World Cup Day 18: And then, sometimes, you just win

World Cup Day 18: And then, sometimes, you just win

If the previous day’s lesson, at least for the USWNT, was that soccer sometimes just decides you’re going to lose because that’s what it wants, then the current European champions England showed that sometimes you just win, even when all logic dictates that you shouldn’t. Who knows what’s left on the roster for the Lionesses, but we’ve also been saying that all tournament and they keep on movin’. Let’s spin it right round…

Game of the day: England 0 – 0 Nigeria (England go through on penalties, still a very weird sentence to write)

If you’d like to see what the athletic advantage the USWNT used to have over everyone else, this game was a pretty decent showcase. Not that Nigeria was able to smother, stifle, and stretch England simply through physical gifts, as they had a clear plan to man-mark England and press heavily, which England never came up with an answer for. In their attacking forays, Nigeria wanted to run Uchenna Kanu and Ifeoma Onumonu diagonally across the three centerbacks of England, in behind their wingbacks, which set them up to put some real pressure on England.

But the main story of the game was the way that England just lost individually all over the field. Go through the Nigeria lineup and you’ll see dominant duel counters almost to a woman. Halimatu Ayinde, tasked with shadowing Lauren James everywhere and doing it so well that she caused the latter to boil over (get back to this in a bit) won three of four ground duels and another in the air. Michelle Alozi won five of her nine ground duels. Osinachi Ohale won half of hers. Same for her central defensive partner Demehin. Ashleigh Plumptre won a dominant 11 of 14 aerial duels. Kanu won every tackle and half her duels. Ajibade won four of five aerial duels. They were first to every ball.

Whenever Alessia Russo or Lauren Hemp or James did get on the ball and got turned, it seemed they were muscled off or outrun every time and that attack would fizzle out. A telling moment was in the 80th minute, admittedly late when legs might be going flat, when England freed up Rachel Daly with a couple passes to get the ball at her feet with some 40 yards of green in front of her. She charged into it, but even with Kanu a yard behind her, she gave up the idea and turned back, knowing she wouldn’t beat her back up the field. Whatever momentum was in that build-up was lost.

Perhaps England thought Nigeria would run out of gas. As Toni Payne and Ucheibe pushed onto Georgia Stanway and a returning Keira Walsh, England thought they might be able to go direct either on the ground or in the air straight to Hemp and Russo. But Nigeria beat them to every second or loose ball from that. When England, rarely, did break that press, Nigeria retreated quickly to get back behind the ball. At no point did it feel like England could beat them up the field.

England were also too static. With all this man-marking England rarely tried to pull Nigeria apart. It looked like this a lot of the time:

Screenshot: Fox

Walsh is just to the right of Greenwood here, blanketed. Stanway is just below the center circle, marked up. James has Ayinde in her shirt. But these were mostly the positions that England’s midfield always took up. James did start dropping deep to try and get on the ball and open up space, but Stanway rarely if ever ran into it. Nor did the England wingbacks push up or come central into it, such was their terror of getting beat back up the field should the ball turn over. It made for a pretty stodgy offensive game for England.

Which didn’t get any better when James had her brain drip out her ear in the 87th minute:

This would have been lunacy even before the VAR era, but no one’s getting away with this now with the eye in the sky watching everything. Yes, frustration from not being able to contribute much in attack, but this can’t happen.

If Nigeria will have any regrets, they’ll be about what happened after they had a player advantage, which wasn’t much. Mary Earps only had one save to make in the 35 minutes or so, a shot hit right at her Asisat Oshoala. They were sent out to strike quickly on the counter, and once given the ball they didn’t have too many clear ideas what to do with it.

If there’s any other, it’s that they didn’t have anyone to hit their penalties with the assurance that Chloe Kelly did to end proceedings:

Grip it and rip it.

How England keep moving on from here is getting murkier than it was before the tournament, which is saying something for a team that lost three starters to knee injuries before it even started. James very well might be suspended for the rest of it, who knows what Walsh has left in the tank after returning from injury and playing nearly 120 minutes. James had been their creative outlet, so now what? Back to the 4-3-3? Stick with the 3-5-2 with Ella Toone as the #10? Something else? The thing is that England for the past two years have usually found some kind of answer, but this is definitely the lightning round of questions.

Other results: Australia 2 – 0 Denmark

Feels like it’s starting to line up for the hosts, no? While they started pretty nervy once again, they were faced with only Pernille Harder having to do it on her own in Denmark’s attack. The rest of the Danish team would be best described as, “pawing,” and that’s being kind. And now Sam Kerr has gotten some minutes.

Australia’s fortunes turned in the third group game when they got Caitlin Foord back on the left wing, and getting Mary Fowler back to play up top and the two of them getting to combine. This is exactly how Australia would have drawn up wanting to score their opener:

That ball from Fowler takes five Danes right out of it. Delicious.

From there the Australians kept the Danes at arm’s length, as Denmark only created something like 0.2 xG after going behind, and they were ripe to be hit on the counter again, with Fowler creating again:

Whatever the Danes had cooking was snuffed out by Australia’s stars of the tourney, their central midfield combo of Katrina Gorry and Kyra Cooney-Cross, who combined for 23 ball recoveries between them (and Cooney-Cross completed 32 of 36 passes to boot). What will have Australia truly buzzing before their quarterfinal against France or Morocco is that Sam Kerr got 10 minutes off the bench, which might not prep her to start in just four days but certainly sets her up for 30 minutes or more. There’s real momentum now too after two good to very good performances against Canada and Denmark, even if those opponents were welcoming.

Goal of the day

It wasn’t a goal, but this hit from Ashleigh Plumptre nearly broke the crossbar, off the half volley, if not set the Earth a tiny bit off its axis:

Did Alexi Lalas say anything stupid?

You betcha!

This puts the extremely awkward, or more accurately abhorrent, positioning of an avowed Ron DeSantis supporter front and center of coverage of a women’s tournament in stark, maddening relief. It’s Fox, so we shouldn’t be surprised, and every time Lalas gurgles up slime like this out of his fingers or voice box, people notice. Which is the only thing Fox cares about.

Yes, the US loves a frontrunner. But it would be a safe wager that for every mouthbreather out there that either turned the USWNT off or was rooting against them because the team has fought for better for themselves and others in the past was equaled by the fans they created or the ones they turned from casual to fans for life with those efforts too. The TV ratings would tell you such. Lalas is a loser, he’s on the losing side of this no matter how loud his cronies scream into the void, and history will eventually show that.

What have the USWNT done that Lalas finds unnecessary? Fight to be paid equally for the same job as the men? Support the LGBTQ+ community, some of whom are their teammates both at international and club levels, as well as for society as a whole? Stand up for the Black community and their continued oppression by the police and government? These are not things that a privileged fishbrain like Lalas wants to think about ever, much less consider why he’s on the wrong side. He keeps getting this chair, which means he thinks he keeps being right. And all of us have to suffer through it.

Did VAR fuck anything up?

Almost! England might be a touch aggrieved, as they had a penalty called for them late in the first half, and while it may have been on the soft side of the spectrum, it was not scandalous and one could easily see what the ref saw to call it. It’s a shove into Rachel Daly’s back:

What could the VAR ref have possibly seen that makes this a clear and obvious error? What did ref Melissa Pastrana see on the monitor that she didn’t on the field? It feels like whenever a ref is called over to the screen, the call is going to be reversed, but this made it feel like it was the VAR official reffing the game. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. But one person’s opinion of what’s a clear and obvious mistake will differ from another, and this is what VAR can’t get past at the moment.

Original source here

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.