By the time the Round of 16 is reached in a knockout tournament, you can usually have a good sense of what to expect from a team in terms of line-up and tactics. Neither Spain nor the USA have given much of an indication what they deem their best XI to be.
Of course, short tournaments require careful squad management and, in the case of the USA, that is likely what we are seeing. For Spain, though, there is more of an uncertainty about how they should set up their team.
We have already talked about the Spanish team’s woes in front of goal. These woes have continued throughout the group stages. According to Michael Caley’s Expected Goals model, Spain have picked up one non-penalty goal from 5.7 xG in their first three games.
That isn’t to say that they should just remain patient and wait for their luck to change. As you can see from the expected goal plot from their most recent game, although China allowed them 23 chances, only one of Spain’s shots was a high-percentage effort. The average xG for these 23 shots was 0.096.
Jorge Vilda has tried to solve these problems by tweaking his team. Against South Africa in the first group stage game, he fielded a 4-3-3 with Jenni Hermoso, his most creative option, as a lone striker. But despite winning comfortably, the Spanish relied on two penalties for the win.
Vilda switched things up against Germany, sticking with the 4-3-3 but electing to drop Hermoso into the midfield three and playing Nahikari García as the lone striker in a bid to utilise Hermoso’s creativity from deeper without losing her goalscoring clout up front.
When this didn’t work, Vilda went with the 4-4-2 he had utilised against Brazil and England earlier in the year for the final group fixture against China. This allowed him to play Hermoso and Nahikari together in a front two pairing which, once again, failed to fire.
With their poor finishing continuing even despite these tweaks, it is hard to know how Spain will set up against the USA. Spain play a patient possession game that is unlikely to prosper when they come up against a tactically astute American side. They also rely on their full backs to get forward to help in build up play higher up the pitch.
Facing a US team who like to build up laterally from their defence before attacking with an incisive verticality as their wide forwards look to go one-on-one against opposition full backs, Spain will want to make sure they avoid isolating their full backs on Monday. This could mean dropping into a 4-5-1 with the wide players offering more coverage for the full backs which is hardly going to help Spain’s productivity in front of goal.
Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath are the USWNT’s most creative players in the wide positions. However, Jill Ellis has been rotating them with Christen Press and Mallory Pugh so far. If Spain are considered less threatening, Ellis could start both Rapinoe and Heath on the bench so as to keep them fresh for their next opponent: France or Brazil.
Much has been made of the USA side after their 13-0 annihilation of Thailand. They now find themselves in the business end of the tournament and, although they eased their way past a not-unimpressive Sweden side to seal their place in the last 16, they will be hoping that their early bluster does not blow back into their faces against a tactically competent Spain side. They must still be considered favourites for this tournament, of course, but from this point onwards, there can be no mistakes.