It’s all to play for in Group B of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019, with Spain and China set to meet knowing that it will be winner takes all for the second qualification spot barring a miracle from Germany vs South Africa. Both sides have beaten South Africa and lost to Germany, with Spain boasting a narrow goal difference advantage which would see them through in the case of a draw.
This tactical preview analysis considers how Spain and China could look to exploit each other’s weaknesses to find their route to the knock-out stages in France. As the group stage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup comes to a close, this tie will be one of the most intriguing tactical battles between opposing styles.
China will stick with the same selection and shape that they have chosen in the first two games, despite the threat that it carries for three key players on yellow cards, including both of their front two. Jia Xiuquan has clearly defined his preferred approach and will stick with those players for what could turn out to be their final challenge at this stage.
The two banks of four give a rigid structure which help to form their defensive unit, whilst also creating more freedom when on the attack. The doubt for China will be on whether there is the strength in depth to mix things up from the substitute’s bench.
Spain on the other hand will make significant changes. Jorge Vilda is expected to keep the same structure that did not work to their favour against Germany, though Patricia Guijarro and Mariona Caldentey will come into the side in order to add more movement and dynamism, particularly when coming from deep and looking to break through.
Jennifer Hermoso’s role will be crucial, depending upon how advanced a position she takes up. If she acts as a forward, it will be a clear sign of intent, but there is a significant chance that she will sit deeper as a number 10 style playmaker where Mariona and Guijarro will become more important to the offensive game.
Will Spain overcrowd the middle again?
Vilda surprised many with his selection against Germany. By overloading the centre, with Hermoso in behind a front three and in front of two deeper midfielders, Spain struggled to distribute the ball freely and could not penetrate into the final third. Instead, the middle of the park became overcrowded. Should he repeat that against China, it could present a major threat to Spain’s chances of progress.
Spain have struggled to build up a free-flowing approach on the ball with this set-up, far surpassing their passes forwards with their passes backwards and sideways. Up against China, a side who boast one of the worst disciplinary records in the competition conceding a foul every 5 minutes, 48 seconds on average, building up any kind of fluidity will be a major concern. With their own problems of breaking down defences, as will be considered later, China can effectively shut the game down by blocking the middle of the park themselves.
China’s approach is much more focused on spreading the ball out wide when on the offensive. In the defensive phase, these players trend to retreat into a more narrow shape which will cause Spain more challenges. What could prove to be decisive is just how much China are willing to gamble and move men forwards when in possession. If Spain can exploit spaces in the middle on the counter, then it may be the way in which they can allow the likes of Hermoso and Nahikari García to thrive.
China’s wide threat
China’s offensive patterns largely rely on how they use the ball out wide. In fact, their only goal in the competition to date came through such an approach. With 21 crosses against South Africa, it was their key tactical approach having found it more difficult to break down Germany in their opening fixture. China constantly look to create triangles out wide in order to outwit the opposition, providing an overlapping full-back, a midfielder moving out wide to support and a winger, ending the move with a cross into the box.
Spain will be particularly concerned given the way in which they struggled against Germany as they got the ball wide and into the box, conceding several chances inside the box. After Marta Torrejón suffered an underpar display last time out at right-back, getting off to a strong start to boost her confidence will be essential as China will surely look to target her whether by attacking her directly or overloading the far post with runners as Germany did to score the winning goal in their last fixture.
Should Spain be more offensive, China may find that they rely more on the counter and have fewer opportunities to spray the ball wide. This would call for a more direct approach as was the case against Germany, where China struggled to find a way through into the final third. As such, sitting back when out of the ball will not suit Spain which will be good news for a team who look to press high whenever possible. If the Spanish side do that effectively, they could cut this threat off at source.
Spain’s struggles to break down
Against Germany, Spain enjoyed the vast majority of possession. That will likely be the case again when they face China. The Asian side will be happy to relinquish the ball and allow Spain to control the rhythm and flow of the game. When given that role in their past outing, Spain struggled to find a way through. With their short passing style, they often could not find space or a way forwards. Their xG of 0.33 against Germany, with only one goal in open play in the tournament so far, proves that Spain have at times failed to find the creativity needed to break down solid defensive units.
Much like Germany, China have built their game around a solid, narrow, defensive base. Should Spain once again rely on trying to find gaps between banks of four or a back five, as was the case against Germany as shown below, then the European team could be in for a long afternoon. More movement and creativity is required out wide, much like China have done against South Africa. As China created more and more of their xG from out wide in order to create more of a threat, such flexibility is exactly what Spain have struggled with.
Against South Africa, it was clear that China had more left in the tank fitness-wise. Pursuing this approach, defending deep and then looking to exploit Spain’s fatigue late on, could be a risk worth contemplating for China. This is a Chinese team which certainly has no frills but knows how to get the job done. Having conceded just one goal to date, against Germany, they may feel that playing for a shut-out could be the way to go. Even at 1-0 up against South Africa, China did not look to gamble or attack and instead preferred to sit back and defend. China will not be willing to gamble, but focusing on the defensive side of their game may be the best way to exploit Spain’s weakness.
In comparison, Spain should have the quality to see them through. Their talents like Hermoso should disrupt the balance enough to decide the tie, but China’s team have proven that when they work as a unit they can match even the best of teams. It will not be an easy tie for either side and China may well look to grind out the result that they need to get through by the skin of their teeth. The first goal, and when it comes, may be crucial in this tie. The later it comes, the more it will play to China’s favour. On balance though, Spain will be the more optimistic of the two teams.