The buzz is building now as teams head into their last round robin games. Most groups are still pretty wide open if not in terms of who will advance then in who will take top spot and get the smoother road through the knockout rounds.
In my post on the eve of the Women’s World Cup I laid out two scenarios for the Canadian women’s team. The one I predicted was that they would win their group and thus gain a relatively easy second round game before being tested in the quarter finals. The corollary to that was what it would look like “if the wheels fell off”. What I didn’t anticipate was how paper thin the difference between these two outcomes actually is.
While I wouldn’t call the penalty decision against China dubious or even soft, it was highly fortuitous both in terms of being both unintentional (don’t think she meant to strike Leon in the face) and incidental (Leon was not in a dangerous position about to score) as well as the fact that it occurred in injury time. Still, it meant we got three points and China got none. We avoided the “nervous draw” I referred to, although Canada were far from firing on all cylinders.
A rough game pretty much bereft of tactics against New Zealand remained scoreless so Canada tops the group on four points after two games. Still, China has three and the Dutch have three so first place is still wide open.
And we haven’t scored a goal from open play yet. If we didn’t score on the penalty we’d be on two points with no goals scored and panic would definitely be setting in.
In a tournament like this you don’t get much time to second guess yourself in terms of player selection. Three round robin games with three subs in each. You really need to make quick, accurate assessments on who is doing well, who isn’t, who needs rest and what the changes are in the areas that aren’t working.
Here’s what’s gone well for Canada in the first two games…
Erin McLeod has been very good. Aside from one semi-whiff on a corner against New Zealand that fortunately hurtled past a charging Kiwi (well marked it should be added) at the far post, she has not been caught coming for balls best left to others. Always able to command her back four, she is clearly an asset to the team.
Alyssha Chapman gave up a penalty. That’s one of only two mistakes she’s made so far. The other was remaining adamant it wasn’t a foul. It was and it’s better to accept that and learn that those will be called eight times out of ten. Would be nice to see her get forward a bit more but overall very strong, very energetic and very smart in her decision making defensively.
Kadeisha Buchanan has been outstanding. Beyond a few misdemeanours she has been for me perhaps the best defender I’ve seen in the tournament. To put that in perspective though, she’s played against the youngest team in the tournament (China) and a team with almost no redeeming attacking features (New Zealand). The Dutch will be a stiffer test as will all games after that.
Ashley Lawrence is deputizing for Diana Matheson as the narrative goes but it may well be a changing of the guard. Consistently competent is not the top of the mountain in terms of superlatives but if we’re looking at realistic expectations for a 19 year old then I think that’s what we should be pleased with. She’s looking like she could be around for many years.
And now it gets thin, especially if we’re measuring players against the potential we know they have. Lauren Sesselmann gets a pass because she’s likely not 100% fit coming off a serious knee injury. Desiree Scott’s work rate across the field to break up attacks has been very good. I just don’t remember her getting possession nearly as much as giving up throw ins. Turnovers in the middle third go a long way in the women’s game to establishing hegemony. Great holding mids win the ball back as opponents start attacks and commit players forward and start the ball moving the other way. Maybe I’m being too harsh but I think Scott and Schmidt are crucial to how we do in the next two, hopefully three, games.
So on to Sophie Schmidt. I said she’s the best player on the team and she herself has publicly said she feels they have let Christine Sinclair down by not providing her with the support and service that the USA provide Wambach. So get her the damned ball in areas she can work with. Every time I see Sinclair drop back into midfield it’s a clear sign Sophine Schmidt is not doing enough. I’ve already lamented that if we’re going to score, we can’t have much expectation from Tancredi (missed two years to go back to school; showing the effects of that), Foligno (just doesn’t score enough period) and Leon (not good enough yet) and if the burden of scoring is once again going to fall to Sinclair, let her conserve energy and focus her movements in areas where she can receive and shoot without having to beat players. It’s not easy when teams are focusing on her and Schmidt clearly is going to be her primary source of opportunities but it just has to happen. Schmidt has got to find ways to get past the first opponent she comes across, confront opponent back fours and force them to adjust to the degree that Sinclair can find space to receive. Jason de Vos pointed at half time in the New Zealand game that Ashley Lawrence had an opportunity to release Sinclair in just such a situation but didn’t. We have to accept that won’t happen as much with a young midfielder. It has to happen with Schmidt.
As for the others Belanger has been good and justified Herdman’s gambit of putting her in for the injured Rhian Wilkinson ahead of the two outside backs (Nault and Gayle) he has on the squad.
Heading into this World Cup,Kaylyn Kyle, for me, has been symptomatic of the fact that we don’t have enough midfielders who can link with forwards but that we still need to play because there’s no one better. In both her substitute appearances though she has been much better in terms of her willingness to look forward and connect with attackers. She may be on the verge of playing herself back into the starting eleven.
I’m not interested in running down Melissa Tancredi but it’s clear she’s in the twilight of her national team career and asking her to play a prominent role in this campaign is just a bridge too far. Tancredi, along with Foligno have, unsurprisingly, been peripheral though.
Before moving on to a suggested lineup for the Dutch game, I just want to make note of the odd substitution patterns Herdman has gone with the first two games.
In both, Kyle, a midfielder, has come on for Foligno, a striker around the 60′ mark. At both times, conventional thinking would suggest we should be looking at attacking options as we need a goal. While Kyle did get forward a touch more than normal, we ostensibly went from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 for ten minutes before Scott was taken off in both games for an attacking player (Fleming in the first game, Leon in the second). The only other subs have been straight swaps with Leon going in up front for Tancredi in the first game and Moscato coming in for Sesselman at centre back.
It’s an interesting tactic, briefly going away from 4-3-3 before going back to it and quite honestly I don’t understand what the rationale for it is other than perhaps the real-time metrics being gathered from the gear the players are clearly wearing under their shirts indicating that some are fatiguing and need replacing. That still doesn’t really explain why Leon, rather than Kyle, doesn’t replace Foligno. Perhaps Herdman is hoping to draw a tactical response from teams as they see Canada switch to a 4-4-2 and then force another adjustment or make their burn a sub in their response as he switches back to 4-3-3 with Kyle now in the holding mid position and a fresh forward on the field. Hard to say.
One thing that is clear is that while we look solid and fairly composed at the back, we are lacking ideas and guile up front. We are predictable and not particularly worrisome for opponents. I’d like to see some different faces in the starting lineup and the ability for Schmidt to play higher up the field.
I think moving to a 4-2-3-1 is a good solution for the game against the Netherlands. No changes in goal or to the back four but add Kyle next to Scott as two holding mids and then play with Fleming on the left, Schmidt in the middle and Lawrence on the right. Sinclair would of course play up front. This frees Schmidt from some of the defensive responsibilities and puts her in a better position to service Sinclair in the attacking third. Fleming has to be given the chance to play. We are getting virtually nothing from Tancredi, Foligno and Leon and while she’s only 17, Fleming has vision and technical ability that could see her unlock the Dutch back four a few times. It’s time for that change if we want to (a) beat the Dutch and ensure first place in the group and (b) establish that we can maintain possession and create chances.
Another drab attacking performance means we limp into the second round in either second or third place. Not only do we face the prospect of a tougher opponent but we do so with diminished confidence if we persist with the same look for three games and end up with nothing but a converted penalty to show for it.