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Is Jill Ellis good actually? A LOGICAL and REASONABLE debate

SSFC gets to the bottom of this

England v USA: Semi Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by David Aliaga/MB Media/Getty Images

As the United States Women’s National Team gets ready to take the field against the Netherlands for their chance to win two World Cups in a row, an interesting debate has emerged Online. It is centered around a simple question: Is Jill Ellis a good coach?

SB Nation has had this discussion

Deadspin has tackled it

But look - this idea is HOT, y’all! A team that is having a historical run in the World Cup and a chance to win two championships in a row is being coached by someone who is bad at coaching? REALLY!?

So what’s going on here? Let’s start with a little history and the 2015 World Cup. It was a different time, the US was coming off of a Gold medal in the 2012 Olympics and a World Cup final that they lost in a shootout to Japan. A year before the tournament, there were some...machinations by Abby Wambach to get head coach Tom Sermanni excused from his position and in stepped Jill Ellis. And then they won the World Cup, Jill Ellis is a good coach and Deadspin and Kim don’t know what they’re talking about, the end.

Not so fast. So Ellis takes over the team and they qualify for the World Cup. Since they were in America’s vacation home, Canada, and were the best team in the world, they were the favorites. At that time the US had been riding on a wave of a less tactical approach that relied on athleticism, speed, the absolute best goalkeeper in the world, and a ruthless determination and unshaking self-belief that they would win whatever game they were in no matter what. Oh and Abby Wambach. They kicked the ball down the field and then flung crosses towards Wambach and she headed them into the goal. It worked splendidly (unless they played against Brazil, then they had problems).

Then a funny thing happened - Abby Wambach started celebrating more birthdays and by the time 2015 rolled around she had decided to bypass playing for her club, the Western NY Flash, in the new National Women’s Soccer League and just train by herself to focus on the World Cup. So the main scoring threat to the team wasn’t in peak form, Alex Morgan looked like the next big thing, but it’s hard to unseat a legend and she came into that tournament recovering from a long-term injury. So the World Cup started and the US came out and beat Australia 3-1 in a game that was tied at one all (thanks for keeping us in that game Hope Solo!) until the 61st minute. Australia tired and the US found spaces that hadn’t existed before and exploited them. Then they drew Sweden 0-0 which wasn’t good, but they won the group... by beating Nigeria a game that Nigeria saw one of their players sent off.

Not great but they took the group so it was acceptable. Then the US played Colombia and won 2-0. That sounds better, but the South Americans were so under-resourced that they were wearing replica kits with a deep v-neck that were sold retail for the 2014 Men’s World Cup and this year spoke out against their federation for withholding pay and turning their league into a semi-pro organization. In the next game the team could only muster a 1-0 win against a fading China team, but the difference in style and energy was there for all to see (Kelley O’Hara might was well be nicknamed the Duracell bunny because she has a motor like no other and she proved it that day). That shift saw them come out firing against Germany in the semi-final and basically cruising past Japan in the final. There. Jill is a good coach, the team was just playing a Catenaccio thing in those early games because...why not, and then she made adjustments - the end.

Not quite.

Before the China game Lauren Holiday was suspended for yellow card accumulation and Jill Ellis had to make a change. In stepped Morgan Brian who started in the game against China and never looked back - she changed the entire complexion of the team and the US won the World Cup. The next year, the team went to Rio for the Olympics. Wambach had retired, Megan Rapinoe was coming off of her third! ACL tear, and they lost to a “bunch of cowards” in the quarters - not even a bronze medal for their troubles. That brings us to today. Over the last three years, Ellis has tried to get the team to play a more possession based approach to breakdown teams that bunker - it’s kinda worked? But does it mean she’s a good coach? Only one thing to do.

A LOGICAL and REASONABLE debate between Parker Cleveland and Kudzi Musarurwa

On the Jill is good actually side is Parker and on the meh, not really side is Kudzi.

PC: This is a silly discussion, Jill is a good coach, how else could they have won against China, Germany, and Japan in 2015?

KM: The team won in SPITE of her, not because of her. Let me break it down. At the beginning of that World Cup, Lloyd and Holiday were playing double-pivots in a 4-4-2 system that relied on them essentially sitting while Rapinoe and Heath fed the ball to Wambach. The problem was, neither Lloyd and Holiday are suited to that position and Wambach was...let’s just say, not 100% match fit.

What made the US make it past China, Germany and Japan? Two yellow cards and Lloyd going on an amazing scoring streak. Those suspensions allowed Morgan Brian to come in and settle a midfield that was basically non-existent for the US up until then. It also gave Lloyd the freedom to bomb up the pitch and score goals, something she has excelled at. Once she tucked that penalty against Colombia away, scoring became like riding a bike for her and she pushed what had been a failing attack forward until everyone else caught up with her.

Should Jill get credit for sticking to what worked after bringing in Brian? Maybe, but if it was that obvious to us lowly writers and fans that the Lloyd/Holiday two-player midfield wasn’t working, why wasn’t it obvious to Jill?

PC: But wait, she made an adjustment when the team lost to Sweden in 2016 and now they look unstoppable with this possession based approach I keep hearing about but not really seeing - WHAT ABOUT THAT?

KM: The US do not play a possession-based game. They’re at their best when they play quickly in transition and when they’re forced to keep the ball and try to break down a team, they struggle. If anything, I’d say the US are a transition team at their core. They’re also not unstoppable. There were clear cracks in this system from 2016 until now that some of the better teams in the world have exposed. What puts the US above those teams is the players’ absolute and steadfast will to win. Even at their worst, they still fought until the final whistle for the win.

PC: What about this coward talk? It seems a little harsh. The French played pretty conservatively to see games out last year - that’s sorta how international soccer goes, right? It sure seems like she got it right against France and England, the French were pretty much limited to long range chances and once the US got the second goal England couldn’t break them down and score - except for the really close onside play and the other play that led to a penalty where the keeper bailed them out. Oh.

KM: *stares at the camera like we’re in The Office*

KM: Let’s change it up. I’d argue Jill’s a good coach but one of the best we’ve seen in the women’s game? I don’t think so. She’s currently managing the deepest team in the world who have a decades-long mentality of being in it to win it. That’s why she’s in the World Cup final now. Where has Jill succeeded in showing you that she’s a great...sorry, good coach Parker?

PC: Scoreboard?

KM: If I was to ask you what her method of madness was, would you be able to describe it?

PC: Sure, what she does is take the best no. 10 in the country at left back, bench the best midfielder on the team, and then when its clear that the team is losing control of the game a little bit she has them retreat into a shell and fend off attacks while stellar goalkeeping, lucky breaks, and the sheer magical power of the USA crest on their chests grinds their opponents into dust. It’s easy, she doesn’t need to do tactics - just fitness, athleticism, the incredible individual talent of her players, and team spirit.

KM: So if she managed say...Sweden or France, Jill would still be on her way to a second World Cup final? Or has the USWNT’s overall quality masked her flaws considerably?

PC: So what are you saying, is Jill Ellis actually David Moyes at Manchester United? Wait, let me look at something - she coached at the University of Virginia, has dubious tactical credentials, her biggest success was thanks to having the best players in the competition.... WAIT, IS JILL ELLIS JUST BRUCE ARENA SOMEHOW?

KM: So to conclude, I think Jill is a good coach, not a great one and based on her own words, she leaves a lot of the more tactical plans to her assistants. If anything, I’d say her assistants are great and they, plus the players, are the reason why the US are on their way to a second World Cup final appearance in a row.