For nearly 80 minutes on Sunday, Brazil and France played the most one-sided match this World Cup knockout round is likely to see.
Not competitively. In that regard, it was very close, requiring 120 minutes, a tournament-saving goal line stop from French defender Griedge Mbock Bathy, and an Amandine Henry goal in extra time to separate co-favorite France from a hard-battling Brazil, 2–1. Rather, the game was geographically unbalanced, with both teams wanting to play down the same side of the pitch. It was only when France managed to open up spatially that it took control of the game.
Kadidiatou Diani has swapped back and forth between playing forward and playing on the right flank for France all tournament. On Sunday, she was nominally a forward, but she spent much of her time out to the right, an auxiliary winger, running into the same spaces as actual winger Viviane Asseyi. Forward Valérie Gauvin started drifting to that side because that’s where the ball was. Center midfielder Henry came wide to serve as an outlet for all her attackers. It was crowded.
Brazil, for its part, wanted to spend the game on its left flank—i.e., the same side of the pitch—attacking France through left back Tamires and the quick feet and quicker mind of winger Debinha. These two, along with forward Cristiane and center midfielder Thaisa, sought to take advantage of the numbers France was throwing up that side to hit it on the counter.* It was a soccer match as played in a bowling alley, one narrow lane seeing most of the action.
Brazil took greater advantage of this, while it lasted. It finished the game with more shots on target, a nearly equal share of possession, and arguably more big chances. It seemed able to break out earlier and more often, to find its players in dangerous central positions. It committed its defenders to pinning France onto the flank, sending eight or nine of its field players toward that side and daring France to break out with a big switch. France was curiously reluctant to do so, considering it possesses maybe the best left back and maybe the best left winger in the world. Several of its best chances came from finding those two in space, but that hardly ever seemed to be the first pass the French players were looking to make.
France finally restored some symmetry when it introduced Gaëtane Thiney for Asseyi in the 81st minute. From there, it had the better of the game, finding Eugénie Le Sommer and Amel Majri more often on the opposite flank. Henry’s goal came when she met a free kick in the box, but it was the kind of ball France should have been hitting all game.
France hasn’t overwhelmed opponents like the co-favorite United States. It’s now won three close matches in a row this World Cup. France’s narrative can spin off into a number of directions from here: It hasn’t lived up to the praise and anticipation it received in the buildup to this tournament; or it plays down to the level of its opponents; or it’s a mentally tough team capable of grinding out wins even in difficult circumstances. As long as it’s still alive in the tournament, its story won’t be fixed. But with the winner of the U.S. and Spain waiting for it in the quarterfinals, it needs to avoid getting trapped playing its opponent’s game if it’s going to advance any further.
Correction, June 24, 2019: This post originally misspelled Cristiane Rozeira’s first name.