might be the most sensible approach.
Any way you slice it, Germany’s win was a huge statement, …
After today’s performance, we’ve seen Germany’s potential. Perhaps this peak won’t come out again this tournament, but it’s there. It lingers.
It’s the proof that Germany, if on its game, will beat anyone. It’s also why the two-time champions went from frontrunner to heavy favorite. Even with potential matches against the No. 2 (United States, semifinals), No. 3 (France, quarters) and No. 4 (Japan, final) ahead of it, Germany is on track to regain its title.
… and the U.S., in particular, needs to be worried.
We’ve mentioned it throughout the tournament: Sweden is another version of the U.S. It’s a lesser one, yes, but as the teams’ 0-0 group stage match showed, only a slightly lesser one.
The two teams set up the same way. They have similar styles. Because of the influence of former U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage on the roster and staff, the teams have the same mentalities. They approach and react to games the same way.
And that way got smoked by Germany on Saturday. If the rest of Canada 2015 is concerned about the Germans, the U.S. should be downright worried. A version of itself got embarrassed in Ottawa.