FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 Tactical Preview: Norway vs Nigeria
The second game of Group A features Norway, potentially the competition’s dark horses, versus Nigeria, who will be trying to put together a good run past the group stages. Norway’s 7-2 thrashing of South Africa simulated a supposed dress-rehearsal ahead of Saturday’s game for the Scandinavians.
Nigeria, contrastingly, used their final friendly before the tournament kicked-off to give some last minute experience to their side. Both Asisat Oshoala and Rasheedat Ajibade, whom Total Football Analysis identified as their key players, made appearances. Although, for the latter, only briefly.
In this tactical analysis preview, we shall discuss what you should expect to see from each side as they try to capitalize on the others’ weaknesses. Both sides are smart and the game has all of the foundations to produce a pure ‘slobberknocker’. Although with one side much stronger than the other, it could also be a highly uneven contest.
Both sides will look to exploit the flanks through congesting the centre. Norway will hope to manage an aggressive press from Nigeria’s battering and swaggering forward line. In turn, the Super Falcons will need to move past a defensive block designed to frustrate their own usual attritional defensiveness.
Against South Africa, Norway opted to line up in a 4-4-2. The similarities between the two African sides means that we should anticipate this formational trend to be repeated. Furthermore, this tactic has long been the Norwegian’s favoured shape.
There has been some consternation amongst fans that this formation does not get the best out of players such as Isabell Herlovsen and Lisa-Marie Karlseng Utland up front. Similarly, attacking midfielder, Guro Reiten, will almost inevitably be pushed out wide to accommodate Vilde Bøe Risa and Ingrid Engen in the centre of midfield.
The strength of their recent performance and the flexibility the shape enables, however, add extra weight behind the argument for Martin Sjögren keeping this formation. On the other hand, this does not mean that Norway will insist on a flat structure. The Swedish coach prefers both of his wingers to move inside, allowing space for the full-back to advance into. They often attack in a 4-2-2-2.
Nigeria, on the other hand, have many potential aces up their sleeves. Thomas Dennerby, Sjögren’s Swedish compatriot, has a recent track record of mixing up his formations. Whilst his Nigeria side opted for their expected 4-2-3-1 against Canada, in their previous six games, they’ve used five different starting formations.
Naturally, it would be wrong to make an assumption on Nigeria’s chosen shape. However, in terms of what seems likely, we do have some way of making a logical guess. Dennerby appears to have moved away from the three at the back style which categorized much of his thinking previously. Indeed, he’s not used this as an option this year.
With four at the back, it looks likely that two in midfield will be used to buttress the middle of the park, which is usually seen as Nigeria’s main defensive stronghold. In attack, they’ll look to exploit width to allow crosses and darting runs behind from the forwards. It looks like they’ll line up in a 4-2-3-1.
Nigeria pressing Norway’s possession
Whilst Norway are flexible in attack, what has seemed obvious in their more recent games is how they like to keep the ball when starting attacks from the goalkeeper. Yet, short passing and ball retention maybe near impossible when faced up against Nigeria’s consistently aggressive high-pressing. Physicality and sensible, gradual positioning up front, are the Nigerian’s preferred methods of winning the ball.
A common theme throughout Norway’s pre-World Cup has been their usage of their central midfield pairing of Bøe Risa and Engen. Both midfielders seek to lay claim to the ball deep and look to play out from the back. Yet, with Nigeria’s press so determined to box them in, their roles will inevitably alter.
As it seems less likely that Norway will be able to play centrally through the middle, due to Nigeria’s pack-hunting, we should expect to see the duo peel wider. They may potentially displace the full backs, allowing greater transition for Norway’s attacks. By doing so, overloads on the wings should become a certainty, as the full-back will have adequate defensive cover.
Conversely, we could see Norway turn to very direct football. This may not help out maintaining possession in the middle of the pitch, however, it would help negate the block of advancing Nigerians. Unfortunately for Norway, this style of play doesn’t necessarily suit them. They often look markedly weak when trying to knock the ball longer.
Norway utilising width
With a need to move the ball quickly to evade Nigeria’s combative front line, Norway will need to try and move the ball to the underserviced wide areas. A tactical analysis shows us that Nigeria will be hoping to do this, as this is where their press usually strategically targets. Their full-backs, Osinachi Ohale and Ngozi Ebere, who both play domestically in Scandinavia, will push on to try and win the ball from midfielders with no room to turn.
In order to combat this, we should expect to see Norway pull even wider in attack, this is likewise something which Nigeria will encourage, as Norway’s attacking wide players often tuck-in to support the strikers.
By having Graham Hansen and Reiten pull wide to win the ball in areas away from the compact midfield, Norway’s full-backs will look to make inverted runs through the middle of the pitch. Nigeria’s sophisticated holding-pairing of Rita Chikwelu and Halimatu Ayinde will try to clog these areas. Despite this, they will struggle to balance following their runners and keeping defensive integrity.
Furthermore, we should expect to see the Norwegian forwards, particularly Hervlosen, moving out into wide areas. This will serve two purposes. The first will be to exploit the gap which will surely emerge behind the Nigerian full backs, who will be preoccupied squeezing into the back of the wingers.
Secondly, however, this will also open space in the middle of the pitch so that the wide players and the wing-backs will be able to move into the open spaces through the centre. This may limit the forwards’ chances, but it could still enable a bounty of crosses into the area. Norway will aim to merely sidestep the fortified midfield area and reach normality in the final third. Crossing from the byline is almost second nature to them, even if it is the strikers plopping the balls in.
Nigeria stretching the Norway backline
It would be foolish to assume that Norway will have this game sewn up. Nigeria will attack with regularity and ferocity. Furthermore, whilst they possess a multitude of possible options in attack, it seems like it should be a certainty that they’ll hope to stretch Norway’s backline from touchline to touchline.
There are two reasons why Nigeria will seek to divide and conquer their opponents in such a way. Firstly, this suits the Nigerian’s preferred style of attack. The four women in attack are exceptional at pumping balls into the area. Their universality in the final third is benefitted by their interchanging of positions.
The below graphics, taken from a match against Burkina Faso, show how Nigeria have an almost cavalier attitude to providing width. Likewise, they also bolster numbers by interchanging positions out wide.
The second reason, however, rests on Norway’s own deliberate attempts to push and commit women forward from the full-back areas. This further cements the viewpoint that Norway will have to leave the central midfield pairing deeper and wider to offer cover. That is unless they are to compromise on their own attacking flair down the wings. Nigeria would struggle to shake off the ultra-defensive mindset of Bøe Risa and Engen. They’ll both retreat to deal with this threat.
Nigeria should experience some modicum of success if they look to work the ball into the channels. Norway’s central defensive column are highly successful in the air. This leads us to think that high crosses into the area will become a rarity in favour of well-timed runs from behind. Indeed, speed is where Norway’s ageing backline falter, and this was best seen against Denmark recently. The key for Nigeria to create these spaces is to first offer width, however.
Norway drop to a 4-2-3-1 defensive shape
Whilst there are a lot of bold predictions in this analysis, it seems fair to suggest that Norway will be forced to revert to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 when defending. This will match up to Nigeria’s attacking thrust, and the Gresshoppene will fancy themselves one-on-one.
Whilst this will allow their players to adapt to one-to-one marking, it will also enable the two centre midfielders to drop deeper. This will exploit the excellent defensive positioning of Engen in particular, who will hope to obstruct passing lanes.
Similar to their defensive organization, Norway would be wise to restrain themselves when defending. Whilst the Norwegians often look to see passes to the opposition full-backs as pressing triggers, they may decide to allow the full-backs space with the ball.
The reason for this is that Nigeria do not feel comfortable in possession. They mostly set up to pump balls directly forwards – if Norway can ensure that the key targets are pre-occupied with their markers, and they outnumber the opposition in their own half, Nigeria will struggle to advance. The below graphics show how Norway may disassemble an attack if the ball were to turn over to Onome Ebi and Ngozi Ebere, deep in Nigeria’s half:
The five in midfield will go some way to limit the movement and possibilities of obtaining the ball in the centre. This does not mean that Norway will enable the full-backs to run through and pierce through their lines, however. Norway can maintain their press, but perhaps simply drop off to a mid-block, before committing to surrounding the Nigerian full backs.
This tactical preview may read as one-sided in favour of Norway, but it’s largely because one can’t see past them winning this game. They will offer the greatest tactical intrigue. Norway’s central pairing will need to be flexible in their positioning – eager to fill gaps and cover the full backs. The side should have enough to defend successfully. This could be a game won by the midfielders but in much wider positions.
Nigeria’s best hopes of winning the game rest on pressing the Norwegian’s high. They’ll need to either win the ball or force a turn over with regularity, something which is far from impossible, but something Martin Sjögren should have his team prepared for. If they can breach a retrained Norwegian block, however, they’ll look to drag their opponents out of position. The sweet-spot for their attacks will be the half spaces between the full-backs and central cover.
Norway’s ability to adapt should be enough to overcome the Nigerians. They prefer a high-press, but they are also comfortable without one. They could allow their opponents to have the ball, encouraging them to lose it in dangerous areas. One-to-one, the Norwegian’s are stronger, and when they attack, we should see the individual merits of their wingers and dynamic full backs, make all the difference.
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