Tactical Notes on Polarizing USWNT and Areas of Improvement for Finals

Written By Harrison Hamm on July 3, 2019

The USWNT advanced to the 2019 World Cup final by the skin of their teeth. The 2-1 win over England was a rollercoaster of VAR, a penalty save, and time-killing.

England was not the US’s toughest opponent — France was. The final against either the Netherlands or Sweden should not be as difficult as the quarters and semis were. But this is a knockout tournament and anything can happen.

Two of the US’s best players (Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle) nurse tricky hamstring injuries, though both players have indicated that they will be healthy by Sunday’s final.

Some tactical notes from the wild win over England and how the US can improve as they head into a pressure-packed final. I’ll end with some final notes on the importance of the team in general.

Tactical notes

Phil Neville wins the strategy game over Ellis

US coach Jill Ellis did not play her best strategic cards. She set the US up in a base 4-3-3 and allowed England to control the tempo of the game, playing heavily up the right flank through star right back Lucy Bronze and searching for diagonal switches. Too often, England disjointed the US with interplay down the right flank followed by a switch to a wide open Beth Mead. They created their goal through such a pattern of play.

The US’s biggest weakness became a leaky midfield. Without strong ball-winning and ground-coverage down the spine, Ellis’s team allowed England to transition possession into the attacking half too easily. Passes into advanced midfielders (like Nikita Parris, who was influential) unlocked meaningful attacking sequences. 

Julie Ertz has to be better as the US’s defensive midfielder, and whoever plays alongside her — most likely two of Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis — have to be stronger. The US have to be smarter with their pressing triggers and trapping. Much of that falls on Ellis.

Credit to England’s Phil Neville for setting his team up for success.

2. Improvements in possession

England would not have controlled the game to such an extent had Ellis designed a more effective possession shape. When the US took the ball in their defensive half, they spread wide and trusted the center backs to carry the ball forward and lead distribution. Lavelle, who has good vision and ideas, should be on the ball deeper. The full backs have to have more of a role.

It was bizarre watching the US set up when Becky Sauerbrunn or Abby Dahlkemper had the ball. The formation was an exaggerated 4-3-3, with the midfield barely visible. Ertz ranged forward consistently, which works only when the US actually get the ball forward. They did not do that well enough.

To possess the ball, you have to have a discernible midfield. Ellis appeared overly concerned with the flanks, which makes a fair bit of sense against an English team that loves its overloads and switches, but the way she set the US up with the ball resulted in low-percentage long balls. There has to be more meaningful possession.

3. US destroys opponents in transition.

The US thrive in transition play and counter-pressing. Losing the ball in your own end against the USWNT is death. The wingers are skillful and Alex Morgan is a cerebral hold-up striker, particularly when she finds the ball in tight spaces around the 18-yard box. Tobin Heath, despite a subpar performance against England, is arguably the US’s best overall player, and disintegrates hopeless defenders off the dribble with regularity. The US will combine and overlap with ferocity, and whip deadly crosses into the box once they’ve thoroughly disjointed you. 

Whichever team the US face in the final will be at a real and noticeably talent deficiency. All of the US’s opponents in this tournament have been. Against England, talent won out.

4. Press good, but Rapinoe was missed.

Starting Christen Press on the left wing proved a downgrade to Rapinoe, though Press did score the US’s first goal. Rapinoe is a better passer and connector, and was scorching hot heading into the semifinals. Press sometimes misses passes and runs. She does track back well and did in this game.

5. US good and killing the clock

It will be interesting how aggressive Ellis is willing to be against the Netherlands or Sweden. The US’s 4-1-4-1 defensive shape (which sometimes looked like a flat 4-5-1) was conservative, and Ellis designed it to flummox a possession-happy England. It mostly succeeded in that goal.

That defensive set-up proved helpful once the US resorted completely to time-killing mode after Alyssa Naeher’s heroic penalty-kick save. It was bold to carry the ball to the corner as early as the US did, but it worked, and England barely generated any meaningful chances late in the contest. France ran into similar problems.

Major Implications

Let’s take a moment to recognize the pressure on this USWNT team.

They’ve ruffled plenty of feathers this tournament, from celebrations against Thailand and England to Rapinoe’s political activism to the enduring fight for equal pay. Everyone expects them to win, and plenty may delight in their losing — curmudgeonly Brits, and hardcore Trump supporters who hate Rapinoe, and men who refuse to accept equal pay.

A loss in the final should not diminish their multiple worthy fights, but in the brutal, volatile world of public opinion, a defeat would undoubtedly be devastating. Primarily, it would be used as ammo by opponents of equal pay. However flawed (both morally and economically) arguments against equal pay are, they will hang around. 

The pressure mounts on a team that is becoming a phenomenon. It is not often that we see an international side this controversial and polarizing. The spotlight will be on when they take the Lyon field for the World Cup final.

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