How fullbacks exemplify USWNT's tactical, stylistic evolution since World Cup

The U.S. won the 2015 World Cup, but only after a slow start. Bobby Warshaw breaks down how Jill Ellis has her team looking even better than the one which won it all a year ago.

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The U.S. women’s national team spent the beginning of the 2015 World Cup scaring the crap out of fans, looking mediocre for half a tournament before an all-time Wonder Woman performance from Carli Lloyd made us forget about said mediocrity. But if Germany’s top player hadn’t missed a penalty, or if Julie Johnston saw red instead of yellow, the U.S. would have been packing in the semifinals. And we would have all been demanding answers.

The team needed to evolve. And since then, head coach Jill Ellis has stepped up with answers to help it do exactly that. At times in Olympic qualifying and in the friendlies since the World Cup, the U.S. has looked much improved -- excellent, even. The team’s performances look worthy of the results.

Even when the U.S. has struggled, the ideas and potential for progress have been evident. The team has a plan beyond waiting for its stars to make something happen. A lot goes into that, but I want to point out one tangible change that, on face value, appears tactical. What it really represents, though, is stylistic change. Perhaps more importantly, it may also reflect a change in attitude.

An opportunity to improve

The positioning and movement of the U.S.' outside backs gives the team more flexibility and shows a clear plan. We’ve seen a couple different styles from the outside backs, depending on the opponents. Ellis has clearly discussed the options with them and provided different choices to deal with different challenges.

Above, you can see the right back, Kelley O’Hara, make a counter movement from outside to inside. She recognizes she’s gone too wide, and there is already an option to her right, so she comes back to a more central area to receive the ball. It’s a clear recognition-and-response action that the team has discussed.

But let's back up a step. Why do the outside backs matter so much? Of all the positions on the field, aren’t the outside backs supposed to be the least important players?

Not so much anymore, and for two important reasons. First, opposing teams target their press toward outside backs. When a team wants to defend high on the field, they push play toward the sideline where they can trap the player on the ball. When the ball travels toward the outside back, the defensive team pressures from all angles and uses the sideline to create a pocket which the ball can’t get out of.

Notice in the picture above, as the U.S. center back has the ball the opposition is in its standard shape: a sitting front six in a 2-3-1 shape.

Now notice the difference when the outside back has the ball a couple seconds later. The opposition has its attackers press, putting the player in a closed-off pocket. Though South Africa doesn’t do it particularly well, you can see the intention.

Second, outside backs add an element of surprise. So many teams focus their defensive shape on denying space in their defensive zone that it’s hard to break them down from the inside out. When a team sits deep, as many inferior teams do, it’s imperative to be able to throw something new at them. Outside backs can attack late from deeper spaces and unbalance the opposition’s predetermined shape.

Consequently, outside backs can either be the achilles heel or the Dark Knight.

Feeding the Dark Knight

Some teams that play the U.S. women will sit deep and try to protect the space near their goal. In years past, the U.S. has relied on Abby Wambach’s head or Alex Morgan’s pace to break down opponents. Now, though, it’s a little more sophisticated.

The Americans now have some ideas to go through teams as well as over and behind. They have more mobility in their movement, specifically from the outside backs. Against weaker teams in World Cup qualifying, the outside defenders took a high position, almost where a winger would usually start, and when the U.S. moved the ball out of the back, one of its center midfielders would go wide of the center backs to the space the outside back might usually receive the ball. It's a new strategy that a lot of teams have started using around the world. When Barcelona was dominant around 2009, the in-vogue thing to start the play was to spread the center backs and have your deepest midfielder drop between to receive the ball. Teams adjusted defensively and the concept of playing out of the back has had to evolve.

Now teams play with center backs tighter and they drop a midfielder to the wide space, where the opposition usually doesn't assign a player to monitor. As the attacking fullback goes forward, the opposing winger needs to track the run; as the attacking fullback takes the wide channel, the attacking winger pinches in, forcing the opposing center mids to stay central; as the first center mid goes wide to get the ball, the second center mid plops into the center of the field, forcing the defending strikers to watch her.

The movement from the four players looks like cogs in a machine; one person starts the rotation and everyone knows her job to follow accordingly. It all creates a natural space for the center mid in the wide channel to get the ball with time to turn. Furthermore, when she looks up, she has options in every direction: to her right (fullback high and wide), straight ahead (winger pinched in), left (other center mid), and back (center back).

After the initial prepared rotation takes place, the players have more freedom to attack where they see an opening. The winger can go out and the outside back can go in, or the winger can go in and the outside back can overlap. It’s a nightmare for defenders to track. The increased mobility keeps the team flowing and unpredictable. It’s a prepared game plan which gives the players a template that keeps them on same page while also being unpredictable to defend.

(Notice the movement from Klingenberg before she receives the ball, when she has the ball, and after she makes the original pass, all toward the inside channel.)

Avoiding the Achilles heel

Some teams at the Olympics, however, will not sit deep but instead will defend high. We saw in the recent U.S. games versus Japan and South Africa that teams may try to press the United States early and often. Both teams stepped early to the center backs so they couldn’t play piercing passes forward, instead forcing play to the outside backs. When the ball got wide, they would swarm and lock the United States into a corner. Japan used this approach to build a deserved 2-0 lead in the first of two meetings between the two teams in early June.

Ellis’ initial idea with the rotation wide doesn’t work when getting pressed. The midfielder gets marked when she steps wide and there is never enough time on the ball for all of the players to rotate into position. To adjust, Ellis asked her outside backs to stay deeper and the midfielder to stay central. It would provide the center backs another outlet and not clog the passing lanes forward.

It was an understandable response, but it didn’t fully work. Japan still suffocated the U.S. and the Americans were too predictable. Japan dictated the terms.

Again, Ellis added a wrinkle. She asked the outside backs to stay back but tuck a few yards centrally, so they couldn’t get trapped on the sideline. When the outside backs receive the outlet from the center backs, they have more space to find the next pass. There isn’t a natural pocket formed on the sideline; there is an extra passing lane created to the outside. More so, the outside backs could move forward a little, no longer needing to receive square passes with the opposition rushing towards them, but instead moving past the first line of defense to behind the defenders.

(Notice how Klingenberg now has the extra option of passing wide, making it tough for the opposition to trap her.)

As was evident in all three games vs. Japan and South Africa, the U.S. still struggles against high pressure (this was less of an issue against Costa Rica in the send-off game). But to be fair, most teams struggle against well-executed pressure. It’s clearly the blueprint for opponents. But at least the team has options now. It’s difficult, as one would expect, to play new or complicated systems. It takes time to learn and get comfortable with. We will see whether they get it down in time.

It’s difficult to suggest that a team should have done more at tournament in which they came out world champions, and yet I think it’s fair to say that the U.S. women still have another level to get to. And the signs are that the team continues to get better.

In modern soccer, the wide channel where the outside backs play can either be your largest asset or your biggest nightmare. With Ellis’ recent adjustments, we are seeing a team that has more options on the ball and more capabilities to get into a rhythm. They can now control a game and dictate the tempo, relying on a complete team plan as opposed a single spark of brilliance. It all means that we should see a style we feel is to be expected of the uber-dominant team in the world.

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