The headline match on Tuesday did not disappoint. Despite the ultimate 0-0 scoreline, Mexico and Brazil played an entertaining, fast-paced match featuring an array of quality chances. It also ended with an upset draw, as Mexico held on to secure an unexpected point against the hosts and favorites. Any Brazilian struggle in a World Cup in Brazil is a story. There are a number of theories circulating about the lack of game-breaking pace in the Brazilian side, the struggles of its sub-elite forwards Fred and Jo, or about the side’s overdependence on Neymar to create chances. What caused Brazil to drop points against a capable but far less talented Mexican team?
My analysis suggests something simple. The Brazilians just did not finish their chances. Twice Brazil had huge opportunities. In the 44th minute a failed offside trap played Paulinho through on goal, but the midfielder’s toe-poke went straight into the chest of Mexican keeper Guillermo Ochoa. Late in the second half, Thiago Silva ran unmarked on a Neymar cross and connected for a booming header from the top of the six-yard box. He had acres of open goal to aim at, but the shot went straight for Ochoa again, who parried it wide. Those two shots had a combined xG value of nearly one goal, but poor finishing kept Brazil’s scoreline at zero. These were not Brazil’s only chances, but they were paradigmatic of a game in which finishing form never came for Brazil.
The squares on the map are sized proportionally to the expected goals value of the shot, and the two big yellow squares in front of goal represent the Paulinho and Silva chances. As you can see, there were several other good chances of somewhat lower expected value that also could not be converted. A through-ball to Jo in the second half, which he rushed and fluffed wide, stands out.
It should be noted the Ochoa did make one brilliant save on a Neymar header, pictured below. This wasn’t entirely Brazil’s struggles with finishing. But other than the Neymar save, for the most part Ochoa simply stood his ground on shots knocked at his chest.
I prefer, for the most part, not to talk about “good luck” or “bad luck” in finishing rates. I think it’s fair to say that Neymar was unfortunate not to score his header, and another keeper on another day perhaps does not make that save. But on the other danger zone shots in Brazil’s chart, all of Paulinho, Silva and Jo could have done better. They were not unlucky; they just didn’t make quite the right strike.
At the same time, finishing rates are highly variable. As James Grayson has shown, game-to-game there is very little persistence in shot conversion rates. When a team produces a passel of good chances but wastes them with bad finishing, it is rarely a sign that something is wrong with the team. The most likely conclusion is that it was just one of those days.
At the last World Cup, eventual champion Spain also had one of those days in the group stages. Opening against Switzerland, Spain attempted eight shots from the danger zone, including one assisted by a through-ball, but it could not put a single one past the keeper. From about two expected goals, Spain netted none.
This map even has a few more worrying signals in it than the one for Brazil-Mexico. When Spain pushed forward, its defense was vulnerable to the Swiss counterattack at times. Mexico by contrast was limited almost entirely to speculative shots from distance. But Spain’s attack recovered, and perhaps it never really had anywhere to recover from. It just had one of those days. We should expect Brazil to bounce back, just as Spain did four years ago.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
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Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.