First off, I am not an expert or even an avid follower of women’s international soccer. I take an interest in it for events like the one now in my back yard, the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers, and the World Cup. I find women’s soccer frustrating because I see the biggest impediment to its improvement laying not in the physical aspects of the game but the technical. And in countries like Canada where girls have had the same access, or very close, to good coaching and programs for the past dozen years or so, it is frustrating to see basic flaws in technique and elementary mistakes related to positioning and movement. Without pointing fingers, there were very simple lapses in technique and positioning that cost the team important goals in Germany last summer at the World Cup.
There are some who say the women’s game will never be as good as the men’s game because the men’s game is faster and more physical. Perhaps. But the point for now is that it can be much better still than it is and we should be seeing the same level of technical proficiency and tactical nous here in Canada as we see in other western countries with similar populations. I don’t think we’re there yet but the progress under Morace and now Herdman is clear. We just have to hope that there’s a large contingent of 16-20 year olds coming through the system who can buttress the squad and provide competition for spots so that the next ten years sees continued improvement. After all, Christine Sinclair turns 29 this year.
The US Women’s national team however is considerably further down that road. As a country with ten times the population of Canada and a stronger cultural commitment to elite athletics than Canada you would expect this to be the case. It will be difficult catching up to the impressive abilities they have shown in recent years and of course in their first two games here in Vancouver. And while the Americans have dominated women’s soccer in the Olympics (three gold medals in the four Olympic Games that have included women’s soccer), they have not won a World Cup now in twelve plus years with their last win coming in 1999.
So they can be beaten. Sweden played them three times last year beating them twice and drawing once. England also beat them in a friendly and Canada even got a draw last fall in a friendly.
I’ve had the luxury of watching several of the Olympic qualifiers from the press box where I’ve been blogging my take on them as the game goes on. Today I watched the US team play but took a different tact. I tried to see what they do well, who they play through and how you would go about limiting their effectiveness. It’s ridiculous to think that you can, even if you watched them a dozen times, come up with a foolproof plan to nullify their potency and guarantee yourself a result. They are really in another realm within CONCACAF for the most part and while they have some aging legs, they have a lot of depth and that depth, in the form of players like O’Hara, Leroux and Morgan, shows this is not going to be a team that has a ‘golden generation’ of players and then goes to the back burner for a decade or so. The States will be a force in women’s soccer perpetually with their commitment to excellence in their youth systems, comprehensive national team development programs and highly competitive collegiate leagues.
So what can a team like Canada do to give themselves a chance to beat the States? Here’s my take.
We can’t play 4-4-2 against them and we can’t afford to play Christine Sinclair up front.
She’s too good to be marginalized in a game where we are going to struggle to have possession of the ball more than 40% of the game and we need the numbers in midfield as well as midfielders who can keep the ball and use it smartly every time. I would play her as an attacking central midfielder or false nine in a 4-2-3-1 with the mobility that Christina Julien offers giving her a better chance of being a threat against the American centre backs than Melissa Tancredi in my opinion. Sinclair played this role in the Cuba game in the first half and the diversity she’s added to her game under Morace, and the fitness that Morace demanded of her, leave her capable of the type of work this position demands.
The attacking shape of the American 4-4-2 system is predicated of quickly establishing width through both full backs and both wide mids. It’s almost robotic how the wide players get their heels on the line and show for the ball.
Width does two things. It either allows you to release those wide players to attack defenders 1v1 in wide channels if defenders don’t go out quick and far enough to shut down passes to them or it spreads teams defensively if they do go wide to cut out these passes. The American team is good enough to take deadly advantage of both the wide abilities of players like O’Hara (note how many goals the last two games were scored from crosses) and also via slide rule balls from players like Rapinoe to players like Wambach making angled runs beyond defenders towards goal.
So what do you do when each mode of attack has proven effective and the U.S. can employ a variety of players to carry out each?
First thing you do is shrink the field. This idea that Canada used to pursue, of high pressure, is completely outdated in the face of the technical ability teams like the States have to play through shotgun blast pressure. Drop off to the half and condense the field.
From there have Julien sit between one of the central defenders and the outside back she’s nearest to and force play one way or the other. By forcing the ball one way and cutting off balls that are aimed at coming back through the centre backs to switch play, Julien will allow a more concise defensive shape to emerge.
First of all, the starting eleven I’ve picked for the USA in the diagram below is a (perhaps mis-) educated guess as to what they will field against Canada. They could start Leroux just to wind us up but she’s more likely to come off the bench at some point.
For Canada though, that’s what I would go with. Chapman and Moscato anchoring the back with Wilkinson and Booth outside. I’d then put Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott as two holding mids that track across and look to block passing lanes to strikers feet. This will be important and hard work because I would ask the outside backs to over play their opposing wide mids and make the central mids hesitant to play balls to their feet. They don’t have to get tight on them but close enough to put off the passer from going there. Yes, this opens up space in behind the outside backs and that’s dangerous but the reality is that you are not going to come up with a defensive system against a team this good that does not give something away.
As most of the service to the wide mids (and overlapping outside backs) comes from central midfield it then becomes incumbent on Canada having the ability to boss the two central defenders and that’s were Parker, Kyle and Sinclair come in. If they can play 3v2 against their two central mids they will hopefully be able to pressure them enough that they will create turnovers or at the very least rushed passes that don’t find their wide targets (due to Wilkinson and Booth being pushed up) and can’t get through to Wambach and Cheney. If they can create turnovers in the middle of the park they will be well placed to counter attack through Sinclair, Parker and Julien against two centre backs that I think may be the States achilles heel.
But this only works if the three mids in front of Scott and Schmidt can minimize the supply of balls played wide and the two holding mids can make it difficult to thread balls to the feet of American strikers. There is no point in flooding midfield if the American midfielders can still get enough time to play the balls they want to play.
The other key to the game is that Candace Chapman has to be able to nullify Abby Wambach and that is next to impossible. Wambach is a force unlike almost any other in women’s soccer. She’s big and strong but can score with her feet from outside the box and also with deft flicks in the box. Her movement is outstanding as she times runs impeccably to stay onside but get beyond defenders. She has great instincts when she can see a cross coming in and pulls into blind spots for defenders that make it very difficult to track both the ball coming over on the cross (generally with pace) and Wambach’s run. She is all but unbeatable in the air if she gets a free jump at it. Chapman will have to impede her runs, use her arms to jostle as she jumps and time her jumps less to win headers but rather to ensure Wambach doesn’t win them. All fairly negative tactics but well employed by centre backs in the men’s game.
You can do all the outlined midfield work perfectly and shut down almost all the favoured options of the US midfield but it just takes one half decent flighted ball to Wambach and it all that effort comes undone.
Those are the specifics in terms of roles and responsibilities for individual players. There’s lots of general points though that any team facing a superior opponent has to be cognizant of. Here’s a list of things that would’ve helped Dominican Republic and Guatemala in their games against the States (besides “play with pop up mini goals” and/or “make the Americans play with blindfolds”)
- Track runners. Don’t allow easy targets for the Americans to pick out by letting them run off you and pretend you’re marking them when you’re five yards away and not goal-side. Track runs so that the person making the pass either looks for another option or really has to thread a ball in perfectly.
- Effective clearances; they will create more than enough chances on their own, they don’t need to be gifted second chances from poor clearances that allow another attempt at goal. If you don’t have time to bring down a ball and pick out a teammate to retain possession, make sure clearances clear out of immediate shooting range and ideally are played to an open part of the field where you can compete for the loose ball.
- Value possession. All over the field. Every minute you have the ball, they don’t and unless you park one in your own goal, they won’t score while you have it.
- Immediately pressure shooting opportunities. They will shoot from anywhere in 30 yards if they are given the opportunity and think it’s on. Pressure the ball and be prepared to block shots fearlessly.
- Attack selectively but with commitment and numbers when you do; you cannot afford to get caught often on the break.
- Contain Rapinoe in general; she’s very good 1v1, good passer, strikes the ball well at goal and links well with strikers on the ground.
The last thing I’ll add is that while it’s highly unlikely John Herdman is even thinking about how to beat the Americans. His job is to get this team to the Olympics and that means beating Costa Rica on Monday so they maximize their chances of avoiding the Americans in the semi finals and then beating Mexico who they would likely face if they do beat Costa Rica. Those tactics I’ll leave to him…