Eye on Tactics: How The USWNT Evolved Into World Champions

USWNT Starting Lineup (Photo: US Soccer)

Lead Analyst

Although the USA did not storm through, the team’s tactical evolution was what won the tournament.

As the Women’s World Cup final was essentially a victory lap for the USA past 14′, the three previous matches were extremely influential in their path to victory.

This grouped analysis of the matches against Colombia, China and Germany hope to provide insight into the shortcomings and triumphs the USA experienced past the group stages.

usa col sharemytactics

USAvCOL: formation

USA vs Colombia

This could of turned out to be the trickiest game for the USA, but a red card in the 47′ ultimately changed the game. Jill Ellis deployed a 4-4-2, that shifted to a 4-2-2-2  at times.

Throughout the tournament, Holiday and Lloyd had many issues with balance and understanding how to position themselves, and this match was no different. Lloyd tended to be the central midfielder who progressed further up the pitch, but both checked into deep spaces to pick up possession and bombed forward to stretch the defense. The problem was the timing.

usa col formation middle space

USAvCOL: 4-2-2/4-4-2 formation from different angles, highlighted gap in center of shape missing connecting #10

One large gap developed and remained throughout the first half, as both teams were at full strength. The formation allowed for vacated space where a traditional #10 play-maker would lie, to connect the middle and offensive thirds of the pitch. This was never solved.

usa col no #10 connection

USAvCOL: central void remained

As Lloyd and Holiday struggled for balance for their pairing, distribution and directional tempo problems persisted as well, especially for Holiday. As she was tasked with most of the deep lying midfielder responsibilities (shielding the back four, distributing from deep positions), she was never able to fully grasp these tasks. She struggled against the energetic and pressing Colombian midfield to not only dictate the possessive tempo, but simply to connect passes over five yards.

Instead of continuously connecting play, supporting possession with proper spacing and switching the angle of attack when necessary, Holiday consistently played wayward balls to teammates in marked territory. The Colombians had the better of play in midfield and the attacking third, but failed to break down the USA back four, especially in wide spaces. Both wide defenders had stellar matches, but Klingenberg continued to make the case that she was one of the best in the tournament.

usa col holiday dist

USAvCOL: Holiday struggles with distribution, chooses the difficult option to an already marked teammate instead of connecting simply

The Colombian goalkeeper took down Alex Morgan in a 1v1 situation and was shown red – from that point on it was always going to be a USA victory. The Colombian press relinquished and caused spaces to open up centrally. The breakthroughs finally came with Morgan beating the substitute goalkeeper to her near post, and Lloyd converting a penalty kick.

usa ger sharemytactics

USAvCHN: formation

USA vs China

Dealing with 2 suspensions stemming from yellow card accumulation, Jill Ellis had the opportunity to insert fresh players and tweak structural responsibility. Morgan Brian and Amy Rodriguez got called upon for the second time in the tournament, and Kelly O’Hara featured for the first time.

This match represented the ideological turning point for the USA in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

All three inserted players affected the game in positive ways, but none more than Brian. While both Rodriguez and O’Hara showed great energy and bravery in possession, their final products were consistently poor and displayed the rust that had accumulated on the bench.

Brian was an absolute revelation.

She inspired as a true #6: maintained geometric discipline above her back 4, consistently opened her hips on the half turn to distribute to every section of the pitch (completed 89% – 47/53 total passes) and displayed a resolute understanding of possessive tempo. As she encompassed all of these qualities that the USA had so desperately needed for the previous four matches, Lloyd was then reborn.

usa chn formation banks of 2

USAvCHN: defending in blocks of 4

The USA defended with two blocks of four against a compact Chinese side; both O’Hara and Heath tirelessly worked on the flanks to tuck centrally and track their marks, while Brian and Lloyd were were flat to deny access into the Chinese strikers.

Higher up the pitch, the shape resembled the new offensive shape, with the intention of an easy transition to offense if the ball was turned over deep in their offensive third.  Her tremendous stamina still allowed her to be effective in dangerous spaces, as she completed 92% (12/13) of passes in the final third and completed 75% (12/16) total dribbles.

Lloyd had slightly more freedom to affect the game in both offensive and defensive phases as she wished, comforted with the understanding the Brian would sit and occupy her vacated space.usa chn mini representation of off press

usa chn lloyd stretching brian filling

USAvCHN: defending in offensive third, Heath checking Lloyd stretching with Brian’s ability to turn and distribute centrally

A new tendency of Heath’s game emerged prominently against China: frequently tucking into the midfield to participate in possession maintenance while creating space for Lloyd to stretch in to. This all hinged on Brian’s ability to quickly control the ball and distribute with minimal touches to the now checked Heath, or over the top of the defense to the space that awaited Lloyd.

Balance was the cornerstone of this new fluidity. Now that Holiday and Lloyd were not concurrently occupying the same spaces and making the same runs, the offense was balanced and the USA developed it in this match.

usa chn lloyd dist

USAvCHN: Lloyd dribbling into space, incorrectly choosing not to distribute to same space

Although the chemistry was coming together, the shape and tendencies still showed signs of misunderstanding responsibilities. Due to only having Brian behind her, Lloyd was still tasked with checking towards possession deep in the middle and defensive thirds, but frequently made poor choices in possession. China was afforded few opportunities, but they often came from Lloyd misplacing a pass or being caught taking too many touches on the ball in high-risk spaces.

The winning breakthrough was a direct result of Lloyd’s new freedom to get deep into the offensive third to affect play, as she headed home a lofted ball from Julie Johnston into the box.

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