“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.”
– General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
My head hurts.
It’s not a virus; I’m actually getting a decent amount of sleep in my week off.
No, my head is suffering from an affliction called TMI (Too Much Information). Ever had it? It comes when your brain is trying to decipher a wealth of facts, statistics, formations, game notes, player tendencies, and tons of other minutia that may play a role in Sunday’s final.
In the last 36 hours, I’ve watched the U.S.-France game twice, the Brazil match once, and pieces of their group stage games. I’ve looked at Japan’s last two games, glaring at the television for one little piece of information that might be the difference between the two sides.
But here’s the thing: at this point in the tournament, if I’ve done that much homework, you know the teams have.
How prepared was Japan for this World Cup? In the opening game against New Zealand, despite a size disadvantage, Japan kept playing corner kicks past the goal to the other side of the six. Seemed strange, but if you looked closer at the way New Zealand zonally marked the corners, there was no one in that spot. They didn’t score off it, but they came close a couple of times.
You add the fact that these two teams played twice in friendlies in May, and there’s not much they don’t know about each other.
Let me rephrase, there’s nothing Japan and the United States don’t know about each other at this point.
(More proof, this Janet Rayfield scouting report on the two Japan friendlies is brilliant. Very little has changed, and even includes caps: “LEAVES THEM VULNERABLE TO COUNTER”)
And so, although I’ll go over the tactics here and you’ll hear things like “Japan must stop Abby Wambach”, but it’s not like Japan doesn’t know that, and you can be darned sure they’re working on it as you read this.
But it’s not that easy, folks. A perfect ball at a perfect time in a perfect spot, or just a moment of sheer brilliance, could spell the difference between winning and losing.
And, as much as it’s cliched, so will that little bit of experience, little bit of confidence, little bit of intangible that may be the difference.
Here are the 10 things to look for in Sunday’s final (2:45 p.m. kickoff, ESPN):
1) Fitness won’t be as much of a factor
Japan was running just as hard in the 90th minute against Sweden as they were in the first minute, looked stronger physically than Germany did in extra time in the quarterfinals (scoring the winning goal, obviously), and in a final, it’s hard to see overall fitness being a reason to choose one team or the other. But you never know.
2) Japan will have more of the ball
Please don’t be surprised, or overstate the impact it will have on the game. For me (and other people believe differently), it’s one of the most overrated stats in soccer. Yes, it’s a little disturbing from a development standpoint, but I don’t think it will play a big factor in this game.
The questions will be: Can Japan get proper service to create scoring opportunities (or draw fouls to get set pieces)? And can they keep from giving away the ball under American pressure that will open them up to counters (as Sweden scored the first goal)?
They did so by playing a perfect game against Germany. If they can do it again, they have a good chance of winning the Cup.
But it will be very, very difficult to catch lightning in a bottle twice.
3) Will the U.S. sit back as Sweden did or try to force the issue from the opening kickoff?
Sweden’s strategy in the semifinals was to sit back and concede more than half the field, hoping to break on the counter.
Even though they created an early goal (off a Homare Sawa turnover), I would argue it didn’t work. Japan was extremely comfortable, Sweden was obviously not, so I think the U.S. will try to press through Amy Rodriguez and their center mids (Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx).
4) Yes, Amy Rodriguez could be a big factor here
If you took a poll of American (and probably non-American) fans, Alex Morgan would get the start Sunday over Amy Rodriguez. While – on the loyalty factor of Pia Sundhage alone – I would be shocked if that happened, Rodriguez could be much more useful in this match than you might think.
First, she can run around for 50-60 minutes and try to chase the Japanese before Morgan comes on.
But, although her confidence can’t be too high right now, Rodriguez has scored in the last three U.S.-Japan matches.
One of Sundhage’s biggest strengths is the confidence she instills in her team, and it has paid off when she stuck with Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd, and showed no hesitation in inserting Becky Sauerbrunn when Rachel Buehler was suspended. Similar loyalty to Rodriguez could pay big dividends here.
5) Watch the way Japan gets numbers into the attack
Norio Sasaki made a slight switch in the semifinal, pacing Nahomi Kawasumi (#9 on the Rayfield scouting report) for Yuki Nagasato, who started in the group stage and against Germany.
It seemed like a great move, while Japan lines up in a 4-4-2, Kozue Ando (#7) drops into the midfield to receive the ball a lot, which could give the Americans trouble, that’s the same spot Louisa Necib found all her space in the semifinal, and Japan might be a little more clinical going forward.
Watch how many people break if Ando gets the ball, particularly the outside backs, Aya Sameshima (#15 with the caps in the scouting report) and Yukari Kinga (#2) on the right. The ball inevitably goes wide to one of those two and Japan fills the box with plenty of numbers.
But, yes, that does leave them open to counters.
6) A 4-4-2 against a 4-4-2
I pretty much went over the differences in No. 5 here, at least as far as Japan was concerned.
For the United States, when Lloyd was subbed out for Rapinoe and Lauren Cheney went central, it turned the U.S. into a diamond in the middle, but it was hard to tell if that was intentional or it was more Cheney just naturally stayed higher. It looked like Cheney was trying to catch herself a couple of times to get deeper, but her instincts wanted to get forward.
More than the formation, it was the energy of Rapinoe and Morgan that changed the game, and for those that want them to start, it’s hard to maintain that energy over 90 minutes. I don’t see Sundhage changing her starting lineup. But we’ll see.
7) Ayuma Kaihori has been the second best goalkeeper in the tournament
Like the rest of her team, she has to compensate for her height, but she looks much more confident than she did in the friendlies in May, especially when it comes to crosses, and that will be the key.
Hope Solo did have a couple of shaky moments against France, the biggest coming with her feet in the second half.
I’d still take Solo, but it won’t be as big a gap as it has been in the past few games for the U.S.
8) Can Japan’s defense hold up?
I would say that Saki Kumagai might be the most underrated player in the tournament. You may remember her as the woman who has the strange head-wrap to start the tournament, trying to protect a recent head injury.
But as Japan’s only real source of height, she has put it to good use, winning all kinds of balls with her head, and you have to think it’s going to be her job (likely with some help) to mark Abby Wambach on set pieces. Good luck, Saki.
The scouting reports would seem to indicate to go at Sameshima and Kinga on the outside flanks. Both are among the best in the world attacking (both were involved in the build-up for the winning goal against Sweden), but may be vulnerable going the other way.
That may be reason for Sundhage to start Cheney in the middle for Lloyd and allow Rapinoe and O’Reilly to wreak havoc. Having Cheney creeping into the middle from her left midfield spot may open things for Kinga, too.
Something to keep an eye on, at least.
9) The set piece battle (again)
Japan and the U.S. will probably attack these differently, but both can score.
For Japan, it’s Aya Miyama and her lethal free kicks. One of the dangers of conceding so much of the ball to Japan will be these situations. If Miyama gets a chance, you can almost bet on it being on frame.
Obviously, for the U.S., the threat is Wambach, but Lloyd is also good with her head, and Cheney and Boxx are pretty good secondary targets. Japan did well against Sweden and Germany, but had trouble against New Zealand
10) Japan is 0-22-3 all-time against the United States
Yes, it means virtually nothing, but that is a woeful record, isn’t it? And it shows just how dominant the U.S. has been in the last couple of decades.
It may be enough to create one or two doubts if the U.S. can grab an early goal (or two).
Bibiana Steinhaus of Germany will be your referee
One of the best in the world, it was almost assured once Germany was eliminated that she would be in the middle.
Steinhaus has done second division men’s games in Germany (Kari Seitz is officiating the third place game. Seitz for MLS?), and had to deal with things like this, so I’m sure she’ll be fine.
This German article is also very interesting (and not all that encouraging for women’s soccer).
Steinhaus reffed the U.S. 2-0 win over North Korea, but this is her first World Cup, and I thought Jenny Palmqvist of Sweden would be a better choice, but we shall see.
Prediction: United States 2-1
THIRD PLACE GAME
France vs. Sweden (11:30 a.m., Saturday, ESPN2)
Hopefully, France will put on a show, because I’m taping this game with the expressed purpose to show my high school team how to keep the ball, particularly while under pressure, so we’ll see. With the pressure off, I think France wins this, but Sweden will likely play better than it did in the semifinals as well.
Prediction: France 3-2