What can difficult matches for France and the USWNT tell us about the World Cup favorites?
The two World Cup favorites are through to the quarterfinals. France and the United States are set to square-off in the match of the tournament, in a game that many expect will determine the ultimate World Cup winner. But both struggled to get there, being tested, respectively, by Brazil and Spain. And, surprisingly, rather than their weaknesses being exposed, it was the areas where both teams were thought to be strongest, where cracks emerged.
The conventional wisdom about the United States is that while their attack might be high powered, defensively they can, at times, be shaky. That certainly seemed to be the case when, after taking the lead thanks to a sixth minute penalty, a horrible mix-up at the back between Becky Sauerbrunn and Alyssa Naeher led to a gift of an equalizer.
But, from that moment on, despite sometimes seeming dangerous, Spain actually generated very little in attack. The underdogs took a grand total of four shots, and none from closer than the edge of the penalty area.
What Spain did do is cross the ball a lot. They targeted Crystal Dunn on the left side of the American defense, and worked the ball down the flank to Lucía García, who then was asked to supply service into the box. But that service never amounted to anything.
Although Dunne was unable to prevent service from coming in, the rest of the defensive line was consistently well positioned to deal with the never ending stream of crosses, and despite her reputation for shakiness, Naeher put in a strong, aggressive performance commanding her box. She claimed six of the 41 balls that were theoretically within her range, when on average a keeper might have been expected to claim only four.
Spain didn’t ask difficult questions of the American defense, and the easy ones, which they asked quite frequently, were answered with ease. The problem is that the vaunted American attack didn’t live up to their reputation. Outside of the two penalties they were awarded, the favorites took nine shots which amounted to only 0.88 expected goals
This might be excusable if the side was protecting a lead for most of the match, but they were not. There were two minutes between when the team scored the opening penalty, and Spain’s equalizer, and then it wasn’t until the 75th minute when the second penalty was awarded. And after the 16th minute the U.S. didn’t have a single shot from open play valued at over 0.05 xG.
There are reasons for that. Lindsey Horan, who might be the best all-around midfielder in the world, was held in reserve, possibly because she was carrying a yellow card. Alex Morgan, the team’s iconic center forward had a poor game, spent a lot of time picking herself up off the ground after being kicked, and is possibly carrying an injury (she was subbed off at halftime of the team’s third group stage game against Sweden). Sometimes a team just doesn’t play well.
Still, the main takeaway from Spain’s surprisingly game performance is not that the U.S. is vulnerable defensively, although it’s possible to see how a better team might have turned their copious crossing opportunities into more dangerous goal scoring chances, but rather that sometimes that vaunted attack can, in fact, be slowed down.
The opposite is true of France. France’s attack has been somewhat underwhelming all tournament. The side has largely relied on the impeccable set piece skills of Wendie Renaud, and doing just enough to put opponents away before playing incredibly stingy defense. That’s what made the fact that they conceded 12 shots to Brazil so surprising (even accounting for extra time). This was a side that gave up 12 shots total in the group stage. And it’s not like the group stage was a walkover. They held Norway, a fellow quarterfinalist to just five shots, and Nigeria who took eight shots against Germany in the their knockout round loss, to just two.
The moment of the match, of course, came in extra time when Debinha shook free on France’s left, cut inside the penalty area, scooped her shot comfortably around on-rushing keeper Sarah Bouhaddi only to see backtracking defender Griedge Mbock Bathy make the defensive play of the tournament and block the shot before it nestled in the far side of goal.
The irony of that moment is that it’s one of only two shots that Brazil managed after the regulation 90 minutes were finished. Cristiane took an early long-range audacious effort before being forced off through injury, but other than the spectacular Debinha attempt, that was it for Brazil. France meanwhile poured on the pressure, taking eight shots (after only taking six in the first 90 minutes) including Amandine Henry’s winning header.
France have an immensely talented squad but they have largely chosen to deploy that squad to win games with as little defensive risk as possible. Against Brazil that meant a conservative 90 minutes. But when regulation finished, the approach changed. They ramped up the pressure, poured on the shots, and also gave away an extremely dangerous counterattack, which, if not for a defensive miracle could have seen them shockingly sent home. On balance, they were the better team, but the France approach is supposed to insulate them from conceding exactly the kind of high value shot that Brazil put on them in extra time.
There’s no doubt that France and the U.S. are the two best teams in this World Cup. They came in as favorites, and they remain so. But, if the tournament has taught us anything, it’s not that the two teams expected weaknesses can be exploited, rather it’s that both Spain and Brazil were able, for stretches of time, to make the parts of the favorites’ game that were supposed to be their strengths, appear relatively ordinary. After watching them struggle to break down Spain, France will feel better about their chances to hold the U.S. And after watching Debinha come within inches of knocking France out, the U.S. will see a defense that might be there for the taking. On Friday we’ll see if that changes either side’s plan of attack.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association