Perhaps lost in the shuffle of the USWNT rolling England up into a little ball and kicking them all the way into the third-place match was a late-game tactical shift that was as confounding as it was ill-advised. For the second straight game, the best team in the world protected a slim lead with Mourinho-esque levels of conservative play for an extended segment of the second half. This kind of shithousing might seem smart or resourceful in the moment, but really it’s cowardice. The USWNT is both better and smarter than that, and it’s only luck that has prevented them from being punished for it.
Now, of course, every team in the world resorts to time wasting eventually, and this is the latter stages of the Women’s World Cup. If you’re not doing everything, and I do mean everything, you can to win, then you’re doing it wrong.
The problem, though, is that the United States are making their job more difficult, not easier, by resorting to the tactic too early. From my recollection, the Americans started pushing the ball to the sidelines and shielding English players off at around the 78th minute, while up 2-1. That’s simply too early to be trying to kill time, because you’re not giving your team enough time to breathe when eventually you lose the ball and have to defend again.
It’s akin to the way New Zealand parked the bus for two-thirds of their game against the Netherlands. As a team, you end up asking a lot of your defenders if you can’t push the opposition back back for a while and control the ball to give the defenders a breather. With the seven minutes of stoppage time, the USWNT was wasting time for a whopping 19 minutes. It worked out in the end, but it very nearly didn’t:
The more concerning aspect of manager Jill Ellis’s conservatism is her penchant for dropping her mostly successful 4-3-3 in order to play a bus-parking 5-4-1 late in the second halves of both the France and England matches. This tactic calls for Julie Ertz to drop between center backs Abby Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn, while the wingers pull back to play in a flat four across the midfield. In both the U.S.’s last two games, that strategy left Alex Morgan isolated up top (where, whenever she did get the ball, she looked first and only to go waste more time), and invited pressure from the opponents for extended periods of time.
Adjusting your tactics to see out a game is coaching 101, but the 5-4-1 is not the right answer for two reasons. The first is that the United States are an attacking team by design. The U.S. are at their best when they are pressing high and converting forced turnovers into quick, direct counters. The midfield—the strongest part of the team—leads both these efforts with their physicality, proficiency at tackling and intercepting, and ability to carry the ball through the middle of the pitch and lay it off for the forwards or shoot themselves. The American midfielders are in many ways the USWNT’s best defenders and attackers, and they serve both roles best when doing so on the front foot.
By sending Ertz back and losing the numerical superiority in the midfield, Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis (who came on for the injured Rose Lavelle) had to defend against a central three on their own. England repeatedly bypassed the U.S.’s midfield on the way to laying siege on the American goal. (England coach Phil Neville got his starting tactics wrong by going with a flat 4-4-2, but the introduction of Fran Kirby and the swap to a 4-2-3-1 meant that the English had three midfielders in the center of the park just as the USWNT went to the 5-4-1. It was a smart adjustment, even if it didn’t ultimately pay off.)
The second issue is more intangible: if you have more talent than your opponent and the lead, why not try to kill off the game? One more goal for the U.S. probably would have been enough to seal the deal, and England were committing six to eight players to every attack, with Lucy Bronze essentially leaving the English right side of the field wide open as she marauded forward. By pushing her wingers back, Ellis played England straight up rather than try to exploit the weaknesses on the counter. Again, it worked out, but that had more to do with England’s inability to score than any tactical master class. (Also, again, England had an 84th minute penalty saved, so it’s not like the strategy worked super well even in victory.)
The perfect microcosm of Ellis’s confused conservatism in both games as been the introduction and then deployment of Carli Lloyd. Lloyd is a goalscorer at this stage in her career, someone stronger than most players she’s going up against and capable of blasting in some beautiful shots. And yet, her introduction made no sense in either match. Against France, Lloyd was brought in for Mewis and played centrally, essentially a defensive midfielder with no real defensive traits. On Tuesday, she came in for Tobin Heath, and was charged with just dragging the ball up and to the sidelines to use her strength to waste time.
Why not introduce Mallory Pugh instead and let her press England back with the threat of her pace? Or, if you’re so committed to a defensive approach, why not bring in Tierna Davidson for Heath and push Crystal Dunn up to the wing, covering your flank with a more defensive left back while still having some threat going forward?
That would involve a fundamental shift in approach towards attacking, and, against two of the most challenging foes in the field, Ellis has preferred to turtle up and hope for individual brilliance to cover for her. It’s worked so far, but it adds a degree of difficulty to proceedings that is frankly unnecessary. Against either Sweden or the Netherlands in the final, she would be better off trusting what has gotten her this far (superior midfield play, talented attackers) rather than once again hoping that the high-variance of soccer goes her way one last time. Everyone’s luck runs out eventually.