FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023: Five ‘under the radar’ players you must monitor – scout report
After what has felt like an eternity for women’s football fans, the FIFA Women’s World Cup is finally here, with action getting underway on Thursday in Auckland when joint-hosts New Zealand face Norway at Eden Park.
However, plenty of new fans will be tuning into the tournament and will be aware of the star names but not necessarily of the lesser-known talents in each squad. Yet, some outstanding players will be featuring for their countries who could go unnoticed. With that in mind, this tactical analysis will pick out five players who could perhaps go under the radar but who will be worth looking out for as the tournament goes on.
New Zealand’s fellow joint-hosts Australia are among the favourites to reach the latter stages, and the fact that their squad contains star names such as Chelsea Women striker Sam Kerr, Arsenal Women left-back Steph Catley and Lyon Féminin full-back Ellie Carpenter means that they will be the focus of plenty of attention over the coming month.
However, another player who could have just as big a say in the Matildas’ fortunes is Racing Louisville midfielder Alex Chidiac. Featuring mainly as an attacking midfielder or a winger, she is not a new name on the international stage, having been a part of the squad since 2015, but she is not the first person that comes to mind when listing star players in their squad.
However, those who have watched her will attest to her importance both for Louisville and Australia, with her tending to operate in between opposing lines and helping to keep the ball moving and ensure that attacking chances stay alive for as long as possible. This situation against Houston Dash shows how problematic that can be for opposing sides, with Sam Laity’s side, trying to close off as many passing routes as possible. However, Chidiac is still finding space to offer Paige Monaghan an option.
What is really crucial to point out here is how the Australian has held back rather than pushed forward because that is what she is likely to do a lot of during the World Cup, with head coach Tony Gustavsson’s tactics likely to revolve around Kerr playing as high as possible and offering an outlet and others falling in behind to provide links. It is worth noting that Kirsten Davis is moving towards the six-yard area here in much the same way as Kerr will do, showing how Chidiac’s qualities will help her fit into the Matildas’ system.
However, Chidiac doesn’t only look to get on the ball in advanced areas because she is very much at her best when given the freedom to roam around the pitch and to receive it in different spaces. As this pass map shows, Louisville have not limited her in what she has been able to do this season, and having that ability to make accurate passes (84% of her attempts have found their intended target) and link the team together during transitions is something that Australia will rely on heavily as they try to put their opponents under pressure and bring their key attackers into the game at every available opportunity.
Another aspect of Chidiac’s game that Gustavsson will appreciate is her ability to anticipate play and think ahead of everyone else on the field when her team has possession. In this case, Louisville are moving into the final third, and USA midfielder Savannah DeMelo has transferred the ball into the path of forward Parker Goins. Chidiac has reacted early and is already looking to offer Goins a way of moving the ball out of the Chicago Red Stars’ press and into an area where Louisville can shoot at goal.
On this occasion, the pass was blocked. The attack came to a premature end, but this is not the first time Chidiac has made intelligent runs like this to offer passing options again. It shows how important she could be in allowing Australia to keep chances going whenever opponents try to isolate key players like Kerr and to take them out of the game.
Another team expected to advance far into the World Cup is Canada, and even though Bev Priestman’s side have not had the smoothest build-up to the tournament, both on and off the field, they will be hoping to at least match their best result at the showpiece event, which came in 2003 when they finished fourth.
This time around, they will need to find a way of playing without some of their star names, with influential Portland Thorns and former Manchester City Women forward Janine Beckie among those unable to play due to injury.
However, that has opened up opportunities for up-and-coming talent to taste a major tournament, and one who has shown a lot of promise so far is Simi Awujo, who mainly features as a holding midfielder for college side USC (University of South Carolina) Trojans and who has established herself as an essential part of their tactics.
Her essential qualities include reading the game well and screening her defensive line, and the latter can be seen here as she reacts to a pass from Washington Huskies’ Hayden Crowley towards Summer Yates. However, what is important to note here is that she doesn’t look to tackle the ball and instead focuses on shadowing Yates, staying close to her but not risking going in for a challenge and leaving a gap open.
That shows immense intelligence, and it is impressive, given where she is in her career, that she already has these attributes in her game. It is not hard to see why she won 75.5% of her defensive duels during the 2022 Fall season when this encounter occurred, considering the maturity and patience she is displaying here.
Awujo is not only a defensive player, though, but can operate in other midfield roles as required. Here, she has received a pass from defender Zoe Burns and has linked up with Helena Sampaio to play through the Oregon Ducks lines and access the open areas behind their midfield.
At this point, she can look ahead of her and demonstrate her strong passing ability, and finding spaces with astonishing precision is something else that has really caught the eye when examining her performances. In this case, she curls a cross in and finds the head of Aaliyah Farmer, with the latter locating the back of the net, and that shows how she is just as capable of creating goals as she is at preventing them from coming about.
That versatility and adaptability are indicated more clearly when looking at Awujo’s touch map because it is immediately apparent how much of an impact she has had on USC by the number of areas that she has involved herself in their play.
Having this ability to switch between defending and attacking at will is another reason that many have high hopes for her, and Canada could really benefit from having a player with her attributes in their squad if they do need to find a different way to progress the ball up the field or to strengthen their defensive line.
Whilst Argentina’s men’s team have enjoyed success throughout the years, their women’s team has remained mainly in the shadows, with field hockey and volleyball more popular than football among the country’s female population.
However, that is not to say that they don’t produce some good female footballers, and players like Atlético de Madrid Femenino playmaker Estefanía Banini and now-Orlando Pride striker Mariana Larroquette are undoubtedly among their finest exports.
Whilst both will be hoping to have an impact at the World Cup, others in their team also deserve mention, and one player who is central to everything they do is left-back Eliana Stábile. The Santos Feminino player has been around the team for a while, with her debut coming back in 2018, but she is not a player that immediately comes to mind when thinking of star names in La Albiceleste’s ranks.
Stábile is by trade a left-back, but she likes to attack, and it is expected to see her high up the pitch when her team is in possession, as is the case here against Corinthians Feminino. By doing so, she plays a crucial role in putting opponents under pressure because they are never able to focus solely on defending the central areas and always have to watch the wide channels too, and that is something that both Santos and Argentina have played on as they have tried to use her attacking nature to their advantage.
In the latter’s case, it has proven particularly useful because it means that they can leave Stábile to control the wings and can bring their wide forwards inside the pitch, meaning that positional rotations are typical in their play, and the ability of Larroquete, Banini and Yamila Rodríguez to keep changing positions was one of the reasons that Argentina won their recent friendly with Peru so easily.
That theme of playing high up the field doesn’t cease when her teams lose the ball because Stábile again looks forward where she can and regain possession as early as possible.
She is quite a physical player when closing opponents down, with her always getting tight to individual players and never allowing them a moment to assess their options, but what is important to note is that she rarely gives free kicks away, which shows how she knows where the line is in terms of what is legal and what isn’t.
In this case, Palmeiras Feminino’s Letícia Ferreira is trying to set up an attack but has been closed down well by Stábile and is therefore unable to make an accurate pass, and Santos clear their lines. Therefore, Stábile does what is needed and knows how to affect an opponent, with her making 18 interceptions and winning 63% of her defensive duels during 2023 so far, but her teammates know that she won’t give away needless set pieces and put them under pressure.
That is even more apparent when looking at how many fouls Stábile has conceded, with only five of her 1-v-1 engagements indicated here leading to the whistle being blown against her.
It is also clear to see just how high up the pitch she will go to win the ball back for her team, and this again indicates why she has been so crucial to Argentina’s play for so many years and why she will be vital for them over the coming month too.
Whilst they have been listed as one of the favourites to reach the latter stages of the competition, France are at the beginning of a transitional period, with Hervé Renard leaving his post as Saudi Arabia men’s head coach to take over from Corinne Diacre, following the latter’s dismissal earlier this year.
Renard’s arrival has led to some changes being made to their tactics but has also allowed for some new names to get minutes and show what they can do. One of those who has thrived under his tutelage is Montpellier Féminines defender Maëlle Lakrar, who was included in Diacre’s Tornoi de France squad in February, but who has been moulded by Renard in recent games to fit his own tactical philosophy.
There are many reasons why Lakrar is such an interesting and exciting player, with one being her versatility, as she can feature anywhere across the back line. This has made her almost unique in the modern game, as most players nowadays specialise in one or two roles only.
For Montpellier, she has predominantly been used as a centre-back, and this has allowed her to develop certain aspects of her game, such as reading the play and reacting early, and what became increasingly evident as the previous season went on was that she was never fazed by who was in front of her. In this case, she has got between PSG Féminine’s Kadidiatou Diani and the ball, and the strength with which she slowed her fellow France international down and prevented her from scoring here shows how well she has improved this side of her game.
Another of her strengths is her ability to pass out from the back, with her the epitome of a ball-playing centre-back and someone who constantly launches attacks from her own third. As this chart indicates, the number of progressive passes that she made for Montpellier last season was astronomical, and the fact that she had an 82% passing accuracy means that comparisons with Barcelona Femení star Mapi León, who is arguably the best ball-playing defender in Europe on her day, are not unreasonable to make.
It is also important to note that many of these passes come from higher positions rather than from around her goal area, and that again shows how she has the confidence to move out and win the ball rather than waiting for it to come to her. France clearly have an excellent front-foot player on their hands and one who could make a name for herself as the tournament goes on.
It does look likely that she will be used as a right-back during the tournament, with Renard clearly appreciative of her abilities to run up the field and support attacks. It was something that she thrived in during France’s recent friendly win against the Republic of Ireland (RoI).
However, it is not an unfamiliar role to her because Montpellier head coach Yannick Chandioux has also looked to utilise her attacking capabilities on occasion, and the visit of Lyon was one of the times that he chose to rely on her offensive play rather than her defensive strengths.
By doing so, he wanted to give his team a way of counterattacking and progressing up the field at speed, which is essential against a team like Lyon. The fact that she was able to move the ball into the path of Haiti forward Nérilia Mondesir here before running on to receive the return pass shows how dangerous and decisive she can be when allowed to roam up and down the wing.
One of the teams making their World Cup debut this year is the aforementioned RoI, and there is little doubt that reaching the knockout rounds will be tough for them, given that they are in the same group as Australia, Canada and Nigeria.
However, one thing that could help them to spring a few surprises is the quality in their squad, with the likes of Arsenal’s Katie McCabe, Birmingham City Women’s Louise Quinn and Shamrock Rovers Women’s Áine O’Gorman all among their ranks.
Another name worth looking out for is O’Gorman’s Rovers teammate Abbie Larkin, who is an explosive forward and likes to get on the ball and make things happen. When watching Rovers this season, there is little doubt that she has been an essential part of their positive first season back in existence, and her versatility is evident when recalling that she started as a striker but has gradually transitioned into an attacking midfielder or winger.
When she gets on the ball, she is always difficult to stop, with many opponents falling foul of her rapid changes of direction and quick decision-making, and ensuring that she can constantly create gaps in opposing lines is one of the reasons that she has already scored four times and assisted four more.
In this case, Peamount United Women were able to contain her. Still, only eventually and through the combined efforts of defender Chloe Moloney and forward Kate Mooney, and that shows just how dangerous it can be to allow her any opportunity to get on the ball.
As a playmaker, she must have a good range of passing to find teammates around the field, and this is something else that she has stood out in as the Women’s Premier Division season has gone on.
In this case, she has again dropped back to get on the ball and now has time to get her head up and look for a teammate, and she ends up sending the ball towards Jaime Thompson here as that is where she feels that Rovers would have a good chance of breaking Peamount down.
What this shows is that she is not just a one-person team, and she is happy to work with those around her when they are in better positions to shoot at goal, and having that awareness to know when to pass and when to keep hold of the ball is a really crucial element in any player’s game.
With the RoI using wing-backs more often than not under Vera Pauw, there will be a need for those in the forward areas to work in close proximity to each other, and that will rely on them rotating constantly as they try to be as unpredictable as possible.
That fact alone means that Larkin will be a good option for them to have available, with her used to that style of play due to Rovers head coach Collie O’Neill implementing it into his own game plan. It would not be a surprise to see Pauw turning to the 18-year-old when she wants to add more energy and spriteliness to her team on the field.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has identified five players who might not be as well known to the wider footballing fanbase but who are worth keeping an eye out for when the FIFA Women’s World Cup gets underway. The scout report has provided analysis on each and looked at what they could bring to their teams and how they will fit into their tactics, as well as pointing out in some cases why they have been included at such a young age.
It is not guaranteed that all will get a chance to show what they can do, and it will come down to how their teams are performing and if there is a need for some of them to come on and influence the game. However, there is little debate that all of them deserve their places in their national squads, and they are all the type of players who could attract a few positive headlines as the tournament goes on.