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Women's World Cup 2023: Contenders, Challengers and Dark Horses! (Guest Post)
Yash Thakur takes a look at what to expect from the Women's World Cup
Hi everyone, Grace here. I asked Yash to write a Women’s World Cup preview and, to the shock of no one, I got a pitch perfect summation of where all the contenders. Highly recommended reading whether you’re a women’s football expert or never watch the sport with any regularity.
The biggest footballing event of the year is on the horizon. It’s time for the FIFA Women’s World Cup. The ninth edition of the tournament kicks-off on 20th July. History will be made either way as the tournament prepares to host a record breaking crowd and make bigger waves than its predecessors. The wait is almost over.
The contenders, the challengers and the underdogs are ready to chase that coveted star on their badge. For some it’s a dream of the fifth star, while for others it’s the hunt for their first.
But what does the newly expanded 32-team format look like, which of the nations have the best shot? Who are the favourites and what about the dark horses?
An nerd-y way to look at the balance in different groups and the early front runners would be to look at the Elo ratings for the teams. On a glance, we can see England,the United States, Germany and France look like the big five nations going into the tournament.
Unfortunately given how brackets work, one of England, Germany or France will be eliminated at the quarter-final stage, if not before it.
Things will be heated when the players step on the field, so let’s look at the contenders, the challengers and some dark horses.
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It finally came home last summer, when England Women’s side won the Euros on home soil in a packed Wembley stadium. That historic win last summer was set to be the primer for this one down under, especially as the Lionesses kept collecting trophies after that (winning the Finalissima as well).
Things have panned out slightly less than ideal, however.
The Lionesses will be without a few of the key stars of their Euros win. Veterans Ellen White (England’s second all time top goalscorer in either category) and Jill Scott retired, while there have been long term injuries to golden ball winner, Beth Mead, captain Leah Williamson and creative maestro Fran Kirby.
This has left the England side in the need of reshaping.
While England has the quality options to be able to replace them, developing synergies is going to be a test, especially in defence, where two of the four defenders will be different from the Euros winning squad.
These gaps will largely be addressed by Sarina Wiegman’s finishing XI (the 11 players who finish the game on the pitch) from the Euros.
Impactful substitutes like Ella Toone, Chloe Kelly, Alex Greenwood and Alessia Russo will be key in the campaign, but they haven’t managed to replicate their performances off the bench in a starting role. Chelsea’s Lauren James is getting the feel of the team around her, trying to blend into the plans in a distinctive role (either as a number tenor a right winger) which best suits her skillset.
England have thus struggled with putting numbers on the scoresheet in their last two games, losing 2-0 to Australia and playing a goalless draw against Portugal. The undeniable talent means England will figure it out eventually, but knockout tournaments can be very unforgiving.
The search for a suitable number nine has had a trickle effect on the left-back position due to the exploits of Rachel Daly in her natural striker position during the season with Aston Villa. The defence will have to adapt to each other swiftly, having played so little football together due to Millie Bright’s recovery time.
Overall, England still remain a contender thanks to the depths of their talent but will have to come up with a functional lineup as the knockout rounds approach.
The reigning defending champions are back to win a third World Cup on the trot, a feat never achieved in world football. The four time world champions have never finished outside the top three in the previous eight attempts.
The stars of the previous World Cup win are four years older now and injuries also have impacted the number one ranked side.
Megan Rapinoe announced she’ll retire at the end of 2023, while Alex Morgan is coming towards the end of her career at age 34. In midfield, Julie Ertz is returning from a long lay-off while her midfield partner in 2019, Sam Mewis, is unavailable due to injury. Star defender Becky Sauerbrunn is also ruled out of the World Cup.
This is a new look USA side, who are still pretty darn good at this soccer (sorry Europeans!) thing.
The attack has been revitalised by the influx of young talents like Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman, while the likes of tricky forwardAlyssa Thompson wait in the ranks. 23-year-old centre-back Naomi Girma has taken the command at the back and will be hoping to establish herself as the primary choice in defence.
Smith was voted the most valuable player in the NWSL last season and is ready to send a shiver down the opposition defensive lines. The winger is an excellent carrier, adding value to the possession by driving with the ball. She is quick, has excellent change of direction and is skillful in the decision making in the final third, making her a dangerous prospect to come up against.
If having to handle Smith all game wasn’t enough, the US have another ballistic winger on the other flank in Trinity Rodman, who is incredible with her nifty footwork and pace. And if you still manage to keep up, Thompson is waiting on the bench to rock your world when your legs are gone.
Attack is the least of their worries and it’s the defence and midfield that look slightly worse than the 2019 version.
New head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, will be under immense pressure to replicate the past successes. The top ranked nation in the world finished third at the Olympics, which by their lofty standards is an underachievement.
It’s an ageing core, the midfield is a bit thin with a lack of in-between the lines presence and the defence is still finding its footing. The challenge is grander than ever, but if there is a team that understands winning, it's the USA!
Famed for their efficiency and pedigree at the international stage, Germany are the only other side to have multiple stars adorning their badge. They are the only other side to score 100+ goals at the World Cup so far.
The runners-up at the Euros last year are the favourites in a group of second-place finishers from four different continents and look like an early challenger for the trophy.
Martine Voss-Tecklenburg will be eager to correct the wrongs of the previous finals, where Germany created more xG than England in normal time but ended up on the losing side. The squad is brimming with talent in all departments but with slight question marks over the defensive lineup and organisation.
After losing two in their last three, DFB Frauen seem like a vulnerable unit heading into the competition. Some odd lineup choices (like playing winger Svenja Huth at right-back against Zambia) have rang the alarm bells all around.
With injuries to starting right-back and last edition’s Young Player of the Tournament winner, Giulia Gwinn, and left-back Carolin Simon, the number two ranked side are still looking for solutions. The makeshift solutions have not worked and there is a lack of a standout choice in these departments.
Voss-Tecklenburg will probably have to revert to playing a centre-back (Sophia Kleinherne) as the fullback to compensate for it but a lack of pitch time for these ideas make it tricky to test in an unforgiving scenario.
Unlike the defence, there is a problem of plenty in attack. They are spoiled for choices in their pick of the front four in the 4-2-3-1. Euros joint top goalscorer and the top goalscorer in Bundesliga this season, Alex Popp, is competing for a spot with Bayern’s prolific goalscorer, Lea Schuller.
The wings are spoilt for choices with Jule Brand, Klara Buhl, Nicole Anyomi and Svenja Huth and the number ten spot has able deputies in Lina Magull, Svenja Huth or Sydney Lohmann among others. On pure talent terms, this is a national side ready to compete for multiple international cycles.
On the path to their first World Cup final since 2007, Germany will have to face England and France and while the talent isn’t in doubt, it remains to be seen if they can be a functional side on the day and shake-off the pre-tournament blues.
Four years ago, France were in a similar stage as hosts Australia. A home World Cup was beaconing, there was a golden generation on the rise.
There is, however, a subtle difference.
France were a side in agony behind the scenes with a divided dressing room and a manager to make it worse. This naturally affected their campaign and the side that looked unstoppable at the start of 2019, went out to USA in the quarter-finals. Despite a rather successful Euros campaign last year, the team was marred in off-field controversies.
This prompted a reaction from the then captain Amandine Henry, who spoke up against this risking her place in the side.
Things are different now. Former manager Corinne Diacre is no longer in-charge and has been replaced by ex-Saudi Arabia men’s team manager Herve Renard, who is taking up his first role in women’s football.
A direct outcome of this is that the vibes have improved and in international tournaments, vibes matter. Tactically speaking, however, Les Bleues look rather uninspiring.
Injuries have impacted the French side as well, who will be without a couple of star players in attack. PSG’s Marie Antoinette-Katoto is out with an ACL injury and Lyon winger, Delphine Cascarino, is out as well. Former captain and legendary midfielder, Henry, was ruled out in the lead up to the tournament following an injury.
Renard’s 4-3-3 is basic to say the least and the offensive patterns are pretty straightforward, with focus on wing play and looking for crosses into the box using able crossers like Sakina Karchaoui among others. The former Morocco manager has deployed a central defender (Maelle Lakrar) at right-back in the preparation games leading to some mixed results when facing different caliber of wingers.
Les Bleues will again look up to France’s all time top goalscorer – men’s or women’s – Eugenie Le Sommer to inspire and score crucial goals again. She will be supported by PSG’s star forward, Kadidiatou Diani, as the side’s talismanic figures.
Can good vibes override tactical deficiencies by the virtue of talent alone? I guess we will find out with France.
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These are sides that not many are counting on but maybe they should..
For a squad as talented as Spain, it’s baffling to see the lack of success at the senior international level. Especially when you factor in the ridiculous amount of success they have experienced at the youth level. La Roja have won every competition at the youth level and have a pipeline of young talents transitioning into the senior side.
If you dig a little deeper, however, the reasons for the failures stare right at you in the face.
The Spanish players have been at odds with the federation over the working conditions for a while now, to the point where 15 players decided to refuse national team call-ups. Since then, three of those 15 players are in the final squad while some big names - 2022/23 UWCL final MVP, Patri Guijarro and one of the best CBs in WoSo, Mapi Leon - have maintained their stance.
While their absence does hurt the squad, it’s still a side better than 90% of the international teams. The quality is undeniable and has been further boosted by the return of two time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas. The side continues to play their typical 4-3-3 and showcase incredible level of ball dominance.
La Roja have been criticised for lacking the clinical edge in the past but seem to have potent goalscorers now. Levante’s Alba Redondo is coming into the tournament on the back of a 27 goal domestic season, the highest figure in all of Europe’s top five leagues. On paper they have the cutting edge to go along with the ball dominance of the midfield.
For a side making their third appearance at the World Cup, having never gone past the round of 16 stage, this seems like a good opportunity to amend that but behind the scenes is just as important as what happens on-the-field for Spain.
Home crowd. great vibes and a golden generation. Tony Gustavsson’s Australia are peaking at the right time.
Following a disappointing Asian Cup campaign last year, there was an air of scepticism around the Matildas, which has been put away in some fashion following two back to back big wins against England and France, both while keeping a clean sheet.
One of the most recognizable faces in world football, Sam Kerr, is ready to lead the side to a home World Cup. Australia's all time top goalscorer – men’s or women’s – is going to have a scalp on her back throughout the tournament but that just opens up the spaces for an excellent network of forwards around her.
With the sonic-esque wingers at the disposal of the Tillies, playing vertical and turning the game into a controlled foot race is in their best interest. Hayley Raso, Cortnee Vine and Caitlin Foord are all adept at running at the defender and generating space for either shooting or creating. The speed also makes them a viable outlet in behind the defensive lines and it will be key for Australia’s success.
The midfield has been refreshed with talents who can offer control, progression and penetration alike. The 21-year-old Kyra Cooney-Cross is set to orchestrate the midfield with support from veterans like Katrina Gorry. The young guns who have settled halfway across the world to play club football have become the spine of the side.
Defence is an area that has been under scrutiny in the past and the defensive abilities have not always looked good. However with back to back clean sheets in the lead up to the tournament has instilled confidence and hints towards a blossoming synergy at the back.
Matildas will have an intangible factor with them. They will play with an extra player on the field. The fans will be their 12th player. They will be Matildas til it’s done and maybe that will be the difference maker.
Japan are the soft spoken assassins with a blunt katana in women’s football. The side - for all their incredible ball dominance and technically gifted players - lacks a clinical edge in front of goal.
But things might be turning a corner for Nadeshiko.
Talented youngsters like Aoba Fujino, Riko Ueki and Maika Hamano have showcased their eye for goal in the past. All three are different brands of forward, giving Japan a different solution to in-game situations. Futoshi Ikeda’s 3-4-3 / 3-5-2 allows for them to incorporate these different profiles.
While the Under-20 Women’s World Cup golden ball winner, Hamano, is more of a support striker, Fujino and Ueki are pretty direct threats on goal. This is complimented by their creative genius and midfield talent.
Manchester City’s Yui Hasegawa and Portland Thorns’ Hina Sugita will likely pull the strings from the midfield. Given the versatility, they are equally adept at filling in as the attacker on the wings or as wingbacks from time to time, allowing for an extra midfielder on the pitch for added control while also retaining a creative zing to the lineup. This is also a way to compensate for true natural wingers in the pool for Nadeshiko.
For all the nimble footed magicians, the team lacks real physicality at the top level. They can run circles around you but run the risk of being the second best when a game gets duel heavy.
Ikeda’s side will have to make their ball dominance translate to the scoresheet and with the young options up front, they might just be able to do that this time and earn themselves that second star, 12 years after the first one.
A valedictory run for football legend Marta is the headlining story for Brazil but underneath is a side with a potential to flair their way to a deep run in the tournament.
Swedish legend, Pia Sundhage, is leading the side from the dugout and plays with a pragmatic 4-4-2 lead by some exciting talents entering their peak years. The approach is a little conservative to say the least and has had a mixed bag of results for the Brazilians.
Barcelona’s Geyse has become a fixture in the squad and looks ready to lead the line for Brazil after a great domestic season. Another young talent ready to shine is North Carolina Courage’s Kerolin. The 23-year-old is a direct forward, capable of playing across the front line but she is deployed in an intriguing midfield role. The former Madrid CFF winger is a dominant 1v1 player, capable of moving both inside and outside while retaining the threat in behind as well.
In the past this pragmatic approach has been viewed as a restricting factor for a side that has such instinctual talent. The approach hasn’t had as much of a desired effect in terms of defensive solidity either, so it remains to be seen if there are tweaks to be made heading into the tournament.
Veterans Marta, Andressa Alves and Debinha will be as much of mentors as they will be key players. It feels a lot like the baton is being passed for Brazil this summer.
The Brazilians will be playing with a chip on their shoulders. They will be playing for one of the most iconic figures the country has ever produced. They will be playing for the World Cup’s all time top goalscorer.
And maybe that will lift them up to achieve greater heights.
Everyone loves an underdog story. David winning against Goliath is everyone’s favourite sports trope and what better story than a debutant making a deep run in the tournament.
The expanded 32 team format has opened up the door for many countries. There are a total of eight debutants at this year’s competition.
And here is one that can rock your world!
Zambia shocked the world when they managed to beat Germany in the last preparation game before the tournament with a banger of a goal in the dying seconds of the game.
Despite being the lowest ranked nation in the tournament, the vibe coefficient of the African side is very high. They have a flamboyant attack consisting of players who can kill you in transition situations. Racheal Kundananji, Barbra Banda and Grace Chanda are an attacking trident capable of making the best of defences sweat.
Kundanaji is coming on the back of a spectacular domestic season with 25 league goals and three assists. Banda is ready to lead her side and is an electric presence when running at defences. The trio are each able to generate shots for themselves not relying on a team mechanism for it. The attack is quite instinctual and individualistic but effective.
Well attack is one half of the game though and the limiting factor for Zambia is their porous defence.
Despite scoring three goals against Germany, the side conceded twice in added time, only to pull off a win with almost the last attack when the game had gotten end to end. While this is fun for the neutrals, this back and forth underlines the bigger issue of the inability to control games, which might catch up with them eventually.
Knockout football can reward an effective transition attacking strategy. So maybe Zambia is not just here for a good time but a long one as well.