Women’s Olympic soccer will be this year’s most exciting international team tournament

The U.S. women’s team are one of the strongest International sporting teams. I look at the shot statistics and passing networks of the USWNT and other teams competing at this year’s Olympics. Women’s soccer has some of the best teamwork and tactics anywhere in the footballing world.

The women’s Olympic soccer games could well be this year’s most exciting International tournament, following much disappointment in Copa America and the European Championships for many fans. In recent years soccer has evolved from a sport that worshipped individual skill — think Pele, Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyf — to become a game that is just as much about the team as it is about the individual. In European men’s football, the media and the fans focus on the style of play: the intensive ball possession of German champion’s Bayern Munich, the long ball counter-attack of English champions Leicester City, and the rapid passing of Spanish champion’s Barcelona.

It is from the tactical perspective that men’s International football has proved a disappointment. With less time to prepare for matches and with players tired from a whole season of league football, the teamwork has suffered and the games have lacked quality.

This lack of quality can be seen by looking at the locations at which teams shoot. The farther away from the goal a shot is made, the less likely it is that it will result in a goal. During the European Championships, winners Portugal made fewer good quality shots from inside the penalty area (an average of 7.2 per 90 min) than lower quality, long distance efforts from outside the penalty area (an average of 7.7 per 90 min). In contrast, during their recent matches USWNT have shot almost three times as often from inside the penalty area (an average of 13.4 per 90 min) as from outside (an average of 4.5 per 90 min).

One argument for why there are fewer long distance shots in the women’s game is that it is harder for women to score from farther out. The (valid) point raised is that, at the top level, men can kick the ball harder than women. However, Portugal scored only 2 long distance goals in the whole tournament. Their conversion rate, of 3% from outside the box, is typical for elite men’s football. USWNT also scored twice from outside the box in last year’s Women’s World Cup, including Carli Lloyd’s amazing goal from the half-way line. So while men can shoot harder, this alone doesn’t account for why women create better chances than men do in International soccer.

The reason why it is tactically more interesting to watch USWNT than Portugal’s men team goes deeper than shot statistics. The plot below shows how USA passed the ball during their Olympic qualifying match against Canada (USA attacking left to right).

The thicker the lines connecting two players, the more passes they made to each other. For example, Meghan Klingenberg and Morgan Brian passed each other a total of 25 times, indicated by a thick blue line connecting the two players. In total, USWNT made 414 successful passes during the match. This number is comparable with possession-intensive teams in the men’s English Premier League, such as Arsenal or Manchester United. Moreover, the US team’s passes are evenly distributed between team members. USA’s captain Carli Lloyd is clearly central to the team, but she is just one (albeit important) component of a network of passes covering the entire pitch. This teamwork makes for an exciting, rapid passing game similar to that seen at the top level of men’s club football.

Networks like these allow us to see tactical differences between teams. Below is the network for the Germany playing against the US in the SheBelieves cup in March this year.

Germany focus on a strong attacking midfield, a style similar to that adopted by Bayern Munich and the German men’s national team at the European championships. Although the US won this match 2–1, the Germans still pose a clear threat at the Olympics.

These passing networks show that the women’s Olympic soccer tournament will have a lot to offer from a tactical perspective. From last nights performances, Germany and the USA look like dominating their groups. But we should also keep an eye out for hosts Brazil after they beat China 3–0. Australia lost their first game againast Canada,but having beaten Japan in qualifying, the Aussies are still in with a good chance. France also had a good start, and were a team who looked strong against the USA at the SheBelieves cup.

The data used to create the networks presented was collected by the WoSo Stats project (link: https://wosostats.wordpress.com/). Unlike data collected for the men’s game, this data is freely available to download.

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