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June 19, 2019

What do we now know about the World Cup winner wannabes?

By Mark Thompson
Image Courtesy of Press Association
France centre-back Wendie Renard

With the closing of the group stage, the 2019 World Cup is beginning to take shape. While individual matches may have swung to-and-fro in a way that quite often seems to have gone against the scales of justice, the qualified teams are, so far, as expected.

France and Norway from Group A have qualified; Group B took through Germany and Spain, with China as one of the best third-placed teams; Italy have been a slight surprise in Group C, but larger nations Brazil and Australia have also made the round of 16.

With the groups shaping up more or less as expected, the pool of potential winners hasn’t changed much (and the chances of a France-USA quarter-final are still very much alive). But, knowing a little more about how each side is performing now that the tournament is underway, it’s a good time to look into some key things to draw out about each of the contenders.

Hosts France drew a lot of attention with their incredibly effective use of 6’2” Wendie Renard, scoring two goals from two headed shots against the Korea Republic in the opening game of the tournament. As Aaron West pointed out on Twitter, Renard isn’t just a threat in the air because of her height.

However, future opponents of France might want to note that they take very different corners from one side to the other. From their right, things look fairly conventional, although the amount of balls that the they lose in the six-yard box is representative of the amount of players that teams are putting in that zone since the Korea game.

But from the left-hand side, France are much more prone to take the corner short (and also have fewer of them, a symbol of a bit of a right-sided skew in their attack).

Whether France are varying their routines or Renard is just less of a threat than first thought, she’s been less active in the second two rounds of Group B action. After her two goals against Korea, she’s taken just one further headed shot.

A possible lack, or drying up, of service is something that the Netherlands might have on their minds. After two comfortable enough victories against Cameroon and New Zealand it won’t be a major concern, but despite becoming the nation’s leading scorer, Vivanne Miedema hasn’t gotten the chances that she did in the league this season.

Part of this may just be the change in levels between Arsenal’s strength relative to the rest of the FA Women’s Super League and the Netherlands relative to their World Cup opposition, but the difference in their shot maps is stark. Barring one chance, all of her World Cup shots close to goal have been headers and the average expected goals value of her shots has halved.

This will be more a sign about how Miedema fits into the Dutch attack versus the way that Arsenal play, but anyone expecting the type of output she showed this domestic season (22 goals, 11 assists, in 20 league appearances) will be disappointed.

Their fellow major Group E team, Canada, may have a marginally inferior goal difference, but it seems the Canadians have one of the sharpest defences at the tournament.

Far from the image as warm and cuddly sharers, the Canadians have hogged the shots in their matches, allowing just six while taking 38. And, even more impressively, all six of those shots have been low value.

Expected goals value distribution of shots against Canada WNT.

Looks can be deceiving though. Take a look at Germany. Although they’ve gotten through Group B as group winners on nine points, in their two games against Spain and China their expected goals didn’t even break even (0.79 vs 0.83 expected goals per game).

Using expected goals over such a small sample has its limitations, but it also doesn’t fill one with confidence. They won each of those games 1-0, with the goals coming from one worldie (well, ish) and one tap-in rebound.

Germany certainly might have been good enough to deserve to go through the group, and their 4-0 win over South Africa will have given the team a reason to be confident, but are they three-wins-from-three good? Maybe not.

Speaking of ‘are they actually that good’, who knows how good the United States are? A 13-0 against Thailand and 3-0 against Chile is a hell of a way to run up a good goal difference but less of a good way for everyone to establish just how well they’ll fare against the other contenders when they come up against them.

They were basically joint-favourites with France before the tournament for a reason, but most of the other big teams will have had to test themselves a little more. The final group game against Sweden could do the trick, but who knows. And that’s the thing! Who knows?

But, finally, England. They’ll round off their group stage later tonight (on day of publishing) and it’ll be interesting to see who Phil Neville plays as the main striker. Ellen White played in the opener against Scotland while Jodie Taylor was chosen to face Argentina, and scored the only goal of the game.

However, Ellen White’s work-rate defending from the front is immense. After the first two rounds of matches, she’d made the most pressures in the opponent’s defensive third of the pitch out of anyone in the tournament (31). That includes players who’d played both of their first two games. On a per-appearance basis, the next-closest players were three on 13.

Carly Telford also started that match against Argentina, her first appearance at a World Cup, with right-back Rachel Daly coming on as a second-half substitute for Lucy Bronze, who’s not just considered one of the best right-backs in the world, but one of the best players full-stop. If one was being cynical (and quite possibly unfair), one might suggest that Neville was giving some of his more experienced squad players a run-out against the weakest side in the group vs Argentina, that there isn’t really a ‘Taylor or White’ decision at all, and that the latter is a shoo-in to start against Japan.

Looking at the defensive work she puts in, there’d be good reason to make that choice.

Article by Mark Thompson