Context, they say, is everything.
On paper, Scotland’s first foray into World Cup football looks encouraging: a couple of two-one defeats against top-ten-in-the-world opposition and the chance to qualify for the Round of 16 with a good result against Argentina on Wednesday.
But scratch the surface and there are worrying tendencies which put something of a dampener on proceedings in France. In both games, Scotland rolled over in the first half, giving up two goals, one of which was a (admittedly soft) penalty. In both games, there were tactical tweaks which saw Scotland come out stronger in the second half.
And in both games, there were late goals: too late to change the course of the result. Going into their final group game, Scotland will have to avoid following the same trajectory if they are to make it into the knock-out stage of this tournament.
Scotland’s manager, Shelley Kerr, is held up as something of a tactical paragon within the women’s game. This has been evidenced in both games so far. Against England, Scotland came out in their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation with Erin Cuthbert playing as the loan striker with Kim Little playing as the 10 just behind her. A double pivot of Caroline Weir and Christie Murray sat behind them and offered a screen for the back four.
Wary of the attacking clout of England, Scotland sat deep and restricted Ellen White, Nikita Parris and Beth Mead, the England front three, to seven box shots in the whole game, one of which was a penalty. This came at a cost: Kim Little, Scotland’s most creative player, found herself isolated in front of the double pivot and struggled to involve herself in the game to any great extent.
In the second half, already two goals down, Kerr pushed her central midfielders forward, facilitating link up with Little and also giving the wide players the capacity to attack more. As a result, Scotland more than held their own in the second half, Claire Emslie scoring the late goal, although it proved to be too little, too late.
In their next game, Scotland made the equal and opposite problem. Having brought in Jane Ross as the loan striker, Shelley Kerr was able to push Cuthbert and Little back a space in the line up with Cuthbert playing behind the striker and Little in the double pivot, no doubt in a bid to get Little more involved and prevent the disjunct between midfield and attack that had resulted against England.
As you can see from the off-ball activity of Little and her double pivot partner Caroline Weir, the equal and opposite problem ensued: Scotland became too porous. On the one hand, Scotland’s low press against England became a mid press against Japan, which Narumi Miura and Hina Sugita played through with relative ease. In addition, with Weir dropping deep to help up with build-up play, Little became isolated in the midfield area in the event of a turnover of possession, giving the Japan midfield space to exploit on the counter.
As before, the solution was an inversion of the first half’s tactics in the second half. Kerr brought on the more progressive Emslie early on after the break, sat her central midfielders a little deeper and forced Japan to sit by attacking quickly in the wide areas. Once again, Lana Clelland’s goal was too little, too late but it gave an indication that Kerr’s tactical tweaks had worked.
But that brings us to the final group game in Group D: Scotland vs Argentina – a game in which Shelley Kerr cannot afford to be responsive. Given the fact it is remarkable they made it to the World Cup at all, Argentina have had an impressive tournament so far. Holding Japan to a 0-0 draw and only narrowly losing to England 1-0, the albiceleste are hardly going to be a pushover for Scotland on Wednesday.
Argentina set up in a 4-5-1 which likes to drop into a 4-6 in a mid or low block out of possession. But to label them as ultra-defensive, as some pundits have, is unfair. With Sole Jaimes, who plays for Lyon, up front and Estefanía Banini just behind her, Argentina have the capacity to counter-attack decisively.
On top of this, Carlos Borrello, the Argentina coach, is unlikely to set up his side in quite as defensive a configuration as he did in the games against Japan and England. If they are to go through as a best-placed third place side, his team will need to score goals, so expect to see the 4-5-1 become a 4-3-3 even if they retain their counter-attacking credentials. Given Scotland’s VAR woes this tournament, expect Argentina to target Rachel Corsie and Jennifer Beattie in the centre back areas, using Sole Jaime as a focal point.
There is no wiggle room for Shelley Kerr here. She has to get it right from the off. If she doesn’t, the World Cup dream will be over and Scotland on the plane home.