The summer's major European tournament is upon us. The UEFA Women's Euro, a 16-team affair featuring four former champions, one debutant, 30 of the world's 50 best players and, per FIFA, 13 of the world's 21 best teams, begins July 6 in England and LIVE on ESPN.
Six teams in the field stand out as favorites, which could make for some incredible knockout-round action later in July. But let's see what we can learn about each favorite and from the data produced at the club and international levels.
Why it's coming home
Beth Mead, Lauren Hemp and Fran Kirby in attack. Ella Toone's microwavable offense. Ellen White's 50 career international goals off the bench. Do-it-all midfielder Georgia Stanway playing in midfield, or at fullback, or wherever another elite player needs to line up at a given time. Centre-backs Leah Williamson and Millie Bright providing flawless buildup play from the back. Barcelona-bound right back Lucy Bronze providing high-level defense and even more high-level buildup.
At first glance, England have the best of all worlds. They are world-class in attack and defense. They are seasoned: White (33), Bronze (30), defender Demi Stokes (30), forward Nikita Parris (28) and ever-present midfielder Jill Scott (35) have all topped 60 caps, and Scott and White have topped 100. They are also full of thrilling young energy: Stanway is 23, Toone 22, Hemp 21.
They have as many ESPN top-50 players as Spain and more than anyone else in the field. They've reached the semifinals in the past two World Cups and in 2017's Euros. And since appointing Sarina Wiegman to replace Phil Neville as manager in September, they've been nearly perfect, embarrassing minnows and outscoring seven Euro-bound opponents by a combined 21-2. In June friendlies against Belgium and the Netherlands, they were held in check for most of the first half but slowly wore down their opponents. They scored three goals after the 60th minute against Belgium and scored four after the 50th against the Dutch.
If club chemistry matters, Spain indeed might be your favorite. England does boast a large Manchester City contingent -- nine players were there last year -- but their difference-makers hail from four different English clubs. However, that's just about the only potential flaw one can find. This team is balanced, brilliant and playing at home. There's always the chance that a home crowd becomes a liability if England starts slowly in a big match, but even in a field loaded with outstanding teams, England stands out. Cue the music: It's coming home.*
*Unless it doesn't, in which case I never said any of this.
2022 Spain (W) as 2010 Spain (M)
Why Miedema, Kerr and Putellas topped the ESPN FC Women's Rank
Players, pundits and fans come together to explain the brilliance of Vivianne Miedema, Sam Kerr and Alexia Putellas.
Vicente del Bosque had quite a luxury when naming his Spanish squad for the men's 2010 World Cup: Relatively speaking, the best team in the world, Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, were right in his backyard. Barca had just won their second straight LaLiga title and would win their third straight the following season. They had won the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup in 2009, and it took a mammoth effort -- and some unlucky breaks -- for them to lose to Inter Milan in the 2010 Champions League semifinals. (Total shots over two legs: Barca 30, Inter 10.)
Del Bosque ended up selecting seven Barca players, six of whom featured heavily -- starters Xavi, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets and primary substitute Pedro -- as Spain finally got the major-tournament curse off their back, losing to Switzerland in the tournament opener, but winning six in a row from there to take home the trophy.
Jorge Vilda finds himself in a similar situation. The manager of Spain's women's team since 2015, he's piloting a team that (a) have only one reasonable success on their résumé (reaching the semifinals of the Euros in 1997) and (b) will be leaning heavily on a dominant Barca squad.
Barcelona Femeni have played 96 matches over the past two seasons in all competitions, winning 90 with just two draws and four losses. They have outscored opponents by a jaw-dropping 429 to 48. Despite a loss to Lyon in this year's Champions League, they are the clear, dominant force in the sport. And 10 members of Barcelona's squad, including captain Irene Paredes, reigning Ballon d'Or Feminin winner Alexia Putellas and goal scorer Mariona Caldentey (who has 12 combined goals and assists in Spain's six World Cup qualification matches thus far), will represent Spain in Euro 2022.
Despite a sketchy recent record -- they were eliminated in the quarterfinals at Euro 2017 and in the round of 16 at the 2019 World Cup -- Spain have been generally listed as the favorite in the betting markets. Depending on your oddsmaker of choice, the 16 teams have basically been separated into four betting tiers.
Spain: odds generally between 3/1 and 7/2
England: between 4/1 and 9/2
France: around 5/1
Netherlands: between 5/1 and 6/1
Germany: between 6/1 and 7/1
Sweden: between 6/1 and 7/1
Norway: around 14/1
Denmark: around 25/1
Italy: around 25/1
Switzerland: around 50/1
Austria: around 60/1
Belgium: around 75/1
Portugal: around 90/1
Iceland: around 90/1
Finland: around 200/1
Northern Ireland: around 250/1
Like the men in 2010, though, Spain will also have to navigate through a tricky group. Group B is the only of the four groups to feature three teams ranked in FIFA's top 15, and two of them -- eight-time champion Germany and 2017 runner-up Denmark -- have seen far more Euro success than they have. If Spain are to live up to their favorite status, club continuity and Champions League experience will have to play major roles.
The five biggest matches of the group stage
Once again using FIFA rankings, the distribution of the groups is about as even as you could hope -- of the top eight teams in the field, two reside in each group. Based on factors such as rankings, betting odds and star players, then, it's pretty easy to get a read on which group-stage matches will be the most high-profile. They might not determine who advances to the knockout stages -- Group B aside, the favorites are clear -- but they will boast particularly high quality and will go a long way toward determining who wins each group.
Germany vs. Denmark (Group B, Friday, July 8). Euro 2017 fell into chaos when Denmark upset Germany, the six-time defending champs, in the quarterfinals. Down a goal almost immediately, the Danes scored twice in the second half to pull the upset. This is the first huge match of the tournament, and Germany will be favored again. If the match produces a winner, it will go a long way toward establishing how the Group of Death will shake out.
Netherlands vs. Sweden (Group C, Saturday, July 9). The defending Euro champs vs. the reigning Olympic silver medalists and, per FIFA, the No. 1 team on the continent. These teams will both likely advance no matter who wins, as they're both much stronger than fellow Group C members Switzerland and Portugal. But the winner -- and, therefore, likely group winner -- could avoid likely Group D winner France in the quarterfinals.
France vs. Italy (Group D, Sunday, July 10). France are indeed well-situated to win Group D, the only one featuring just one team with better than 15/1 odds to win the tournament. But Italy still boast Barbara Bonansea and eight teammates from a Juventus squad that both won their fifth straight Serie A title this season and thrived in the Champions League, topping Chelsea and giving Lyon hell in an aggregate 4-3 quarterfinal loss.
England vs. Norway (Group A, Monday, July 11). If Spain aren't the favorite, a loaded English squad probably are. The Lionesses are unbeaten in their past 13 matches, and while there have been plenty of romps over minnows in that stretch, there have also been impressive wins over Netherlands (5-1 in a recent friendly) and Germany (3-1 in February's Arnold Clark Cup) and draws against both Spain and Olympic gold medalist Canada.
Their biggest Group A test will come from a Norway squad that might not have the depth it once had but still boasts two of the world's 10 best players (per ESPN's list): Barcelona midfielder Caroline Graham Hansen and storied Lyon forward Ada Hegerberg, who is back in the fold with the national team. This is a heavyweight battle.
Germany vs. Spain (Group B, Tuesday, July 12). The last of the top 10 vs. top 10 battles, this one will have a very different feel if Germany slip up against Denmark. (Spain will face Denmark on July 16.) Assuming Spain handle Finland in the opener, this will be the first significant test for the betting favorites.
Group D, France and the value of elite opponents
It's hard to find a sleeper for this tournament, if only because Groups A (England and Norway) and C (Netherlands and Sweden) each have two teams heavily favored to advance and Group B has two solid favorites (Spain and Germany) plus a clear deputy (Denmark).
While France are the clear favorite in Group D, however, second place might be up for grabs. Italy have the best odds of advancing, but while they are 14th in the current FIFA rankings, Iceland and Belgium are 17th and 19th, respectively. Iceland boast stalwart defenders in Bayern Munich's do-everything Glodis Perla Viggosdottir and Rosengard's Gudrun Arnardottir, and Belgium have a trio of major-club veteran forwards in Janice Cayman, Tine De Caigny and Tessa Wullaert; the trio have combined for more than 300 caps and nearly 150 career national-team goals, and Wullaert has been torrid in Belgium's eight World Cup qualification matches, posting 15 goals and 10 assists.
Of the longer long shots in the tournament, Iceland and Belgium have the clearest path to the knockout rounds, and every match in Group D could therefore carry interesting stakes.
We also might not know everything we need to know about France until the knockout rounds.
It's difficult to glean any sort of information on a team's form at the international level. Qualifying for the Euros ended nearly two years ago, and while most teams in the Euro field have played around 12-13 matches in the past year, a lot of those came against low-level teams in World Cup qualification, and the players a country will be counting on in the Euros perhaps weren't asked to contribute all that much. England beat Latvia 20-0 in November, for example, and put up double-digit goals on North Macedonia and Luxembourg (plus Latvia again). Impressive? Certainly, but Latvia ranks 115th in FIFA's rankings, Luxembourg ranks 113th and North Macedonia ranks 133rd.
We can learn at least a few things by looking solely at like-versus-like matchups:
The Netherlands are battle-tested, having played five top-10 (per FIFA) opponents over the past year. But they've pulled just three points and a minus-6 goal differential from said matches. They drew with the United States at the Olympics (losing in a shootout), drew twice with Brazil and lost to England and France by a combined 8-2.
Teams to average at least 2.0 points per game against top-10 opponents over the past year: England (eight points from four matches), Sweden (seven from three) and France (six from two).
Expanding the range to top-25 opponents, France (still six points from two matches), England (14 from six), Sweden (26 from 10), Spain (15 from seven), Iceland (15 from seven), Italy (10 from five) and Norway (six from three) all clear the two-points-per-game bar.
France beat both Brazil and Netherlands in February's Tournoi de France. But while they've got a perfect record over the past year (12 matches, 12 wins), those are the only two matches they've played against opponents ranked higher than 29th. Among the six betting favorites, Germany (four) are the only other team to have played fewer than six matches against the top 25.
It's hard to guarantee that this matters, but France also aren't relying particularly heavily on league heavyweights Lyon and PSG, either. The French squad have five players from each club, but also have four who play for Bordeaux, two who play in Spain, two in England and one in Italy. This team could have used some chemistry-building challenges more than others.
Granted, one can only worry so much about a team that uses key pieces of Lyon's midfield (Delphine Cascarino), PSG's front line (forwards Kadidiatou Diani and Marie-Antoinette Katoto) and one of the most intimidating defenders in the world (Lyon's Wendie Renard).
The top teams are pretty hard to separate. Maybe chemistry holds France back a touch?
Club form and the case for the Netherlands
Looking solely at recent results, it's difficult to love the Netherlands' chances. In terms of points per game, the defending Euro champions (and World Cup runners-up) are in second place in their World Cup qualifying group, behind Iceland, thanks to a pair of draws against the Czech Republic. And in their two 2022 matchups against fellow top teams, they couldn't keep up against France and England.
Their 5-1 loss to England -- now coached by former Dutch manager Sarina Wiegman -- last week in Leeds was particularly galling. Lieke Martens gave them an early lead, but Bronze tied the match 10 minutes later and the Dutch completely lost their composure after halftime, suffering a comedy of errors in defense and giving up four goals in the final 40 minutes.
Still, if you look at what Dutch players are accomplishing on the club level, you can talk yourself into their chances in England this summer. They still boast some of the most high-end talent on the planet in Arsenal forward Vivianne Miedema (No. 3 on ESPN's top 50 list), Barca-turned-PSG forward Lieke Martens (No. 15) and Wolfsburg midfielder Jill Roord (No. 50). But their roster also features players who found strong form in the Vrouwen Eredivisie. Forward Romee Leuchter (Ajax) scored 25 goals with five assists, midfielder Victoria Pelova (Ajax) had six and nine, respectively, and midfielder Marisa Olislagers (Twente) had four and 10.
Granted, they aren't nearly as proven in defense, which was painfully obvious against England, but they have as much offensive firepower as anyone in the field.
Club form and the case for Germany
Without doubt, Germany was an early adopter in women's soccer as well as at both the club and international levels. From 2002 to '15, German teams won nine of the first 14 UEFA Women's Cups (soon to become the Champions League), with four other finals appearances. Meanwhile, the national team reached the finals of the 1995 World Cup, won the 2003 and 2007 World Cups and the 2016 Olympics and won an incredible eight of nine Euros between 1989 and 2013.
Since Lyon took over women's club soccer in 2016, German clubs have had to settle for only a trio of Champions League finals losses for Wolfsburg, and the national team lost in both the Euro quarterfinals in 2017 and the World Cup quarterfinals in 2019. More recently, Germany took just one point from three matches in February's Arnold Clark Cup -- they drew with Spain and lost to Canada and England -- and suffered a World Cup qualification upset loss at Serbia in April. Like the Netherlands, they haven't established a convincing level of late.
Also like the Netherlands: Their club-level success suggests elite talent. They boast eight players from Champions League semifinalist Wolfsburg -- one of only two clubs to beat Barcelona this season (in the second leg of the semis) -- and another seven from quarterfinalist Bayern Munich. Bayern forward Lea Schuller and Wolfsburg forward Tabea Wassmuth combined for 29 goals and 10 assists in the Frauen-Bundesliga, Frankfurt's Laura Freigang scored 12 goals in 23 matches, and Wolfsburg's Svenja Huth distributed 12 more league assists. Throw in Lyon-via-PSG midfielder Sara Dabritz, and you've got a formidable attack. (Another Netherlands similarity: Their defense is much less proven.)
They mauled Switzerland 7-0 in a June 24 tune-up, getting a hat trick from Bayern's Klara Buhl in the process. They have the toughest opening match of any of the Tier 1 favorites, but if they are confident, a ninth Euro title isn't completely out of the question.
What Sweden did so well at the Olympics
It feels a little odd seeing Sweden as either the fifth or sixth betting favorite (depending on the sportsbook). They have one of the most feared defenders in the world (Chelsea's Magdalena Eriksson), top-class attackers (Arsenal's Stina Blackstenius, Juventus' Lina Hurtig) and one of the most feared attacking defenders (Barcelona's Fridolina Rolfo). They also have a track record.
Sweden pummeled the U.S. on the way to the Olympic finals last summer (their second straight silver medal), and they beat Canada, Germany and England on the way to third place at the 2019 World Cup. They have reached at least the semis in four of the last six Euros. They're second in the world in the FIFA rankings, and their only loss over the past year or so has come via shootout in the Olympic gold-medal match.
They attack as well as defend at this point, something that set them apart in the Olympics. They created opportunities from a high press and generated scoring chances for not only Blackstenius and Hurtig but also Rosengard's Olivia Schough; meanwhile, they offered opponents almost no high-quality shots in exchange.
This team has seen as much proof of concept as any over the past year, and if Sweden can get past the Netherlands in the group stage, they would potentially face the weakest team in the quarterfinals (Group D's runner-up). The stars have aligned pretty well, betting favorites or no.