#029 - The World Cup Diaries - Day 18
It's a matter of milimeters or 0.039 inches.
Another exciting and drama filled day of football and another giant has been slayed. International football is unforgiving to your performance in front of goal and this was a good example.
Previous edition’s finalists were both in action today. Netherlands faced round of 16 debutants, South Africa, and USA were playing their permanent World Cup fixture against Sweden.
We saw our first added extra time and penalties today and we saw two goalies produce gargantuan performances.
And we saw another legend bid adieu to the game at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.
Let’s dissect this drama filled day!
Match 51: Netherlands 2-0 South Africa
The Orange Lionesses were up against Banyana Banyana in the round of 16 side which was an intriguing battle of styles. A more possession control based Netherlands against a direct and transition based approach from South Africa.
Andries Jonker lined up his side in his preferred 3-5-2 formation with Lieke Martens and Lineth Beerensteyn up front. The Dutch use asymmetric fullbacks when on the ball, pushing the left wing back, Esmee Brugts, very high up the pitch to offer width and serve as an outlet while Victoria Pelova takes up slight conservative position.
South Africa were in their 4-2-3-1 shape on the ball that morphed into a 4-5-1 shape against the ball. The idea was the clog the central corridor as much as possible, forcing some turnovers before launching a counter-attack.
The idea from Desiree Ellis’ side was to have their wide midfielders step up and close down the wide centerback on the ball while the rest of the players shadow block the passing lanes to the midfielders in the central corridor.
This forced them to go wide to near sided wingback where South Africa could trap them by the touchline while denying them time for the switch of play or go back to the goalkeeper and long. Jonker’s side attempted 97 longballs as a result compared to 63 from South Africa.
In this sequence of play, we can see this idea play out. The wide midfielder jumps out to press the wide center-back, while the central passing options are closely marked by the midfielders. This forces the centerback to go back and eventually long. They can then create duel situations and look to create turnovers.
The midfield was marshalled well for large parts by the double pivot of Bongeka Gamede and Kholosa Biyana as both shifted across the width of the pitch very well and marked the central options to force the Dutch wide. They helped in packing the central zones.
As soon as there is a turnover, Banyana Banyana jump into attack like a springboard promptly playing the vertical ball for the runners, especially Thembi Kgatlana. They took risks to immediately play the ball forwards, reflecting in their passing accuracy of just 61% in the game.
Look at these examples of the same. A turnover in midfield is quickly followed by a vertical pass and some brilliant ball carrying and dribbling. While there was some sloppy passing in the midfield from Netherlands, South Africa were great at forcing them to take these risks to turn the ball over. The pace of Kgatlana against the slow Dutch center-backs was a battle South Africa tried to force throughout the game.
The approach involved a lot of ball carrying from the forwards thus forcing 1v1 attacking duels in the final third. They have players adept at imposing themselves in 1v1 situations, especially on transition. This is reflected in the take-on numbers for the side. Banyana Banyana attempted 40 take-ons with a success rate of 47.5%, compared to Dutch’s 17 take-ons with 37.5% success rate.
Unfortunately they came up against Daphne van Domselaar, the find of last summer’s Euros for the Dutch.
Netherlands’ goals in this game weren’t exactly a result of sophisticated play. One of them came from a corner situation, in fact most of their xG came from this shot (0.93 to be precise), while the other was a poor handling mistake from the goalkeeper. South Africa for large parts of this game managed to keep a lid on the Dutch attack with their approach.
Kgatlana was the obvious outlet for South Africa. She was relentless with her running, often suboptimally closing down the goalkeeper alone. The Racing Louisville forward hit a speed of 33 km/hr in one of her sprints in the game, showing her frightening pace on transition situation.
She consistently drifted on the outside of the wide centerbacks to exploit the channel between the centerback and the aggressive wingbacks. You can notice this in the passes that she has received in this game. Her dribbling ability is also clearly evident in this.
Martens was key in the Dutch approach as she consistently positioned herself between the lines, especially in that left half-space zone, showing up to receive ball to feet. We can note this in her pass reception map as well, she added a lot of value via the virtue of her positioning. She was quick to face goalwards and release Beerensteyn in the channel with her passes. The former Barcelona winger showcased her well rounded facilitating forward play in the Dutch 3-5-2.
Netherlands will face Spain for a place in the final four of the competition. Danielle van de Donk will miss the first game for the Dutch in a World Cup due to accumulation of cards.
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Match 52: USA 0-0 Sweden (Sweden win 5-4 on penalties)
The World Cup’s most favorite fixture was back again. The battle between the second and third oldest squad remaining at the World Cup. It was a battle between sides who have both failed to impress with their general play at the World Cup but one has had some results to mask them.
Sometimes you win by the tiniest margin and sometimes that’s all it takes for you to lose. Sometimes you play your worst football and get away with a result and sometimes you play lights out football but lose.
International football is notorious for this.
How often do you see a side take 85 shots, accumulating an xG of 9.3 while just scoring 4 goals in the tournament?
Apparently 1.83% of the times. That’s rare. The USWNT can consider themselves unlucky while also having some obvious tactical shortcomings as well.
The game was an interesting battle, as both teams seemed to mimic each other’s shape.
Sweden maintained their 4-2-3-1 formation with Asllani as the number 10 flanked on either side by Fridolina Rolfo and Johanna Rytting Kaneryd. It was the typical 4-4-2 against the ball that we have grown accustomed to as well.
Vlatko Andonovski made a tactical tweak in the absence of Rose Lavelle. In came Emily Sonnett to partner Andi Sullivan in midfield as a part of the double pivot. There was a change in shape from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 with the idea that an extra body at pivot will help cover the ground better and provide an extra option during the buildup phase.
The way this played out was very intriguing. Both sides used a back three buildup with the right back tucking in on the outside of the centerbacks and the left back stationed higher up.
You can notice the shapes on and off the ball from both the teams here and notice the similarities.
The back three during builup gave the obvious numerical advantage against the 4-4-2 off ball shape. The US utilized the back three to their advantage during the buildup, switching play to the far sided centerback and progressing play using out to in passing combinations.
Here is an example of the aforementioned idea utilized by USA to build up play using the back three. We can see the switches of play from Naomi Girma here which allowed easy route to move forward for Andonovski’s side.
The biggest difference between the two sides was how aggressive they were in their 4-4-2 block. While Sweden took initiative to press, the defending champions were happy to sit back and did not press the Swedish centerbacks (which they should have given they are susceptible to mistakes).
Peter Gerhardsson’s side recorded 375 pressure events while USA had just 184 pressure events in the entire game.
The double pivot had a clear impact on the buildup and defensive situation. While Sullivan has struggled with escaping the cover shadow during buildup, Sonnett regularly offered for the ball in the first phase. Only Lindsey Horan (72) offered to receive the ball more than Sonnett (69) which is ideal for a deeper midfielder. This allowed them to have a much better connection overall across the field compared to the game against Portugal.
The double pivot allowed Andonovski’s side to win the second balls in duels due to their close positioning. They won 128 second balls compared to Sweden’s 96. Sonnett and Sullivan, together, covered the ground well.
Sweden struggled to create against the US while the Stars and Stripes threatened the goal a fair bit. The US had 21 shots with 12 of them on target compared to Sweden’s eight with just one on target. Sweden accumulated an xG of 0.8 compared to 1.3 by the US.
Unfortunately they were up against a player on song. This was arguably the best goalkeeping performance of Zecira Musovic’s career. Some of the saves she pulled off were ridiculous and she was a main reason Sweden were in the game.
To understand the extent of her impact, the US had a total xG of 1.3 but their shot-placement increased their xG (or commonly referred as post-shot xG) to 1.8. In simple terms, the US were likely to score twice based on their shot placements and Musovic allowed none.
She made 11 saves in the game. Enjoy her performance here.
And then came the penalties and the drama of milimiters.
Sometimes it’s just not your day. I mean when Rapinoe misses her penalty, you know your stars are not aligned.
Girma was the most consistent USWNT player throughout the tournament and looked solid all around. She showcased her prescient movements to put out fires before they began. She was class on the ball, exhibiting her range and distribution during the buildup phases. The Stanford alumni attempted the most switches of play in the game (3) and helped the US progress through the thirds. Her robustness in the 1v1 duels and positioning to read play is spectacular.
She has all the tools to be one of the cornerstones of the USWNT for the coming years and to be the best CB in the world in the coming years.
Sonnett was a ‘break the glass in case of emergency’ player for the US but her role in their best performance of the tournament cannot be understated. She was very active in possession, constantly offering a passing option while helping out massively in defence. A very tidy performance as a link player between the thirds for the US, something they have direly missed throughout the tournament.
The US is undergoing a transition, this World Cup might ultimately prove to be the last of Ertz and Morgan as well alongside Rapinoe. There is talent in this US side, albeit missing in some key areas, and I think with an influx of clearer ideas and better utilization of talent pool, they will continue to enter tournaments as one of the favorites.
This is the earliest USWNT have exited the Women’s World Cup ever, so obviously this is a failure but FWIW, Andonovski got it right in this game.
For now, it’s over and out from Melby.
Sweden are getting ready to slay another previous winner of the World Cup after knocking out USA. Japan await them in the quarter-finals.
Highlight of the day
The best thing to come out of social media on a drama filled day is the memes, so here are some.