Sports

France’s Plan Was to Pick On One U.S. Defender. Bad Plan.

Crystal Dunn defends during the U.S. women's national team's win over France.
U.S. defender Crystal Dunn vies with France forward Kadidiatou Diani during Friday’s match.
Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

The French women’s national team came into its quarterfinal with the United States on Friday with a clear plan for how it was going to beat its fellow tournament co-favorite in the most anticipated match of the Women’s World Cup. Unfortunately for France, it was the wrong plan.

Unlike Spain, France elected not to press all the way to the U.S. center backs. It didn’t make it a priority to put a body on U.S. wingers as soon as they received the ball. It didn’t pursue Alex Morgan aggressively as she dropped into midfield, giving her time to turn and pick out her teammates as they ran in behind. Morgan created multiple chances in the first half of the U.S.’s 2–1 win, then got hockey assists in the second half on Megan Rapinoe’s second goal of the game and Tobin Heath’s disallowed goal.

Whether it was because of the heat—it was about 88 degrees in Paris at kickoff, which is all but impossible to press in for 90 minutes—or because France head coach Corinne Diacre thought her team could play its game and win, the French team didn’t elect to follow the manual laid out by Sweden and Spain for beating the U.S. Instead, it doubled down on the tactics that squeaked it through the Round of 16 over Brazil: hammer the right side of the pitch relentlessly.

The plan did seem to make sense against the U.S. American left back Crystal Dunn is playing a makeshift role on the national team. She was the 2015 MVP and top scorer in the National Women’s Soccer League, and she did not win those awards playing defense. And against France, the converted forward/winger had to match up with France’s most dangerous attacker this tournament, the forward/winger Kadidiatou Diani.

It was a back-and-forth duel all game. Diani would muscle Dunn out of the way one trip down the field, and Dunn would poke the ball away the next. Diani would cut back and leave Dunn in the dust, and the American would jump in and block her shot a moment later. Diani won several of these battles—this is the nature of being a defender, your scorecard is less forgiving—but Dunn won the war. She was vulnerable, but never vulnerable enough. Diani created danger, but that danger never amounted to anything. France’s insistence on going back to that well lightened the burden on the other U.S. defenders.

The U.S. had a plan as well, setting itself up to play much more defensively, and it ceded possession to France after Rapinoe’s goal five minutes in gave the U.S. the lead. All three of its midfielders stationed themselves in a low block early and often, inviting France to advance and daring it to do something to get through other than play it to Diani. Sometimes that block was too low. The French center midfielders were able to pick up clearances and deflections with acres of space in front of them and uncork long drives that went over or wide of Alyssa Naeher’s net. But that was just about all those players did with the space. They rarely tried to find a clever pass or play a combination to get their teammates a good look closer to goal. France had moments where it beat the U.S. defense, but it never surprised it. Its one goal came when the U.S. left 6-foot-2 center back Wendie Renard, France’s set-piece superweapon, curiously unmarked on a free kick.

Otherwise, wherever France wanted to be, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, and Julie Ertz were already there. Naeher was excellent, with no trace of the nerves that seemed to plague her against Spain. Kelley O’Hara will probably find Eugénie Le Sommer in her pocket when she gets back to the team hotel. The U.S., famed for its offense, won this one at the back, thanks in large part to the efforts of one of the nation’s most dangerous attackers.