In their first game of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Canada Shithouse Queened their way to a 1-0 win over Cameroon, a not-very-good team, in efficient if unattractive style. A few days later they beat New Zealand, theoretically better, up and down the pitch, won 2-0, and despite New Zealand’s negative tactics looked plenty dangerous. What the hell gives?
The game was close to perfect. Fifteen minutes in Nichelle Prince and Janine Beckie had already snatched half-chances, Canada had something like 70% of the possession, and New Zealand was out of it. But when a Beckie cross broke C.J. Bott’s wrist by a fluke she was down for nearly three minutes before being helped off. From the resulting corner Sinclair hit the crossbar and Buchanan headed her follow-up into Rebekah Stott, but referee Yoshimi Yamashita was as rattled as everyone else, imposed herself on the game a bit, the fans got stupid1, a few more New Zealanders went down for injury breaks less justifiable than Bott’s, and at the end of the first half the flow died, which suited New Zealand just fine.
In the second half the peace was shattered by Canada’s big guns, we came out on the attack, stayed that way, and made it look easy. A 2-0 loss flattered the Footie Ferns, but the players were not thinking “it could have been four” I think: Jessie Fleming’s delight and relief on scoring her first World Cup goal was obvious from a long way off. That goal and Prince’s meant our first two-goal game in a Women’s World Cup since September 20, 2007, when we drew Australia 2-2 and allowed a stoppage-time goal to Cheryl Salisbury that eliminated us in the group stage. It is also our first two-win performance in a World Cup group stage since 2003, when we beat Argentina and pre-apex Japan, though the groups were tougher in those days. We finished fourth in that World Cup, our best result ever.
Chris Henderson gave New Zealand 0.06 expected goals against Canada. As of close of play Monday this is the fifth-best defensive figure of the tournament so far by Henderson’s analysis2 and the second-best against a real team3. We also generated 3.60, which is high for us, and made for far better statistics than Canada earned against Cameroon, where our 1-0 win was safe but nothing like this good.
Is it because New Zealand is actually worse than Cameroon? It may be (they play on Thursday) but New Zealand has underperformed. Offensively they’re not much but they don’t belong in the category with Chile, Argentina, and Thailand that the Canada game placed them into: they so nearly got a point against the Dutch in a much closer game with 0.63 expected goals and 2.70 expected goals against. The Dutch, on the other hand, handled Cameroon easily despite conceding a goal and some other half-chances. Group E has sorted itself into a top half of Canada and the Netherlands, and a bottom half of Cameroon and New Zealand, which was predictable, but the gap between those two halves and the closeness within them was not.
Partially the New Zealand game was a justification of Cameroon’s tactics: their aggressive early press against Canada punished them in end and did so even more severely against the Netherlands and Vivianne Miedema, but it kept the game closer than New Zealand’s unimaginative bunker. Partially I think it was the conditions: a rainy day, like that in Montpellier, can favour a team pouring out its energy and sliding into everything, but while there’d been a veritable monsoon earlier on game day in Grenoble, by kickoff time it was the most perfect evening and even the pitch was drying out. It was also late (the local time at kickoff was 9 PM), and New Zealand had the crowd against them while Cameroon had the crowd on their side, and the ref called a better game, and when you’re outclassed those mental issues add up. Finally, Canada just played better against New Zealand than we did against Cameroon.
After a conventional kickoff Kenneth Heiner-Møller ran out essentially a 3-4-3, with Shelina Zadorsky, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Sophie Schmidt in the back, a middle four of Ashley Lawrence, Desiree Scott, Jessie Fleming, and Jayde Riviere, and Janine Beckie, Christine Sinclair, and Nichelle Prince up top, though it was very fluid. Against a team that wanted to bunker for its life against the Canadian attack (!!!) it paid off handsomely. Buchanan and Schmidt between them give Canada a lot of defensive ball-playing ability. Lawrence pretty much did whatever she wanted and was very effective. Beckie and Sinclair both could have scored; Prince, after an appalling start, did. Despite the theoretically-attacking setup New Zealand had neither the ability nor the inclination to create anything against it; when a coach loads up his attack and not only scored a few but gets his best defensive result in some time, you should give the coach a little credit. New Zealand boss Tom Sermanni worked with Canada and John Herdman in 2015, so maybe Heiner-Møller wanted to hit the old man with the unexpected. If he did it worked.
Not that the coach foresaw everything. First half Nichelle Prince was bad. She wasted runs, wasted balls, wasted everyone’s time. It looked like Heiner-Møller was going to bring Adriana Leon on to start the second half, probably for Prince: Leon was warming up separately with her pinnie off in the style of an impending change. But she went back to the locker room during the break to emerge, still pinnie-less, after play had resumed, then took sprints on the touchline to warm back up. The next stoppage in play was from the Fleming goal, assisted excellently by Prince, and the substitution was canceled. Prince of course was beyond New Zealand’s level for the rest of the game. Credit to Prince for rallying but sometimes a coach has to be lucky to be good.
Riviere made her sixth senior cap, her second senior start, and her first senior tournament appearance. An eighteen-year-old Canadian woman never really has a fixed position but Riviere’s historically been a winger, so this was a change. But she looked terrific, discharging her light defensive duties perfectly and playing the ball with élan that recalled a higher-energy Lawrence. The change from Riviere to Allysha Chapman was effective as well, the stiletto replaced by an athletic sock with a brick in it. Sinclair did not have her finest game and made some mistakes but deserved a goal; it was that sort of night. Finally Desiree Scott, omnipresent, was man of the match; at times she looked like scoring a goal, which would have been the crowning glory given that in 145 caps she’s never managed it. Still, though we all want Sinclair to break the record and Scott to break her goose-egg, those were the only flaws in a performance to gladden the heart of any Canada fan.
Well, there is one other problem. You can’t really play that way against the Netherlands. As good as Riviere looked, Shanice van de Sanden and especially Lieke Martens would expose her defensively; she’s played maybe an hour of her life against talent like that. Perhaps if you throw Chapman back in for Riviere, you get away with it, but even then your back three is spending less time freewheeling creatively and more time babysitting a far more dangerous Dutch attack, and the first time Vivianne Miedema gets a break against Sophie Schmidt hearts are going to enter throats. In an abstract way I do think Canada should expose itself a bit more even against good teams, and the indifferent Dutch defense means that we could surely give as good as we got, but part of the reason the New Zealand game looked so stirring is that Canada has so infrequently played that way. Let’s keep it in our back pocket as a reserve tactic, and let’s be glad that Sarina Wiegman has one more thing to worry about, but likely the Dutch—and most games in the knockout stages, very likely—call for more classic Canadian Shithouse Queenery. Sorry, viewers.
- The crowd was broadly pro-Canadian and the local ultras made some noise in Canada’s favour, which was nice of them, but obviously they were mostly there for a good time. There was about a fifteen-minute stretch where the crowd was simultaneously doing two waves, in both directions, and a bastardized Iceland clap. Meanwhile the main group of traveling Voyageurs was seated in a very central row and had to remain seated out of simple politeness. Atmosphere was hard to come by.
- Behind the United States holding Chile to 0.01, England holding Argentina to 0.02, and the United States holding Thailand to 0.03. After publication but on the same day, Spain held China to 0.03.
- Behind Spain – China. Next best: France holding South Korea to 0.20 in the opener.