Footy Ferns at the 2019 World Cup: A Heartbreaker vs Netherlands

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Heartbreaking. To get so close to a famous result and to concede at the end… it’s devastating, it’s shattering, it’s deflating. After ninety-plus minutes of resolute defence and an absolutely spot on tactical approach from Tom Sermanni the Ferns were on the brink of a valuable point against the Netherlands but couldn’t quite close it out, Jill Roord popping up with the stoppage time winner.

A result like that coming so close to something so positive, that’s the kind of thing that can ruin any team without maximum belief. It takes a lot to fight through the ruthless disappointment of conceding a late-winner and channel that into motivation for the next two. But that’s the task for the Ferns now, because in a lot of ways this was a game where they had nothing to lose. Against one of the better sides at this tournament, definitely the best side in the group, this is not the game that was going to decide whether the Ferns can make it out of this group. That comes with the next two and with how well they played for so long against such a dangerous opponent you’ve gotta believe that they’re a great chance against the more offensively challenged Canada and Cameroon. Take the good things from this one, of which there were plenty, and trust that a repeat level of performance in the next two and this team can achieve something special.

It’s just frustrating that they couldn’t get the momentum boosting draw here, because damn did they put in the hard yakka to earn it. Sermanni was a clever old bastard, sitting there with his sunnies on in the first half having drawn things up perfectly. Against a Dutch team with basically a world class front four as Danielle van de Donk pushed forward behind striker Vivianne Miedena and wingers Shanice van de Sanden and Lieke Martens, Sermanni threw in a minor curve ball by starting Olivia Chance as an extra midfielder instead of Anna Green as a third centre back (in Meikayla Moore’s position). Playing one on one against that lot would have been a massacre, the best way to do it was to crowd them out and cut the supply lines so shaping up in a sort of 4-4-2, with Betsy Hassett and Olivia Chance as roaming winger/playmaker types and having two clear strikers… yeah that one was a masterstroke from old mate Shades.

Because the Dutch might be European champions with a forward line capable of beating anyone but their defence was a little squeaky and their midfield wasn’t as up for a dogfight as ours was. Mate, Ria Percival is just a marvellous player to have in these (or any, tbh) circumstances. She absolutely set the tone with a physical and energetic showing in the middle. Winning every bloody tackle, constantly getting a foot in. That willingness to be scrappy was a key factor for the Ferns as well. CJ Bott got skinned first up, chucked on ice skates by Lieke Martens in the opening minute or two, but she grew into the game fantastically against the 2017 world player of the year. Martens ended up being awarded player of the day by FIFA and honestly I don’t even know how anyone managed to spot her from within CJ’s pocket.

There was room for van de Sanden to work with on the other side though, a bit of a trade-off for crowding the middle of the field. Which, I mean, Netherlands were gonna create chances one way or another so just gotta pick your poison. The Ferns held off England by forcing them wide and picking off crosses. But tell you what, the best two opportunities of the first forty minutes both fell to Fernies. Liv Chance whipped one off the crossbar and a left-footed drive from Rosie White drew a great save out of van Veenendaal. Both shots that came from White and Gregorius/Chance combining on the press against the Dutch defence.

Holland like to knock the ball around and their dedication to passing kinda worked in NZ’s favour. It meant they dwelled just enough at the back that we could pounce a couple times – a selective press tactic that we’ve been working on since the Cup of Nations – and it also meant they were a little too careful on attack sometimes and allowed our defence to stay set. Against the low block sometimes you just need to take a few cracks from distance. You might fluke one in the top corner, beauty, or you might catch an arm on the way through. Just to mix it up, you know?

Of course, the kiwis got caught on the ball a few times too. Rebekah Stott gave it away once or twice in bad areas, but each time recovered to win it back. We didn’t always read the game that well but we timed our tackles superbly and scrambled well. There were a few scary moments from set pieces, to be fair. Bloodworth missed a bit of a sitter right before the break and that was a big let-off for sure. There was the worry that with the pace of the game it could be that fitness would be a factor late in halves and sure enough we could easily have gone into the sheds down a goal. Still scoreless at HT though? Right where we wanna be, especially having seriously threatened ourselves a couple times.

But as the second half progressed there were signs that we were losing our grip and clinging on. Sarah Gregorius missed two brilliant opportunities in a row at about the same stage of the game that she scored against England. Beginning with some fine work from CJ Bott, the first was a ball across by Chance which Grego was a little too short to reach and then the second a lovely chip back in from Betsy Hassett which found Grego unmarked at the far post but she couldn’t get enough contact on it… still a quality save but those are the key moments we’re talking about which the Ferns have to own. Seven minutes into the second half, a great time to score. Netherlands woulda just had a big old chat about things at the break and that could have thrown those plans all out the window. To be honest, even at the time I kinda felt that was the chance we’d been building towards and we didn’t take it.

Then the game started to get more frantic, more end to end. Not what the doctor ordered for the NZers and both White and Gregorius soon looked pretty exhausted, to be replaced in a double sub in the 73rd min by Hannah Wilkinson and Paige Satchell. Annalie Longo had already subbed in for Hassett prior to that. But the quicker the game got, the less it was in our control. Martens pulled off some more outrageous skill to set up Miedema only for the Arsenal striker’s shot to drag achingly wide of the post. At this point, 2am in the morning or whatever, it was nerve-shredding time. Ball of raw emotion time. Foetal position on the couch every time Netherlands found an inch of space time. An injury break for van der Gragt gave the Ferns a welcome timeout right when we needed it… although it also added on a minute or two extra of stoppage time so, yeah, in hindsight…

Down into the last thirty minutes, the last twenty minutes… every free kick that we won, every goal kick that we won, felt like a mini victory. Erin Nayler made a magnificent save with her foot at the near post to deny Miedema again. Stott cut out a cross that looked certain to lead to a goal when she stuck out a backheel, brilliantly. Some kiwi ingenuity for ya.

Except that this was all just leading to more pressure and once our starting strikers tired we lost the ability to defend from the front. That’s what Rosie White can offer you. Satchell gives you pace in behind. Wilko is a target forward, great on the end of a cross. But Rosie White is such an undercover crucial player for this team because she can do both. Sermanni didn’t wait too long to make his subs. He timed it all right, he was pretty much perfect here. But Satchell and Wilko don’t offer the same kind of pressure on the Dutch defence and the game crept closer and closer towards our defensive line where Miedema and her mates might as well have pitched a tent, started a campfire, and started singing folks songs together outside our penalty area.

Tiredness had to be a factor. We’d worked so hard to get to that point but other than a couple nice runs from Satchell we didn’t really have an outlet to release pressure anymore, nothing that could change the course of the game. We kept losing the ball and the Netherlands kept on charging. There was a moment in stoppage time where Wilkinson had the ball in the corner trying to shield it but couldn’t win the set piece. Soon after she tried to hold it up on halfway and again lost possession. Little moments like that where we weren’t quite sharp enough when trying to kill the game at the end.

Then van der Sanden found too much room to cross, Ali Riley couldn’t win a header competing with Lineth Beerensteyn, and Roord nodded it in before Erceg or Nayler could get across. 1-0 to the Netherlands. Right at the end. Bloody hell.

Part of the issue here is that, being New Zealand, we’re not able to put our team in with the perfect preparation. Hannah Wilkinson still just looks really rusty as she works back from that ACL injury ahead of schedule. There’s nothing for it, she had to be picked, she had to be subbed on when she was, it’s just the risk you have to take with a smaller player pool. Olivia Chance, on the other hand, looks superb having had a month or two more to recover from her own knee injury… as well as a professional environment with Everton to do so in. But Rosie White’s been without a pro club in 2019, playing men’s footy with Sarah Gregorius in Wellington and both of them fatigued in the second half. Ali Riley hasn’t played as much footy as she’d want with Chelsea this season. These are things we simply have to overcome to achieve what this team is in France to achieve.

As long as they react resiliently though, there’s no reason they cannot do that. The performance was great. Percival, Erceg, Stott, and Nayler were all immense. Chance and White did their jobs perfectly. The way they played against Netherlands is the way they’ll play against Canada and Cameroon too, though the balance of the game should be more even. Canada will definitely want more of the ball but, Christine Sinclair aside, they don’t have the cutting edge of Netherlands and they struggled to break down Cameroon the other day, relying on a header from a corner to get the job done.

Defensive footy from the Ferns? Sure. But it’s defensive football with a purpose. Simple football, you could say. We know we have to be compact and aggressive at the back but we have our outlets, we know what we want to do when we get the ball and we don’t piss around when we do. This team is capable of scoring goals at this tournament. Defensive football is only a problem when it’s passive, when a team is conceding possession because they don’t know what else to do and is simply letting the game come to them. These Ferns were confident within their system and positive in their attitudes.

Unfortunately now the Ferns have now gone a record 13 game all time without ever having won at a World Cup but a draw against a contending Netherlands side would have ranked as our best ever World Cup result had we only chopped the final two and a half minutes off the end of it. Devastating. Shattering. Deflating. All of the above. But beneath all that, the blueprint is there to be successful at France 2019 and if the last 12 months have taught us anything it’s that this is a resilient bunch of women.

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