Super Falcons: Halimatu Ayinde frustrated Lauren James, but Nigeria could not benefit from her man-marking masterclass

Halimatu Ayinde stuck to Lauren James like glue.

ANALYSIS Super Falcons: Halimatu Ayinde frustrated Lauren James, but Nigeria could not benefit from her man-marking masterclass

Seye Omidiora 21:18 - 07.08.2023

Randy Waldrum deployed Halimatu Ayinde in a committed role to neuter the in-form Lauren James, and it worked, with the vexed England forward’s 87th-minute dismissal leaving the Three Lionesses shorthanded. Not taking advantage was disappointing for the Super Falcons.

Lauren James ended the group stage at the 2023 Women’s World Cup as the tournament’s in-form player, but the England international has most likely kicked her last ball at the finals.

Red carded for a needless and inane rush of blood to the head with three minutes of the 90 to play against Nigeria in the round of 16 clash on Monday, Sarina Wiegman may have to rejig her side again after seemingly shifting to the 3-4-1-2 approach that the 21-year-old benefited from.

Lauren James before facing the Super Falcons

The Three Lionesses had failed to sparkle at the finals, prompting Wiegman’s switch from a back four to a three, with James operating behind two strikers — Laurent Hemp and Alessia Russo — in their final game of Group D against China and Monday’s nail-biting triumph over Randy Waldrum’s team.

The Chelsea Women’s forward had netted the only goal in the second game over Denmark but played extraordinarily against the Chinese to score twice and set up three, taking her goal involvements Down Under to six.

Unsurprisingly, Wiegman did not change tack on Monday but opposing coach Waldrum had a move up his sleeve that rendered James unable to influence the game.

The Super Falcons neutralised Lauren James

To get a sense of why James lost her head, it would be good to recollect her previous performances and influence beyond the goal contributions.

Against the Danes, the England forward had 71 touches in 90 minutes, completed four dribbles from five attempts and 39 of 44 passes found the intended target.

In the 6-1 annihilation of China, the respective stats were 70 touches in 81 minutes, five successful dribbles (seven attempts) and an identical pass completion from the win over Denmark. She even fashioned two clear-cut opportunities in the rout.

In the 87 minutes played against the Super Falcons, though, James’ influence was minimal. The drop-off in involvement was evident in her touches (46), three successful dribbles from eight attempts and 79 percent pass completion — 19 passes from 24 attempts. In the wins over Denmark and China, 89% of those attempts located a teammate.

Further demonstrating the England youngster’s diminished influence against the Super Falcons was her pressure map against the West African nation vis-à-vis the final two games of the group phase.

Below are James’ heatmaps against Denmark and China…

Lauren James' pressure map against Denmark showing the forward's activity mainly down the left flank (Sofascore)
Despite starting behind two strikers against China, Laurent James' inclination to drift to the left side was evident — she also moved to the right intermittently (Sofascore)

And next is the graphical representation of her locations against Waldrum’s team, highlighting diminished activity.

Lauren James was far less influential against the Super Falcons (Sofascore)

The events preceding the youngster’s final involvement probably caused her to stamp on Michelle Alozie. But how was she stopped?

Halimatu Ayinde gave Lauren James little breathing space

Assigning man-marking roles to players is more typical than people imagine, even if the ones that dominate headlines usually occur in significant games.

Whenever the player’s remit involves high levels of commitment shown by Halimatu Ayinde on Monday, it is harder not to take notice.

Ayinde’s job to keep a close eye on James was evident as early as the second minute of the game.

When Alex Greenwood received possession and looked up, intending to pass the ball to James, Ayinde was swift to get tighter to the 21-year-old, forcing Greenwood to change her mind about releasing the pass.

Halimatu Ayinde's recognition of her remit meant Alex Greenwood could not pass to Lauren James (red oval).

A few minutes later, before a loose ball broke to James, the midfielder hurriedly closed down the England international and was an inconvenience to the Chelsea star, forcing her back into the Three Lionesses half.

Ayinde anticipated the loose ball breaking for James...
...and forced back the England forward into the European champions' half.

The Super Falcons did not regain possession, but the tone was set, and James probably knew she was in for a tough evening in Brisbane.

Waldrum’s team intermittently went 1v1 against the European champions, but Ayinde seldom let James out of her sight. Not even when the West Africans attacked and the Chelsea forward dropped deeper to help out defensively.

Halimatu Ayinde did not lose sight of Lauren James even when the Super Falcons were on the front foot

This continued into the second half, with Ayinde sticking close to the forward when England tried to fashion an opening down their left flank…

Ayinde (blue oval) always knew where James was all evening.

…when James dropped deeper to help in her team’s build-up…

…or when the attacker drifted to the right half-space with 15 minutes remaining, looking for room.

James looked to lose Ayinde in the inside-right channel, but the committed midfielder was alert to the Chelsea forward's intention.

James could not get on the ball consistently and had Ayinde close whenever she got on the ball. Alozie intermittently offered support, and it felt amiss that the wide defender — and not Ayinde — drew the ire of the youngster’s stamp.

Lauren James was given a red card for her stamp on Super Falcons defender Michelle Alozie

Unfortunately, the Super Falcons could not capitalise on their numerical advantage in the remainder of 90 minutes, six minutes of second-half stoppage time and extra time.

Super Falcons: A missed opportunity

Even though the West African nation’s only recorded clear-cut chance of the game fell to Alozie in those 30 minutes, the incoherence and rushed build-up play that characterised their opening three games returned. They found themselves in an unanticipated position and were overeager. It was counterproductive.

For anyone of a Nigerian persuasion, the post-game praise means little. Admittedly, few expected the World Cup ever-presents causing an upset against the reigning European champions. But it must hurt that their most coherent showing at the finals ultimately ended in defeat.

Africa’s most successful side hit the woodwork twice, got into a slew of promising situations in the opening hour of proceedings and gave one of the tournament favourites a scare. Yet, they came to rue the absence of a ruthless edge that characterised their participation Down Under.

While Waldrum’s troops got top marks for application, it is nothing more than a consolation. They held the now-eliminated Olympic champions — Canada — in their opening game, defeated co-hosts Australia 3-2 and put the fear of God in Wiegman’s Lionesses, keeping a clean sheet in two of the games and three in their four fixtures in the competition.

The early exits of the USWNT — defending CONCACAF and world champions — against Sweden, Asian champions China PR, South American heavyweights Brazil and former knockout stage ever-presents Germany potentially opened up the draw for a deep run for the Super Falcons in this year’s competition.

If Monday’s defeat to the European champions felt like an opportunity missed, it is because it was. It was gut-wrenching for Waldrum’s troops. And it will hurt for a long time.