Success for France as Les Bleues reach last 16 of World Cup
France are through to the knock-out stages of the Women’s World Cup in Canada, as winners of Group F, and will play South Korea in the round of 16. A comprehensive 5-0 win over Mexico in their final game sealed their spot, but things haven’t all been plain sailing, and some worries remain.
First, that they are on the awkward side of the draw, with Germany and the USA, and second, some of the traditional issues that France can have when playing against better teams.
To a certain extent, it feels like this article has been written several times before. France shoot a lot, but can struggle to convert against a decent defence. Conversely, while they tend to limit their opponents’ shooting chances, their concession rate when a shot does come off is a cause for concern.
In their first match, England set up to nullify France’s attacking threat, doubling up the defenders on their left side in a Thomis-containment move. France won 1-0 with 16 shots, four on target, and allowing only three, but England looked lopsided, and there was much criticism that they were paying France too much respect in their set-up. This seemed borne out by the second game against Colombia, who backed themselves to play their usual attacking game, weathered the (mild) storm, hit France on the break and rolled out 2-0 winners, from only three shots, two on target, against France’s six on target from 21. In the final game, Mexico conceded after only 34 seconds (the second fastest ever goal at a WWC) and the defence looked in serious trouble throughout, stressed by the fact that France scored from all five of their shots on target, loosing off 19 overall.
This is not a one-off; France’s competition performances* over the last few years have led to a sneaking suspicion that they are flat-track bullies. In the 2011 World Cup in Germany, they averaged 20 shots per game but had the lowest conversion rate (8.33%) of the teams progressing to the knock-out stages, and also conceded 10, the most in the competition. Eleven of those players are also in the 2015 squad.
At the 2012 Olympic Games, stats are harder to come by, but notes from the time show 27 shots against Japan in the semi-final (France lost 2-1) and 25 against Canada (lost 1-0). In the 2013 European Championships, again they were at 20 SPG, this time with a 9.75% conversion rate, but were undone in the quarter-finals by Denmark on penalties; in 120 minutes France had 31 shots, 10 on target, against Denmark’s 2 from 4, but drew 1-1. In Canada, they’re at 19 SPG, and a conversion rate of 10.7% – tab 1 shows their place in the rankings so far.
Looking at qualifying campaigns can also be instructive, as this is where France tend to shine before locking up a bit when the going gets tough. For the Euros, they won all eight games, with 24.5 SPG and a conversion rate of 18.4%; for the World Cup, 25.4 SPG with 21% conversion. Their shot product is reasonably similar overall, therefore, but their efficiency about halves – against better defences they may shoot almost as much but tend to do so from further out, with less chance of success. England’s tactics very nearly worked, and Colombia (thanks largely to Sepulveda in goal and some iffy refereeing) managed to sit on them. This also perhaps points up Mexico’s weakness in the final group game, as even Bulgaria, who shipped 24 on aggregate in qualification, managed to stop 17 (41%) of the shots on target they faced.
As France progress, things are going to get more tricky at both ends of the pitch and they need to be more clinical. Amandine Henry’s goal against Mexico was awesome, but having looked away for a second I initially thought it was a freekick, such was the space she was in when she hit the ball; against defences that press and close down, chances like that will be few, and having Elodie Thomis screaming up the wing to put cutbacks into the area might be a more reasonable tactic.
Bergeroo will also have to carefully consider his selection: so far the defence has been a constant, Jessica Houara-d’Hommeaux, Laura Georges, Wendie Renard and Laure Boulleau in front of Sarah Bouhaddi. Having not given any of the other options any playing time, it could be a risk to have to throw someone in at the deep-end – none of them have been booked, but Georges missed a chunk of the season through injury and Renard also missed some games at the Algarve Cup, while Boulleau limped off against Mexico with a knee twist, aggravating a previous recent injury (though she should be fit for the second round). There might be a change here against South Korea, therefore, in anticipation of a quarter-final clash with Germany (or Sweden, if they pull themselves together).
Camille Abily and Eugenie Le Sommer have also played all three matches, and I’m certainly not going to argue with the second one. After not quite whelming against England and Colombia, Louisa Necib, perhaps not entirely 100% in fitness – or attitude – was replaced by Amel Majri against Mexico, who impressed, mirroring Thomis’s wingplay well; similarly Gaetane Thiney was withdrawn for Marie-Laure Delie, who seems to pack more punch. Kenza Dali started against Colombia but, as above, Thomis would seem the better option there; playing Necib and Dali, in particular, takes away some width and also pace up the wings. The final decision, which hopefully now should be a no-brainer, is whether to start Henry (Elise Bussaglia started against Colombia).
So, it is onwards and upwards for les Bleues, but they will need all their focus from now on. They play South Korea on Sunday at 9pm BST / 10pm CEST – coverage on @FrenchFtWeekly.
* 2011 and 2012 figures taken from notes from the time, 2013 from France’s individual match performances as the table for off-target shots is different from the difference between total and on-target from those. Similarly for 2015, figures for on-target plus off-target shots does not equal total attempts.