Why United States fans should be scared (and, not so scared) of Nigeria

If you’re a United States women’s national team fan and watched what Nigeria did to Sweden, you have every right to be scared. The Super Falcons’ attack that led many to see Group D as the Women’s World Cup’s Group of Death (last time I use that phrase, I swear) prove to be the real deal. It may have needed some help from Swedish defender Nilla Fischer to get there, but it’s hard to score three goals against the No. 5 team in the world without some serious firepower in the squad.

WINNIPEG, MB - JUNE 12:  Head coach Jill Ellis of the United States talks with assistant coach Tony Gustavsson as they watch their take warm-up before taking on Sweden in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 match at Winnipeg Stadium on June 12, 2015 in Winnipeg, Canada.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)Getty Images

WINNIPEG, MB - JUNE 12: Head coach Jill Ellis of the United States talks with assistant coach Tony Gustavsson as they watch their take warm-up before taking on Sweden in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 match at Winnipeg Stadium on June 12, 2015 in Winnipeg, Canada. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

But if you’re a fan of the U.S., you should be more worried about your team than Nigeria’s; or, more precisely, how similar your team is to Sweden’s. Like Sweden, the U.S. sets up in a 4-4-2 formation, one that leaves an occasionally flat midfield pair to help protect the defense. Like Sweden, the team’s tactics are very much influenced by Pia Sundhage, the Swedes’ current head coach who served in the same role for the U.S. from 2007 until 2012. Having steered the U.S. to two Olympic gold medals, Sundhage’s legacy lives on in her former assistants: Jill Ellis, now the U.S’s head coach, and Tony Gustavsson, who’s returned from a stint in the club world to serve as Ellis’s right hand.

The result is a team that plays a lot like the one Nigeria played to a 3-3 draw. Although there’s less of a willingness to trade goals like it did under Sundhage, the U.S. is still reliant on a Carli Lloyd-led two-woman midfield. It’s still leaving it’s central defenders — now Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston — to win a lot of individual battles. The team still seems to want its back line to get up and constrict space in an numerically light midfield, but its renewed tendency to play long balls into attack (something the team tried to get away from in the middle of the cycle) could leave the U.S. stretched if it doesn’t dominate first or second balls.

All of which is nice, lingo-heavy soccer talk, but how does it affect tonight’s match in Vancouver against Nigeria? Let’s look at some GIFs from Nigeria’s earlier games to figure out what fans should and should not be scared about:

Be scared about: Nigeria’s attackers, especially coming from wide

WINNIPEG, MB - JUNE 08:  Asisat Oshoala #8 of Nigeria reacts after scoring the second goal against Sweden during the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Group D match between Sweden and Nigeria at Winnipeg Stadium on June 8, 2015 in Winnipeg, Canada.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)Getty Images

WINNIPEG, MB - JUNE 08: Asisat Oshoala #8 of Nigeria reacts after scoring the second goal against Sweden during the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Group D match between Sweden and Nigeria at Winnipeg Stadium on June 8, 2015 in Winnipeg, Canada. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

One of the small changes Ellis has touted is her willingness to get her fullbacks forward. Under Sundhage, there was usually one player who’d get up the field (in the last World Cup, it was right back Ali Krieger) while the other stayed at home (Amy LePeilbet in 2011). That changed at the end of Sundhage’s tenure with the emergence of forward-cum-fullback Kelley O’Hara. Now, Ellis has persisted with the approach that the U.S. eased toward in the last Olympics, allowing both Krieger and midfielder-cum-fullback Meghan Klingenberg (the U.S. doesn’t really develop pure fullbacks, sorry) to play a modern role.

The approach helps augment the two-woman midfield and allows goal scoring threats like Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press to pinch in from what would otherwise be wingers’ roles. But it also presents a problem when the U.S. has to deal with wide threats. Without Kosovare Asllani starting in game two, Sweden didn’t have one (to the extent Asllani is dangerous wide anyway), but against Nigeria, 20-year-old Asisat Oshoala (above, right) and 21-year-old Ngozi Okobi will start in the wide positions.

Here’s what Okobi can do when allowed to get in from the flank like when she sneaked up behind Fischer against Sweden:

And here’s what Oshoala can do, again in from a wide position, again exploiting Nilla Fischer:

swevngafourthgoal

Fischer had a terrible day — we’ve covered it before — but when you have two dangerous wide players augmenting and switching with Desire Oparanozie and Francisca Ordega in attack, you increase the chances to catching central defenders in one-on-ones. And while Johnston and Sauerbrunn might not be as susceptible to something like this …

…. Nigeria’s depth in attack can create a type of probability game. Give them enough chances and they’re going to break through.

Be scared about: The U.S.’s midfield

Take another look at that second goal. Notice the lack of pressure on the passer, and consider how much that has to do with playing a two-woman midfield. Take a look at the acres of space that midfielder Caroline Seger, even with partner Lisa Dahlkvist, was already giving up behind her. That’s the reality of only playing two in the middle.

Now look at Nigeria’s third (and final) goal:

swevngasixthgoal

By that point, Sundhage had added a defensive midfielder to the lineup (moving Fischer into the middle), but the Swedes still got no pressure on the ball. Ordega took advantage of a defender’s misread, used a touch to get away from a recovering defender, and secured a point for Nigeria.

Head coach Edwin Okon is going to make sure his team uses the width of the field. He’s going to stretch out Ellis and Gustavsson’s formation, and he’s going to force Lloyd and Lauren Holiday to cover all that ground in the middle. If they can’t, Oshoala and Okobi are going to get a chance to create advantages against U.S. defenders, or Ordega and Paranozie may just sprint past the defense. Unless the U.S. deviates from its Sweden-esque approach, Nigeria could find some of its game one success.

Be scared about: The shootout

Before the tournament, I picked this game to finish 4-2, U.S. Predicting a soccer game will have that many goals is usually a stretch, but Nigeria has the type firepower that can keep up with the Americans. And, as we’ll see below, it also has a very obliging defense.

WINNIPEG, MB - JUNE 12:  Head coach Jill Ellis of the United States talks with Amy Rodriguez #8 in the second half against Sweden in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 match at Winnipeg Stadium on June 12, 2015 in Winnipeg, Canada.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)Getty Images

WINNIPEG, MB - JUNE 12: Head coach Jill Ellis of the United States talks with Amy Rodriguez #8 in the second half against Sweden in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 match at Winnipeg Stadium on June 12, 2015 in Winnipeg, Canada. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

I keep coming back to the U.S. attack, though. It seems likely Ellis will start Sydney Leroux and Abby Wambach up front, just as she did in game one. But against a Nigeria defense that may be more susceptible to intricate buildup and clever runs (than speed and brute force), Amy Rodriguez needs to be considered instead of Leroux. And while Wambach could be a decisive presence on set pieces, the team might be better served by keeping Christen Press at forward and letting a player more accustomed to playing on the flank — a Tobin Heath or Heather O’Reilly — be a more traditional wide presence.

Ellis’s hint that Alex Morgan will see more playing time is encouraging, but it’s still unclear that the U.S. will go into this shootout will all guns blazing. Then again, if you look at Nigeria’s defense, the Super Falcons may end up shooting themselves in the foot.

Be “not scared” about: Set pieces

My God, Nigeria was terrible on set pieces in its opener. Here are the Super Falcons defending a corner on the first goal against Sweden:

Freak play, right? Here’s Sweden’s second goal:

Perhaps it was just a bad day for the Super Falcons, but even against the Australia, Nigeria gave up this chance:

With the likes Wambach, Johnston, and Lloyd, and with Rapinoe delivering the set pieces, the U.S. may prove an even greater threat from dead balls. The U.S. forced 10 corner kicks on Friday against Sweden, the single-game high for any team in this group.

Be “not scared” about: General defensive ick

Not exactly a shining moment here, either:

Maybe this is just an aberration, too, but there’s a lot of standing around happening. There’s a lot of lack of awareness (if you can have a lot of lacking), and there’s a good amount of losing individual “battles.” With this play building from the left, it is really so hard to see Megan Rapinoe starting a similar movement? Whichever U.S. forward tandem playing her toward the line before she finds a Carli Lloyd lurking in front of goal? Is it too much for Ellis to ask here better talents performing in a similar system to execute just as well?

Be “not scared” about: Learning from Australia

Just because the U.S. sets up like Sweden doesn’t mean it has to defend like it. Instead, the team can look at what Australia did: specifically, not play as tight to the attackers as we see in the GIFs, above. While keeping a shutout on Friday, Australia gave the Nigerians some room.

Here’s a clip from the first half of the Matilda’s 2-0 win over the Falcons:

As you can see from the positioning of Alanna Kennedy, Australia’s left-center back, the Matilidas are not willing to concede space toward goal. The space given Nigeria’s attackers leaves more room in midfielder, leaving a player to get the ball in front of the line, not behind it. In this case, a bad touch leads to a turnover and a counter, one that ends up in the game’s first goal:

ausvnigfirstgoalsecondpart

Another lesson for the Americans: Take your chances. Sweden and Australia held similar amounts of possession (49 and 51 percent), but the Swedes only generated seven shots. Australia had 13. Whether Sundhage’s team was waiting for chances to pass through the defense, as on its third goal, the U.S. should be willing to take more chances against a Nigerian defense that’s yet to prove it’s actually good.

Take a look at Australia’s second goal:

There are a lot of problems there for Nigeria, and against an uncertain defense, you want to give them as many chances to make bad decisions as possible. It may be tempting to try and play a possession game that limits your defense’s exposure, but the U.S. will benefit from risking possession to test a shaky back four.

The more set pieces Nigeria’s defense has to face, the more decisions its back line has to make while reorganizing itself, the more the Super Falcons’ weaknesses are put on display. The more Nigeria has to play from a place of weakness, the better chances the U.S. has to take first in its group.

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