What do the group stage numbers hint about the Women's World Cup knockout rounds?
Background image: Warren Smith
With the group stage concluded, it’s time to pop out the calculator and analyse performances in a vain attempt to predict who will hoist the trophy. Two dozen nations started the tournament; 16 remain. Let's look at the key stats to see who stands out.
If the ball is at your feet you can do anything in football except defend which, if you listen to Pep Guardiola, is the point. The other team cannot score unless you give away the ball. You, on the other hand, may attempt to vandalise an onion bag or two. Sometimes like to score early then absorb the pressure but one error can turn the game on its head. Holding the ball is in your best interest. Who does this best in women's football?
It shouldn't surprise anyone that is the United States. The three-time champions held the ball 69% of the time across their three group stage games.
As the football gods would have it, the second-best side in this department is the American's next opponent. In a much tougher group featuring both Germany and China, Spain held the ball 67% of the time. Can they make the USWNT chase the ball? Can they chase it themselves? The answers to those questions should determine the outcome of that match.
Of the teams that made it through, two African sides were the least adept at dictating the game. Nigeria and Cameroon each managed just 35% possession in the group stage.
Owning the ball may put teams at ease. They must still do something with it and the only thing that matters if you intend to emerge victoriously is scoring. To score, you must shoot and hit the target.
If you guessed that the United States were the most accurate shots in the tournament, you were wrong. Italy and Australia proved the most deadly markswomen as they contested Group C. Both forced the goalkeepers to work for a living with 44% of their shots. The Matildas took a few more shots and therefore edged the Azzurri eight to seven on goals. Put your hand down, Sam Kerr.
Spoiler alert: the United States wrapped up this category with 13 goals in their opening match against Thailand alone. No other country reached double digits. If you isolate that anomaly, however, the USWNT's 3-0 and 2-0 victories over Chile and Sweden respectively left them on 2.5 goals per 90. The Aussies managed 2.67. On the other hand, you remove the Matildas' result against Group C minnows, Jamaica, which accounted for half their tally, they're down to a pedestrian 2.0 per. So where does it stop?
At the other end of the last 16, China somehow found their way through while scoring just the one goal. No, they are not managed by Jose Mourinho.
To be fair to the Chinese, they ranked among the most staunch defences in the tournament, allowing just the one goal, that coming in their defeat to twice-champions Germany. France and England matched that level but, to be fair in turn to Les Bleus, their only concession was an own goal from defender Wendie Renard.
Germany and the United States were the two countries who failed to concede at all in the group stage. If goals win matches and defence wins trophies, there are your finalists.
At the opposite end, Australia and Cameroon were the most vulnerable sides. Each conceded five goals. For their part, the Matildas competed in the toughest group, in which three nations all finished on six points. There is no shame in giving up goals to Italy and Brazil. On the other hand, they were the only squad among the three to allow the Reggae Girlz to celebrate, thus failing to keep a clean sheet in any match.
Thanks to their romp against Thailand, the US rank top and joint top in attack and defence respectively. Germany is equally stingy but four teams were more clinical. Australia was one but they get nearly as good as they give, which is not the best thing.
France, England and the Netherlands join the United States and Germany with perfect records if they had to grind a little more to do so. The numbers predict a German/American final but that is the beauty of football and the bane of statistical analysis. One moment can change everything.