Updated: Jan 1, 2020
Round of 16, Day 1
Germany 3 – 0 Nigeria
A comprehensive victory for Germany, who continue to roll through the tournament despite the protestations of pundits on both sides of the Atlantic that they haven’t looked great. This was by no means a perfect performance, but they absolutely bulldozed Nigeria in the middle of the field, and controlled the game accordingly.
It was particularly notable how physical they were, consistently descending on any Nigerian player who had the ball and often directly dispossessing them, or at least forcing them into a hasty pass. Considering that Germany’s big problem game so far came against a China team who unsettled them with physical play, this was a significant improvement.
The only real worrying thing is that all three of their goals had some degree of fortuitousness involved. A better team would be unlikely to let the ball drift to the head of Alexandra Popp standing flat-footed in front of the box. A better team will be less likely to give away a penalty needlessly. A better team won’t accidentally pass the ball to your lethal striker directly in front of goal.
But this is the game of soccer. Most goals come at least in part from defensive mistakes. And yet we still see plenty of goals, because defending is exceptionally hard. Perhaps a team like the US or France might not make those precise mistakes, but they are likely to make some. And Germany has shown the ability to capitalize. The third goal, for example, was a gift. But it also took a perfect finish from Schüller to actually score it.
If there’s an area to focus on, it’s translating their dangerous possession into genuinely good shooting opportunities. That was the only real missing piece today. Repeatedly, they unlocked the first line of defense and found themselves with the ball in space, moving forward with speed, and looking for chances. But also repeatedly they were stopped by a Nigerian defender stepping up, or their cross sailed over the heads of everyone, or they simply let the ball get too far away from them and lost their angle.
Of course, this is precisely where Dzenifer Maroszán could be critical. She made the bench today, after missing the past two games entirely with a broken toe. If she can make a full return, she will be the exact sort of player Germany have been missing—the connecting force who can receive the ball near the top of the box and take the final touch or make the final pass which generates a clean chance.
For Nigeria, the World Cup ended here, in a frustrating game against a team who gave them very little to work with. They certainly weren’t completely shut out, and were able to produce a couple decent chances that might have swung the game back in their direction. And as discussed above, the goals were all definitely fixable mistakes rather than examples of being truly outmatched. At the same time, it also took some exceptional defensive recoveries to keep the margin where it was, and while VAR is certainly annoying, it did get all the calls right.
Norway 1 – 1 Australia – Norway advance on penalties (4-1)
This was an absolutely bonkers game, which contained just about everything you could hope for in a soccer match, with the one exception of ‘good teams playing well.’ But if you could just accept that it was going to be a wild and crazy, end-to-end explosion of emotions then it sure was a lot of fun.
The openness didn’t really feel like a plan by either team. It was just a game played at a crazy tempo without a huge amount of execution. There were plenty of beautiful passes, wonderful touches, great tackles. But there were also plenty of misplaced balls, terrible touches, confusing decisions, crosses to no one in particular.
On balance, Norway were the better team, but it wasn’t by a huge margin. They did get the early goal and held the lead for most of the game. But they weren’t especially comfortable in the process, and seemed to drop back into a crouch far earlier than they probably should.
Australia’s hopes generally rise and fall with Sam Kerr, and she wasn’t able to get a whole lot going here. But that was less do with poor play from her than it had to do with Australia’s frailty in the middle third of the pitch. In my preview, I suggested that Norway might try to clamp down in that space to starve Kerr of the ball, but that’s not actually what happened. Given the quickness of play, no one was clamping down on anything. The Australian midfield just couldn’t find her, and the Norwegian defense generally stuck close enough to keep her under wraps once she did get the ball. All that said, Kerr was given enough to work with that you’d probably expect her to have found a goal somewhere. But she didn’t. And so once Kennedy was sent off for a Denial of a Goal Scoring Opportunity, Australia were reduced to hanging on for dear life to go to penalties.
And then once they got there, it all fell apart.
I feel awful for Kerr, who really is the best in the world – or at a minimum one of the two or three best – and deserved more chances to show what she’s capable of. But unfortunately for her, the Australia team has kind of fallen apart in the past six months, so it’s hardly surprising at this point to see them go out.
I’m sure there will be more written about this Australia team, and some serious questions asked about the relentless schedule that these players have followed over the past few years. But for now, we unfortunately have to say goodbye to the Matildas.
The subtle racism with which commentators describe African teams really went into high gear today, with all the subtlety wiped away.
“Somehow #NGA keeps making it to the #worldcup based on their athleticism. Finally with Dennerby they have a proper coach to teach them proper tactical and technical aspects of their game”. Her exact words. #WWC19 #FIFAWWC — Max Siollun (@maxsiollun) June 22, 2019
A brief summary of today’s awfulness is here. I’m sure more will be written about this, but if you want a quick breakdown of what goes wrong when you engage this separation between ‘tactics’ and ‘athleticism,’ above and beyond the laziness and stereotyping, check out this thread from Michael Caley.
The long and short is that the way Fox commentators have discussed teams primarily composed of black players is absolutely shameful and it’s frankly appalling that they haven’t publicly apologized and specifically reprimanded the people who keep saying this stuff.
Tomorrow we’ll see England v. Cameroon in the early game and France v. Brazil in the late one. Remember that you can check out my preview of each game in this round here.
I will unfortunately be leaving France for a couple days. I have a conference in Newcastle, and won’t be back until the first quarterfinal in Le Havre on the 27th. That does however mean I’ll get a chance to watch England tomorrow in England. Hopefully I can find a good crowd to watch with.