The United States dominated Sweden but lost on penalties, failing to reach the finals for the first time since the introduction of Women’s football to the Olympics. On balance, Sweden were lucky to advance, but US manager Jill Ellis made a number of decisions which likely hampered her team’s performance.
Having coached the US team at the last Olympics, with Ellis as her assistant coach, Sweden manager Pia Sundhage came with a thorough knowledge of her opponent. In truth, though, Sundhage’s defensive, conservative nature meant that Sweden’s set up was unchanged from the 4-3-3 deployed in the group stage.
Ellis, on the other hand, chose to invert the US wingers, playing Tobin Heath on the right and Mallory Pugh on the left. The logic for the decision was almost certainly to allow more space on the flank for left back Meghan Klingenburg to join the attack, with Pugh naturally drifting inside onto her right foot (the same could have been true of Heath and Kelley O’Hara, but in practice Heath remained out wide and O’Hara stayed back in what some commentators described as a back three). Ellis had made a similar move in last year’s World Cup, moving Megan Rapinoe to the right side against Nigeria, whom the US expected to dominate in terms of possession.
Ellis is very high on Klingenberg, and not without reason; but the United States’ best player in the opening two games had been Tobin Heath, and she was not nearly as influential from the right as she had been on the left. Pugh did look effective pinching in from the left, but she looked far more so doing the same thing from the right in the final twenty minutes of regulation and in extra time. Playing in a more natural position, she was one of the best US performers until her injury midway through the second half of extra time.
It would have been nice to see if Heath might have had a similar rejuvenation out left; but instead, Ellis brought in Rapinoe to play that role, substituting her for O’Hara and moving Heath to right back. O’Hara was one of only two players to play the full 90′ in Manaus, and probably did need a rest; but Ali Krieger would have been a more natural replacement, and one who excelled at the last World Cup in distributing balls from the same position at the edge of the final third that Heath tended to occupy as a right back.
While many commentators apparently share Ellis’s affection for Rapinoe–understandably, as she likely remains one of the finest US players when fit–this was a truly shocking substitution. Rapinoe had clearly demonstrated in her thirty minutes against Colombia that she was not match fit in terms of her ball delivery, the primary attribute needed for breaking down a tight defense like Sweden’s. She showed it again in this game, delivering a corner behind the goal at 85′ and taking a selfish shot near the end of regulation stoppage time (Sauerbrunn had made an overlapping run and was open for a pass) that veered wildly away from goal, almost as close to the corner flag as to the left post. Though it is true that Rapinoe initiated the sequence that led to the US goal with an awkward tackle that Swedish players thought was a foul, Heath delivered the ball that careened off Jessica Samuelson’s face into the path of Alex Morgan. One wonders what she might have done working in a more natural position.
The arrogance of Ellis’s substitution–I can think of no better description for it–was revealed when Rapinoe was herself subbed off before the end of the first half of extra time. While it is possible that Ellis realized she had made a grave error, the more likely scenario is that she had brought Rapinoe on fully aware that the player was not fit to play for the entirety of extra time, should it be needed. Ellis seems to have fallen prey to the same sort of loyalty to veteran players that helped Vicente del Bosque lead Spain to a group stage exit in the last World Cup. This will almost certainly be Rapinoe’s last major tournament, and Ellis allowed her judgment to be clouded by sentiment and loyalty.Embed from Getty Images
Having had to make an early substitution to replace injured striker Fridolina Rolfö with Stina Blackstenius, Sundhage’s other changes were largely about defensive fresh legs. Both fullbacks were eventually replaced, while Olivia Schough came onto the right flank, presumably in order to try and push Klingenburg back. Where Ellis was constantly rearranging her line-up in an effort to break Sweden down, Sundhage opted for the hedgehog’s approach of one trick, but a good one.
Sweden’s goal was against the run of play but perfectly executed, a brilliant counter-attacking pass from Lisa Dahlkvist for Blackstenius, who split the center-backs and finished beautifully. The United States’ goal was a bit of luck, taken individually; but given the overwhelming superiority of the American attack, it would be foolish to consider it undeserved. In the closing moments of extra time, both sides had goals incorrectly disallowed, a rare instance of bad calls actually evening out.
A shoot-out is always primarily a matter of luck. Lindahl made one fairly easy save; Hope Solo made one fantastic save to get the US back in the shoot-out but somehow looked less convincing overall. No one should be surprised at Solo’s deplorable behavior in trying to ice Dahlkvist, changing gloves before the winning penalty, nor in her post-match comments. Both are of a piece with Solo’s consistent behavior on and off the field her entire career.
While there is nothing cowardly in playing for penalties, there is also little question that this was, in fact, Sweden’s game plan, as it was again today against Brazil. The overview of both games is remarkably similar. In the knockout games (against the US and Brazil), Sweden has been outshot, with shots on goal in parentheses, 60(12) – 12(4) and had only 36% possession. This is only marginally better than their last two group games (against Brazil and China), where they were outshot 30(12) – 15(6) with 40% possession. Sweden will enter the gold medal game on Friday having only beaten South Africa, and then only by a single goal. They enter that game with a -3 goal differential overall and only 3 goals scored.
While it is true that Ellis made a number of decisions that hampered the United States, and that Sundhage made those which put Sweden in a position to win, the fact remains that Sweden have relied on a great deal of luck in the knockout round, and did not really deserve to win either of those games. Though they have defended impressively, they have not limited their opponents chances enough to really lay claim to deserving those victories. There is no doubt that they will be looking to take Germany to penalties on Friday, but the odds will not be in their favor.