Thoughts on the Copa América after two matchdays

It’s been a week — and two matchdays — since the Copa América started in Brazil. The sample space is a little too small to make definitive judgments on the tournament, but it’s possible to make observations on the play and performances so far. So here we go:

  • Copa América has not been a box-office success. Attendance at the tournament has been sparse to say the least. And that’s including Brazil matches. To be sure, the matches involving countries with large traveling support — Colombia, Chile, and Argentina — have been well-attended, but many of the more expensive seats have been left unoccupied. Maybe the attendance will tick up during the knockout phase, but one begins to understand why the USA becomes a more attractive candidate to host the tournament.
  • Copa América has been cagey. One of the stereotypes of South American football is that it’s a mixture of attractive and technical football with a healthy scoop of the dark arts swirled in. The reality of the Copa América is one of more cagey and physical encounters with a few teams willing to play attractive football (and getting punished for doing so in the later stages). If the 2011 Copa could be characterized as tight and defensive, and the 2016 Copa América Centenario described as more expansive, perhaps this version will reside in the middle.
  • The top players in xG and xA are the ones you would expect. In terms of total expected goals, the five players who have generated the most are the following: Luís Suárez (Uruguay), Erick Pulgar (Colombia), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Philippe Coutinho (Brazil), and Edinson Cavani (Uruguay). With the exception of Pulgar, who is just entering his prime years as a defensive midfielder, those five players have been at or near the peak of world football for the last five to seven years or longer. (That’s a stretch in Coutinho’s case, to be sure.) The top five in terms of total expected assists: Messi, James Rodríguez (Colombia), Charles Aránguiz (Chile), Coutinho, and Paolo Guerrero (Peru). Once again, the players at or near the top of South American football are in this group.
  • The top players in xG and xA from open play are much more revealing. Luís Suárez remains on top of the xG list, which isn’t too surprising, but he’s followed by Alexis Sánchez (Chile), Duván Zapata (Colombia), Jefferson Farfán (Peru), and Cavani. Coutinho is the highest-ranked Brazilian in open-play xG (6th overall), but the highest-ranked Argentine, Giovani Lo Celso, is 24th overall. At the top of the xA list are Guerrero, Coutinho, Farfán, Wilmar Barrios (Colombia), and Mateus Uribe (Colombia). Messi ranks 13th in open-play xA.
  • Without Lionel Messi, Argentina would be in a much worse state. That’s not an original observation, and it’s one that many other commentators and pundits have made more frequently over the last six to eight years. But in a national team stocked with players who have distinguished roles for their club sides, it is shocking to see Messi have such a significant share of Argentina’s expected goals and assists — 44% and 41%, respectively.
  • Japan and Qatar have acquitted themselves well, even though results don’t show it. Japan brought a team that is a B team with some veteran players mixed in, and they were promptly swept aside by Chile in their opener. They improved significantly against Uruguay, taking the lead twice before they drew in what was the most entertaining match of the tournament so far. Qatar fought back to draw a complacent Paraguay in their first match, then proved difficult to break down against Colombia. Both teams have very negative expected goal differences — Qatar has 1.29 xG and 5.16 xGA, Japan 2.43 xG and 7.46 xGA — but have overachieved in terms of points won.
  • Uruguay look like a candidate for the title. They have arguably the best strikers, the best defense, and the best and most adaptable manager. Brazil’s defense is just as good, but their forward attack hasn’t been as good at converting the many chances offered to them. Chile and Colombia also have a chance, but Chile have a better defense. Peru can’t be ignored, either. But in a Copa América in which neither Brazil nor Argentina have been at their best, it is set up very nicely for Uruguay to win it at the Maracanã on 7 July. After all, they have experience winning there before.