The United States Women’s National Team is on an incredible run in 2016, with sixteen wins against one draw and zero losses. They’ve conceded only four goals in that time, three in their one draw against Japan. By any measure, they have completely dominated their opposition.
And yet, some questions do remain. The US earned another victory against France on Sunday, but didn’t particularly impress in the process. Especially in the first half, France was very much in the ascendancy. And absent a stellar performance from Hope Solo, the US could well have lost the game. Of course, even the best teams have off days. But still the question remains...are there real weaknesses in this team? And if so, could those danger zones be better shielded?
This article will explore one such danger zone—the central midfield—and discuss a potential solution.
As with all such comments, it’s important to not miss the forest for the trees. All choices come with consequences. Fixing one old problem could easily generate two new ones. So these comments are tentative rather than definitive. Still, it’s worth asking the questions.
The US tactical setup: decentering the center
To begin, it’s important to understand why the central midfield is a weak spot for the USWNT. It’s not due to personnel. Although it’s not a special strength of the team, there’s plenty of talent there. Instead, it’s more down to the team’s tactical setup.
In the system the US has been playing for most of 2016, the primary vector of attack is down the flanks. Obviously, this has been highly successful, and is a good way to maximize the talent available on the team—which is light on true ‘wingers’ but heavy on skillful players with a lot of pace, who can easily work down sidelines and then drive inward in the final third.
However, this system puts a great deal of pressure on its holding midfielders, who are with quite a few potentially contradictory assignments.
First, they need to protect a backline which is often quite exposed, since the fullbacks are expected to push forward as much as they possibly can. This means there is often a huge expanse of space in need of coverage.
Second, in possession they need to usher the ball up the flanks, forming quick triangles with the wingers and fullbacks, saving them from getting caught in possession, and helping the ball to get forward with pace.
Third, they need to establish a threat between the two wings, allowing the offense to switch its point of attack. Even if the plan is to work up the flanks, game theory demands that you pose a credible threat of simply punching through the center in order to keep the defense honest. Effectively using the center of the pitch in this system means working like a quarterback, drawing defenders in toward you and then spraying the ball through the resulting gaps.
This puts a lot of responsibility on the two deeper midfielders, who need to employ intelligent movement off the ball, in order to find open space without sacrificing their defensive responsibilities. If the other team wins the ball, they will obviously look to take advantage of the space in the center that you are mostly leaving unoccupied.
All of this shows why the system generally requires two holding players. Their jobs are complementary: when one is involved the attack, the other drops back and take over the defensive responsibilities. However, the two aren't simply mirror images of one another. After all, if you set up with two deep holding players, that leaves a huge gap in the center of the pitch, and makes it effectively impossible to ever build through the middle. That means you need one player to play more of a box-to-box midfielder, while the other stays in more of a true holding role.
To visualize all this, here’s an approximation of the US tactical setup against France:
In particular, note that Morgan Brian and Allie Long are both in holding positions, with Brian taking the left, and tasked with more attacking responsibility. Long, meanwhile, should generally only go forward when accompanying the ball as it moves up the right flank.
Where to play Morgan Brian?
There is a good reason for such an arrangement. Put simply: Brian is the more skillful player, and you generally want your best players on the ball as far forward as they can get. If Long can handle the holding role, the argument goes, let her stay back and give Brian license to range forward. It's not that Long is useless in attacking positions herself (as her work with Portland demonstrates clearly), just that Brian is better. And there's no shame in being less skillful than Morgan Brian.
Indeed, the lone US goal against France came at least in part from this arrangement, with Brian's thoughtful ball to Heath setting up the shot that Lloyd then converted on the rebound. So that's clearly a mark in its favor.
All that said, the decision to push Brian forward depends on an assumption that is potentially quite problematic: that skill on the ball is a lower priority for the deeper holding player. It’s quite possible, in fact, that the opposite is true. And the France match did a good job of showing why.
Starting vs. finishing attacks
The key point here is that initiating attacks is just as important as finishing them. You can pile all the attacking talent in the world into the final third, but won’t get much out of them unless you can get them the ball. And that’s a fairly accurate description of what happened on Saturday against France, when they struggled mightily to hold possession, unable to keep the ball long enough in the center of the pitch to create openings on the wings into which the fullbacks could step.
All of this stems from the simple fact that the US setup, which looks to cede dominance of the central midfield in exchange for rampages down the wings, is at its absolute weakest when they win the ball deep around their own box. When that happens, they’re likely to be hemmed in by a counterpress with a numerical advantage. You can try to fight back by bringing your wingers into the center, but doing so rips apart the shape around which the whole system is built. Your fullbacks can’t get forward and the result is a narrow, clogged mess.
That's precisely the circumstance where you need a player with skill on the ball in tight spaces, and with the tactical acumen to carve out pockets of space for outlets from harried teammates. Coincidentally, those are precisely the things that Morgan Brian does better than just about anyone in the world.
Again, this isn't to say Long is terrible in this role. She has obviously impressed Ellis quite a bit this year with her restraint: her ability to maintain shape. But she just doesn't have Brian's positional awareness or skill on the ball in tight spots, and it shows when a quality team is pressing. Brian somehow always seem to find a pocket to accept an outlet pass, and then pick out another angle to get out of danger. That's a unique talent, one that is absolutely crucial in this kind of setup.
And it’s a strong argument for pushing Brian back into the deepest-lying position possible, to give her as much chance as possible to hold possession and then distribute going forward.
The second argument for keeping Brian deep is her defensive capabilities. Again, Long isn’t terrible here, but Brian is clearly superior. In particular, she’s arguably the best player on the squad (maybe second, behind Sauerbrunn) at anticipating and intercepting passes. That’s obviously a skill that plays anywhere on the pitch, but is most usefully engaged in the true holding role.
While Long really has deserved the plaudits she’s earned this year for her positional discipline and her strength in possession, her defensive chops just aren’t quite there. Against a New Zealand or Colombia, that’s not a huge problem. Against France or Germany, it creates a weak link in an already understaffed central midfield, and exposes the backline to a lot of risk.
At the end of the day, the US system desperately needs a world-class deep-lying holding midfielder. Which is why it's so strange that the one player on the squad who meets that description isn't being played there.
Getting the most out of your best players
At the end of the day, on a team with as much quality as the USWNT, one of the goals should be to get as much talent on the field as possible. Taken to its extreme, that logic breaks down a bit, and causes consternation among the fans about 'players out of position.' But on a case by case basis, it's often a good heuristic.
The point here isn’t that Brian should always be played as deep as possible. If the US were playing a game built more around midfield dominance, for example, it might make sense to play a ‘true' destroyer and push Brian forward where she could dictate play more aggressively. But given the system the US is currently playing, Brian's unique combination of excellent defensive work and ability to keep the ball under pressure is particularly important. And those talents will be most effectively utilized in the deepest position possible.
This move wouldn't, by itself, resolve the weaknesses exposed against France (and against Japan earlier this summer). But it would likely make a difference, marginally improving the quality of US play on both sides of the ball. And against the best teams in the world, even marginal gains are worth pursuing.
Last summer, Jill Ellis made a key tactical move to bring in Brian as a holding midfielder. It solidified the team and helped them roll to a World Cup victory. It might just be time to run the same play again.