The United States opened their World Cup by pummeling Thailand yesterday, winning 13-0 in a game that doesn’t seem to offer much for us to learn. What tactical value is there in a game where one team is substantially stronger in every single category you could possibly imagine? The lack of institutional support and development infrastructure gave the Thais no chance; Jill Ellis could have openly declared that she and her staff would be spending zero time preparing for this game, and the USWNT would have gotten a high-scoring win anyway.
Nonetheless, there’s always something we can learn from a game, and in this case, there are two things we can focus on: how the USWNT approached a bunkering opponent, and how they used the latter stages of the game to practice their late-game, “we’re down a goal” shape. Both are going to be relevant in this tournament.
We got one surprise before kickoff. Becky Sauerbrunn, the cornerstone of the American back four, was being held out for precautionary reasons due to an iffy quadriceps:
U.S. Soccer says it's a mild quad issue for Sauerbrunn, holding her out is precautionary to avoid losing her for multiple games if something went wrong, essentially. #USWNT | #USATHA | #FIFAWWC— Meg Linehan (@itsmeglinehan) June 11, 2019
Given the short timeframe in which they expect to play six more games, being patient with an “almost there” muscular injury in this one (and against Chile, frankly) is the prudent choice.
This change meant a spot at center back for Julie Ertz, who has already won a World Cup playing that position. Ellis, otherwise playing the 433 she’s been focused on for months now, predictably brought Sam Mewis into the team to take the empty midfield spot. However, she made the seemingly curious choice to play Lindsey Horan as her no. 6 and position Mewis alongside Rose Lavelle further forward. We’ll get into why this choice made some sense in the context of the game, but under normal circumstances, swapping those two might be the wiser move (particularly if Sauerbrunn isn’t as healthy as US Soccer would care to admit).
There was an asymmetry in how the attack functioned. On the left, Megan Rapinoe spent a lot of time out wide, only getting narrow once within 25 or so yards of goal. Crystal Dunn’s forward runs weren’t traditional overlaps, and she often received the ball closer to the middle of the field than Rapinoe. On the other side, Tobin Heath was tucked in more, a move designed to get her closer to Rose Lavelle. That duo, with the assistance of Kelley O’Hara, became the nexus of the USWNT’s attacks before the game disintegrated.
As for Thailand, Nuengrutai Srathongvian made a perfectly reasonable choice by going with a 4411. Two lines of four are generally seen as the easiest to organize, and Silawan Intamee was tasked with linking the midfield with lone forward Miranda Nild. There was some discussion of whether this was a 4231 or not, but in defensive phases the wingers dropped alongside the central midfielders, and since Thailand was defending for about 89 of the 90 minutes, it’s a 4411 in my book.
The USWNT immediately pressed high and set up the game’s early shape. Alyssa Naeher was generally the only player from either team in the U.S. half of the field, and once the Americans were within 35 yards of goal, the formation shifted into something more like a 2323, with the fullbacks supporting Horan while Mewis and (especially) Lavelle looked to set up shop in the half-spaces.
Thailand was, right from the get-go, uncomfortable with this shape, which when combined with a real enthusiasm for off-the-ball movement from all involved meant that the USWNT always had a passing option. When those passes went awry, the U.S. had numbers around the ball before Thailand could even take a look upfield, and generally the ball was back with a player in red within seconds.
Making matters worse for Thailand, the USWNT had resolved to pick the lock with skill rather than follow the unfortunate pattern some other teams chose in earlier games. So far in this tournament, we’ve already seen Germany, Spain, Australia, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden all fall into the trap set for them by inferior opponents: too many crosses, too little bravery with the ball, and too slow a tempo.
The USWNT learned this lesson and showed exactly how to go about dealing with a massed defense. The crosses, when they did come, were made with intent, and were only made once the defense was pulled out of shape.
The U.S. Women's National Team is off to a flying start!@alexmorgan13 scores to put the @USWNT— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) June 11, 2019
up 1-0 early against Thailand. pic.twitter.com/2fFsyCaYS5
Go ahead and hit pause around 0:04 there, the moment Heath charges into the box after picking up a loose ball. Thailand had just gotten the ball clear, but never had a second to get into anything resembling a coherent shape. Heath knows exactly what she’s doing all along here: go quick, get the angle right so goalkeeper Sukanya Chor Charoenying has no chance of coming for the ball, and let a wide (I mean wide) open Alex Morgan do the rest.
Contrast that with the plodding tempo Japan chose against Argentina, or Sweden repeatedly admitting they didn’t know what else to do by crossing from a Chile team that wanted them to do exactly that. Thailand wanted to set the same trap, and the USWNT made sure it was never going to happen.
The choice from Ellis to emphasize Heath and Lavelle was an obvious one, but in this tournament, we’ve already seen teams need to stumble into good fortune (Sweden doesnt’ break their pattern of hapless crossing without a lightning delay, for example) rather than make the right choice straight away. Ellis had her team looking to her two most creative players as their top priority, and given the platform, they delivered. Weak opponent or no, that’s the right process to follow, and it’s refreshing to see the USWNT win by getting their tactics right rather than their set piece dominance serving as a substitute for a good plan in open play.
Especially in this early phase, we also got to see an interesting wrinkle in the midfield, with Horan jumping forward from deep. No one is better at this sort of late-arriving run, and Mewis — an expert at making those around her better — smartly filled the space in every time. Given the problems with the American midfield’s balance in previous games, with the trio ending up flat and caught between pressing the ball and filling in space in front of the defense, this was a positive development. Going forward, this stuff is more the argument for Mewis staying in the team than her goal-scoring form (she has 4 goals in the last 3 games now).
At 2-0 and clearly on course for a high-scoring victory, the USWNT briefly experimented by dropping off, possessing deeper and hoping to draw Thailand out of their bunker a bit. It didn’t work; Thailand weren’t interested in opening up, and in fact even forced a defensive turnover that ended with Naeher having to make her first save of the game. It was arguably the only time in the match where Thailand looked even remotely comfortable.
It’s not a bad idea, though, and against some other teams, playing coy for a moment may actually pan out. Argentina, for example, were very nearly exposed in the 90th minute of their sterling 0-0 draw with Japan when several midfielders tried to join Estefania Banini on a late counter. Banini had the ball tipped away from her, and if she hadn’t immediately found the energy to win it right back, Argentina was one long ball from Japan having a numerical advantage inside their end, which is what the Nadeshiko had been hoping for all game long.
Leaving aside the odd choice to use some rehearsed set pieces (which is to say, show the world some of your set pieces, so either you have to scrap them or accept that teams are now prepared for them) in a game where trickery was definitely not needed, the other interesting tactical note here came via a change of shape in the 69th minute. Ertz was removed for Mallory Pugh, which is obviously not a straightforward move.
Ellis, seeing an opportunity to work on something outside of the controlled environment of a training session, was working on the team’s late-game desperation shape. This took the form of a 334, with Abby Dahlkemper left basically as the lone true defender. While a diagram of this might have O’Hara and Dunn listed as right-center and left-center backs in a normal three-back, the fact is that both were out wide on the touchline, and along with Horan checking deep, that’s where possession started in this system.
This isn’t something Ellis debuted today. We’ve seen it during the tinkering and experimenting in various SheBelieves Cup games gone wrong. The idea is simple: width in deep possession from the outside backs, width in the attacking third from two true wingers (Rapinoe and Pugh today), two strikers (Morgan and Christen Press, who had come on earlier), and the same midfield triangle set-up as we see in the normal starting formation.
When those two get forward, that floods the middle with four players, and if the ball gets out wide, there’s either the threat of a cross into the chaos from deep; a cross from a winger in behind the defense; or a winger driving into the area on the dribble. If you need a goal — and this team is probably going to need a goal at some point if they want to get that fourth star — it’s a pretty good usage of the available talent. No team in the world is going to calmly fend off Morgan, Press, Lloyd, and Mewis, and you could also see Jessica McDonald in that Press role to make things even tougher.
Did it work? Well, the U.S. scored 7 goals after making this shift. Yes, Thailand were both mentally defeated and physically exhausted by this point, but we’ve seen the USWNT play similarly out-of-their-depth teams in that scenario before, and it generally doesn’t end with 7 goals in the last 20+ minutes. The physical disparities here made this game a pretty imperfect gauge as compared to a fitter, stronger team, but as a theoretical exercise, the returns were positive. The U.S. was comfortable, and they avoided making predictable choices within this system.
We may yet run into a problem that Ellis isn’t ready for, but today, the gameplan was the right one. The emphasis on the team’s artists having the courage to take the ball into traffic, draw numbers, and then make use of the spaces that opened up, is a marked contrast to seeing other highly-rated teams struggle with lesser opposition.
In a game like this, the process is what matters, and yesterday the USWNT went about their business in the right way. They didn’t lean heavily on set pieces, and they didn’t back into goals. They overwhelmed Thailand, never letting them settle into the game (don’t forget that they had a goal within the first five minutes chalked off for offside); it was an unrelenting 90 minutes punctuated by a baker’s dozen goals.
That’s how you do the job in these circumstances, and for one game at least, the USWNT left no question marks about their performance.