Scotland failed to make it to the knockout stages of the 2019 Women's World Cup after last night's incredible, but heartbreaking, 3-3 draw with Argentina. Craig Fowler looks at an accumulation of reasons which saw the Scots sent on their way back home after the group stage.
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A knock to confidence
Scotland took to the opening match against England with a clear desire to show they belonged on the same pitch with the team currently ranked third in the world. For the opening ten minutes they appeared to have the pre-match hosts just a little bit rattled, as the high press forced Phil Neville's side into a number of slack passes and touches in those early exchanges. Once the opening goal was scored though, via a VAR-awarded penalty, that intensity immediately drained away. With the 12-yard dispatch by Nikita Parris, England's nerves settled and Scotland's ratcheted up tenfold.
Though they were able to come out of the England match with some pride restored, thanks to a combination of limiting their rivals to just the two goals and Claire Emslie's late strike, they didn't begin the second match against Japan with the same conviction, looking rather tentative in possession. Only in the final game did belief appear to be coursing through the squad once more.
A lack of defensive discipline
Three penalties given away in three games isn't going to cut it on the international stage. One of them was harsh, as Rachel Corsie got on the wrong side of Japanese attacker Yuika Sugasawa and put her hand on her shoulder, which prompted Sugasawa to theatrically throw herself to the ground. That being said, Corsie, like Nicola Docherty against England and Sophie Howard last night, gave the referee a decision to make.
Defensively overall, Scotland were poor through the three games, conceding seven goals. This was despite both goalkeeper Lee Alexander and centre-back Jennifer Beattie having solid tournaments. Mostly it was individual errors costing Shelley Kerr's side with Corsie being a good case in point. The captain had been outstanding against England but was at fault for both of the goals in the Japan defeat.
It also didn't help that they were only able to get one-and-a-half strong performances from six across the two full-back positions. Kirsty Smith impressed after coming on against England, even out of position at left-back, and did likewise in starting the 2-1 defeat to Japan, but she was exposed often in Wednesday night's draw. On the other flank neither Docherty nor Hayley Lauder were able to fully show off their talents.
The starting XI/shape against Japan
Kerr came in for some frank criticism from American soccer legend Hope Solo after the defeat to the Japanese. Whereas the England match saw her side suffer an early setback that would be difficult for any underdog to recover from, against Japan they looked second best from the off and didn't get into the match until the last 20 minutes or so.
The most curious decision was the omission of Emslie from the starting XI. The former Manchester City winger's decision making and final ball had been below par in the opening match, but she had still managed to force herself on proceedings and was a threat any time the ball came her way. Lisa Evans, who had been quiet against England, kept her place and Lizzie Arnot joined on the other flank. Neither gave Japan much to think about and it was only once Emslie was introduced that things picked up. Kerr later said the gameplan was to get at their opponents, so it didn't make much sense to leave out one of the few players who'd been successful in doing so the match previous.
The overall shape of the team didn't particularly suit either. Kerr has largely preferred a 4-2-3-1, but against Japan it looked more like two banks of four with Erin Cuthbert playing alongside Jane Ross, instead of in the No.10 role as she had in the warm-up match against Jamaica. With Arnott and Evans off form, the front two were given little service as both Caroline Weir and Kim Little were swamped in midfield, therefore unable to support effectively. As a result Scotland struggled to get Cuthbert - our most talented player - on the ball consistently. She still played well enough, though, because she's Erin Cuthbert and she is magic.
Not shutting up shop against Argentina
Goal difference was a factor in last night's game. We could also be accused of looking at this with 20-20 hindsight. Had Scotland scored one or two more, taking it to 4-0 or 5-0, then the chances of them missing out on the last 16 would've become minuscule. That being said, 3-0 was probably more than enough for what Scotland needed to qualify as one of the best third-place teams. It gave them a goal difference of +1 with a goals scored tally of five. Chile, clear favourites in their last game against Thailand, would've needed to win by six goals to overtake them. Not impossible, seeing as Thailand lost 13-0 to America, but for Scotland to be eliminated they would also have needed either Cameroon or New Zealand to dish out a thumping to the other in their final match. Cameroon would have needed to win by at least four to tie Scotland's goal difference, while New Zealand required five to better it. Both such scenarios occurring on the same evening, even at the expense of a nation with a predilection for misfortune, would have been highly implausible.
Three goals up and cruising, it should've been the time to see it out. Instead they continued to attack and were caught on the counter. Even at 3-1 they pushed forward in numbers. Though the second goal was a combination of a poor clearance from Smith, a great strike from Florencia Bonsegundo and an unlucky Alexander seeing her save ricochet off the back of her hand after hitting the bar, it wouldn't have come about if Argentina were again given licence to threaten on the counter.
The officiating and VA-f******-R
Let's leave aside the decision to retake the penalty and book Alexander for coming about a centimeter off her line - mainly because, if I have to write about it in great detail, I will begin smashing my laptop to smithereens - it was far from the only infuriating refereeing decision on the night and it wasn't the only time our girls were cursed by the absurdly capricious nature of the Video Assistant Referee system.
Even after the equaliser deep into injury-time it was still set up for a grandstand finish. Both Scotland and Argentina needed a win to progress and they would have been going absolutely all out to get a seventh goal which would have capped off an amazing night of football. There should still have been at least another five minutes on the clock thanks to all the delays while VAR was checked and then checked again. Instead, referee Ri Hyang-ok blew up for full-time just a few seconds later. The body language from both sets of players told everything we needed to know. They were dumbfounded. Ri also made the highly unusual decision to blow for Argentina to restart the game with a free-kick while Scotland were in the process of making a substitute.
She wasn't the only bumbling official Scotland encounter. Lidya Tafesse and her assistants saw fit to award a ludicrous offside decision against Scotland in what became the build-up to the opening goal in the 2-1 loss to Japan. They then topped it with a soft penalty award, while ignoring two strong claims from the Scots in the second half.
We also witnessed the inconsistency of VAR from game to game. Docherty had been punished for a handball that was originally missed by the referee in the England match. However, the same thing did not occur when Japanese international Risa Shimizu basically slapped the ball down with her arm while tussling with Cuthbert in the penalty box.