#035 - The World Cup Diaries - Semifinal 1
Not all stories have a happy ending!
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 curtains are closing on the biggest spectacle of the summer as we get ready for the final four games of the tournament. History is on the cards and teams are ready.
Starting us off was Spain against Sweden. A semi-final debutants against a side that has been to too many semi-finals at this point and probably have a secret feud with them.
Let’s dissect the action from the first semi-final!
Match 61: Spain 2-1 Sweden
Sweden were coming into this semi-final on the back of their best performance of the tournament against the most impressive tactical side of the tournament, Japan.
It was these two teams that were responsible to eliminate last edition’s finalists to get here. Sweden with USA and Spain with Netherlands.
Sweden made no changes, trusting their old guard to produce a performance in the same vein as in the quarter-finals. Stina Blackstenius led the line while being flanked by Fridolina Rolfo and Johanna Rytting-Kaneryd.
Spain had made tweaks to their squad following the 4-0 thrashing from Japan but we saw a host of changes in this game as well. Two time Ballon d’Or winner, Alexia Putellas, was back in the lineup in place of Esther Gonzalez. This meant Jenni Hermoso was pushed up from the midfield into that number 9 role.
There were changes in defence as well. Left back Olga Carmona was back into the side, after being benched following a really poor showing against Japan, to replace club teammate Oihane Hernandez. This meant Ona Batlle was back as the right back instead of a makeshift left back.
The idea was the same from Sweden. It was the successful Bumblebee approach from their previous game. Sweden were in a 4-4-2 mid block against the ball with Rolfo coming narrow from the left flank to mark out the deepest midfielders. This approach stiffled Japan’s buildup for large parts in the previous game.
Peter Gerhardsson’s side wanted to be intense and squeeze the opposition to one side by committing numbers and forcing turnovers.
Look at this sequence of play. Rolfo (#18) has come narrow, Asllani (#9) signals to mark Tere (#3) as she steps up to pressure the center-back and force a pass wide.
Sweden are a team with a solid floor and while that can take you deep into knockout tournaments, it can only take you so far. In that situation Sweden have created a 5v4 numerical advantage over Spain near the touchline.
La Roja take the risk to play the ball inside and Rolfo who is tracking Tere is quick to pounce on her and create a turnover. It doesn’t result in a shot but highlights the approach Sweden were adopting in the game. Very much similar to off-the-ball ideas against Japan.
As was the case against Japan, the way to play around this is by using switches of play. Japan did it a few times in the quarter-finals and were successful with it (read here). The reason Spain found more joy in this is because of the profile of players in their lineup.
Mariona Caldentey started on the left flank and is a player who likes to come narrow and create central overloads. Her dropping deep helped bring numerical parity with Sweden and provide Spain with a passing option as well. She would then turn inside and with a switch of play Sweden’s press has been bypassed and there is acres of space for the fullback or the wide player to attack.
Look at this sequence of play. Rolfo is narrow on Tere and Sweden have set their trap to get Spain on one side near the touchline. They have their numerical advantage but it is disrupted as Caldentey drops in the midfield to receive and produces a switch of play. This leaves Sweden scrambling to regroup towards the other side and allows for the fullback to carry the ball.
Caldentey’s presence was essential in producing these moments and helping Spain play through the bumblebee approach from Gerhardsson’s side.
Another example of this can be seen in the sequence above. The Blue and Yellows did well to cover the deepest midfielder, Tere in this case, but didn’t know how to track or compensate for Mariona’s movements.
In the sequence of play above, we see Asllani (#9) be proactive to block the lane for Tere but Caldentey’s inside movements created a dilemma for the Swedes. The side was unsure whether they should follow the player into central areas leaving their position or let her roam freely. They decided against the former and Mariona produced some brilliant switch of plays to create openings for Spain.
Since a lot of the play was chanelled down the flanks due to the switch of play from Spain, we can note this in their deep completion map as well. Most of their box entries have come from the wide areas and a lot of these were preceded by a similar switch of play like we saw in the sequences above.
Another of Sweden’s biggest strength was their corners and set-pieces. The Blue and Yellow army had scored a competition high of five goals from dead-ball situations using their excellent deliveries and physical frame.
Spain had a counter for that as well. You can’t score from corners if you don’t get corners. Gerhardsson’s side only got three corners in the game, one in the second half and two in the first. Spain dominated the ball and didn’t let things run out of control.
When Sweden did manage to turn the ball over, La Roja were very intense is counter-pressing giving the Olympic silver medalists no time to settle into possession. Spain’s ball recovery time was just 6.57 seconds in the game, highlighting how quickly they managed to get back on the ball.
Gerhardsson’s side was also geared towards a more direct approach and didn’t help themselves. The combination of Spain’s counter-pressing and Sweden’s direct approach resulted in a lot of rushed forward passes which were ultimately inaccurate and resulted in turnovers.
This sequence of play is a pretty good encapsulation of the game. Sweden commit bodies near a touchline to regain possession. They try to play the vertical outball immediately and lose the ball. Spain then bring out the ball and break their defensive lines with simple switch of play.
While Jorge Vilda’s side was able to get out of Swedish press, they struggled to create a lot of high value chances due to the player tendencies to drop deeper. They lacked a vertical outlet.
This change pushed Jenni back into the midfield and provided Spain with the necessary verticality, box presence and ability to pin the CBs and create even more room for the central players to exploit.
The result of her introduction was a goal for Spain.
The opening goal involved switch of play as well but the next two goals were the perfect encapsulation of the phrase “you are the most vulnerable to concede immediately after scoring”.
Both sides had lapses of concentration defensively and just didn’t close down the players in and around the penalty box. The result was they conceded a shot and the shot turned to a goal. For Sweden, sometimes the ball hits the inside of the crossbar and stays out while sometimes it goes in.
Such are the margins at a World Cup and the Blue and Yellow will understand the importance of margins better than most.
Tere has been the most consistent players for this Spanish side at the tournament. Playing as the deepest midfielder, the Real Madrid midfielder was at the heart of ever possession sequence. She sat in front of defence to receive, supported play with her movements and created chances for her side from set-pieces and open-play.
Defensively she covered a lot of ground and her positioning allowed her to pick up a lot of the loose balls following turnovers. She has adapted perfectly to Spain’s play and is a key member for Spain on and off the ball.
This win means Spain have the chance to become the second nation to win both the men’s and the women’s World Cup on Sunday when they face a manager all too familiar with major finals.
Somethings go beyond footballing pitch. Spain’s win today is one of them and not in a good way. The debut in a semi-final, reaching the first ever final is a great achievement but it is layered with problems beyond the surface.
15 of Spain’s player refused to accept national callups just five months ago citing problems with the staff and manager creating a toxic working environment, sending a letter to the federation. The federation backed the manager through it all and decided against making changes and listening to the player’s plea.
Some of these player’s returned back to the setup ahead of the World Cup while Patri Guijarro, Mapi Leon, Claudia Pina and Sandra Panos refused the callup standing firm by their demands.
Abusive and unhealthy environments are not uncommon in WoSo sphere and bringing a change is difficult. The long terms effects of this are hard to predict right now but we might see the ripples of this when someone brave enough will write an account of this. Until then we can only wish the player’s are in a good headspace.
If you enjoy this and would like to support my work. You can share this. It’s Free!
Highlight of the day
BBC was a bit too excited to watch England