USA v France is Upon Us
It’s the game everyone has been waiting for since the World Cup draw was made. The hosts versus the defending champions. The #1 team in the world versus the #4 team (did I mention they’re the hosts and have home advantage?). According to fivethirtyeight’s SPI ranking, these are the #1 and 2 teams at this tournament. This is a super battle and soccer fans are in for a delightful game.
What has France done so far?
French Flexibility and a safety-first approach?
Les Bleues have been pretty flexible in this tournament. They’ve generally played a 4 woman backline but the interesting bits have happened in midfield and attack where they’ve moved between 4-3-3 or 4-2-2-2 or 4-4-2. Corinne Diacre will move her personnel around to try to find holes in the opponent’s formation. It’s been successful to some measure but I’d argue that the French are yet to hit their stride in this tournament. The opening game saw them blow out South Korea 4-0 but the xG (expected goals) of that game was 1.6 to 0.5 so France should have won 2-0, essentially Korea gave the French two goals from two fatal errors. Monster CB Wendie Renard provided a huge boost with two goals.
When the French played Norway, it was yet another close game in score and xG. Les Bleues won 2-1 though the xG was 1.6 – 0.4. That was another game that the French just didn’t seem able to impose their will. Sure, Norway are a decent side but as we saw in their quarter final versus England, a good team would have trounced Norway as the English did.
The last game versus Nigeria was a bit different. The xG was 2.1 – 0.04 and the game ended 1-0 but the common thread was France struggling to impose their will. The Nigerians barely attacked and focused largely on shutting down the French plus riding their luck some. It took a 79th minute Wendie Renard retaken penalty (VAR doing weird things but that’s a discussion for another day) for the hosts to win. They struggled against an organized Nigerian side.
The round of 16 game versus Brazil was a titanic extra time 2-1 win that really could have gone either way. The xG was 2.5 – 1 so analytics suggests the game should have ended 3-1 but the reality is the Brazilians exposed several flaws in the French defense and Les Bleues really struggled to cope with the physicality and speed of the Brazilians. With better finishing, Canarinhas would have won that game but wuddas and cuddas don’t get you victory in the sport. For a fourth straight game, France were in a dogfight.
What has the USA done so far?
US staunchness and rigidity
Coach Jill Ellis has been pretty straight forward with her formations throughout this tournament. Even when the personnel has moved around some, she’s largely stuck to the same ideology and with the results, who can argue with that reasoning? The now-famous opening day 13-0 win was a proper statement from the US women to the world. They blew the doors of the Thai team. The xG was 8.1 – 0.04 but that doesn’t tell a complete story (stats are a lamp-post to help illuminate the picture not support pole to lean on for confirmation biases). That opening game should have ended in an even bigger win. It was a proper shellacking.
For the 2nd game against Chile, Coach Ellis sprung the surprises by changing her team around. In tournaments, most coaches typically tend to wait until qualification is secure before ringing in the changes in the 3rd group game but this game saw the USWNT start seven players who didn’t start versus Thailand. The idea was largely the same though, a 4-3-3 with two wide forwards wrecking havoc and complete wingbacks joining the attack with frequency. It was a great example of the depth that the team has as they didn’t miss a beat. They won 3-0 after outshooting Chile 26-1, the xG was 3.1 – 0.01. The attack flexed its muscles for a second straight game (and only a superb woman-of-the-match showing from Christiane Endler prevented yet another comprehensive beatdown) but even more impressively, Chile was totally shut down as an attacking threat.
The Swedes were supposed to be the big test of the group for the US and in many regards it was the closest contest of the cup for them. There was a lot of talk pre-game but once the actual football got going, there was only ever going to be one winner. A 2-0 win with xG of 1.9 – 0.4 told the story. Sweden were soundly beaten.
The round of 16 game versus Spain was supposed to be easier on paper than the Sweden game but Spain put up an almighty battle and rocked the USWNT. The rhetoric coming into the World Cup was how the US was the strongest and fittest team at the cup. They may be the fittest team but Spain went full Diego Simeone Atletico Madrid on the USWNT as they showed a physical side to their game that Coach Ellis’ team didn’t seem prepared for. The result was a 2-1 US win but xG was 0.8 to 0.4. It was a close game and extra-time or penalties would not have been unfair to Spain. If there was a blueprint to beating the USWNT, this was a great one.
How will this epic Quarter Final shape up?
If the French come out as they’ve done so far in this tournament, they’re going to get beat. They’re in for a game against the best team in the world. More is needed from Eugenie Le Sommer who has been great but against the US, she needs to be better, she needs to be that direct frightful attacking threat who eats up her opposing defender every time she faces her. She will need to make Tobin Heath give Ali Krieger help (something that would nullify Heath’s attacking threat). Gaetene Thiney has not really sparkled in this tournament, she needs to have the game of her life as well. Amandine Henry has been excellent contributing goals and she’ll possibly need to do more of that against the US AFTER winning the midfield battle. Valerie Gauvin has a couple goals in this cup but she needs to be more clinical. The fact that the French top scorer is a center back tells a large part of the story of why France has struggled to put its stamp on games. Gauvin needs to put away chances but the key player is Le Sommer. If she puts the US on the back foot, it will open everything else up for the rest of Les Bleues and the less time the US spends formulating trouble in attack, the better.
The Spaniards gave the US a proper fright and had a great gameplan to handle the defending champs but that gameplan isn’t really one that would go down well for the French if they tried replicating it. They have not shown the total ruthless defensive organization of Spain so far and getting down and dirty to throw the US off their game doesn’t seem like something they can pull off. Also they’re the hosts, the crowd is bound to demand they take the game to the US (even if Coach Diacre’s footballing ethos is a pragmatic one). However, taking the game to the US is exactly what the USWNT would love. If that happens, there should be ample room for the wide forwards and speedy Alex Morgan to eat France up. So, if I’m the French,
Speaking of Alex Morgan, her health is a key factor in this game. In the last 16, she was totally shut down by Spain and one was led to wonder how healthy she was given the issues she had in the Chile game and the fact that she sat out the final group match largely due to health. If she’s healthy, she brings a dimension to the game that ought to trouble Renard and Bathy in the French defense. Her movement and speed are second to none when she’s on her game. If she isn’t healthy, we’ll see Carli Lloyd start. The #10 was once the best player in the world and is still a formidable threat any day but I suspect France would prefer her style of play than Morgan’s.
This game could be won in midfield and Mewis, Lavelle and Horan are creative players who can torment an opposing defense if given room to do so but France are not likely to provide that room. So in the battle of the engine room, Coach Ellis may want to give a start to Julie Ertz or Allie Long to provide some steel. Ertz started versus Spain alongside Lavelle and Mewis and that’s probably the midfield trio to go with again.
The US need the wide forwards to really be on their game. Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe will be the key to this game. Rapinoe (despite two penalty goals) really struggled versus Spain. They kicked her, hassled her, and she really never got the better of Marta Corredara. When the wide forwards creating space and winning her battles, there’s more fluidity to the US attack. Tobin Heath had her own struggles v Spain too. She’ll need to be direct versus France and has to make the right final passes once she’s beat her defender.
It’s going to be 4-3-3 versus 4-3-3. Midfield powerhouse v midfield powerhouse. One set of creative wide forwards versus another.
The expectation is this game will swing back and forth. The xG is unlikely to be a repeat of Spain v USA. This ought to be an open battle and that plays right into the USWNT’s hands. If that happens, the US ought to win this game going away. 3-1 or something along those lines. If the French can craft a cautious gameplan similar to what Spain did but manage to inject more attacking impetus (and ride their luck some), they have enough attacking firepower to punish the US going the other way. If they play the cautious game, they should be able to force ET in a 2-2 game and from there, it’s anyone’s guess who wins it. Both these possibilities favor the USA but there’s a third possibility I see that favors the French, if they can get an early goal, get the crowd really into it, and be clinical in picking off the US on the counter, a famous win may be on the cards!
So, to summarize: If Les Bleues open things up, they’re getting beat. If they don’t they have a decent chance of winning. How’s that for a hedged bet. It’ll be a classic game.