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USA 8 - 1 Romania: Three things we learned

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The experimental 3-4-3 system is bearing fruit, but the real tests are still to come.

Romania v United States Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The USWNT soundly defeated Romania last night, winning 8-1 in a match that was just as lopsided as the scoreline suggests. But despite the uneven result, there were some interesting tactical issues raised in the match. Here’s a reflection on what lessons we can draw from the match.

The 3-4-3 experiment is worth continuing

Jill Ellis loves attacking fullbacks. The system she had the team playing for most of 2016 was designed to encourage the fullbacks to push forward, but suffered from serious deficiencies in the central midfield. The 3-4-3 they’ve played recently seems designed to resolve that problem. It returns to a single pivot, which is then dropped back into the central defense. In effect, it replaces two holding midfielders with one deep-lying, playmaking central defender. That permits the two center mids to push further forward together, and permits a far more dominant presence in the middle of the pitch.

It’s an aggressive formation, one that encourages explosive forward movement, and can fill the box with attackers. Several of the goals last night resulted from balls that pinged around in front of the goal before landing in front of a player ready to bury the shot. That’s not an accident. The 3-4-3 is designed to overload the defense and create those opportunities.

In full flight, it actually plays almost like a 1-4-5 – with the two flanking defenders moving forward, and the wingers becoming auxiliary forwards. Of course, when executed well, those lines blur. We saw flashes of what this makes possible last night: Crystal Dunn sometimes dropping back and playmaking, Ohai bursting into the box, Heath taking advantage of the acres of space ripped open by her teammates dragging defenders out of position.

As far as three-back defenses go, the 3-5-2 is more common—and provides a lot more stability. With only two forwards, it’s designed primarily to dominate the midfield, and relies on the wingbacks to run until their lungs burst trying to cover all three parts of the pitch. The 3-4-3, by contrast, is less balanced, more frenetic. Its wide players are tasked with defensive responsibilities, but play more like true wingers than defenders. And it tends to function as well against single-striker opposition as it does against two strikers – since the extra body at the back isn’t ‘wasted’ to the same extent.

It’s a system particularly well-suited to punishing weak opposition. And that is clearly part of the motivation for this development, given the toothlessness of the US attack during their final two Olympic matches. The 3-4-3 creates significantly more offensive options, generates far more fluid movement in the attacking third, and is designed to put teams to the sword. That is clearly a useful tool for the US arsenal.

But it’s also a system well-suited to the current assembly of talent. The US squad is filled with excellent attacking options. That was true this summer, and is only more true now that Kealia Ohai, Lynn Williams, and now Jess McDonald have made strong cases for inclusion. The 3-4-3 creates more attacking slots, and allows more flexibility in the deployment of roles. And it takes full advantage of what increasingly looks like a dominant central midfield pairing of Morgan Brian and Andi Sullivan.

But it still needs refinement

Of course, no tactical setup is perfect. There are always costs associated with gains, and the 3-4-3 is no different. The obvious tradeoff here is defensive solidity, something that was all too apparent last night. Romania only managed a few attacking moves all night, but any time they made it past the half-line in possession, they looked capable of posing a real threat. They scored one goal, barely missed another, and created a few more half-chances.

That is an inevitable feature of such an open system, but it’s something that can be adjusted for. And there are two important factors to consider: opposition and personnel.

For opposition, the key question is: does Jill Ellis see this system as a useful countermove against defensive tactics, or does she envision this as the new baseline system going forward? Given the defensive frailties on display last night, it’s tough to imagine this working against a France or Germany.

If so, this is simply an experiment to cultivate a Plan B for specific opposition. And it could be quite useful for those limited cases.

But the question also hinges on personnel. The back three last night featured Allie Long (an attacking midfielder that Ellis keeps pushing further back, somewhat inexplicably), Casey Short (a good attacking fullback, but not yet an especially solid defender), and Becky Sauerbrunn (not particularly well-suited to playing out on the right, or so far forward). All three are excellent players; only Sauerbrunn is an excellent defender, though she has looked a bit more prone to mistakes in recent months.

Ellis seems to be playing Long in the ‘quarterback’ role, because she sees that position as defined by the need for incisive passing. And certainly the 3-4-3 works best when the central defender can double as deep-lying playmaker. But it’s playing with fire to leave the heart of the defense to someone who can so easily be dragged out of position, and who is as weak a defender as Long. Plus, for all of Long’s real attacking strengths, distribution isn’t really one of them.

But imagine someone like Abby Dahlkemper in that role, or Julie Johnston – backed by Sauerbrunn and Ali Krieger (whose pace would be a big asset here). That would be a far more defensively robust backline, without sacrificing much in attacking ability.

The ethos of the 3-4-3 is: “we’ll score more than you,” so there’s always going to be risk involved. But a more refined iteration certainly could be successful even against the best teams in the world.

Stronger tests are needed

What this really shows is that the US needs to play some more difficult games. The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Romania are all decent teams, but none have a realistic chance of beating the US right now, so there’s only so much that can be learned from these matches.

It also doesn’t help that the US schedule is played almost exclusively at home. The last match they played outside of the US, which wasn’t in the Olympics or World Cup, was March, 2015, almost two years ago. There are obvious monetary reasons for that fact (gate receipts are a significant source of revenue for the team), but the best team in the world giving itself the boost of home-field advantage tends to make these tests even more lopsided and less helpful.

Setting aside the economics, from a strategic standpoint the US needs tougher competition if it’s going to be ready for the big international competitions a few years down the road.

The SheBelieves Cup next spring will be the first big test. Ellis has been calling experimental rosters and playing experimental systems, and that’s all to the good. But it remains to be seen what actually happens when the rubber meets the road.