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USWNT tactical breakdown: aggressive gambles and a touch of luck against England

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Here’s how the US escaped the semifinals with a 2-1 win over an admittedly unlucky England.

Soccer: Womens World Cup-England vs USA Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

The United States did it again yesterday, getting to the World Cup final by beating England with a broadly similar formula that we’ve seen them deploy against every team that has even a modest chance of beating them. Much like we saw against France, the USWNT came flying out of the gates early, got a lead, and mostly restricted their opponent to long-range chances from there.

Was there still some luck involved? Absolutely. Ellen White had a goal called back for an extraordinarily narrow offside call, and while Alyssa Naeher did very well in stopping Steph Houghton’s 84th minute penalty kick, it has to be said that the England captain’s attempt was quite poor. England can sidle up next to France at the bar, and maybe just this once, Les Bleues will sympathize.

Jill Ellis did have to make a pair of major changes to her team. Megan Rapinoe — apparently dealing with a slight hamstring worry — was held out, with Christen Press getting her second start of the tournament. In the midfield, Lindsey Horan was finally recalled, but the fact that she replaced Samantha Mewis rather than Rose Lavelle had to be seen as a mild surprise.

There were other tweaks within the usual 433. Alex Morgan tilted towards the left side frequently (we’ll get into that in a bit), the fullbacks were not quite so adventurous as we’ve come to expect, and Tobin Heath once again mostly stayed out near the touchline, effectively clearing the dance floor for Lavelle to dominate the opening 30 or so minutes.

On the other side...look, this is supposed to be focused on USWNT tactics, but we need to take a second to talk about how Phil Neville played himself. England had been playing a 4231 that seemed like it would give the U.S. real problems, particularly down the left. Lucy Bronze and Nikita Parris were torching anyone who stood in their path, and the central midfield triangle would allow Fran Kirby to be an annoyance to Julie Ertz when the Americans tried to build out.

So naturally Neville switched, for reasons known only to him, to a 442. Parris was pushed up as a withdrawn forward, breaking up the most dangerous two-player combination in the tournament. He sacrificed even numbers in the midfield to voluntarily be out-numbered, but didn’t really change the basic approach to the game England was trying to play. Essentially, he wanted his team to still play the bold soccer they’ve been playing...but gave them a formation far less able to do that. Essentially, Neville chose the element of surprise over having a good plan, and ended up helping the U.S. out.

A consistent USWNT tactic throughout the tournament has been the blitz in the opening minutes. Ellis doesn’t want her team feeling its way into games; the whistle blows, and they stomp the gas pedal down. It’s a wonder to behold, as every team in the tournament has found it irresistible, but it’s also a wise choice when you consider the importance of game states. The U.S. goes hard early in pursuit of the ability to play with a lead, making their opponents chase the game.

This is high-risk stuff. The USWNT’s opening goals in this tournament have come in the 12th, 11th, 3rd, 7th, 5th, and 10th minutes, respectively, which is enough of a pattern to conclude that this has been a good choice. But, what happens when their finishing isn’t quite precise? How does the USWNT handle the Netherlands getting to the 20th minute at 0-0? Or, because of the numbers Ellis has her team throwing forward early, at 1-0 to the opponent?

That risk almost backfired in this one. The U.S. didn’t really adjust to having a 1-0 lead that well, giving up a goal to Ellen White that developed because Kelley O’Hara was caught too narrow. Or, perhaps more accurately, Ellis has drilled both of her fullbacks to play too narrow at all times, despite it leading to danger time and again against teams with good wing play. With talent like Lieke Martens waiting in the final, this is something to watch.

It wasn’t just that, though. In the 28th minute, Bronze got free of the trap Ellis designed for her, driving inside. The USWNT collapsed without much attention to what space they might be leaving elsewhere, and England managed to get the ball to Mead, inside the box, unmarked. How did the Americans escape? Mead slipped, and the moment vanished.

What could well have been 2-1 England was 2-1 USA within 3 minutes, as England did a poor job collectively reacting to a sublime Abby Dahlkemper cross-field ball. As much as Bronze has had a wonderful tournament, it has to be noted that she lost Press on both the goal and in this moment, which very quickly became a precise ball into the box from Horan to set Morgan up for what became the winner.

Going back to the changes to the starting eleven, Ellis certainly made the right call in bringing Press in for Rapinoe. It may seem fairly obvious — if you fielded the U.S. starters against their second 11 in training, this is where Press would line up — but Press is also a pretty ideal option for containing a player like Bronze. Between her speed and defensive awareness, Press actually suits the job better than Rapinoe, who makes a conscious choice to do a bit less defensively in order to have extra in the tank for attacking moments.

However, Ellis didn’t just send Press out there and figure the Bronze problem was solved. I mentioned Morgan was playing left of center and added that little arrow in the lineup graphic for a reason. The USWNT clearly had Morgan shade that way in defensive phases, giving England the choice of either feeding Bronze plenty of the ball under pressure, or playing out of the back through Millie Bright and Demi Stokes on the left half of their defense.

(side note: a third central midfielder would have made it easier for them to drop someone closer and add an option without disconnecting the midfield from the front line...Phil what were you doing!?)

Anyway, here’s Morgan’s heat map on the night:

Alex Morgan

England still ended up being pretty heavily right-sided in possession, because it’s Lucy friggin’ Bronze at right back, but crucially they didn’t really get after Crystal Dunn all that much (though she did end up attempting 8 tackles, winning 3). Parris did have her moments playing in the half-space on that side, but was more effective once Neville finally corrected his opening blunder by replacing Beth Mead with Kirby and going to a 4231 with Parris on the right wing.

In central midfield, the USWNT offered up a mixed bag. Going forward, they repeatedly found Lavelle in space in the opening half-hour by exploiting both the numerical advantage the formations created and by using Heath to pull Demi Stokes wide. On another night, Lavelle probably gets a goal herself, but just missed on a couple of promising shots and had others blocked.

Going the other way, though, the U.S. had some odd struggles picking up Keira Walsh. With Jill Scott generally being the deeper member of their double-pivot, England were playing with fire (Walsh was playing left-center midfield, meaning that she was the central midfielder more likely to close down Lavelle), but they did get something in the exchange. Walsh was involved on nearly every threatening England move forward, and forced Naeher into that wonderful save in the 33rd minute.

Ellis didn’t initially use her first substitution to alter much. Lavelle felt her ever-troublesome hamstring catch, and Mewis came in. That added a more defensively-oriented player to the mix, but beyond that the USWNT held their shape...for two more minutes. White had the ball in the back of the net in the 67th minute on an England attack right up the gut, but was narrowly (like, probably less than a foot) offside.

Ellis took the warning. The 433 was quickly tossed aside for the 541 we saw against France, and that observers have been seeing the USWNT mix in going back to 2016. Ertz dropped in between Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn, and from there the job became defensive resistance with hopes that Heath, Press, and Morgan could manufacture the occasional look on the break.

It’s an interesting idea from Ellis. I’m with my fellow Furtcaster Claire Watkins on why this has become the go-to approach:

Neville, in the midst of all of this, opted to remove Walsh for Jade Moore, which is to say he opted for more of a ball-winner over a player that was finding space in a game his team was leaving. I’m really trying not to get bogged down with Neville, but unless Walsh told the bench she had absolutely nothing left, it’s another head-scratcher.

In the late stages, Ellis brought Carli Lloyd in for Heath, moving Morgan out to the wing and asking Lloyd to hold play up and use her experience to more effectively waste time. She had other options: Mallory Pugh would have been the choice if the object were to use attacking speed to keep England from pushing up too aggressively, and Jess McDonald could have been called on to play a similar target role. The difference? Lloyd’s individualistic tendencies on the ball were actually rather well-suited to this late scenario, and she ended up winning three fouls as the USWNT killed the game off.

Overall, Ellis certainly won the tactical battle, though one does have to wonder if a more aggressive USWNT after halftime finishes this game off with another goal rather than needing a penalty kick save and an opponent getting sent off to survive.

You may have your issues with Ellis in terms of selection and tactics (I certainly do), but the choice to pursue positive game states so aggressively keeps paying off to such an extent that it’s the main tactical point in this tournament. Until someone comes up with a good plan to deal with it, or just gets lucky, it feels very unlikely that anyone is going to knock this team off.