Closing the gap
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Germany 2011 was the best FIFA Women’s World Cup ever,” writes FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter in the foreword to September’s technical report into this year’s women’s footballing showpiece. “All indicators clearly show the incredible improvement in the football that was on show, from the lowest-ever goal average (2.7) to the general level of the games.”

The President’s glowing assessment of the tournament is borne out by the pages of the report that follow. Breaking the game down into its nuts and bolts from a technical and tactical standpoint, the 164-page publication by FIFA’s Technical Study Group (TSG) provides firm evidence of the ever-improving standards in the women’s game.

One of the report’s main findings is the shrinking disparity between the traditional powerhouses and the less developed nations. “The games showed that the gap… has started to close,” writes former Dutch international and current Russian women’s coach Vera Pauw in the report’s technical and tactical analysis section, citing the good showings by tournament newcomers Colombia and Equatorial Guinea as evidence of the comparable ability levels of the 16 finalists.

Acquitting themselves admirably on their first outing at this level, Colombia only narrowly lost out to eventual semi-finalists Sweden in their opening match and impressed with their patient build-up play in their matches. Despite failing to pick up a point, Equatorial Guinea were competitive throughout and held all three of their tough group-stage opponents, Brazil, Australia and Norway, to half-time stalemates. Unlike previous Women’s World Cups, which witnessed scorelines such as the 11-0 thrashing handed out to Argentina by Germany in 2007 or Norway’s 7-1 humbling of Korea Republic in 2003, no game was won at a canter over the course of the 22-day tournament.

Explaining what still separates the elite teams from the rest, the report points towards the importance of the collective: “The difference between the teams was down to the level of teamwork and the players’ decisions and moves,” Pauw writes. “The best teams are balanced with good team organisation, but they have now also developed a high level of teamwork both in defence and attack.”

Quicker pressing
When it comes to individual team strategies, the report highlights the contrasting styles of play on show. While some teams favoured patient build-up play, others, such as France and Japan, opted to use high pace in the build-up and not give their opponents any time to relax. Interestingly, the report notes a uniform lack of success for teams deploying long-ball tactics, whether they be newcomers like Equatorial Guinea or experienced former world champions such as Norway. “Teams are now too well organised defensively [for their opponents] to be successful using only an opportunistic playing style.”

In terms of defensive tactics, the TSG observed an increase in the number of teams seeking to press their opponents as soon as the ball was lost – though with varying degrees of success. “The most successful teams were capable of moving their defensive block around 30 metres up and down the pitch without losing their balance or increasing the distances between players,” the study explains. Brazil were the only team to defend one-on-one all over the pitch, with each player picking up the opponent closest to them. This style of defending appeared to be less effective because it meant players were forced to change positions over the course of the game. However, the report notes that Brazil were able to compensate for this with their superb individual qualities in both attack and defence.

As for the attacking play on show during the tournament, it was observed that teams’ possession play had improved dramatically over previous years. “This element of the game needed to develop because of the improved defensive organisation of the teams. Those at the top level have to find a solution to open up opposition defences and create chances as it is not only the team organisation and players’ knowledge of defensive tasks that have developed, but also the players’ fitness levels, which means that overpowering opponents simply does not happen anymore.”

Progress between the posts
The quality of goalkeeping had come in for criticism in previous Women’s World Cups, but the 2011 report notes a general improvement in standards this time round. Most of the goalkeepers in Germany showed good athletic prowess and demonstrated a mastery of difficult techniques such as punching and parrying the ball.

Just as important as their ball-handling skills, however, is the role played by today’s top goalkeepers in supporting the play in front of them and operating as the “last defender”. By making themselves available for backpasses and providing an extra outlet during build-up play, they are able to relieve the pressure on their back line.

USA’s Hope Solo, awarded the adidas Golden Glove by the TSG as the best goalkeeper of the tournament, was singled out in this respect. “She was always ready to intercept the ball, which meant that she gave her team the opportunity to position their defensive line higher up the pitch without being vulnerable to defence-splitting passes, especially on quick transitions or counter-attacks from the opponent,” writes the TSG’s goalkeeping expert, Anne Noe.

Observing that the “most complete goalkeepers in this tournament became the team’s first point of attack”, Noe also praised Sweden’s Hedvig Lindahl for her effectiveness in delivering the ball swiftly to her strikers. After regaining possession of the ball, Lindahl showed a great willingness to get to the edge of her box quickly and launch the ball forward with her hands or her feet.

The report acknowledges that some areas of concern remain in the goalkeeping department, particularly when it comes to shot-stopping and one-on-one situations. A further weakness was spotted in how some of the keepers dealt with aerial balls. With the speed and quality of ball delivery by outfield players improving, many goalkeepers struggled to catch the ball properly when put under pressure.

In order to address these difficulties in the future, the report’s goalkeeping section concludes with a call for better coaching of women goalies from youth levels onwards. “As the standards of the women’s game have improved, having a ‘talented’ goalkeeper is no longer enough to succeed at this level,” Noe writes. “It is paramount that associations invest in good goalkeeping coaches for their female goalkeepers, starting with the youth teams.”

Stable injury rate  
As well as scrutinising the action in terms of technique and tactics, the TSG study also looks at refereeing and medical aspects. Among the main findings of the medical report was the encouraging news that Germany 2011 saw a halt to a worrying injury trend. The last three FIFA Women’s World Cups and Olympic Football Tournaments had shown a steady increase in the number of injuries, but this time round the overall injury rate of 2.3 injuries per match was similar to the figures from China PR in 2007.

“One very positive difference compared to all previous competitions was the much lower incidence of head injuries, with only 12 per cent compared to an average of 27 per cent at previous Women’s World Cups,” added the report.

With injuries falling, tactical awareness improving and excitement at an all-time high, it seems this year’s tournament had all the ingredients to encourage even more girls to take up the beautiful game. “The FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011 was the best possible platform to show the world that women […] play football in a technical, physical, fast and entertaining manner,” writes President Blatter. “Women’s football is continuing to go from strength to strength.”

You can download and read the full technical report in PDF format by clicking the link on the right hand side.