Three misleading results from the World Cup's opening weekend
Oftentimes the final score obscures the true story of a match. Here are three results from the opening weekend that don’t reflect the underlying performances of the teams involved.
Norway 3-0 Nigeria
Norway walked away from their opener with Nigeria comfortable 3-0 victors, but the result doesn’t really tell the tale. While the two teams were quite clearly stylistically different, the match itself was, for long stretches, conducted on extremely even footing.
Both teams played a fast, vertical style. Norway focused on getting the ball to their talented strikers early, with their wingers pinching in to provide service.
Nigeria played the ball wide to Franny Ordega.
But the results were similar. Both teams created ten chances, and both created similar expected goals totals. Norway just had both a deflection that ended up in the back of the net and an own goal to help them, while Nigeria got no such luck.
It’s true that this framing somewhat undervalues Norway. Their opener might not go down as a high xG chance, but the move, from a short corner, was defended extremely poorly by Nigeria, in ways that an xG model might fail to properly account for. Their second goal was the result of a gorgeous defense splitting ball from Guro Reiten which left Lisa-Marie Karlseng Utland through on goal, albeit from a tough angle that required her to absolutely murder the ball to score (and perhaps still should have been handled better by Tochukwu Oluehi).
And the goal Nigeria put in the back of their own net was generated from a dangerous attack, which doesn’t go down as a shot generated, since the defense managed to do all the damage themselves. All of which is to say that while the xG model might have these two teams as extremely even, and the goals had it extremely lopsided, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Norway was better than Nigeria, but not all that much better.
Does it matter? Well, maybe. The result is a brutal blow for Nigeria in a group where France is almost certainly going to run away with first place, and Norway now has a mammoth goal difference in the race for second. The three goal defeat also makes it that much harder for them to get one of the four third place spots that advance. But, it also means that we shouldn’t write off their chances of putting a big result up against South Korea, and keeping it tight against France. They also have the good fortune to play against the hosts in the third group stage game when the favorites will possibly only need a draw to ensure first place in the group. Nigeria have a difficult road ahead but don’t count them out because of a single lopsided score line.
Germany 1-0 China
China had Germany right where they wanted them. Germany are one of the favorites to win the entire tournament. They have more talent than China at virtually every position. They meticulously work the ball forward and try and generate high quality looks for their forward Alexandra Popp supported by wingers Svenja Huth and Giulia Gwinn as well as midfielders Sara Däbritz and Dzsenifer Marozsan. It’s a pretty plan. It also led to a shot char that looks like this. That’s 16 shots, none of them particularly exciting
China, on the other hand (or foot as the case may be), decided their best chance at success was to allow Germany to have possession, and then kick them, take the ball away and counterattack at lightening speed. They created only five chances, but those five chances were truly golden ones. Despite the shot differential China actually created more expected goals over the course of the match than Germany.
The good news for Germany is that whatever vulnerability China exploited to create those first half chances, the favorites shored it up at half time. China didn’t have a single chance on goal after the break. The bad news is that it took an absolute stunner from distance from Gwinn for Germany to break through at the attacking end.
The question of whether to credit China or blame Germany for an end result that was a lot less one sided than expected is difficult. We’ll learn more over the next two matches. Germany’s next opponent is Spain, a team whose skill lies in their own possession play. If Germany can’t break them down, not only should alarm bells start going off, but flashing red emergency sirens should be everywhere, with the loudspeaker announcing an emergency evacuation of the German bandwagon. Meanwhile, China take on a South Africa side that gave Spain a surprisingly difficult match for 60 minutes. Still, if China want to be considered as anything more than a team that played a mildly surprising opening first match they’ll need to show they can handle one of the weaker teams in the tournament with ease.
Australia 1 – 2 Italy
Speaking of alarm bells, Australia, a dark horse contender to go deep in the tournament lost their opener to Italy. This one is less concerning than it seemed at first glance.
Italy threatened to get in behind Australia’s back line all match long, but they didn’t often actually succeed. They only generated six shots over the entire match. And they didn’t have a single one between the 15th minute, and the 55th when they equalized, and had only two between then and the end of the match. It just how happens that the second one was a dramatic 94th minute game winner.
There are definitely some things Australia should be concerned about. Despite creating a number of strong chances early on, after going up a goal they simply weren’t able to put the game away. They took 11 shots, but not a single one registered as even 0.10 on the ol’ xG meter. Even after Italy tied the match, Australia never really poured pressure on. If you let the underdog hang around, sometimes they’re going to nip you at the wire.
As for Italy, these three points were desperately important. With Australia still seeming like they’re fine, and Brazil trouncing Jamaica 3-0 in the opener despite star Marta missing out due to injury, Group C seems incredibly competitive. Italy was going to need to get some fortunate points somewhere to have a chance of advancing. Now, if they can follow up this surprise victory with an easier win against Jamaica on Friday they’ll be sitting pretty to move through to the knockout stage.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association