The group stage of FIFA Women's World Cup 2023™ has proved to be utterly compelling. As FIFA Technical Study Group (TSG) lead and two-time World Cup-winning head coach Jill Ellis notes, "Progress is the biggest success story of this tournament so far. Emerging nations are showing they can compete at this level and the gaps with the top teams are closing. The investment in the women's game is bearing results already. Players are fitter, have better technique and are tactically more astute. The games are faster, and the standard of coaching is higher. Teams are so well organised defensively and it's becoming harder to score goals, but teams are also demonstrating an ability to change tactical approaches, so we are seeing much more tactical diversity and players that can adapt," she added.
When compared with the 2019 tournament, the number of goals per game during the group stage dropped from 2.94 to 2.63 in 2023. The average winning margin in matches also decreased from 2.06 goals per game in 2019 to 1.92 this year. In addition, the percentage of matches ending in a draw increased from 8% to 21%. This data tells us the games are becoming more competitive, even allowing for the fact the tournament has expanded this year from 24 to 32 teams.
The timing of goals has also shifted noticeably in this tournament. On average, teams are scoring earlier in games, with the overall percentage of goals scored in the first half increasing by 9% since 2019. This shift is particularly notable for the teams that did not progress to the knockout stages; the percentage of goals scored in the first half by these sides increased from 17% to 44% in 2023.
Interestingly, the percentage of goals scored in the first 30 minutes of group-stage games increased from 23.5% in 2019 to 32.5% in this tournament. At the same time, the percentage of goals scored after the 76thminute decreased from 27.6% to 20.8% suggesting teams are tiring later in games and are able to sustain high levels of defensive performance for longer.
USING COMPACT BLOCKS TO STOP TEAMS FROM PLAYING THROUGH THE DEFENCE
Compared to 2019, teams at this World Cup are more compact and operating with narrower mid and low blocks than before. As seen in the graphic below, the median team width in a mid-block has decreased from 36.8m in 2019 to 35.4m at this competition. A similar trend can be seen in the low-block phase, with the median team width decreasing from 34.2m to 32.8m.
The chief function of narrow, compact mid- and low blocks is to protect the central part of the pitch, denying the opposition the space they need to play through the lines of the defending team's shape. This constriction of central space has proved effective when compared to the group stages in 2019, and in the graphic below we can see that 31% of line break attempts were through the opponent. In 2023, this has decreased to 25%. As a direct consequence, the percentage of attempts to break the opposition lines by playing around their shape has increased from 26% to 28%, and attempts to play over the top of defensive lines are up from 43% to 47%.
An analysis of the 16 teams that progressed from the group stage shows that the number of successful line breaks through their defensive shapes decreased by 24%, from 24.9 per 90 minutes in 2019 to 18.8 per 90 minutes in this competition.
Strategic application of pressure
In addition to the narrower blocks being adopted by teams, this tournament has also seen great strategic variation as to when, where and how teams are pressing.
To Anna Signeul, this signals that teams have clear ideas as to when to press and when to remain in their defensive blocks. "We are seeing real clarity in defensive roles," she says. "Players know what to do, when to do it and why they are doing it. They also know the roles of their team-mates and are capable of slotting into other players' positions and roles as cover, if their defensive structure gets distorted.
"Teams are also moving around the pitch as a cohesive and collective group before making the decision to activate a press. The relationship, communication and short distances between midfield and defensive lines has been very impressive," she added.
As we see in the clips below, teams have used defensive blocks to great effect, not only to win the ball back, but also to initiate fast-counter-attacks and create goal-scoring opportunities.
GOAKEEPING: PUNCHING MORE, CATCHING LESS
During the group stages of the tournament, it has been noted that goalkeepers are punching the ball more often than before (an average of 3.8 punches per game in 2023 as against 3.5 in 2019). It is also striking that, for the teams that qualified from their groups, these interventions have had a higher success rate than in 2019 (82% in 2023 as opposed to 78%).
According to former Germany national team goalkeeper (and current TSG member) Nadine Angerer, goalkeepers are in better shape than ever before, and are more involved in the game than they used to be. As she points out, "The [number of] crowded situations in the goal area (six-yard area) have really increased, especially when defending set pieces, but the attitude of the goalkeepers is better. In these situations, catching the ball is riskier, so unless the goalkeeper is confident of making a clean catch and retaining the ball as they land, punching the ball is a better option."
As we can see in the clips below, these crowded situations have been a key feature of attacking set pieces in this tournament, and have made it harder for the goalkeepers to make effective contact with the ball. As Pascal Zuberbühler notes, timing and decision-making are vital in situations like these. "I have been impressed with the timing of the punches, because this does not happen by chance", he says. "The starting position and the first step in relation to where other players are located is crucial. This must be done in relation to the height and speed of the ball coming in, to get the timing and elevation of the jump perfect to make the intervention at the right time.
"Also in moments of aggressive attacking play from their opponents, I think goalkeepers can be better protected by their defenders, and this must be trained together with the outfield players so they can understand the importance of their roles," he observed.
GOALKEEPING: USING THROWS TO START BUILD-UP OR COUNTER-ATTACKS
Goalkeepers are becoming more intuitive about when and how they distribute the ball, and are particularly influential in initiating fast counter-attacks after claiming the ball in their own penalty area. As former Germany stopper Angerer observes, "We have seen some excellent long throws that start build-up play and that create dangerous counter-attacks. Throwing the ball is quicker than putting the ball down on the ground and kicking it. A faster and more accurate throw gives the opposition less time to recover and is an excellent way of eliminating players that can support defensively."
Factors the goalkeeper must consider before throwing the ball
When a goalkeeper claims the ball in their penalty area, they need to observe and assess the situation on the pitch quickly. They have a split second to work out whether there is a good opportunity to spark a counter-attack with a quick throw, or whether they should keep hold of the ball before throwing (or kicking) to a team-mate.
When making this quick decision, the goalkeeper should ask themselves the following questions:
How well organised is the opposition?
Does my team have numerical superiority or a favourable 1v1 anywhere on the pitch?
Are my players offering to receive the ball?
Do I have enough cover if possession is lost?
Can the player I am aiming for receive in front (is there open space ahead of them), or do they need to receive to feet (if there are players around them)?
Is my throwing range long enough to reach my team-mate?
As Angerer points out, "It is clear that some teams are working on strategies to maximise opportunities that can arise from these situations, particularly on transitions to attack from defensive set plays. Forward players ahead of the ball are isolating defenders in 1v1s, and as soon as the goalkeeper claims the ball, they know exactly what scenario they are looking for. Training for these situations allows the team to react faster and helps the goalkeeper to make a good decision. Players are getting better at getting into space to receive [the ball] and goalkeepers are also recognising [these situations]."
As we can see in the clips below, goalkeepers have used the throw both to initiate counter-attacks and as an effective way of starting the build-up phase.
USE OF WIDE AREAS AND A VARIETY OF CROSSES TO CREATE GOAL-SCORING OPPORTUNITIES
FIFA have seen an increase in the proportion of group-stage goals scored from crosses. This has come despite the fact that the number of crosses from open play per game has decreased compared to 2019 (from 28.5 to 24.2), showing that teams in this World Cup are more effective in their attempts to score from crosses.
An analysis of all goals from crosses (excluding own goals, penalties and direct free kicks) reveals that in 2019, 51% of goals were scored within 10 seconds of a cross taking place. In 2023, this percentage is up to 58% of goals despite fewer crosses being played.
TSG member and current Wales national team manager, Gemma Grainger, believes there are a number of factors that are contributing to this development. "We are seeing much better decision-making and movements from players in the final third," she says. "The selection and execution of the types of crosses being delivered has really improved, but teams are also better at movement to attract players (to create/vacate space) and movement to receive the ball inside the penalty area."
Types of crosses
With 62% of final third entries now occurring in the wide channels, the way teams operate in these areas is becoming increasingly important. As Grainger highlights, "Teams are becoming more strategic in this part of the pitch and the growing game intelligence of players is evident in their decision-making. They are choosing different types of crosses in different situations. Push crosses are a tactical advancement and are difficult to defend against."
While the numbers of lofted and driven crosses have both decreased compared to 2019, the average number of push crosses (a side-footed delivery from a crossing zone at moderate pace, into a target area) per match has increased from 4.1 (2019) to 5.7 (2023) during the group stage.
Players in the penalty area for crosses
Another potentially significant development when it comes to crosses is that the average number of attacking players in the penalty area when the ball is crossed in open play (excluding the player crossing the ball) has increased from 2.2 in 2019 to 2.4 in 2023. The members of the Technical Study Group have noted that players' movement in the penalty area has improved, both when they are looking to pick up the cross themselves and when they are aiming to create space for team-mates. Former Germany centre-forward Anja Mittag says this provides much better options for the player delivering the cross.
"Players are more creative in the variety of their crosses and more accurate in their deliveries," she explains. "They can make better choices about where they put their cross and the type of cross [they should play]. This makes it difficult for defenders because teams are capitalising more on any defensive errors."
The clips below show four different examples of how teams used wide areas to create goal-scoring opportunities.
In the first example, Sweden create width through the positioning of their right full-back and right-sided forward. When a gap opens in a central area, they play through Argentina's team shape before going wide and crossing to set up a goal-scoring opportunity.
In the second clip, Spain create a numerical overload in the left channel. The players in the wide area occupying space create indecision in the defence, giving Spain the opportunity to play in behind and facilitate an unopposed cross.
Clip 3 is a good example of how Portugal's attacking players occupied defenders to create space for a cross in the right channel. Once left-back Lúcia Alves (3) is released into the space in behind she can deliver an unopposed cross, which results in a goal.
In the final clip, we see how Australia used the wide areas and a run from deep to expose the space in behind Canada's defensive line. The move culminates in a push cross that results in a goal being scored.
ATTACKING CORNERS: IN-SWINGING DELIVERIES
The Technical Study Group has observed that teams have set themselves up to deliver a greater percentage of in-swinging corners and, as a result, corners are coming into the immediate area of the goal more frequently. There has also been an increase in the percentage of corners being converted into goals, despite it being statistically slightly less likely than in 2019 that the attacking team will win the first contact.
In the group stage of this competition, 20 goals have been scored within 15 seconds of a corner being taken. So far in 2023, approximately one in every 23 corners has resulted in a goal, compared to one in every 28 corners in 2019.
The percentage of corners being delivered directly into the goal area (six-yard box) has increased from 36% in 2019 to 43% in 2023., yet the attacking team is winning the first ball less often than in 2019 (down from 41% to 36%).
It is also striking that there has been a large increase in the number of right-footed deliveries from the left of the pitch, going from 41% in 2019 to 89% in 2023. Similarly, left-footed deliveries from the right have also increased, from 21% to 56%. This is indicative of a conscious effort to deliver more in-swinging corners.
Quality of delivery
In the clips below, we see four examples of goals being scored from in-swinging deliveries where the ball is directed straight towards the goal area. In each example, the quality and accuracy of the delivery is a crucial factor in the goal being scored. The action so far in this tournament has made it very clear that players have been working hard on the quality and accuracy of their delivery from set pieces.
In the first clip, we see Sweden's Amanda Ilestedt (13) score by winning the first ball at the near post. According to Angerer, these deliveries are very difficult for the goalkeeper to deal with. "Because these deliveries come into the goal area between the front post and the goalkeeper's starting position, there is no time for the goalkeeper to cover the ground to affect that delivery," she says. "If the quality of the delivery is that accurate, and they come in at that speed, the defenders are the only ones who can really contest the ball in that area."
FIFA's Technical Study group will attend and analyse all remaining games of this intriguing World Cup. They will continue to monitor the themes discussed here and will explore them in greater detail in their post-tournament report, along with all the other trends that emerge in Australia and New Zealand.
Their observations and the accompanying statistical analysis will be benchmarked against FIFA Women's World Cup 2019™ and shared with the global audience via the FIFA Training Centre, with the aim of ensuring the continued development of the women's game.