Underwhelming matchups are a staple of international play. A favorite doesn’t quite dominate, an underdog hangs tough, and the result is a scrappy, disjointed affair. Sometimes the bigger team sneaks by, sometimes the smaller one holds on, but either way they can be difficult to love (unless you happen to be invested in said underdog).
Not all annoying defensive matches are created equal. Sometimes a defensive underdog plays out of their minds, other times a favorite coasts, and most of the time the balance is somewhere in the middle. On Monday, as the World Cup entered its first full week, Argentina squared off against Japan and Cameroon faced Canada. Both games were difficult, defensive affairs. In the first, however, it was Argentina’s committed defensive performance that drove the match, in the second it was the favorite Canada’s conservative focus on doing just enough to win.
Argentina did a masterful job of foiling Japan’s approach. The unheralded, underfunded, South American side committed to clogging up the midfield, and when they succeeded, Japan had no fallback plan. Japan played a traditional 4-4-2 and were simply never able to work the ball through the midfield to the strikers supported by wingers. Over and over again Argentina waited for Japan to try and move the ball through midfield and then blew up the play. Japan’s passing network is just a mess of sideways and backwards connections around the periphery. And when the ball went into the middle, Hina Sugita and Narumi Miura, if they kept it, were reliably forced to play backwards and sideways.
In large part because Japan only had two midfielders, and they never committed to having anybody else help in the center of the park, they weren’t able to use possession to force Argentina to defend deeper in their own half. Argentina, for their part, were more than willing to commit their attackers to help blow up midfield. Striker Soledad Jaimes often times was drawn into her own defensive half, leaving winger Estefanía Banini as the only attacking option when Argentina regained control. It was conservative but effective, as Argentina’s defensive pressure map shows, they managed to defend well above their own box, and were not regularly forced into the kind of defensive shell that more talented teams can tee off against.
There are ways Japan could have chosen to combat Argentina’s approach. Instead of trying to go through midfield, the team could have simply played around it. They could have attempted to punish Argentina for contesting the middle so heavily by playing over the top, or tried to push their fullbacks high up the pitch early in possession to stretch the game laterally, making it harder for the Argentinian swarm to do its thing. But they didn’t. It wasn’t until Jun Endo came on in the 73 minute that the pattern of the game changed. Japan got the ball forward more quickly more effectively in the game's last quarter but by then it was too late.
That’s how surprising results happen. The underdog has a plan, the favorite fails to react until it’s too late and before you know it Argentina walks out of the match only conceding eight shots and 0.24 expected goals while getting five of their own for 0.11 total. Argentina didn’t attack, but their defense, with a little help from Japan’s stubbornness, kept the thing close enough to fully warrant the side’s historic first World Cup point.
That’s a far cry from what happened when Canada defeated Cameroon 1-0. In that match, Canada controlled the game from whistle to whistle, and the favorite, as opposed to the underdog, was directly responsible for the conservative nature of the match. Canada played fairly conservatively throughout the first half, took the lead right before the whistle, and then they really decided to play unambitious keepball for the final 45 minutes.
As you can see from the difference in pass maps, the fullbacks stopped getting forward at all, the midfielders dropped deeper, and Jessie Flemming dropped into midfield from her striker position to collect the ball and knit things together. In the first half it was Sophie Schmidt stepping forward from midfield to do that. Canada had the lead, so what was the point in keeping their foot even moderately grazing the gas pedal.
That’s reflected in the shots they created as well. While they took eight shots in both halves, all shots are not created equal. In the first half, seven of Canada’s eight shots were from within the penalty area. They averaged a relatively unimpressive 0.060 xG per shot (0.058 from open play). That’s not exactly cutting a side open, but it’s still well ahead of their second half numbers.
The team’s eight shots after the break averaged an anemic 0.031 xG per shot (0.019 from open play). And that includes an 87th minute 0.11 xG chance from legend Christine Sinclair which made up the bulk of the scoring that half. For most of the time Canada was content to move the ball, and make sure Cameroon had no space to counterattack into, confident that the African side could not build their own attacks from the back. Given that Cameroon managed only four shots and 0.09 xG it seems like a reasonable plan, even if it was a boring one to watch in action.
The moral of the story is that not all testy defensive matches are created equal. Some are driven by a successful underdog like Argentina stymieing a stronger attacking team that can’t figure out how to turn on overdrive and get the game out of the mud. It’s impossible to fault the underdog for doing everything in their power to claw their way to a point. Others dour matches, though, are brought to you by a favorite that’s decided to do just enough to win. Canada got their goal and then didn’t take a single risk while strangling the life out of Cameroon. The plan worked, and Canada, one of the stronger teams in the tournament, are quite good at executing it. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what the team might be with a bit more ambition. When underdogs win ugly it’s because they have to, when the favorites do, they're making a choice.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association