Playing beautiful soccer is one of the many things in life that are much easier to say than do.
Sweden is a fairly direct team anyway, but they usually try to play more soccer than they’re given credit for. The Swedes finished their match Saturday against Germany with the same amount of possession they did against the United States last week: 49 percent. That’s not bad, right? Just about 50-50.
The results, however, were obviously night and day. While the U.S. was able to put only two shots on target in a 0-0 draw, Germany torched Sweden for 25 shots (more than double the U.S.), 11 of which were on frame, four of which ended up in the back of the net.
What was the Germans magic secret? Good old fashioned high pressure, which does not get the love that possession does in most portions of the world. With good reason, of course. It’s an easy way to win at young ages, and doesn’t really teach kids the nuances of the game they will need later on (perhaps the biggest knock against the development system in the United States currently). It’s also not very aesthetically pleasing. Soccer didn’t become “the beautiful game” by closing down passing lanes and wreaking complete havoc on your opponent; that’s more of a football or basketball thing.
However, when the other team is unable to deal with it? It can be lethal.
Sweden’s autopsy would in fact list it as the primary cause of death Saturday, and it only takes a look at Germany’s first goal to see why. Right back Emma Berglund figured she’d have plenty of time to pick out a teammate, only – to her immediate horror – seeing German attacking midfielder Anna Mittag stepping into the passing lane. Mittag played a quick 1-2 with Celia Sasic, all the while Berglund sprinting back to try to atone for her mistake. But it was futile, Mittag was finishing from 20 yards out before Berglund could get near her.
From then on, Sweden went a little more direct. “Why don’t they try to keep the ball more?”, decried the pundits and people at home. Clearly, hitting the ball at a helpless Lotta Schelin (although Sofia Jakobsson was actually the most effective of the two Swedish strikers in this tournament) wasn’t getting the job done, either. But you did see what happened when Sweden tried to hold the ball, right? Heck, Germany had two fairly good chances off Swedish mistakes in the first two minutes of the game.
Germany’s high pressure had killed whatever life the shaky Swedes came into Saturday with.
Of course, calling Germany just a “high pressure” team is a huge disservice to them. Again, Silvia Neid didn’t start Dzsenifer Marozsan – arguably one of the best players in the world right now – and again it mattered little. Germany dominated almost from start to finish.
What else did we learn Saturday?
Sweden never really got it together in Canada: Pia Sundhage tried to put on a brave face, but she never looked like herself after the postgame handshake against Nigeria (following a disappointing 3-3 draw). If you put another uniform on Sweden, you never would have considered them serious contenders: only a couple of set pieces prevented them from losing to Nigeria, they played a solid game against the United States but were very defensive, and then were probably fortunate Australia only needed a draw or they might have dropped that one, too. So it certainly shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that they were beaten soundly by the top ranked team in the world Saturday. They’ll have plenty of time to figure out what went wrong. Unless three other UEFA teams lose in this round (England not included), Sweden are eliminated from the 2016 Olympics with this defeat. And if that happens it’s likely that Pia Sundhage has coached her last game at a major tournament with Sweden.
That Germany-France quarterfinal could be magnificent: We’ve established that Germany and France shouldn’t be playing each other in the quarterfinals, and France still has to get by Korea Republic on Sunday, but what a game this could be. If anyone can deal with Germany’s high pressure, it’s France and their possession. But can they? And will they be able to slow down the German attack led by Sasic and Mittag, who seem to have no trouble putting the ball in the back of the net at the moment? When Neid brought Maroszan on for the second half, they did look a little more exposed, with Lena Goessling left in the pivot by herself a few times as Maroszan wandered forward (where, to be fair, she was extremely dangerous). Saskia Bartusiak will be suspended for the quarterfinal, and Nadine Angerer hasn’t really had much chance to answer any questions about her form. Alexandra Popp continues to start even though her finishing has been pretty awful, to be honest. All of that may give France hope.
The most entertaining team doesn’t always win: Cameroon had Gaelle Enganamouit and Gabrielle Onguene to keep the crowd on the edge of their seats, but China had an organized defense with an experienced goalkeeper behind them, and once they got an early goal (a nice knockdown header from Li Dongna to Wang Shanshan), it was advantage China in a 1-0 win. The shots ended up lopsided in favor of Cameroon (20-9, Enganamouit took nine shots, but didn’t hit the target with any of them), however, they had few good looks at the Chinese goal and became more and more frustrated as the game continued. China was smart enough to play off of Cameroon’s speed, and Cameroon never quite figured out a Plan B. In fact China had the better chances to score in the final 20 minutes of the match.
Can China trouble the United States? Short answer, yes, but longer answer, probably not. China can be organized in defense and Wang Fei will do her best, but eventually the U.S. will likely find a way to put one in. And the problem for China is how they’ll score against a suddenly stout United States defense, especially if they don’t have the ball all that much. Unfortunately for them, they’re without Yang Li, their leading scorer in qualifying and skillful Tang Jiali left in the first half with what had to be an injury. The combination of those things seems too much to overcome, but we shall see.
Hopefully, Cameroon will be back: If they can play to the form they showed in the World Cup, we should see them in Brazil next summer (or fall), where hopefully they’ll be just as entertaining. With some funding and some matches against decent competition, they should be able to iron out some of the defensive shape issues that gave them trouble periodically in Canada. And hopefully a day where an African team is a serious contender for a world title is not that far away.
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