Eye on Tactics: USWNT evolving midfield responsibilities and using Wambach for deep triangles


Lead Analyst

The USWNT has progressed to the Round of 16 of the FIFA Women’s World Cup by placing top of Group D, above Australia, Sweden and Nigeria.

Advancing atop the group was always the goal, but tactical tribulations along the way were evident and exposed differently in each group match.

This piece attempts to explain these tactical difficulties and adjustments in detail.

Lloyd & Holiday struggle to find balance early:

lloyd holliday positioning v AUS 2

USA v AUS: Holiday Lloyd remaining flat during maintenance phase of possession, unable to easily switch point of attack

Jill Ellis, the coach of the USWNT, deployed identical shapes in all three group stage matches, but evolved positional responsibilities on both sides of the ball throughout the stage. As the tournament went on, although Ellis used three different forward tandems, the most drastic and necessary changes have come in the central midfield roles, where Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday have struggled to find their identity. Neither have been liabilities, far from it, but the pair has never seemed comfortable or completely effective in their understanding of balance, depth in possession or timing.

The USWNT’s first match against Australia was the most glaring example of their lack  of offensive depth and balance. With no clearly defined roles in the midfield – where in tandem one could have played as a defensive, distributive #6 and the other would compliment as a box-to-box #8 midfielder – Lloyd and Holiday found themselves flat in possession, neither providing a consistent outlet for their teammates.

The unwillingness to provide a centrally dynamic shape allowed for easy marking for the opposition, Australia, and an inability to pose a threat to quickly switch the point of attack. Australia was therefore able to identify the vertical half of the pitch the US wanted to progress down and defend accordingly.

lloyd holliday positioning v AUS

USA v AUS: Holiday Lloyd vacating offensive depth with concurrent runs, leaving shape flat

As Abby Wambach was often utilized as the offensive focal point, the US did find possession deeper into their attacking third, but Holiday and Lloyd both were too eager to show their attacking tendencies, as both seemingly preferred a #10 role, and lacked depth by continually making concurrent runs beyond their forwards. This left the US with no offensive pivot and defensively exposed to quick counter attacks.

The Wambach dilemma:

(A primer: An article by Spielverlagerung describing dividing the field into 18ths to explain half-spaces.)

lloyd wambach holiday positioning w third lines

USA v AUS lineup: Wambach a target for midfielders/defenders, deep possession allows for tight triangles to involve advanced teammates [field divided into 18ths highlighted as horizontal thirds]

The tactical advantages and disadvantages of deploying Abby Wambach are evident for even the casual soccer observer to see. When Wambach is involved the USWNT seem to focus the majority of their attacking strategy around her by consistently targeting her through long balls and hoping she can possess the ball herself or involve a teammate deep into the opponent’s defensive third.

As Leroux, Morgan and even Press have struggled to consistently get on the score sheet, Wambach has been involved in half of the US’ goals in the tournament. Despite the attacking production, it’s how and where she involves the USWNT’s most important midfielders that defines her importance to the team.

With her back to goal, Wambach tends to play the way she faces and inevitably creates tight triangles in deep, threatening areas with her midfielders and outside defenders. If she’s able to retain possession, and often she is, this allows for Rapinoe, Holiday and Lloyd to get involved in possession in these threatening areas, and puts influential players in advantageous positions.

A consistent issue the USWNT has experienced throughout the tournament, especially in the first two matches and was positionally addressed in the third match, has been in which offensive phases their most effective midfielders have been able to find the ball. Rapinoe, Holiday and LLoyd have all struggled to pick up possession deep into their attacking third, wherein they are able to most threaten the opposition.

wambach triangles allowing holiday or rapinoe ball deeper

USA V NGA: Wambach retaining possession with back to goal, able to involved Rapinoe/Holiday/Krieger in deep, offensive positions

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