Monday, July 18, 2011

Why did the US lose, exactly?

The US women and Brazilian men both exited big tournaments yesterday on penalties.

And if you thought missing three spot-kicks was abject enough, the seleçao fluffed four in their Copa America clash with Paraguay (Elano, Thiago Silva, Andre Santos and Fred all failed). Not that that makes yesterday's loss in Germany feel any better.

"You need more than will to win matches," offered Brazilian manager Mano Menezes as an explanation for his side's shock defeat in Argentina. What does that mean - you need luck as well, an under-performing opponent and a benevolent referee? Well they all help.

The US could and should have beaten Japan. And equally Brazil ought to have won their quarter-final, bossing the game and attacking with verve but just failing to hit the onion bag. The Brazilians topped Paraguay in passes by almost two to one, in successful dribbles by 26 to five, in corners by eight to none, crosses by 37 to 11, in shots off target by 16 to five and shots on target by six to nothing. And they still lost.

Alas, FIFA's stats are not as thorough as CONMEBOL's: We learn that Japan had 53% of the ball - not surprising when you think of their patient build-up from the back, but could that also mean the US should have kept possession better when they were twice in the lead?

The US had 27 shots to Japan's 14, an impressive advantage apparently, until you read tellingly that the Japanese had more on target - six to five.

Nippon took their goals and most of their penalties clinically as their clockwork commitment to their own style and adherence to strategy, typically Asian soccer traits, paid off in the end.

Over here the commentators all picked up on coach Norio Sasaki's extraordinary zen on the touchline as the rollercoaster final failed to register on his inscrutable façade.

"He looks like he is waiting for a bus," one pundit opined as he leaned nonchalantly against the dug-out.

Sasaki's inner calm seemed to be shared amongst his team too, who did not panic or buckle under pressure. And he spotted a chink in the opposition armour -"When the Americans score a goal, they stop moving their feet. We saw that," he noted. "We came from behind so from a psychological viewpoint it was easier in the shootout." So Japan won the game in their heads and Pia Sundhage's side in contrast placed physical prowess above mental steel?

The passionate, high-tempo US game took more risks, yielding two goals but also letting two in, which perhaps zapped their penalty-takers of confidence. But it almost worked and in truth neither side knew how to play any other way.

We have seen this extraordinary work ethic before with South Korea in 2002 and even with North Korea scoring against Brazil in 2010 when beaten. Calling them robots would be unfair, as they are not lacking in creativity, but the oriental teams do not seem to know when their batteries have run out. Japan's men are fast improving and their 2010 World Cup wins over Cameroon and particularly Denmark were under-reported proofs of the serious advance of Asian football.

But did not luck play its part too last night? The blue shirts were on the ropes at the beginning, Abby Wambach hit the crossbar, Japan's first goal was served on a plate to Aya Miyama by hapless defending and Homare Sawa's winning flick could have gone anywhere too. Surely chance had a role to play in the Waldstadion.

Popular soccer wisdom often suggests you make your own luck - the more you attack and the more you shoot the more likely you are to get a fortunate deflection, an unsighted goalie or a perfect strike.

Yet Brazil's amazing stats from yesterday were not enough. Did the Paraguayans and Japanese then have invisible powers behind them?

"I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for this team," said Hope Solo about the Japanese win, probably alluding to the events of March this year and their emotional effect on the Nadeshiko eleven. Sasaki had shown them pictures of the traumatic aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami to inspire them beforehand.

"We had so much self-confidence all the way to the end and we all believed in ourselves all the way. That's why we won deservedly," explained MVP Sawa, a sentiment echoed by Japan's diminutive but excellent goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori -"I was very self-confident," she said. "I wanted to save all those shots coming at me."

"They clawed back, they fought back, they weren't rattled and they stayed composed," thought Heather O'Reilly.

So did Japan just keep calmer and believe more than the USA? Perhaps, although Wambach reminded us yesterday of the US team,

"We worked so hard. We believed in each other through everything."

And Carli Lloyd dispelled thoughts of divine forces at work -

"Deep down inside, I really thought it was our destiny to win it."

I am skeptical of the c-word in soccer - confidence. I remember Jay DeMerit telling me, with regard to Watford being stuck at the bottom of the Premier League, that you can have all the confidence and motivation in the world but if you do not have that quality in the first place...

Mind you, I also remember interviewing Japanese national team goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi when he played for Portsmouth and I was struck how many times he used the word confidence.

Why games pan out the way they do is a perennial debate with no clear answer and I do not know how to measure luck or compare footballing fortune to talent scientifically.

"We couldn't put away our chances," offered Sundhage. "It's a final. There's a small difference between winning and losing."

And you can't argue with that.

It was a fittingly pendular finale which was a great advert for the women's game. Here in Britain, unlike in the US, the media largely ignored it, with only England's quarter-final with France making it to live terrestrial TV after a campaign. But the final was only on cable and most newspapers have delegated it below summer transfer gossip today.

Next year of course we have to take more interest as we are hosting the Olympic Games and England morphs into 'Great Britain & Northern Ireland'. There has been a stampede for tickets in general but women's football has not sold out and I expect you will still be able to get in if you come along next summer. Please do.

Finally, danke schön Frankfurt for booing Sepp Blatter last night.

-Sean O'Conor


Phil McCracken said...

"Calling them robots would be unfair, but the oriental teams do not seem to know when their batteries have run out."

Good post, Sean, but you should change this to "Asian teams". It would read much better.

Greg Seltzer said...

Actually, and I could be mistaken, but he has not capitalized "oriental". I think it's a word play. At least, that's how I read it.

Sean O'Conor said...

Thanks Phil. I saw some style differences at this year's Asian Cup and the AFC includes nations as far west as Saudi Arabia and Iraq, as well as Australia of course.

I was referring to the high-profile 'East Asian' teams if you like - China, Japan and the Koreas, who seem similar in approach.

Incidentally, in Britain 'Asian' generally refers to people from the Indian subcontinent; further east is 'Oriental' to distinguish.

Greg Seltzer said...

Alright, never mind... it was just a typo after all. :D

Phil McCracken said...

Thanks for the clarification, Sean. That make sense.

Darius said...

I think a lot of Japan's negligible possession advantage is due to the back four passing amongst themselves--the front line of the U.S. dropped deep to help clog the midfield and deny Japan meaningful possession. In that respect, good tactics from Sundhage yesterday.

Matt said...

An excellent write up. That was a great game from both teams. And, in general, I think the Japanese (and South Korean) teams I've seen in the last few World Cups have been impressive. The South Korean team in 2002, in particular, was both very technical and could run all week. It was amazing.

Bummer about the women, but like Pia said, that could have gone either way, and I think it's great for the Japanese people to have to have something to rally around.

andrés said...

"Zen" and "oriental", c'mon Sean. I expect more from you. Whatever people call anyone from the region of Asia, Edward Said should have already cleared all of this up for anyone on both sides of the Atlantic.

Matt said...

@Andres: Sadly, I don't think Edward Said is widely read, at least not in the U.S.

bc said...

To change the subject a bit, I don't think people realize how incredible (and good) Sawa's goal was, largely because there was no good angle on the replays shown during the game.

You can see the missing reverse angle here:

BTM said...

Wow, that's pretty blurry, but I could swear Solo has it's lined up, but then it deflect's off Wambach's arm.

Sean O'Conor said...

@ Andres - Please talk football instead of nit-picking about terminology. Re-read my post about British English, and re-read Said too, who was writing about the Middle East, not the Far East.