One of the FIFA Women’s World Cup favourites this year is clearly the USA, who romped their group without conceding a goal and now faced a Spain side who secured qualification in their final game. USA were expected to win, and by some margin up against a young and inexperienced Spain side, but the underdogs put up a fight.
In the end, it was two penalties which decided this game, costing Spain dearly. Megan Rapinoe converted twice, once after just seven minutes, only for Jenni Hermoso to equalise only a minute later, and then to decide the tie with 15 minutes left on the clock. USA were held back by Spain’s game plan, preventing them from looking their free-flowing best, but secured passage to the quarter-finals.
Having tried three different formations in three games, Spain were always capable of springing a surprise. What was perhaps the most shocking was that they looked to match the USA, changing from a more defensive 4-2-3-1 to a more offensive 4-3-3 with Jennifer Hermoso returned to the front line of the attack.
For the USA, the shape was as expected. The only real twist was to see Becky Sauerbrunn selected in defence to continue her role as first choice, with Julie Ertz recalled and moved into to midfield to replace Lindsey Horan.
Spain’s high press
Throughout this tournament, Spain have looked to play with intensity and a high press. It is a system which has served to unsettle a number of sides in recent months, though in the Women’s World Cup, Germany found a way to nullify it. USA, the only side better than Germany that Spain have faced to date, should have been well prepared for the challenge. However, with their minds perhaps relaxed after securing an early opener from the penalty spot, Spain wasted no time in showing them a message of what they were capable of.
The plaudits went to Lucía García, who raced from wide to apply the pressure to Becky Sauerbrunn as soon as she received the ball from Alyssa Naeher, but the true credit should go to Jennifer Hermoso. It was not only her lob over Naeher that levelled the tie, but her pressing was essential. As soon as Sauerbrunn turned her back on the full-back, Hermoso closed her down with perfect positioning making the pass back to the goalkeeper or to her defensive partner impossible. With Patricia Guijarro coming from deep to press too, it gave Sauerbrunn the headache that caused her a moment of hesitation which allowed García to rob her of the ball.
Unfortunately, that was the peak for Spain’s press as they sat back with the scoreline level and allowed USA to play out from the back more. The front three continued to press, but without the support of the midfield, they found it hard going to limit the USA defence in the same way.
USA stopped the tiki-taka
In no game in this Women’s World Cup have Spain made fewer passes or had less possession. Even up against one of the tournament favourites in Germany, they still found a way to dominate play. Where other sides had been content to allow them to play, the USA refused to do so, surrounding the player on the ball and packing out the midfield. It allowed the Americans to control the middle of the park and dictate the tempo of the game.
The result became that 21.02% of passes were long, compared to an average of 13.69% in the group stage, whilst the average pass length also soared from 19.79 metres to 21.89 metres. The more direct approach did not pay off, with possession lost needlessly as rather than playing simple short passes, long balls would be hit forwards, usually in wide positions, hoping that they would find their target.
What perhaps caused Spain’s downfall more than any other factor was the mental impact that it had. As the game wore on, the USA harried the Spanish players less and less, yet they still rushed into decisions. One example is that shown above, where the usually composed Virginia Torrecilla collected the ball on the halfway line and, despite not being under any immediate pressure, immediately let the ball bounce and hoofed a long ball down the flank, hopeful that Lucía García would make it. Such manoeuvres simply gave up possession far too easily.
Exploiting the gaps between the lines
One of the ways in which the USA exploited Spain, despite never quite having the same ease to break them down that they have in other Women’s World Cup ties, was in the way that they looked to capitalise on the space between the lines in the Spanish set-up. The midfield three should have protected against that with Torrecilla sitting in a deeper role to prevent Alex Morgan from dropping into more of a playmaking role, but the midfield were caught out on the break, though that was not where the biggest weakness came.
The weak link came in the speed of the Spanish midfield tracking back when the ball was spread out wide. With the defence backtracking, Tobin Heath would receive the ball and instantly look to get inside the box. Once there, the easiest solution was to cut back on herself onto her right foot to take the ball forwards. Without any midfield providing cover, she would have plenty of space in which to do so and would instantly put Mapi on the wrong foot. It was through just such a move, with Leila Ouahabi taken out of play after misjudging the long ball, that USA won their first penalty.
With Alex Morgan coming in at the far post and distracting Irene Hernández, with Marta Corredera keeping an eye out for the run of Megan Rapinoe, it left Mapi vulnerable to such attacks. The surprise shift in formation from Spain did give them more strength going forwards but at the cost of that extra player in midfield who could have prevented such a situation from arising with disciplined positioning providing cover.
Which allowed USA’s build-up play
This gap between the lines also allowed the USA to build up a strong approach in their own third as they brought the ball out. Effectively, the front three from Spain would push high but regularly would not be supported by the midfield three in behind them. That meant that if the front line of the press were beaten, the likes of Sam Mewis were given almost free reign to bring the ball out with time on the ball to pick out a pass.
In total, Spain allowed 10.68 passes per defensive action, their highest of the tournament and barely comparable to the 2.56 that were allowed against South Africa. The USA team moved the ball around quickly, often pushing looking to escape the high press and would then give the ball to Mewis to spread the ball out wide into the final third and transition into the attacking phase as quickly as possible.
In the earlier stages of the game, Spain pressed more consistently with greater support from the midfield, as was the case for their early equaliser. However, as the game went on and tired legs came into play, it was clear that the USA could take advantage. Spain had no motivation to gamble and throw players forward and risk disrupting the lines, and the USA took advantage by starting their attacking moves from deep.
Spain can certainly feel hard done by given the penalty which consigned them to FIFA Women’s World Cup defeat. USA looked the better side and deserved their victory, but given how close Spain pushed them it will have shown vulnerabilities to their next rivals. Having looked unbeatable up until this point, Spain were not afraid to step up to the plate and match their level, using fouls to break up their rhythm and instantly looking to make the USA side nervous with their pressing. On this occasion, the better side won, but Spain can take heart from a remarkable performance which will serve a young team well to learn and come back stronger in four years’ time.
If you are following the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 then you will find our FREE tactical preview magazine the perfect compliment to the tournament. You can download it HERE – each nation is previewed and we also profile their key player and young player to watch. Enjoy!