• Backline Soccer

Women’s World Cup Daily: The Axis Falls

Updated: Jan 1

Italy 0 – 2 Netherlands

This was always going to be a tough challenge for Italy, and they gave it a real go. But after the teams came back out from halftime, the writing was pretty quickly on the wall. Under a blazing hot sun, playing their fifth game in three weeks, the Italian players were truly struggling to keep up the pace. The ball virtually never left the Italian half. Or if it did, it was only a hopeful long ball which was quickly snagged by a Dutch defender and immediately returned. It felt like only a matter of time before they scored, and so it proved.

The two goals both came on set pieces. Perhaps strangely, given that Italy’s obviously tired limbs seemed more exploitable in open play. But it turned out to be the dead ball situations that got them – with first Miedema and then Van der Gragt simply leaping over the opposition to power home goals.

It wasn’t a game that either side will much want to revisit. For all their dominance during the second half, the Dutch never really looked like they were doing much until their opponents began to fall apart. There will still be many doubts about their ability to unlock a defense better equipped to resist. For the Italians, the first half felt like a genuine competition, but it never really seemed plausible that they would score after the half, so even a 1-0 lead for the Dutch seemed pretty insurmountable.

For all that, I do want to hit a couple themes from the game.

First, Italy’s intriguing formation. They set up in a 4-3-1-2, with Aurora Galli as a free floating #10 in between the frontline and midfield. It’s a peculiar setup, one that you don’t see very often because it has some significant limitations. But for this game, it actually worked pretty well. Italy generally looked to defend deep, with two banks fairly close together. Normally, it would be two banks of four, but here they sacrificed some solidity in the middle for a roving presence higher up. It worked well because the Dutch seemed completely unable or unwilling to shift the ball into the middle.

The result was something very similar to last night’s game between the US and France, with Italy taking on the role of the Americans. Effectively, they dared the Dutch: here is an opening, go ahead and try to exploit it. And the Netherlands couldn’t do it. Every attack went down the wings, mostly turning into over-hit crosses or soft, low balls that were cleared easily.

And, because Galli was moving freely outside of the defensive lines, when the Dutch tried to recycle play out, she was often in unexpected places and able to snag a few interceptions and launch counter attacks.

They couldn’t sustain this approach into the second half (see above re: heat and exhaustion). But for 45 minutes it really worked.

Second, the continuing struggles of the Dutch wingers. This was another awful game for Van de Sanden. And while Lieke Martens was able to play – after some injury concerns – she was again pretty anonymous. These are two superstar players, but they’re simply not getting it done. And it can’t have helped to run around in the heat today either. To be fair, once Lineth Beerensteyn came on (as I have been yelling about for a week now), she didn’t really do much either. But it remains a real issue, and one that could really use fixing. The Netherlands now have five wins so far, without ever really looking like they were that good. But we have absolutely seen them perform at the highest level. If they can get things to click into gear, there’s zero reason why they couldn’t win two more games and take home the cup.

Germany 1 – 2 Sweden

I tried to watch this game, but it turns out that tethering to my cell phone and then using VPN to pretend I’m in the US was a bridge too far. So I didn’t see a second. But it sounds like Sweden more or less executed the plan that has looked promising against Germany before: give them the ball but defend well, and then hit them with long balls that exploit their weakness and slowness in central defense.

And so Germany go out earlier than expected. They certainly did not have as successful a tournament as I thought they would, both in terms of the final result and in terms of performances across the games. They weren’t bad, but they also weren’t good. Which isn’t that different from the four teams that did make the semifinals, all of whom have shown some real weaknesses. But the Germans couldn’t manage to overcome them, and so here we are.

It can’t go without mentioning that part (maybe a big part) of the reason they have struggled is that they lost their best player after the first game (because the referee decided to let China play recklessly – a point that I’m not going to let go). They have enough depth that it really shouldn’t have been devastating, but it is certainly part of the equation.

Sweden, meanwhile, are into the semifinal. They underwhelmed a bit in the group stage, but are a genuinely exciting team. You might not know that from the commentary about them, which still seems to believe that this is Pia Sundhage’s team that defended their way to an Olympic final three years ago. There is still plenty of defensive solidity here, but they can play many ways. They probably won’t be favorites against the Netherlands, but there really isn’t much between them.

Notes

– Coming into the tournament, four teams were regarded by the bookies as being a clear step above the rest: the US, France, Germany, and England. Until this evening, they had collectively won 18 of 19 games, with the only loss being France’s defeat to the US. Frankly, it wasn’t really a surprise that one of those teams eventually lost to someone else. It’s more weird that it took so long.

– This was my first experience seeing the Netherlands traveling fans, and it was everything I had been told, and more. Truly amazing to see the walk before the game, and to hear them all in the stadium during the match.

So good pic.twitter.com/ESMpEiuL9Z — Charles Olney (@olneyce) June 29, 2019

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– I’m off to Lyon! I’ve got an early train tomorrow and will spend the afternoon getting settled and exploring a bit. I’ve never really been to the south of France, so it will be a new experience.

– (Germany and Italy were two of the primary Axis powers, while Sweden was non-aligned and the Netherlands were, of course, occupied. With the US and England making up the rest of the quartet, it’s certainly a good day for the Allies.)

#Sweden #Italy #WomensWorldCup #Netherlands #Germany

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