Colombia toppled France. Norway drew Germany. Cameroon, well, Camerooned. This year’s Women’s World Cup group stage was undoubtedly the most thrilling of the modern era. There were upsets and Cinderella stories, agony and ecstasy. No more do the Goliaths automatically rule over the Davids.
Actually, about those Goliaths. Most of us just assumed that Germany, the United States, France, Japan, and Brazil would waltz through their groups. Sweden would give Group D a bit of spice and sit comfortably in second place. When the dust settled, those first five went through as winners. But they didn’t do it without a few scares. And Sweden straight-up dropped to third in the Group of Death! What the hell happened, here? Let’s take these historical “Big Six” teams one by one.
Germany (Round of 16 Opponent: Sweden)
As I wrote last week, Germany are scarily complete, but their back line leaves a lot to be desired. We saw that against Norway, where center backs Annike Krahn and Saskia Bartusiak couldn’t cope with the wiliness of Isabell Herlovsen. German fullbacks Tabea Kemme and Leonie Maier struggled to contain their markers in the second half, through both the introduction of Solveig Gulbrandsen and the running of Norway fullbacks Maren Mjelde and Ingrid Moe Wold. Given Swedish superstar Lotta Schelin’s issues at the tournament thus far, I can’t imagine the paceless Sweden giving Die Nationalelf too much trouble in the Round of 16. They will, however, likely have to contend with France’s unrivaled creativity and passing in the quarterfinals. It’s hard to see how French stars Eugénie Le Sommer and Louisa Nécib don’t at least keep the German defense busier than they’ve been all tournament.
Midfielders Dzsenifer Marozsán and Melanie Leupolz also got bogged down against a highly organized Thai defense on Monday. The Thais ran out of gas in the second half, and Sweden, France, and the U.S. won’t sit nearly so deep in the knockout rounds. Thailand’s pragmatic, defensive organization may, however, may prove a roadmap to suffocating Germany’s free-flowing attack.
United States of America (Round of 16 Opponent: Colombia)
Just last week, many were writing Abby Wambach as dead weight in the forward line. Then she scored the winning goal against Nigeria, and you know how this kind of thing goes. But Wambach still isn’t very good right now. She is slow, unfit, and old. There’s not a whole lot that can be gleaned from scoring on a Nigerian back line that seemed allergic to defending set pieces.
Wambach isn’t the only one dealing with trouble. USWNT head coach Jill Ellis insists on playing Christen Press wide right, keeping Lauren Holiday too deep, and not employing any natural width on the right flank besides a mediocre Tobin Heath against Nigeria. Carli Lloyd has mostly been a ghost, which is terrifying. The U.S. midfield is a band of misfit toys who keep looking over the ridge to see where they’d rather be. It shows. Holiday was given license to get forward against Nigeria, and hasn’t played so freely in a U.S. jersey in a year. Maybe Ellis took note and will give her the chance to push ahead when required.
The Americans face Colombia in the Round of 16 Monday night. In the group stage, Colombian manager Fabian Taborda was able to smother France’s attack, scoring a beautiful counterattacking goal that opened the biggest upset in Women’s World Cup history. Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston won’t give Diana Ospina and Lady Andrade the space the French did, but Yoreli Rincón could pick apart the lack of shape and communication endemic of Holiday and Lloyd in this tournament. The glimmering hope is the return of Morgan, unquestionably the USWNT’s best striker when she’s fit and sharp. She wasn’t able to finish chances against Nigeria. One hopes she’ll be ready to dance through the Colombian defense next week.
France (Round of 16 Opponent: South Korea)
“Mercurial” is the descriptor that comes to mind when tasked with summarizing Les Bleues in the group stage. They bossed the midfield against England, but couldn’t put away their chances. They outshot Colombia 21-3, and lost by two goals thanks to two perfect counterattacks. Needless to say, the legitimate contender that beat Germany, Brazil, the U.S., and Japan in the last eight months and was supposed to be in the best form coming into the tournament has left all of us scratching our heads.
However. They got back on track with a 5-0 pasting of Mexico, and did so while benching two of their best place, Louisa Nécib and Gaëtane Thiney. France will always create chances, but their inability to finish could come back to haunt them when they face a resurgent South Korea in the round of 16.
Japan (Round of 16 Opponent: Netherlands)
Four years ago, manager Norio Sasaki built the best passing side in the world. In 2011, they won a World Cup, and thet left the 2012 Olympics with silver medal. In 2015, the song remains the same, but this team is a bit older now. Japan has never been about speed, but against Switzerland, Cameroon, and Ecuador, their passing appeared listless. Nadeshiko actually ceded the majority of the possession to the Swiss last week. Cameroon’s pace and combination play kept midfielders Mizuho Sakaguchi and Aya Miyama pinned in their own half, and Japan consequently let in a late goal.
Yuki Ogimi and Yuika Sugasawa didn’t create many chances going forward throughout the group stage. Japan don’t need many, provided they put one or two away; their passing and organization will hold most squads in abeyance. But when you can only put one goal past Ecuador—who were outscored in their first two matches 16-1—you have to wonder if the pace and creativity of the Netherlands forwards will give the likes of Sakaguchi and Saki Kumagai problems in the round of 16. If they make it past the Netherlands, either Brazil or Australia await in the quarterfinal. Both teams have speed is even more lethal than the Dutch.
Sweden (Round of 16 Opponent: Germany)
We’ve talked about pace a lot in the preceding paragraphs. Blagult don’t have it. Center backs Nilla Fischer and Emma Berglund looked utterly helpless against Nigeria’s strikers and wingers. Midfielder Lisa Dahlkvist couldn’t cope with containing Asisat Oshoala, and fullbacks Elin Rubensson and Lina Nilsson were left isolated on the flanks. Perhaps most concerning was the lack of involvement by Lotta Schelin up top. Schelin is one of the most intelligent strikers there is, but the 31-year-old has barely touched the ball against Nigeria and the U.S., and didn’t provide much of an outlet for the midfield.
The group looked more settled against the American, but that had as much to do with a tactical battle of attrition between Pia Sundhage and Jill Ellis as anything else, not to mention the USWNT utter lack of final-third creativity. Sundhage’s team got run over in the opening minutes by Australia’s heavy-metal approach, then were able to control the midfield, though the Matildas gave as good as they got. Schelin was more involved, too, a positive sign.
Still, it’s hard to imagine them controlling the run of play against Germany in the round of 16. Die Nationalelf can beat you with speed, with possession, and with athleticism. They’re tactically craftier, more physically dominant, and younger than almost all of their opponents. The so-called fifth-best team in the world got a huge wakeup call in group play these past two weeks, and there’s a Célia Šašić-sized wall ready to stop them in their tracks on Saturday.
Brazil (Round of 16 Opponent: Australia)
Brazil are good. Brazil are damn good, in fact. They and Japan are the only two group winners to earn nine points. At the same time, one can’t help but feel that this isn’t the Brazilian side we hoped would show up in Canada. They’d been in residency for months, the first time that the CBF had bothered to seriously invest in all the raw talent within their borders. Marta is still in her prime, and emerging stars like Andressa promised to make their mark. After three wins in the group stage, their performances were just kinda ... shruggy. South Korea stayed compact and neutralized Marta’s flair. Spain threatened constantly in the attacking third only to squander chances, as they did the whole tournament. Brazil fielded a lively b-team against Costa Rica yesterday, but they still couldn’t score until the 83rd minute.
Maybe my reaction to a solid-yet-unspectacular series of matches from Brazil is merely the prejudicial presumption of a national style. We assume A Selecao will always play with individual expression, flair, and all-out attacking gusto, as the men did with Pelé and Zico, and as the women have done with Marta. But Neymar aside, the men have transformed into a reactive side, one that pays as much attention to defense as it does to attack. I don’t quite see the same change occurring with the women just yet—Darlene, Rosana, and Raquele did plenty of showing off when given the opportunity yesterday—but a more settled version of the team is definitely starting to emerge. It will be interesting to see how they cope against the Australian blitz in the round of 16, and whether Marta, now the all-time leading World Cup scorer, can conjure some magic once more.
Evan Davis is a proud Toffee living in New York City. His writing has appeared in Film Comment, The Velvet Light Trap, MUBI Notebook, Howler Magazine and The House Next Door. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ProfessorDobles.
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