Here we take a tactical look at all eight second round games: Germany v Nigeria, Norway v Australia, England v Cameroon, France v Brazil, Spain v USA, Sweden v Canada, Italy v China, and the Netherlands v Japan.
GERMANY v NIGERIA
Germany looked good against Spain because they sat back in a zonal 4-4-2 and let Spain tie themselves up in knots with endless sequences of non-penetrative possession before countering ruthlessly through the speed of Svenja Huth and Klara Buhl. Without star player Dzenifer Marozsan and against a team that love the ball, this strategy worked. But it won’t be possible against Nigeria, whose group stage possession numbers were: 41%, 37% and 28%. (And even less possible if Marozsan does return from injury in time – she’s a playmaker lacking speed who Germany like to play behind a striker, Alexandra Popp, who is also not that fast.)
As we saw against China, Germany’s possession game can be nullified by a compact defence. Nigeria lacked this against Norway, putting in one of the worst defensive displays of the whole tournament so far, but improved rapidly against South Korea before keeping France quiet for the most part with a less man-oriented, more zonal system. What Nigeria also have is pace and skill in the wide areas, with Barcelona’s Asisat Oshoala on the left and Franny Ordega on the right. Germany like their full-backs to push on, and Nigeria could counter into the spaces left behind on the outside of a German centre-back pairing of Marina Hegering and Sara Doorsun that has looked shaky.
Germany are clear favourites but, if Nigeria can keep their shape defensively, and counter-attack well in the wide areas, getting Oshoala and Ordega 1v1 with the German centre-backs on the break, there is a good chance of an upset here.
NORWAY v AUSTRALIA
Some have talked of Norway as an intense pressing and counter-attacking team, though this isn’t what I’ve seen in this tournament so far. Rather, I’ve seen a team who like to have possession and build from the back with very advanced full-backs, which allows Caroline Hansen and Guro Reiten (what a pairing) to come inside and operate between the opposition midfield and defensive lines. Their centre-backs are comfortable on the ball, their central midfielders offer support to them, while Hansen and Reiten are exceptional dribblers and passers who cause trouble when they get on the ball in and around the final third.
Australia have struggled to build out effectively in France, but here – with Norway enjoying possession – this may not be such a big issue. They could instead let Norway have the ball, and try to press their build-up. This is something Australia have shown they can do, and there isn’t a lot of pace in the Norway side to worry about. Assuming they set up in their usual 4-3-3, Sam Kerr can pressure the Norwegian centre-backs, the wingers can cut off passes to their full-backs and help Kerr with the centre-backs when appropriate, while the midfield three can take it in turns pressuring Norway’s midfield duo of Ingrid Engen and Vilde Boa Risa.
This is a tough one to call. Australia haven’t really convinced and, while athletic, their pressing will have to be spot on here. Norway’s shape and attacking approach isn’t an easy one to contain, but if Australia press with organisation and intensity, they can potentially force high turnovers and create scoring chances through quick counter-attacks.
ENGLAND v CAMEROON
England looked comfortable in their group, winning all three games against Scotland, Argentina and Japan, but here they will face a completely different kind of tactical test. While Scotland and Argentina generally defended deep and didn’t play particularly directly, and Japan competed with them for possession, here they take on a Cameroon side that look to apply pressure in the middle third before counter-attacking extremely directly with the pacey Gabrielle Onguene looking to latch onto balls over the top.
Within Phil Neville’s 4-3-3, the No.8s – Jill Scott and Fran Kirby – will be pressured from behind whenever they receive the ball, so playing through the middle could be difficult. Rather, I expect them to get the ball wide and try to work overloads using their attacking full-backs and the skill of their wingers. Their right-side combination of Nikita Parris and Lucy Bronze could be particularly helpful in playing around the Cameroon defensive block.
While Cameroon have some threat on the counter and showed against the Netherlands that they can keep possession-dominant sides at bay for long spells, they lack the quality up front to seriously trouble the English back four. Expect England to get the win, even if it isn’t particularly pretty.
FRANCE v BRAZIL
Brazil have shown flashes of brilliance, but mostly through individual skill, at this tournament thus far. Much of their attacking play has been about balls over the top of defences for Debinha and/or Ludmila to get on the end of, or crosses into the box for Cristiane to head at goal. Marta has roamed fairly effectively at times, too, but Brazil have really struggled to build out against effective pressure and get her on the ball consistently. They have looked defensively vulnerable in a couple of different ways. With an ageing first line featuring Cristiane and Marta, they were unable to put pressure on Italy, while their midfield line was also far too open – Italy constantly played through their first two lines of defence. And against Australia, Brazil defended extremely conservatively in their own half, but showed weakness defending crosses and long balls into the heart of their back four.
All of this is extremely worrying going into a game against France. The French have pressed high and aggressively in every game so far. Their strikers, wingers, central midfielders and full-backs are all involved in pressing forward, safe in the knowledge that centre-backs Wendie Renard and Griedge Mbock are great 1v1 defenders who can cover large spaces well. On top of that, they play a fast, direct brand of attacking football that involves diagonal balls and switches out to the wide areas, where the explosive and skilful Kadidiatou Diani and Eugenie Le Sommer are supported by the overlapping Marion Torrent and Amel Majri.
Many will look at France v Brazil and see the names on paper and think the latter have a chance. But I don’t. I think France could crush Brazil by three or four goals with the sheer intensity of their high pressing and quick, direct attacking overwhelming an ageing side lacking structure.
SPAIN v USA
Spain looked fun to watch in the pre-tournament friendlies, but they have been a slog at this tournament. In the group stage they enjoyed 73%, 64% and 64% of possession, but they failed to score in two of their three games. And, in the only game they did find the net in, two goals were penalties and one came late on against an inexperienced South African side down to 10 players. Those numbers sum Spain up – they are filled with technically gifted individuals who like having the ball, but they penetrate rarely and don’t know what to do when they get near the final third.
This all sounds rather ominous ahead of a clash with the USA, who are a well-oiled pressing and counter-attacking machine. Their defensive shape is similar to that of Liverpool’s men – a 4-3-3 with the wingers staying on the same line as the striker to form a narrow, three-player first line that is tricky to play through. Their midfield three shift laterally to cover, while their back four provide an excellent last line of defence. And, when they do win the ball back, USA are quick to play forward. Tobin Heath is excellent 1v1, Megan Rapinoe is a wonderful passer who can split defences with ease, and Alex Morgan is an out-and-out goalscorer.
Expect Spain to dominate possession again, but this time they won’t be let off the hook when they give it away. As good as Irene Paredes and Mapi Leon are at centre-back, they can’t cope with a Heath-Morgan-Rapione trident in transition. The USA will win this one comfortably.
SWEDEN v CANADA
Canada showed an ability to adapt tactically in the group stage, which is something many teams in this knockout stage are either unable to, or are too proud to consider. While they prefer a 4-2-3-1 shape, against New Zealand they went 3-1-4-2 in order to stretch and penetrate New Zealand’s solid lines of defence. The change worked well, as Canada won 2-0 without conceding a clear-cut chance. And, while they lost the group decider against the Netherlands, they still looked well-organised in their pressing and passing.
Sweden have kept the same basic 4-4-1-1 shape, and have impressed in spurts. Against Chile, they played forward and broke the lines quickly and often, while against the USA they pressed high and effectively for the most part. However, there are two big issues: 1) they lack pace at the back, and 2) they take far too long to play the final pass when attacking the opposition’s last line.
While Sweden are fun to watch, Canada are perhaps the more decisive, athletic side. They are also more versatile, and capable of playing through, around or over (using Christine Sinclair as a target woman for long balls over the top). It should be a competitive game, but Canada are my slight favourites to win.
ITALY v CHINA
Both of these teams play 4-4-2 and like not having the ball, though they defend in different ways. China defend in a compact zonal 4-4-2 where the focus in on retaining shape. Their strikers rarely press opposition centre-backs, and they tend to try and wait for poor passes to snap up rather than force them. Italy, meanwhile, defend in a compact zonal 4-4-2 where the focus is on pressing the opposition. Their near-side striker will press the ball-playing centre-back while the other covers behind them, and their near-side central midfielder pushes up while the other covers behind them, and their wingers close down the full-backs to try and isolate them near the touchline.
The two teams also have markedly different styles in possession. While China play very directly, getting it over the top for Wang Shanshan to win headers or hold the ball in and wait for support from playmaker Wang Shuang – or alternately get it wide and look for crosses into the box for Shanshan and Li Ying to attack, Italy have a more varied attacking approach. Against Australia they countered quickly with balls over the top of a high line for Barbara Bonansea to run onto, while against Brazil and Jamaica they enjoyed more possession and built out from the back. Both centre-backs, particularly Sara Gama, are comfy on the ball, while Cristiana Girelli tends to drop off the front line to overload the midfield area, receive to feet in the central channel and lay off to runners. Their wingers and full-backs also combine well out wide, with the former coming into the inside channels while the latter overlap.
Italy will probably have more possession than China by default here, and their task will be to break China down. With good movement, progressive passing and a high tempo, they should do this more effectively than Germany, Spain or South Africa could in the group stage.
NETHERLANDS v JAPAN
The Netherlands, like Spain, like to have the ball and build out from the back. However, again like Spain, they have struggled to do this and have often looked more effective playing more directly. In all three group games they were forced into ineffective sideways and ‘u-shape’ possession that led to giveaways and dangerous counter-attacks conceded in and around their own defensive third. And, when they went more directly out to the wings, getting excellent 1v1 players Shanice van de Sanden and Lieke Martens on the ball against or behind opposition full-backs, they often had more success.
New Zealand laid down the blueprint on how to nullify the Dutch, defending in a zonal 4-4-2 mid-block that saw their front two and midfield four essentially surround Netherlands No.6 Sherida Spitse. A similar issue cropped up against Canada – who adopted a similar defensive shape and approach to New Zealand – where the centre-backs couldn’t find Spitse, couldn’t find Jackie Groenen or Daniele van de Donk due to opposition coverage and huge distances between centre-back and No.8, and thus were forced wide to the full-backs, who were pressed from the inside. This is good news for Japan, who defend in a 4-4-2, zonally, with little space in the channels or between the lines, and generally do a good job of closing down opposition back fours.
The Netherlands could be forced into direct play from the back again here, and it might not work out again. Their front three of Vivianne Miedema, Van de Sanden and Martens can win them games even if everyone else plays badly, but Japan are just as effective a pressing team as Canada and New Zealand, only with more quality in possession. Japan may just edge this one.