“We definitely work on our set pieces and each of us has a role. We try to execute that role as much as we can and as well as we can.” – Sydney Leroux after the USA v Mexico game.
Here’s what has surprised me tactically in a lot of the games. Set pieces can be the great equalizer when a weaker team is taking on a stronger team. If you are struggling to get possession in the attacking third and put dangerous balls into scoring areas, you should be looking at any free kick within 35 yards or corner kick as an opportunity to score. You should come into games where you are the distinct underdog with a bevy of well-rehearsed set pieces and the grimmest of determination to be first to balls played into the box.
I watched several of the weaker teams set up for corners and free kicks and leave 3 or 4 players back to cover a lone striker. When Guatemala was losing to the States but by a still respectable margin, they left three back to cover one striker, put two players on the ball for a wide free kick and then had another drifting between the 18 and the centre circle, neither covering an opponent nor anywhere near where the ball might land from a poor clearance. They ended up putting a half decent ball in the box but it was four against nine defenders (plus Solo in goal). They might as well have just kicked it our for a goal kick.
Now look at how the Americans approach set pieces. They don’t need to put a massive emphasis on them because they dominate possession and chances already and can be somewhat assured that their build up play will lead to goals from open play. But they do put a huge emphasis on them both attacking wise and defensively. Three of their four goals last night against Mexico came from set pieces. All four came from crosses which was what the bulk of my strategy for beating the States is based on: denying balls wide that lead to crosses. They didn’t even need Abby Wambach to be on the end of those crosses last night as their depth ensured that others would jump up (literally) and do the scoring.
So what did the Mexicans try to do to put the US off their game. They took a different approach to what I was suggesting and seemed to often pressure high with three forwards. That’s actually an interesting take as so many possessions start with Solo rolling or passing the ball out to defenders. I don’t rate the central defenders on the ball nearly as much as most of their others players so if the Mexicans thought, right, it’s worth taking a chance getting stretched here if we can pinch the odd ball of a centre back before she can distribute. Didn’t really work though as despite the Mexicans high work rate all over the field in the first half (second half they were pretty much gassed and faded noticeably when the third goal went in), the ball still found its way to wide channels and to the feet of players like O’Reilly and Rodriguez whose crosses found targets that either scored or had shots that led to follow up chances for players like Lloyd.
The other aspect of the Mexican defending that stood out was their willingness to be chippy. Almost from the start there was lots of late challenges, stepping on feet, kicking heels, leading with knees into tackles, forearms flying. It struck me that there’s probably a bit of socio-politics that goes into these games as there used to be when the Czechs played the Russians in hockey games in the 70’s and 80’s. Was it a tactic or was it just resentment towards the big, rich neighbour to the north that had been laying beatings on fellow campesinos in earlier games? Regardless, it was hard to ignore and even though the Mexican work rate faded in the second half and it became less of a contest technically (I recall that the possession stats at half time were almost 50-50), the physical aspect of the Mexican game did not diminish and there several ‘hard’ fouls right up until the final whistle. The Americans made a wise decision to pull Wambach off given her history of injuries and the fact she’d already been kicked twice and seemed to be feeling them.
But to their credit, the Mexicans showed in the first half that a combination of harrying pressure all over the field and the occasional attempt at intimidation put some of the Americans off their game and their passing was not nearly as impressive. Shooters were met with Mexicans more than willing to throw themselves in harm’s way and the US women had much less success beating defenders 1v1 than they’ve had previously in the tournament. In the first half, it was looking like a contest and even when the first goal went in, doom did not descend. It did make a cameo soon after though when the second followed onto the first a minute later. They just couldn’t sustain it and some point early in the second half they dug in and seemed to more or less accept that this was now more about containment and respect would be in the form of keeping the scoring from getting out of hand rather than getting a result.
Still, as Craig Forrest noted during the broadcast, why they never forced Solo to kick a long goal kick or pressured her more with the ball at her feet when she was obviously nursing some sort of muscle strain is hard to understand. Someone, their coach really, should have noted her discomfort early on and played to that but they didn’t, so she got a free pass and never had to test her dodgy peg with a long clearance.
If you are playing a team like the States you are scrapping for whatever you can get and looking for any edge that could get you a chance, a goal, a result. Mexico didn’t do enough to stop crosses coming in so they conceded four goals off of them. They didn’t take better advantage of their set pieces in the attacking third and they didn’t pick up on things like the American keeper being hobble and limited to short side foot passes.
If Costa Rica don’t pick up on these sorts of things in their game the score will likely be double what Mexico conceded. If Canada don’t maximize their odds tactically, assuming they face the US in the final, it won’t be a blowout but it will still be a victory for the States.