After crashing out of the Olympics in 2016 and then suffering a miserable start to the 2017 season, things looked grim for the United States. But they have more than turned things around since then. Other than a recent 3-1 defeat to France, the US hasn’t lost in 18 months. By some accounts, the key turning point came in the 2017 Tournament of Nations, when coach Jill Ellis began using Julie Ertz as a holding midfielder.
This tactical shift is actually a repeat of a previous key innovation. During the 2015 World Cup, Ellis was forced by injuries and suspensions to deploy Morgan Brian as a holding mid, a move that completely rejuvenated the team and sent them rocketing toward their famous victory in the final.
Will the same hold true this time around? Perhaps. The US is certainly the favorite, according to betting odds and expert opinion. But they’ll also be facing some stiff competition. And for all that the usage of Ertz in the #6 role has made a difference, it’s hardly a panacea. In fact, it’s possible that this move has worked too well, and papered over some significant dangers in the process.
An aggressive 4-3-3 with a true number 6
After spending most of 2016 in a double-pivot 4231, and briefly experimenting with a back three in the winter of 2016-2017, the US has now settled firmly into an aggressive 433 system. It’s not a rigid system, by any means. We have seen, for example, Ellis ask Crystal Dunn to press so high up the pitch as an attacking fullback that she effectively ‘rotates’ the team diagonally, turning the system into more of a 343, with Rapinoe moving central to act as a playmaker. With Kelley O’Hara in and out of the team routinely over the past year, this innovation has sought to maintain an aggressive wide attacking presence even with a makeshift center back covering the right side of the defense.
Still, the heart of the system has been the same: the intuition that the US’s primary strength is through aggression, and that it will be best-served by loading as many attacking players into the front line as possible. Generally that means playing with three true forwards, and with two of the central midfield roles occupied by players who primarily serve an attacking role. Lindsey Horan is a wonderful all-around player, including some excellent tackling and solid disruptive skills, but she is certainly less dominant on the defensive side.
The one exception: Ertz in the #6 slot. As the holding midfielder, she is responsible for keeping the keel steady, and for mopping up whatever messes might develop. By freeing her attacking teammates from having to share responsibility for covering that vulnerable space in front of the backline, she gives them leeway to move more aggressively forward.
This is critical for two reasons. First, because it allows the US to stretch the opposition more in the attack. The freedom of the frontline to roam aggressively allows them to build fluidly in three directions: up and down with the overlapping fullbacks, side to side with each other, and diagonally with the center midfielders. That is a nightmare for the defense to cover. Second, Ertz’s coverage makes it easier for the US to commit to its high press, which seeks to shut down attacks before they have a chance to develop.
This is a very good system, which has brought a great deal of success. But the worry for US fans has to be that other teams will commit serious resources to exploiting the weaknesses. Because there are real weaknesses. The first is purely tactical, while the second is a question of play style and adaptability.
With two conflicting tasks, eventually something has to give
The first big danger of this system is that it demands too much of Ertz. Her responsibilities are twofold. First, she has to help win the ball back quickly when they lose it high up the pitch. As the best tackler on the team, she is critical to imposing a successful counterpress. Second, she is the shield for the center backs, who can help protect them when the US is hit in transition.
But there’s an obvious problem: winning the ball back high and protecting the backline require being in very different places. Whichever location Ertz isn’t occupying then becomes a significant danger zone. If she presses high, but can’t stop play, the US will suddenly be very exposed. However, if she stays back, they will gain an extra body to protect the backline but will also be far more likely to get turned by a counter, leaving most of the team chasing the ball back toward their own goal. In either case, teams that can attack aggressively will find a lot of room to work with.
Ertz is almost perfectly designed to fill this job. She is mobile and physical enough to passably cover both responsibilities, and intelligent enough to make good bets in most cases.
But in some ways, that’s the real problem. Precisely because Ertz is ideally suited to this specific role, she has allowed the US to get by without really addressing the basic problem that too much is being put on the shoulders of a single player. Ertz is often up to the task, but there are very few failsafes if she has a bad game. And even a player of her immense talents is going to fail sometimes, especially if the other team is actively seeking to put her into tough positions.
Ertz is excellent at destroying attacks but limited at building them, which constrains the US tactical options
The second danger derives from the peculiarities of Ertz as a player, and the way her centrality shapes the style of play.
Every US setup since the retirement of Lauren Holiday has struggled to hold possession in the central midfield. The 433 with Ertz in the pivot is in some sense just the latest and most successful adaptation to that reality. And it has worked. By freeing up the attacking players to move far more freely, it creates channels for the attack as opposing defenders are dragged along and scramble to recover. Attacks aren’t built through slow progression, or through subtle triangular passing. They arise from quick, direct passes that cover a lot of space in very little time.
But that also means the US is walking a bit of a tightrope. The reason a 433 works is generally because it highlights the skill of high quality passers and dribblers, dictating play from the center of the pitch. But the US does things differently. Their desire to get as many attacking forces into the mix at once produces a disconnect, with large gaps between the midfield trio, and lots of difficulties holding the ball under pressure. And that is compounded by Ertz’s own skillset. Because, for all her formidable talents, she isn’t strong at holding possession under a good press. She doesn’t make linking runs to relieve pressure when others have the ball. She isn’t an incisive progressive passer.
Over the last 18 months, the US has tolerated those limitations, because her unique abilities have significantly outweighed them. But it’s meant that the team has never really been forced to address the limits of their particular approach to the 433. Namely: if you aren’t controlling possession through the middle, you run the risk of getting swamped by a team who can overcommit and close down all the channels that are supposed to spring attacks.
France provided a template for countering the US system
We saw some evidence of the danger in the recent match against France. Against the standard US 433, France deployed a highly-mobile midfield quintet who relentlessly harried their American counterparts, and took enormous advantage of their extra numbers in that line. By shutting down the service to the forward three, France stranded them on an island where their movement posed little threat. That contained most of the game within the middle third of the pitch, where their significant numbers-advantage won out.
The US, who depends so much on throwing their opponents into disarray, found themselves persistently struggling to find space. Rather than picking their moments to release lethal attacks, they scrambled merely to keep the ball as their outlet passes kept being closed down.
Of course, all of this took place in a game where Ertz was unavailable. But this is precisely the point. In a game without the player who is the key to this system, the US didn’t really adapt. They merely brought Morgan Brian in and hoped for the same results.
The problem isn’t with Brian per se. In fact, if anything, Brian is better suited to match the style that France played. She is less defensively robust than Ertz, but is a cooler head in possession, and is more capable of navigating tight spaces to unlock a pass. The problem was that there just weren’t any passes to be unlocked because France had neutralized them.
By adapting their approach to the US system, France closed down the avenues the US would normally hope to find. Instead of counter-adapting—perhaps pushing Horan back and moving to a 4231, or using Fox and Dunn as wingbacks in a 352, or bringing on a player like McCall Zerboni or Sam Mewis to construct a box midfield—the US simply kept plugging away in an exploitable system.
Perhaps Ertz could have turned the tide if she had been on the pitch. It doesn’t seem likely, since France’s success was tactical as much as it was physical. But even if Ertz had made the difference, a team with this level of quality and diversity shouldn’t be so dependent on one player to make everything tick.
The virtues of flexibility
For all of their incredible success over the last year and a half, the US have stuck closely to the same approach. To some extent, that’s how it should be. The most talented team should impose their own style on the game, and force others to adapt. But it’s risky to not have a Plan B, particularly when it comes to the biggest events. Playing your own game is good, but so is tactical flexibility.
If the US finds itself struggling in a World Cup knockout round—will they have the ability to update their approach to counteract the pressure? Or will they persist with the approach which brought them there, even in the face of its manifest limitations?
Moreover, what if Ertz is hurt. Will they keep the same system but sub in someone less perfectly designed to fill the role? If so, they’ll likely struggle, just as we saw with the Brian-Horan-Dunn trio in the France game, since the system so often rests on a knife’s edge.
These are the questions that should be at the top of our minds over the next four months. The US has plenty of warmup matches still to come. It will be worth watching whether they can find some new potential within this system, or even work on alternative setups. Good as Ertz has been, there’s a danger of overlearning the lesson.
In 2015, the US stumbled into a tactical change midway through the tournament. It worked out, but this time it might be wise to plan for contingencies before the knockout games begin.