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World Cup tactical analysis: USA vs Chile shows adaptation

In a very offense vs. defense game, the US put together a couple of different attacking looks.

Soccer: Womens World Cup-Chile at USA Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

The United States dealt pretty easily with Chile on Sunday, scoring early en route to a 3-0 win. Despite major rotation from Jill Ellis — she’s already managed to give every one of her field players minutes — the USWNT’s win could have posted another gaudy scoreline if not for the heroics of Chilean goalkeeper Christiane Endler and some misfortune with the post and crossbar.

It’s another game where the USWNT was facing a bunker for 90 minutes, but Ellis changed some things in her approach. There were times where this felt like more of a training exercise, and today’s object was to try a different approach to breaking down a massed defense. The 334 from the Thailand win was filed away, with the American fullbacks pinching inside and an on-paper 433 looking at times like a 2323:

Ellis rang seven changes: Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Tierna Davidson, Morgan Brian, Mallory Pugh, Carli Lloyd, and Christen Press were in, while Kelley O’Hara, Crystal Dunn, Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe got the night off. That’s no surprise, given the length of the tournament and the luxury of having a supposed “B” team that would probably be a reasonable favorite to make at least the semifinals.

What’s really worth digging into here is how Krieger and Davidson were used. Despite appearing initially as an overly defensive back four (Davidson is a natural center back, and Krieger is more of a traditional defender than the USWNT usually uses at right back), both were heavily involved higher up the field, getting plenty of time on the ball.

In fact, Krieger apparently had the most pass attempts of anyone, as we see in the third graphic here:

That third graphic also gives us an idea of how the team actually looked: a near-perfect U-shape, with Lloyd and the midfield trio getting close to combine and break through the middle. If you’re thinking that you’ve seen something like this before, you may well have. Any Premier League fan familiar with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City should be familiar with this concept by now. I’ll let Kate Markgraf explain the idea:

That’s a marked contrast to Chile’s tried-and-true 4141 low-block system. There was nothing too fancy here: Chile drew a lowwww line of contention, often below the center circle in their half, and looked to simply congest the field as much as possible. The game took on an offense vs. defense feel almost immediately.

That said, this wasn’t exactly like facing Thailand again. For one thing, it became immediately clear that Chile’s players were faster, tougher to just muscle aside, and more experienced. They were under instant pressure, but they were closing the ball in less time than the Thais did.

The USWNT’s changed approach certainly gave us some some interesting moments, including a string of possession just before halftime that ended with Davidson being dispossessed at the top of the restraining arc. Still, most of what we saw was an attempt to go to goal whenever possible in an effort to put the game to bed early. The U.S. were not playing direct soccer getting into the attacking third, but once they got there, the choices were often about getting a shot away in short order.

Despite the cutting-edge feel to all this, the goals were all old-school USWNT. Carli Lloyd got her first goal by simply winning the second ball after Davidson opted to go long into the box. It wasn’t the first time in the game someone had just driven the ball into the mixer, and it was telling that the player who came closest to beating Lloyd to that second ball was actually Julie Ertz.

It might not be elegant, but this is another way for a team that can win that sort of battle to break a bunkering foe. It’s not one the U.S. needs a ton of practice with, but I suppose a refresher course on the classics isn’t going to hurt.

The goals, in fact, all came from the traditional route (i.e. the way Ellis has been working for years to move away from being so reliant on). Ertz nodded in a 26th minute corner, and Lloyd’s second came on a set piece as well. The USWNT were clearly in total control, but the process behind it was...fine. Given the gulf in quality between the teams, it was an adequate performance. The job was done.

Ellis made a halftime sub, bringing Jess McDonald in for Ertz. That saw Lloyd drop into the midfield as the no. 10, Lindsey Horan take over as the no. 8, and Morgan Brian drop deep as the anchor. This move read as simply giving someone else some minutes, but it ended up being the most interesting thing about the U.S. attack in this game.

The midfield reshuffle wasn’t all that important. The change was all about McDonald’s approach as a center forward as compared to Lloyd’s. Lloyd’s job within this team is to be extremely focused on scoring goals, and her methods are generally based around creating shots for herself. That’s why she’s more effective as a forward these days.

McDonald is often seen as a big, physical target forward, but that’s not really an accurate read on what she brings to the table. McDonald does have the size, strength, and first touch to play as a back-to-goal center forward, but her choices with the ball are generally based around looking to pass first. McDonald isn’t trying to just be a battering ram out there; she’s a fulcrum for possession, and it’s not an accident that she has 9 assists for the North Carolina Courage since the start of the 2018 season.

The USWNT were creating set pieces in the first half, but with McDonald playing one-touch soccer and connecting far more regularly with Mallory Pugh and Christen Press, their ability to generate chances in open play was significantly improved. McDonald hit the post, Lloyd hit the bar and shot a penalty kick wide, and Endler produced three absolutely mind-bending saves to stop sure goals.

In other words, from a process perspective, the U.S. were improved after halftime, but didn’t get the results their good work merited. Soccer, as ever, can be like that. However, do not be surprised if Ellis looks towards McDonald in a knockout game (where the set piece/second ball plan is going to be a lower-percentage strategy) after seeing the varied and fluid attacking play that resulted from this change.

That said, it would be irresponsible to ignore the positives of Lloyd’s approach. Centering the attack around Lloyd is probably going to be less aesthetically pleasing for most, but the reality is that the USWNT “big and strong”-ed their way to 3 goals, and it’s not the first time we’ve seen them do this.

Late in a game, tired players are going to have a harder time picking the lock. Sometimes it’s more effective to have someone who is looking to carry the whole thing on her back. In terms of the choices a player makes, Ellis has both a scalpel (McDonald) and a hammer (Lloyd) to throw into games. Now, will she make the right choice in a given situation?

Before we go, we have to address a play that very nearly became a big story. At 1-0 up, a 22nd minute free kick from Carla Soto floated towards Carla Guerrero. Alyssa Naeher came off her line to try and beat Guerrero towards the ball, but both players failed to get a touch, and Soto’s service bounded into the net.

Embarrassed emoji indeed! The USWNT clearly made a choice here, pushing their line very high in the hopes that Chile might run offside, and they got the call they wanted. However, if you’re an American fan, you should be pretty alarmed at how late Naeher gets off her line, and that she ends up not making any contact on the ball.

The consequences here, if Guerrero had been able to stay onside, could have been enormous. Obviously the ball went in, but let’s say a similar service ends up cleared off the line by a retreating American defender. Naeher did make contact with Guerrero, tripping the Chilean center back. That’s a play that could end with a DOGSO red, or a penalty kick, or a goal.

Of course, my colleague Kim McCauley already discussed exactly this kind of worry about Naeher, who is not really a natural for the hyper-aggressive style the USWNT’s approach seems to require from their goalkeepers. Naeher’s best play in NWSL has come on mid-block and low-block teams that weren’t taking too many risks. This U.S. team is very different, and there’s reason to feel that Naeher is still in the “fake it ‘til you make it” stage. She’d probably be better off if she could stay at home more often, but that ship has sailed.

Once again, the USWNT’s focus had to be on process rather than results. As I said earlier, the second half was the better soccer in most ways, but we can’t just shrug off the fact that the more blunt first half approach in the attacking third created the game state that allowed the U.S. to start pinging passes around.

Teasing out when to employ these two very different looks — or whether either is necessary when Alex Morgan can give you a bit of both — is ultimately going to play a major part in whether Ellis can steer this team towards their fourth star, or whether we’re going to look back and mourn the missed lessons from these early games.