#032 - The World Cup Diaries - Day 23 (Part 1)
Inside you there are two wolves!
Hello everyone, as you are aware I’ve been writing a newsletter every matchday during the FIFA Women’s World Cup analyzing every game from a tactical and data pov. I hope you’ve been enjoying it.
Creating all of this takes a lot of time and effort to put together everyday after the games. While my newsletter will continue to be FREE, if you are able and willing, you can support my work via this link: ko-fi.com/dribblesandnutmegs
There is no pressure or obligation at all and I hope you are enjoying the content. Thank you for reading and sharing my work.
The quarterfinals are underway and we had two very interesting matchups to get us back in football feels.
The 2019 finalists, Netherlands, were up against a Spain side who had just won their first ever knockout game in the round of 16. A battle between two different possession based structures.
The 2011 winners and the only previous winner remaining, Japan, were up against “always the bridesmaid but never the bride” of international football, Sweden. Knockout football is a different beast and Sweden have tamed that beast for large parts whereas this Nadeshiko side were bending fire this tournament.
It was two very interesting battles, so let’s break them down one game at a time (because Substack told me both games together was way too long for email, lol).
Match 57: Spain 2-1 Netherlands
Spain and the Netherlands share some bad blood on the international stage following the 2010 World Cup final. Today they were against each other for a ticket to reach the final four and some secret bad blood as well.
Spain are considered the epitome of possession based style in WoSo while the Dutch influence in the development of this is undeniable. It was a battle of styles sharing some elements of the same origin.
Spain were in their 4-3-3 and made just one change from their comprehensive win over Switzerland. Mariona Caldentey came in to replace Salma Paralluelo on the left wing while Jenni Hermoso reprised her role as the left interior. The idea with Caldentey’s inclusion soon became crystal clear.
The Dutch made an enforced change as Daniella van de Donk was suspended. Andreis Jonker’s side were in their typical 3-5-2 shape with former Spanish youth international, Damaris Egurrola, in midfield. Stephanie van der Gragt, who had announced her retirement from football following this tournament, was in the back three alongside Sherida Spitse and Dominique Janssen.
Right off the bat, we saw what Netherlands had in mind for Spain.
The Dutch had a player-to-player assignment all over the pitch on Spanish goalkicks and had a clear marking instructions on their midfielders with 1) Roord marking Teresa Abelleira 2) Groenen marking Aitana Bonmati 3) Damaris took on Jenni Hermoso.
While all of this is geared towards nullyfying Spain’s midfield, the problem was Caldentey whose natural tendency is to move around a lot and come centrally while dragging the opposition out of shape. Spitse’s defensive tendencies to step out of the line and Pelova lacking the defensive discipline in the wingback role made it all the more easy for Spain to manipulate the backline.
The problem with this was it was all too easy for the fluid Spanish frontline to drag around the center-backs and open up space for runs from midfield. Look at this sequence of play.
Mariona has drifted out wide and deep to receive, Spitse decides to jump towards the ball.
Esther identifies this movement and drops in the space between the two CBs, thus pulling the central centerback (Van der Gragt) with her. As soon as this happens, Aitana reads it and attacks that space into the box. The right sided center-back is pinned by Redondo out wide, thus opening a gaping hole in the Dutch backline.
As the ball makes its way into the box, Janssen is forced to follow the ball and close it down making Redondo’s run towards the near post a viable option for the cutback.
This was just an early example, Mariona’s movements in-sync with other forwards easily sliced through the Dutch backline. The reason Spain also found a lot of ease in doing this was because the Dutch like to push their wingbacks (and their wingbacks aren’t really defenders) really high in general (notice the positioning of Brugts on the goalkicks in the screenshots above), thus making the channel between the wingback and the wide centerback a very vulnerable spot.
Here is another example of it. Focus on the intial positioning of Caldentey (the one who delivers the ball into the box) and then notice the movements from Esther (right in front of the box) and late out-to-in run from Redondo ahead of the wingback. Similar ideas.
A good chunk of Spain’s chances came from their left hand side with Mariona. This allowed them to exploit the weak right sided defence of the Dutch. Spain dominated the first half outshooting Jonker’s side 12-1, accumulating over 1.5 xG in just the first half. Unfortunately they were up against the Dutch wall, Van Domselaar.
The left sided trio of Caldentey, Hermoso and Ona were the top three players with most open-play shot involvements in the game, underlining how well Spain exploited the weaknesses down Spanish right side. The movements and interchanges between the players was a key aspect in breaking down the Dutch block which was only breached once all tournament before this.
While Spain were great in possession, they did a brilliant job to stiffle the Dutch buildup using a narrow player-to-player marking scheme during the goalkicks and buildup. The narrow shadow blocking of passing options and applying pressure in the midfield forced Netherlands to go long. You can see the narrow nature of Spain defensive shape in the graphic above.
The result of this was a very poor pass completion rate for the Dutch. They struggled to find close options and as a result their passing accuracy was below 60%. Even the centerbacks had a pass completion rate of just 60%. Jonker’s side recorded just one passing sequence of over five passes that reached the final 40% of the pitch compared to Spain’s seven.
Look at this sequence above, the front three are marking the center-backs and thus leave Domselaar to go long in order to progress play, thus causing a turnover.
The Orange Lionesses tried to fix their right side issues by bringing on an actual fullback, Lynn Wilms, to replace Jill Roord. This allowed Pelova to play in her natural attacking midfield role while adding a more defensively adept Wilms to their backline.
The second half was more of the same until the final 10 minutes when Stephanie van der Gragt decided to become the main character of the movie. After giving up a really poor penalty for handball, which Caldentey converted, Dutch were chasing the game.
And this is where we got to see some really interesting stuff. Martens was a nominal left wingback but the main attraction was Van der Gragt as striker. The centerback went onto score the equalizer just 10 minutes after conceding the penalty.
A centerback scoring a goal playing as a striker. Total football much?
The finish was also of a player trying to extend her career for however long possible. She managed to buy 30 more minutes with that strike but not much longer.
As the game went into added extra time, gaps started to open up thanks to gamestate and substitutions from both sides. The Dutch created a bunch of chances on transition, some high value ones as well but Beerensteyn was having a mare in front of goal.
Spain got back in front after Salma Paralluelo converted in the 111th minute, making it the latest winner in Women’s World Cup history. The goal was a result of some really poor 1v1 defending as second half substitute, Nouwen, showed the left footed Paralluelo onto her strong foot, making it an easy finish for her. It was a simple shoulder drop that generated the space on her dominant foot.
Overall it was a dominant Spain performance, as they recorded 28 shots accumulating an xG of 3.4 compared to just 0.8 for the Dutch. They dominated possession and territory along with the necessary penetration.
Damaris’ performance was a divisive one and I think part of the reason is because 1) off-the-ball work is very difficult to assess 2) Netherlands struggled to get any foothold on the ball. Yet still the former Spanish youth international did well without the ball to disrupt a lot of Spanish attacks while being a legitimate outlet to gain valuable yards thanks to her stature.
Domselaar to Damaris was the go to mode of progression for the Dutch as times as she received the most progressive passes of anyone in the Dutch side. Passing wise it was a poor game like everyone else as she was rushed into decisions by the Spanish press and couldn’t string passes together.
Hermoso was excellent throughout the game with her on-ball presence and off-ball movements. Operating as the left interior, she consistently dropped to receive the ball in between the lines. She made the most offers for the ball (119) consistently moving in between lines, drifting in to out frequently to create overloads. These movements threw off the player-to-player marking and created lots of spaces for the Spanish to attack.
On the ball she was extremely composed when receiving with a player on the back. She turned away from challenges very easily while retaining possession. The former Barcelona forward created the winner in the game exhibiting this exact skill. Absolutely brilliant performance.
La Roja will be making their first ever semi-finals at a major tournament. While a talented squad delivering on its promise is enticing to root for the conditions around the team make is less appealing. The Reds will face the yellow and blue of Scandinavia in the semi-finals.
Highlight of the day
One day it’s over the line and a goal. Other day it’s not and it’s not a goal. Both days Sweden win!
If you enjoy this and would like to support my work. You can subscribe & share this. It’s Free!