Women’s World Cup favourites need cohesion and patience – Japan and Spain are showing the way

Alex Morgan was talking about the USA’s opening performance of the tournament — a surprisingly low-key 3-0 win over Vietnam — but she could have been speaking about many of the World Cup favourites’ displays.

“I think we saw a lot of glimpses of our potential, but I feel like we weren’t always clicking on the field,” she said. “I feel like some of the plays that we had were a little forced or rushed. So I think it’s having a little more patience, switching (play) a little bit more, having our movements a little more synchronised.”

It was a good reading of the USA’s performance against Vietnam. A fixture which many expected to produce a hatful of goals eventually only produced three. But the same could be said of England’s display against Haiti, a 1-0 win. Or Australia’s performance against Ireland, another 1-0 win.

The narrowness of the favourites’ victories, in general, has been a welcome surprise. It points to some of the underdogs performing well. But the other side of the coin is that the stronger sides have been too urgent, too direct and too focused on going wide and crossing. The bigger sides largely seem based around speed out wide, expecting wingers to beat opponents in one-versus-one duels. When that approach has failed, they’ve offered little else.

Alex Morgan sees her penalty saved in the USWNT’s opening Women’s World Cup game against Vietnam (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Those three anglophone nations have been faced with deep defences, and looked ineffective. Australia were too focused on playing long diagonal balls for their wingers, which often drifted out of play or were dealt with comfortable by Ireland’s back five. They were fortunate to win a penalty from one of those instances, and otherwise created little else. The wide players Cortnee Vine and Hayley Raso just felt like up-and-down runners, and they looked more dangerous when full-backs Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter came inside, played combinations, forced Australia’s defenders to make positional decisions, and created gaps to play into.

Similarly, the USA’s much-hyped wingers were as dominant in individual battles as you might expect against a group of players almost entirely drawn from the Vietnamese league. Trinity Rodman was perhaps hampered by an early injury, and did draw the foul for the penalty Morgan missed. But there was a lack of incision from midfield, and a lack of interplay between the forwards, aside from a couple of moments when Morgan dropped deep to link.

England were little better, with their most creative midfielder Keira Walsh marked tightly and few examples of good passing through midfield. The most advanced midfielder Ella Toone was mainly charged with making off-the-ball runs into the channels and rarely received the ball between the lines. Wide duo Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp were quieter than usual, with the exception of when one crossed for the other.

Curiously, for all the hype about Lauren James’ electric dribbling, she deliberately calmed the pace of the game after her introduction. She put her foot on the ball, played sideways passes and switched the play. It helped to prevent Haiti counter-attacking, and demonstrated a level of footballing intelligence lacking beforehand.

Something similar could be said of Sweden, who laboured to a 2-1 win over South Africa, struggling to work the ball through the centre. Fridolina Rolfo felt peripheral on the left, Johanna Rytting Kaneryd didn’t get too much joy down the right, until their equaliser — when the former finished from the latter’s cross, courtesy of a crucial touch from a defender. That felt a little like England’s approach of Kelly crossing for Hemp. It was something of a fortunate goal.

There was little in the way of combination play from France against Jamaica — a flat 4-4-2, too much reliance on the right flank for creativity, no incision and no goals.

There have, granted, been convincing wins for Germany, who went wide and crossed effectively for Alex Popp, and Brazil, who have offered more individual brilliance than anyone so far.

But the two best footballing sides have both been in Group C, which is already settled after two rounds of matches. Spain have won 3-0 and 5-0, and Japan have won 5-0 and 2-0. It’s clear neither Costa Rica nor Zambia are able to put up much of a challenge. But it hasn’t really been about the margin of victory; it’s been about interplay, cohesion and teamwork. And, given their footballing reputations, it hasn’t been much of a surprise. These are the best two tiki-taka exponents in the competition.

On Wednesday, Japan made light work of Costa Rica. Playing in a 3-4-3, their two goals demonstrated great understanding between the attackers. Mina Tanaka, leading the line, dropped deep to link play and assisted both goals: the first for inside-left Hikaru Naomoto, the second for inside-right Aoba Fujino. Those players, at other times, drifted inside, pulled the Costa Rican full-backs inside, and the wing-backs broke into space on the outside. Japan switched play and found space at the far post. It felt like watching a club side.

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Mina Tanaka (No.11, second from left) was key in Japan picking apart Costa Rica (Photo by Sanka Vidanagama / AFP) (Photo by SANKA VIDANAGAMA/AFP via Getty Images)

Similarly, Spain were rampant against Zambia, bamboozling their opponents with clever interplay, particularly down the left. OK, the first two goals were scored from a long-range thunderbolt from Teresa Abelleira, and then a cross and neat header from Jenni Hermoso. But both featured good build-up play down the left, leaving Zambia with fewer players to shut down Abelleira, and no one to mark Hermoso.

The goals in the second half were neater. The third, scored by the impressive substitute Alba Redondo, was the first time in the tournament that a goal had been assisted by a ball in behind the opposition. That speaks volumes about the lack of cohesion between attackers in this tournament, and the fact that the smaller sides are generally sitting deep.

Japan and Spain are both already through, and the meeting between them in the final round of games could be the best quality game of the group stage. That said, that depends on them seeing any incentive to finish top of the group. Considering they’ll face sides from Group A, who seem much of a muchness, perhaps they won’t take things too seriously.

The quality of combination football is likely to improve as the tournament progresses, for two reasons. First, there will be less rustiness, and more time on the training ground should produce better combination play. Second, when the tournament pits strong sides against each other in the knockout phase, there will be fewer sides sitting deep, more space in behind and more incentive to try playing good passing football rather than simply crossing.

Japan and Spain, so far, are pointing the way.

 (Top image by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

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