Adam Chernoff breaks down the addition of Qatar and Japan to this year’s Copa America and finds a couple of betting angles in their respective first group games.
It has been just under eleven months since France defeated Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup Final, but we finally have some international football to talk about! Hopefully everyone had a fantastic domestic league season and I look forward to being back here with everyone throughout the duration of Copa America. Keep an eye on the feed for plenty of video content and periscopes to come as I will join in with the Matchbook pros, Sully and Mark O’Haire.
World Cup 2018 finished with a record of 14-9-2 (+7.65x).
I think we can match that throughout Copa America.
Here we go…
“We Look Forward To Gaining As Much Experience As Possible”
These were the words out of Qatar head coach Felix Sanchez when asked of the expectation for his team at Copa America. Fitting words for a team with an average age of 24 years, but concerning for any punter looking to back the side to win a match.
I am not here to speculate on conspiracies, but I do find it interesting shortly after “Qatar Airways” was splashed on the sideline advertisement boards at all CONMEBOL competitions that Qatar was invited to Copa America.
It would be extremely easy to get caught up in betting on narratives regarding who has what hand in which pocket, but I would prefer to keep my focus on the pitch and find the edge in the betting market that way.
As mentioned, Qatar is a young – very young – squad. They are also a very small squad too. On defence, there is only one player taller than 1.85m (6 feet). In attack, Almoez Ali is their tallest player standing at 1.79m (5 feet 9 inches).
Many bettors are going to point to the success in the Asian Cup where the team conceded just one goal and assume the side is a physical defensive team, but that is not the case.
The reason Qatar had success was due to their pace and no opponent challenging them physically. Qatar is extremely quick building up in midfield and Ali is a very good finisher. But watching their Asian Cup matches on YouTube and through steams, the amount of space the team had in midfield and time to make decisions was shocking.
Pricing Is Tricky In International Play
Pricing a team in international play, especially a team like Qatar where there is no previous precedence against South American clubs can be extremely difficult. The same thing occurs in opening matches at the World Cup between two first time qualifiers from different federations. In World Cup play, there is at least some previous expectation from Qualifying matches against top tier opponents. Copa America is played in an off year with no qualification matches played between the World Cup and the start of the tournament. Players can come in cold, but so can markets. In terms of pricing Qatar, a lot of their number is going to be narrative based and focus on the Asian Cup.
On paper, seven wins, zero draws, zero losses and a goal differential of 19:1 looks very impressive. Dig deeper, and some question marks appear. Qatar played Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, North Korea, Iraq, South Korea, UAE and Japan. I hate quoting FIFA international rankings, but for the sake of providing a consistent data point, it is worth noting that those teams rank, 72, 86, 121, 76, 37, 67 and 26 respectively. The only two victories that stand out were against Korea and Japan. Iran, the best team in the AFC was avoided.
Travel and proximity worked heavily in favour of Qatar for those two matches both played in Abu Dhabi. Qatar fans were not allowed to enter the stadium (or country) due to political reasons, but Japanese and Korean fans were hard pressed too with much of the seats being sold to high bidders and royalty. There is an enormous language, culture, food and facility difference for Japan and Korea – not to mention a 7,500km distance from home, in comparison to Qatar and only 400km.
It is easy to nitpick after the fact, but I do not grade the cup victory for Qatar nearly as high as the market seems to be.
To really put a stamp on the victory, Qatar was outshot in six of seven matches. I can’t find any xG data on the tournament, but a negative shot differential and a +18 goal differential surely suggests an outlier performance.
Turmoil, Change, Scepticism and Optimism
I am not sure there are four words to better describe Paraguay entering Copa America and 2022 qualifying. The team landed a big-name manager in Juan Carlos Osorio who lasted for two matches before departing in February. Enter Eduardo Berizzo. The 49-year-old former centre back will have a total of three friendlies managed with Paraguay before the opening match against Qatar two of which were losses to Peru and Mexico. In his managerial career, Berizzo has a win percentage of just 44% across Spain, Chile and Argentina.
There is plenty of scepticism within Paraguay as they were forced to make the decision on a manager overnight in anticipation of this tournament and upcoming qualification. I am bullish on Berizzo in this tournament and for upcoming qualification matches for a few reasons.
The first is that tactically, he is quite vanilla. While that might sound like a negative, on such a tight timeline and turnaround, the less of a system to impose, the better.
The second is that he is entering the set up in a change over between veteran and youth. Paulo da Silva and Roque Santa Cruz are both off of the team for the first time since 1999 which opens up space for new leading centre backs and strikers of which Berizzo is spoiled for choice.
The third is the overall talent of the squad. At $120M estimated value, Paraguay is currently the 5th most valuable club in CONMEBOL.
There are a few things I know about the opening match for certain.
Qatar is going to start off very cautious. The team is extremely organized, but as demonstrated in the Asian Cup, they do not work to dominate possession or control the ball. A lot can be said about the nerves of the young players early in the match too. This will be the biggest match for any of the players in their career, and it is being played at the highly intimidating Maracanã.
The biggest matchup advance on the pitch is the Paraguay backline vs the Qatar attack. In recent competitions, Paraguay has struggled on defence. Throughout training, Berizzo has put an emphasis on the backline. Bruno Valdez and Gustavo Gomez are both in form at America (Mexico) and Palmeiras (Brazil). The two of them are tall, physical centre backs and excel at winning the ball in the air. Their physicality is going to be a big deal against the small Qatar attack.
Eliminating the wing play in the air is going to force Qatar to create in the middle of the field. Paraguay has plenty of options to collapse in the middle and eliminate space.
The latter stages of the match will turn into Paraguay trying to work a way to crack the defence of Qatar. This is going to be the biggest challenge and it becomes a matter of Berizzo putting out the right options. The obvious choice is to put 27-year-old Federico Santander at striker and play with 3 mids behind him in a 4-2-3-1. This is likely where the team will start the match in order to protect their backline. Once the control is established, they may move into a more suitable narrow, free-flowing formation, either a 4-2-2-2 or an unintentional 4-1-2-1-2. The upside is that they can rely on their depth at central midfield to spark creativity and press Qatar in the back. The downside is it leaves their backline a bit exposed.
My preference would be to have Juan Iturbe and Federico Santander both on the field up front. Iturbe plays naturally to his left foot, while Santander plays naturally on his right side and has an extreme height advantage at 1.89 meters vs the small Qatar defence. Miguel Amiron is terrific with long balls up the middle, while guys like Matias Rojas and Hernan Perez both have size and a strong ability to get crosses inside.
Paraguay has a history of playing off the ball and the preference of playing off the ball in counter. This match against Qatar will be a new look for many bettors as the new youth of Paraguay will have a chance to shine through. Instead of waiting for the game to come to them, Paraguay can force the issue in the middle of the pitch and rely on their physicality and height advantage to eventually find the back of the net. With matches against Argentina and Colombia ahead, a full three points for Paraguay puts them in the driver’s seat to secure one of the top two third-place spots in the group with a single point from the next two matches.
The match may start slow, but Paraguay will wear out Qatar and muscle their way to a comfortable victory.
Just Wring His Neck!
In the TV sitcom Seinfeld, there is a famous scene where Kramer begins participating in Karate. The only issue is the fully-grown adult turns out to be battling young children. In one episode, one of the kids comes to the door of Kramer’s apartment to pick him up as his Mom was downstairs waiting for him in the car.
“You don’t need Karate – you can just wring his neck!” Jerry exclaimed in outrage to the fact that Kramer was fighting children.
What was true in the ’90s hilariously applies in many verticals to the opening match for Chile against Japan.
With full focus on the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo where football will feature, Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu elected to send a youth squad to Copa America. The team features 11 players who are 20 years of age or younger. Only six players on the 23-man roster have a cap for the national team. Not only is the lack of experience concerning, but the lack of size makes the aforementioned Qatar look like giants. The attack will be led by Tatsuya Ito, who stands just 1.6m tall and weighs only 57 kg. One of the few attacking veterans, Shinju Okazaki, is not much taller standing at just 1.7m.
If Chile manager, Reinaldo Rueda wants, he could put Lichnovsky and Maripan in at centreback who both are taller than 1.85m tall and have a size advantage over the Japanese attack that is almost too comical to believe. The more likely scenario is that Rueda will elect to combat the speed that Japan has in attack and take advantage of the size with the Chile attack against the inexperienced Japanese backline.
The combination of Medel, Jara, Isla and Beausejour is by far the most experienced group of defenders in South America. Aged 31, 33, 30 and 35 respectively, the four for Chile each have over 100 caps. When facing a team like Japan that can get craft with speed, continuity is key and Rueda will be very confident knowing that he will not have to work to get his defence playing in sync.
Handicapping Both Sides
Issues for Chile certainly exist. This side is ageing and has dealt with plenty of turmoil since missing the World Cup in 2018. There are also many questions surrounding the mindset of the club. Chile has not played a competitive match since October 2017. The 19-month layover and lack of form from top players is extremely concerning. Alexis Sanchez is being labelled as the worst transfer in Manchester United history after scoring just two goals during the Premier League season. His new TV deal just launched in Chile early in June and there are questions regarding his focus.
Vidal has fit into a more systemic role at Barcelona. Claudio Bravo is gone, and despite being dubbed two-time defending champions of Copa America, there is much more optimism in the youth of Chile than the household names.
The opening match against Japan should be a false glimmer of hope. This is the one matchup of Copa America where Chile can get by on their physical ability and experience. Japan is outmatched at every position on the pitch. Whether Rueda elects to go with the experienced back line and feature Vidal, Araguiz, Sanchez and Vargas upfront or put in youth in the form of Erick Pulgar and Nico Castillo, the continuity is enough to get them through this match with a comfortable victory.
The Japan outright price has plummeted since the announcement of the squad last week, and this market should continue to drop below 1.50 as kickoff approaches next week.
No concern taking the -0.75 handicap here.
- Paraguay (1.68). Risking 2.50x
- Chile -0.75 (1.60). Risking 1.50x