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July 11, 2019

A World Cup round-up

By Mark Thompson
Image Courtesy of Press Association
The Women's World Cup trophy held aloft by winners the United States

By the time you read this, the United States women’s national team might have recovered from their seeming three-day bender, but the magic, theĀ magic, that was the 2019 World Cup will still live on, in our hearts.

It’s time for a round-up. Jill Ellis came in for a degree of flack in certain circles of Twitter for the States’ style of play and their bypassing of midfield, where some of their best players are. Was that fair? While the US made the fourth-most crosses per game (14), these crosses made up a very small percentage of their pass attempts into the opposition penalty area (they had the fifth-lowest rate for this). Even if only including the knock-out round, their rate of relying on crosses to get the ball into the box stays at a similar level nudging up from 28% to 30%.

I’m acutely aware that I’m probably not representing the complaints of the Ellis-sceptics (I tried, believe me), but they can point to the games against France and England as supporting evidence of their cause. Although the United States comfortably beat Spain and the Netherlands in the knock-outs – not just in attack, but limiting their opponents to just 0.26 expected goals in the two games combined – those two marquee matches were more of a coin-flip.

England weren’t just a penalty away from extra-time in scoreline-terms, take that chance out and the two sides would have been neck-and-neck in chance quality terms.

There have been murmurings of discontent in both England and France after their exits to the United States – about the stage at which the exit came, rather than the opponent – but they should be reassured by how close they came in these matches. If things had gone slightly differently, then perhaps it would be the French players sharing their celebrations on Instagram and the United States going through a period of crisis.

Something else to note for the Ellis-sceptics is that the United States’ final shots came in the 64th minute against France and the 58th minute against England. Teams often change strategy to protect a lead, but this is a whole different level of it, and very probably not an ideal one.

That is, I’m sure, enough on the Americans. The World Cup wasn’t just about them, and there were so many players who caught the eye. Caroline Graham Hansen was the one who many were drawn to (and was highlighted before the tournament started by Katja Kragelund), but the dribble queen of the tournament was Cameroon’s Ajara Nchout, who averaged 6.14 successful dribbles per 90 minutes at a 78% success rate. While we’re on dribbling, shout-out to Abbie McManus, whose only successful dribble in the tournament was also a nutmeg – we’ll keep the victim a secret to spare their blushes.

Spain were a collective ‘one to watch’, their rise since 2015 showing the power that can come through an at-least-slightly supportive mix of FA, clubs, and public. Jenni Hermoso and Lucia Garcia were two stars of the attack, but some ‘wow, those are good stats’ praise should be sent the way of full-back Marta Corredera.

She put up some incredibly high defensive numbers, as well as dribble and ball progression figures. Full-backs are becoming household names on a slightly more frequent basis nowadays, and Corredera was up there alongside the best of them.

It would be utterly remiss of me not to mention the player who, as an Englishman, I say was the true best player of the World Cup, Ellen White. She gave opponents no rest, pressing them more consistently than most, if not all, forwards at the tournament, and coupling it with a fantastic ability to find space to have, and finish, high-quality chances. A remarkable 64% of her open-play, non-headed shots came with zero outfield defenders between her and goal. Out of the strikers to take ten or more of these shots, only Sam Kerr and the aforementioned Graham Hansen bettered it.

Her performances in France will reassure Manchester City, who brought her in just before the World Cup started to replace compatriot Nikita Parris next season, with Parris joining a long line of world stars at Lyon. The World Cup has brought domestic leagues into sharper focus across the board, with fans worldwide calling on their FAs to build on this summer success (or invest due to a lack of it) and grow the women’s game. One can only hope that, by 2023, these discussions and fan- and player-led protests are no longer even needed.

Talking about the present and the future and things away from the pitch, editing the World Cup coverage for StatsBomb was a dream. I’ve referenced pieces by Katja (on Norway) and Michele Taylor (on Spain) already, but each of the freelancers was great, Rachel Rose Gold on Jamaica, Anushree Nande on stand-outs of the group stage, and Eilidh Thomson breaking down the Netherlands-Sweden semi-final. Me and regular editor Mike Goodman popped up with some articles now and then too.

Playing with the freely available StatsBomb data for some of my articles was also particularly fun, and I’d urge anyone interested in stats to check it out and poke around. The pressures data in particular is something that’s a whole new world to explore, and the data even has an expected goals model and sequences framework built in so that you don’t have to create those things yourself. You can find more information about how to get started here and StatsBomb have their own R package to help you work with the data here.

Article by Mark Thompson