WORLD CUP FINAL: USA 2-0 NETHERLANDS
The USA successfully defended their world crown, beating the Netherlands in Lyon to secure their fourth FIFA Women’s World Cup title. Golden Ball and Golden Boot Winner, Megan Rapinoe, gave Team USA the lead from the penalty spot after VAR correctly adjudged that Stefanie van der Gragt had fouled Alex Morgan. Bronze Boot winner Rose Lavelle put the result beyond doubt with a left-footed strike from the edge of the box.
Netherlands Head Coach Sarina Wiegman made just one change to the Dutch side that beat Sweden in extra time, bringing in centre back Anouk Dekker for Merel van Dongen and moving Dominique Bloodworth to left back. But she surprised fans and pundits alike by setting up in a 4-4-2, similar to England in the semi final, shifting Lineth Beerensteyn from right wing to an out-and-out striker, and playing Vivianne Miedema off her in a deeper role. Daniëlle van de Donk would move to right midfield.
The USA made changes too. Jill Ellis swapped Sam Mewis and Megan Rapinoe in for Lindsey Horan and Kristen Press, but held firm on the dynamic 4-3-3 that had served them so well in the competition.
The opening half an hour was a tight, tactical affair with the US dominating possession and the Dutch looking to keep them out with two banks of four and Miedema dropping into midfield to limit Julie Ertz’s influence. The Netherlands looked to counter by using Beerensteyn’s pace to get in behind the US back line, to limited effect.
On 28 minutes the 57,900 crowd at Stade De Lyon got to enjoy their first shot on target. Megan Rapinoe’s corner from the left was flicked on by Ertz at the near post, the ball popped up and the midfielder got a second bite, hitting it full on the volley and drawing a good parry from Sari van Vennendaal.
Rapinoe started to become more influential out on the left. Mewis was denied on 38 minutes getting a thin headed contact on Rapinoe’s cross but finding van Veenendaal in the way. The Dutch stopper didn’t know much about how she saved that one, but was more switched on to Alex Morgan arriving for the next Rapinoe centre, turning the ball on to the upright and gratefully falling on the rebound.
The USA continued to crank up the pressure. Ertz found Morgan on the edge of the box, she got ball out of her feet quickly and hit a left-footed snap-shot that van Veenendaal turned around the post.
The Netherlands hadn’t used the ball well and posed very little threat; van de Donk was unable to influence the game from her wide position and Beerensteyn was largely isolated with Abby Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn always in close attendance.
Two minutes of stoppage time became five after Lieke Martens and Kelley O’Hara inadvertently clashed heads. O’Hara would come off worse, substituted at the break for Ali Krieger.
The Dutch forced some penalty-box-pinball from a corner early in the second period but couldn’t get a clear sight of goal. The match settled back into its rhythm and Crystal Dunn chanced her arm from 25-yards, driving well wide. Sauerbrunn was the next player forced off the pitch with a head injury, but she returned a few minutes later with thick, black tape preventing further blood flow.
For better and / or worse, VAR (Video Assisted Refereeing) has added significantly to the drama during this Women’s World Cup, so it was fitting that it would come into play in the final. Van de Gragt mistimed her interception and clattered Alex Morgan in the box. The match official, Stéphanie Frappart, awarded a corner, but VAR soon had her racing over to the side-lines to overrule herself. Megan Rapinoe stepped up, as she did against Spain, and slotted confidently to van Veendendaal’s left.
Wiegman’s side suddenly realised that they needed something to stay in the game but also looked exhausted. They tried to force the issue and make something happen quickly rather than try to wrest control of the final 30 minutes. The Americans kept their shape, stayed organised and waited to pick the Dutch off in midfield and counter.
On 69 minutes it yielded results. Dunn came up with the ball, found Mewis, who in turn fed Lavelle. The Washington Spirit player broke forward at speed, the Dutch defence stood off until she reached the penalty area and she punished that lack of engagement by rifling the ball low past van Veenendaal. With American tails up, Morgan got in on goal moments later, but a heavy touch allowed the excellent Dutch keeper to get off her line swiftly and save at her feet.
A spate of substitutions and tactical switches followed with the Netherlands throwing Jill Roord on for Martens and Shanice van de Sanden on for Dekker. They moved to a back three and shifted Miedema up front with van de Sanden on the right wing. Jill Ellis’s response was to bringing Kristen Press on to help Dunn combat van de Sanden’s pace.
Beerensteyn managed to draw a save out of Alyssa Naeher on 78 minutes, having cut inside Kreiger and Lavelle, but her effort amounted to no more than a comfortable catch. Spitse was given a free kick opportunity a couple of minutes later but, while she got the ball up and over the wall, it curled wide of the target.
Going into the last ten minutes, both sides looked exactly like what two teams at the end of a month-long tournament should look like, the game completely stretched, massive holes in midfield and players surviving on fumes. Tobin Heath had a couple of opportunities to weave through the Dutch defence but ran out of ideas on reaching the penalty area. Morgan had one last half volley in added time which fizzed wide of van Veenendaal’s goal but by then it didn’t matter.
The Oranje Leeuwinnen were clearly up for the physical challenge but hadn’t brought anything like the quality needed on the ball to trouble the Americans. Any hope of a much-anticipated ‘gun fight‘ between the two sets of attacking players just didn’t materialise.
The Netherlands hadn’t been quite able to rekindle their excellent form from Euro 2017 at this World Cup. Martens has looked a shadow of herself and the dangerous Miedema has only shown up in patches. Van de Sanden just couldn’t find her groove in this tournament at all and eventually lost her place. Perhaps these factors are why Wiegman didn’t trust her troops to go all out attacking in the same vein as two years ago, but defence versus attack and one pacy striker never really looked like working. The change of system completely nullified van de Donk who had been a strong performer up to the final, but she was unable to make any impact on this match.
But the Dutch did make the final, brought a sensational fan-base to the competition, and beat some useful teams on the way including a very decent Canada side, surprise package Italy and the tough (and occasionally exhilarating) Swedes. They also, in Sari van Veenendaal had a player who highlighted how much the goalkeeping has improved in the women’s game over the last four years. She was one of several tournament ambassadors in this respect and will surely walk into another job having been released by Arsenal.
Team USA have looked the best squad at the tournament for their pace and physicality, their technical proficiency on the ball and their phenomenal strength in depth. Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath were already household names to fans of women’s football, but we can now see talent for the next two world cup / Olympic cycles emerging in players such as Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis and Mallory Pugh.
Midfielder Lindsey Horan didn’t even play the final and yet would walk into pretty much every other international midfield. This is the standard of Ellis’s squad. They got the job done when they didn’t play well (Spain), showed great resilience to beat hosts France in Paris, and looked physically stronger and tactically smarter than England. Were there any harder teams to beat than the final three they played?
Player of the match: Crystal Dunn, USA (Dynamic performance down the left, keeping van de Donk quiet while always up with play to support Rapinoe in the US attack) eTrigge