June 12: Matchday 6
Nigeria 2 – 0 South Korea
So far, the World Cup has mostly been games with clear favorites trying to overcome plucky underdogs, with only one or two real exceptions. This game was something different: two solid teams, with different styles of play, and no obvious advantage. Before the tournament, I think I said that South Korea might just beat out Nigeria, but certainly not by much. Nigeria have good attacking options, but their direct approach didn’t seem particularly well-suited to handle the collective defensive work that South Korea could bring.
I therefore anticipated a cagey match, with South Korea controlling possession, and probing carefully, always with an eye toward protecting themselves from the counter. And that’s more or less what we actually got. The problem was that South Korea made a huge mess of one attack, with a missed clearance finding its way into their net for an own goal, and with a wonderful bit of strength and skill from Asisat Oshoala – who had up until that point actually been pretty terrible in the tournament.
For South Korea, this is just about the end of the road. Despite having a team with a fair bit of potential, they just weren’t able to find their rhythm. And now, given other results, they’ll either have to beat Norway by four goals (very unlikely), or beat Norway and make up 5 goals on Nigeria – who are playing France so it’s possible.
Germany 1 – 0 Spain
This was an enjoyable game in many respects, but also a very frustrating one. It was enjoyable because we got to watch two very talented teams start to build toward their true potential.
Spain possessed the ball well, unsurprisingly, but also managed to produce more incisive passes and direct movement than in their first match. It didn’t produce any goals, and they couldn’t really sustain it, but through the opening half hour, they looked like the version of Spain that we all tipped as a genuine dark horse.
Germany showed that they can play well without Dzsenifer Maroszán – albeit in a less exciting style. They were mostly content to cede possession, and to attack directly when they could force a transition. It was a fairly measured defensive performance – not much in the way of true pressing – but it was enough to keep Spain relatively at bay and generate enough chances. They were able to convert one of their two or three clear chances this produced – about par for the course – and it was enough to take home the three points.
It was a frustrating game, however, because we only saw glimpses. Spain produced some good work in the opening 30, but really struggled otherwise. The two Garcias looked lively in the buildup, but failed in either their touch or shot once they got into the box. Hermoso did some good creative work pushed back in the #10, but it’s not clear she did enough to justify taking her away from goal. Especially since the shift pushed Alexia Putellas out wide left where she was a relative non-factor. The underlying problems are all still there for Spain. They can possess the ball nicely, and there are flashes of brilliance. But it never quite comes together.
For Germany it was frustrating because this team has so much more potential. A squad with this kind of midfield talent shouldn’t struggle so much to keep the ball. I’m a big fan of Sara Däbritz (a Däbritz Believer, as I named myself today), but she was extremely restrained in this game. In fact, I tweeted this exact point:
I’m a Däbritz Believer, but it certainly would help solidify my faith if she would, you know, do something useful.— Charles Olney (@olneyce) June 12, 2019
And then approximately twenty seconds later, she scored:
Never lose faith https://t.co/T6tj1Z6ehl— Germany (@DFB_Team_EN) June 12, 2019
Still, the goal had little to do with her creative work, and more to do with cleaning up a loose ball at the end of a nice attack down the right. Which is where the vast majority of Germany’s attacks went. They had clearly targeted Corredera as a weak link in the Spanish defense, and found a lot of success down that wing, with great work from Gwinn at right wing and Hendrich at right back.
The biggest concern for Germany going forward has to be their center backs. That’s nothing new. They were a problem against South Africa, and a clear weak link going into the tournament. But this game potentially showed how that weakness can be managed. The biggest problem is their movement in space and skill on the ball. With a high defensive line, those are both very exploitable. But they are both reasonably strong defenders with their backs to the wall. If allowed to set up deeper, they’ll be solid. That does, of course, mean conceding quite a bit more space. But this game showed that the German midfield is probably good enough to generally cover that ground. It will mean playing a lower-possession game, but that’s not necessarily a problem.
France 2 – 1 Norway
A wonderful game, possibly the most entertaining of the tournament so far. That’s partly because each of the goals was a delight in its own specific way. And partly because the level of play was exceptional throughout. France were clearly the better team over 90 minutes and certainly deserved their victory. But Norway were no pushovers. They did excellent work to police the midfield and keep from getting overrun, while their wide players struggled but (mostly) held out against the waves of attack.
The key match-up in the game was on the French right wing, where Diani showed off her pace and skill, regularly beating the defense. However, she never quite managed to make anything of the crosses she was able to send in. So despite the apparent danger, the eventual goal actually came from the other wing. And what a wonderful goal it was. It started with the French counterpress which recovered possession quickly. A quick pass to Henry found her with a mile of space in front of her to run at the Norwegian defense. As they closed ranks, Henry slid a quiet ball wide left to Majri who now had plenty of time to pick out her pass into the box. As the ball bounded in, Thiney held off her defender and shielded the ball, allowing it to reach Gauvin, who then buried her shot.
All together the whole move took maybe 13 or 14 seconds, and involved six or seven French players. It was a wonderful team goal.
Then came the bonkers Wendie Renard Own Goal, or ‘But Contre Son Camp’ (CSC) as I have learned they call it in France. It was a colossal mistake, of course, but also a demonstration of what happens when you force defenders to make point blank decisions while facing their own goal. Renard simply couldn’t know what was behind her and had to try to put the ball out. She missed, and the game was even.
But France eventually found their winner through a penalty. On that point, I won’t bother to rewrite what I already said on twitter, I’ll just link to it here, and reiterate the crucial point: defending in the box is supposed to be hard because we want to incentivize good attacking soccer. In the case of the handball rule, we’re probably going to need to change the rule or interpretation. In the case of these ‘would be fouls anywhere else’ calls, the change is going to come from defenders changing their behavior. And that will make soccer better.
In the handball case, we need to change the rule. In the dangerous fouls case, defenders need to be more careful. Will that make defending harder? Yep! And everyone who isn’t a defender is fine with that.— Charles Olney (@olneyce) June 12, 2019
For a brief moment, it seemed possible that France might not win this group. But they’re now virtually locked in. Which means they’ve held up their half of the bargain, and that fatal showdown between the US and France in Paris on June 28 remains very much in the cards. I know I’m excited!
– I’m going to try not to say much more about the US game against Thailand. It’s mostly there in the piece I wrote last night. But the key thing I want to come back to is: I’m not looking to cast blame. And I don’t think there’s any definitive right answer to these questions. But I just wish people (myself included) were more willing to take a look at what they take for granted, and consider whether it’s really something they want to endorse. I know most of the conversation on this subject has been standard talking head stuff, but I feel like a little bit has seeped through at the edges which really has me (and hopefully others) reflecting a bit on what responsibilities we all have to be good humans as well as sports fans.
– This piece from Kim McCauley convinced me that I probably understated the genuine strategic value of the US going all-out.
– If you’re not following Katja (@applessquabble), you’re really missing out on learning about the Scandinavian teams (and plenty of others as well).
– As my twitter followers know, I’ve become a huge Miranda Nild fan – she’s a Bay Area girl (go Bears!) who just played her first World Cup match against her home country. Check out my quick thread on her comments after the game last night. For a very emotional moment, she comes across really well.
I’m previewing these games over at Stars and Stripes FC tomorrow, so take a look over there at some point fairly early in the AM eastern time to see my thoughts.
But the tl;dr is that Australia-Brazil is a HUGE game, much more significant than we were anticipating, while South Africa – China is another between two teams with zero points who need a win. It’s in Paris, so that’s the one I’ll be at.