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Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance’s North Carolina Tar Heels

Anson Dorrance’s North Carolina Tar Heels have been the dominant force in college soccer for decades. He has won 21 NCAA championships since taking the helm as Head Coach at UNC, and whilst this tactical analysis will look to break down the tactics of his current side, it won’t be looking at Dorrance’s teams throughout history, even though each term frankly deserves its own article. 

Formations, philosophy and personnel

Dorrance has varied his formations throughout the season thus far, and whilst there has been a preference for a 3-5-2 and a 4-4-2 diamond, both of which can look very similar in possession, he has also used a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. So whilst there isn’t any one set way of playing, there are some consistent factors we see in Carolina’s play regardless of their formation.

In possession, Dorrance wants to stretch the opposition horizontally, always having one player on the flank. If they play with a 3-5-2, that will generally be the wing-backs, but Dorrance has no issues with them inverting and either central-midfielder or centre-forward taking up a position on the wing. We can see this below as the left wing-back inverts to receive a pass from her centre-back, whilst one of the forwards drops out to the wing to receive themselves. We can also see in this analysis how wide they are during possession, with two players at the top of the image taking up a position close to the right wing.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

As they stretch the opposition defence, they will look to play through passes through the gaps for their forwards or central-midfielders. Dorrance favours patient build-up, but should the opposition play with a high line, Carolina have the players to hurt teams with a more direct approach.

Out of possession they employ an intense press, supported by their constant substitutions, allowing players to always be at 100% to press with the required energy, and they look to win the ball back in high areas or force the opposition to play long, where their centre-backs can start the possession sequence over again.

In defensive transition, they are quick to press the ball-carrier whilst rushing to cut off any easy outlet passes for the opponent. Their attackers remain high initially in case they counter-press effectively and can orchestrate a quick attack, whilst in attacking transition they look to recycle the ball to their back line and begin their possession phase with their defenders in possession.

As for personnel, Carolina are blessed with an incredibly strong squad. However, there are some standout performers who no doubt will go on to play at the highest level. Julia Dorsey is an outstanding right-sided defender, who is composed in possession and plays at right centre-back in a back three or at right-back. Taylor Otto is a strong, tall, ball-playing pivot who reads the game well, and has excellent athleticism. Emily Fox is a left-back/wing-back of the highest calibre, who has pace to burn, is dangerous on the dribble, and has a consistent delivery from wide areas, even if she also enjoys cutting inside. Rachel Jones is comfortable as a second striker, number 10, or left-winger and plays with such intelligence that she often encompasses each of these roles within the same game in one formation, whilst Isabel Cox is a tall, quick centre-forward who thrives on playing off of the last defender. 

Any through passes or balls over the top and Cox is incredibly difficult to beat, whilst in tighter spaces she is a confident dribbler with an eye for goal as well as for a final pass. Samantha Meza and Breana Pinto are terrific ball progressors who are comfortable playing off of few touches and instinctively look to fill attacking spaces either side of their centre-forwards, whilst Maycee Bell is an athletic, ball-playing defender with all the attributes to be a household name in years to come. 

It’s a sign of how strong this side is that there are still plenty who deserve a mention.

In possession

Carolina are a patient possession-based side and look to play out from the centre-backs. One of their key principles is creating width in attack and stretching the opposition. They will continuously switch possession, and use their quick wide players to overload the flanks and advance the ball down these channels. Or if they stretch the opposition horizontally, they will then play directly through the central channel where they have forward-thinking, athletic central midfielders to progress the ball quickly, as well as a very quick centre-forward in Cox who thrives on through balls behind the opposition defence.

Otto, the pivot, will drop deep during the build-up and allow Carolina’s centre-backs to split particularly wide, whilst still giving enough central protection should they turnover possession and have to deal with a counter-attack whilst out of balance. Below we see them against Syracuse where they played with a back three. The left-sided centre-back is just out of view, whilst Dorsey as the right-sided centre-back has shifted entirely over to the right flank. In doing so, this means their wing-backs can push further up the field and essentially act as wingers in this phase of possession. Otto’s position not only gives central protection, but gives Carolina one of their better ball-players in a position to get on the ball early, whilst their other two central-midfielders are staggered further forward to give different passing lanes and aid ball progression centrally too.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

Otto does a terrific job of helping Carolina advance the ball under a more intense press as well. She is comfortable playing with her back to goal, engaging her opponent’s press and will simply offer a central option before flicking the ball round the corner to her full-back/wing-back to allow Carolina to beat the press and continue advancing the ball.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

You can see in this image how well she engages the opposition’s press and her positioning can be used to draw the press forward and allow UNC’s centre-backs to play line-breaking passes into players positioned further up the field.

Generally speaking, Otto acts as a single pivot but Carolina play with a fluidity in their formation where their other two midfielders are given the freedom to drop in to create a double-pivot as and when they see fit. This isn’t all that common, particularly as Carolina rarely endure an overly intense pressing structure from their opposition, but if they do face a high press then they have this option to help them play past it.

Carolina’s centre-backs are at ease in possession, and whilst they’re in no rush to force passes forward, if they’re given space to drive into, they will absolutely take up the opportunity. Again, Dorsey is a player that impresses in this regard, whether being used as a right-back or as a right-sided centre-back, she is happy to act as a progressive ball-carrier and will drive well inside the opposition half. In the case of the 3-5-2, the wider centre-back’s ability to do this so well allows the wing-backs to take more advanced starting positions in the build-up. You will note that in the image below, the right wing-back isn’t in the picture, being much farther forward than her right-sided centre-back.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

When part of a back three, the wide centre-backs will also push up to support any advanced build-up inside the opposition half. The pivot will anchor any of these attacking phases, but by having a centre-back push up alongside them to allow them to continue to circulate possession means Carolina’s two attacking central-midfielders can stay high, closer to their centre-forwards.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

With two forwards, two central-midfielders and one wing-back pushed high in these phases and spread across the width of the pitch, it stretches the opposition defence whilst pinning them back.

In these instances, the other two centre-backs remain back, whilst the wing-back on the other side will tuck inside alongside Otto as well. 

Having the wide centre-backs push forward raises some interesting opportunities in the final third for Carolina. In the image below we can see how far wide Syracuse’s left-back is, which is obviously not a great position to be in, but it is caused by the width created from UNC’s wing-back (out of picture) hugging the touchline.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

The space between Syracuse’s left-back and left-sided centre-back presents the opportunity for Meza to fill this space from her central-midfield position. This is possible due to UNC having two centre-forwards in the central channel, occupying both Syracuse centre-backs. With the compactness in the central channel, and the width provided by the right wing-back, the Tar Heels can split the defence easily.

UNC will usually look to have two central players occupying the opposition centre-backs, regardless of their formation.

Even if playing as a second forward, Jones has the freedom to move into different positions, and she will often drift over to the left-flank, where she would normally play if UNC fielded a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 anyway. Whilst Cox stays relatively central in the image below, we can see how far over to the left Jones has drifted, with the aim of stretching the opposition defence. UNC switch play so often that taking up this kind of position won’t exclude her from the attack by any means, and with Fox playing as an attacking left-back/wing-back, this creates an excellent opportunity for UNC to create a dangerous overload on the left-flank.

Either way, when Jones does this, one of UNC’s central-midfielders, usually Pinto or Meza, will quickly fill Jones’ central space. At all times, Dorrance wants the opponent to be having to watch the player they’re marking whilst keeping an eye on UNC moving the ball constantly from side-to-side. UNC are relentless in attack and will exploit any gaps in the defence as we’ve seen already.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

If they play with a front three like in the image below, the width will be provided by the wide forwards in attack, whilst one of the three central-midfielders has to be alert to push up quickly to take a central position alongside Cox.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

As alluded to already, Fox is a unique talent playing in the wing-back position on the left-side, and Jones knows this. Jones is intelligent enough to draw the attention of the opposition right-back onto herself, and she will drift inside bringing the opposition’s defensive shape very narrow. Fox will use this as an opportunity to push forward herself, and for all of UNC’s ability to break through the central channel, they have the tools at their disposal to hurt teams on the flanks should the central players look for the diagonal outlet ball to the wide players.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

Despite their obvious ability to be patient in the build-up phase, the Tar Heels will play long from the goalkeeper with regularity. Claudia Dickey will often find one of her midfielders with her kicks and, following a knock on from one of their own midfielders like in the image below, Jones will look to fill this space and Cox will look to curve her run to be an option for Jones behind the opponent’s defence. 

When Jones can pick the ball up in this kind of space, Cox times her run behind the closest opposition defender, either preventing that player from challenging Jones, or if the player lacks discipline and does challenge Jones, then it leaves even more space for Cox to receive the pass behind the opposition back line.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

Defensive transition

It was mentioned in the section above that in advanced attacking phases if the play is being focused down the right-side, the right-sided centre-back would push forward to be a lateral option for the pivot, whilst the left wing-back would also tuck inside. However, whilst the right centre-back pushes forward to give a passing option, the left wing-back comes inside as part of UNC’s structure in defensive transition. 

Should Carolina lose possession in the attack the pivot might be left isolated with her other two central-midfield teammates pushed high. Having the wing-back tuck inside provides safety against the transition.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

This doesn’t mean the wing-back isn’t an option in attack though, just that UNC aren’t going to look for a diagonal switch of play in one pass from one side to the other. If they do look to circulate again, a pass inside from the right into the pivot is the wing-back’s cue to shift diagonally toward the left-flank and provide immediate width.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

North Carolina are sharp on defensive transitions, and counter-press well given the number of attacking players they often have forward in close proximity to the ball. They will have at least one player immediately press the lost ball and at least one player cut off the easy outlet pass to slow down their attacking transition.

We can see an example of this below after a loose pass from UNC is recovered by Boston College and quickly played to their right-winger. As Pinto presses the ball-carrier, Jones immediately loops around to cut off an easy pass down the line for Boston rather than pressing the ball-carrier herself. Therefore, the pressure on the ball comes from any UNC player behind the ball-carrier, whilst the closest player on the defensive side prevents an outlet pass rather than pressing.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

With UNC’s numbers in attack, if they can quickly retrieve possession in the defensive transition they have a great opportunity to catch the opposition out of balance.

Out of possession

Carolina engage in an intense press and will employ this system throughout the course of the game. Dorrance enjoys the luxury of a deep bench and he rotates his players frequently, ensuring everyone is fresh to press with the intensity and energy he expects.

Carolina will commit more than one player to the press and will support this first line of press by having their second line close behind and in a compact shape. Below we can see how Duke’s centre-back looks to turn inside away from the two Carolina players pressing.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

The two central players in Carolina’s second line of press react quickly to this and are able to win the ball back in the centre of the pitch.

With Carolina committing more than one player to the first line of the press there are immediate options for the ball-carrier to play in ahead of her, which she can choose to do straight away, or she can drive at the last defender before then sliding in one of her teammates.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

With Carolina committing so many players to the press it is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Should they win back possession they have so many players surrounding the ball that they can quickly counter with plenty of options in the central channel or either side. 

They are a good pressing team, and as such it’s not a common occurrence for the opponent to play through the press. With them often opting to play long to avoid losing the ball in dangerous areas, UNC can regain possession easily and begin their patient build-up phase once over. However, as we can see from the image below, it can leave space between the midfield and the defence. In this example there are seven UNC players in the frame, meaning there are only three defenders out of shot. A team playing with a false 9 or an attacking talent who is comfortable dropping into the 10 space as Jones does for UNC, and the bravery to engage UNC defensively, would have the potential to break through their press.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

Their overall defensive shape will often fall into a 4-1-4-1 with Jones dropping to the wing if she isn’t already playing there, whilst Otto bridges the gap between her midfield and defence. There are occasions where this shape can leave their midfield a little flat and diagonal passing options are available. 

Below we can see how Cox shows the Boston defender away from the centre of the pitch, and even though Pinto isn’t quite on the same line as the rest of her midfield, there isn’t enough of a stagger to prevent an easy diagonal pass which breaks UNC’s second line.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

Again there can be space to be found between UNC’s defence and their midfield with the back line sometimes leaving a little too much space by not stepping up enough. If Otto doesn’t hold her position and gets pulled over as well, this can be exploited like in the image below.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics

Attacking transition

UNC don’t do anything unusual in attacking transition, and instead this phase of the game only highlights their discipline as a team. When they win back possession, as long as there isn’t an immediate counter-attacking opportunity, or if the opposition aren’t particularly out of shape, they will simply work the ball back to their centre-backs and begin their possession phase as they would do at any other point in the game. Dorrance’s side have a belief in their ability to break down teams with their work on the ball and they don’t pass up any opportunity to do this. 

However, Cox’s strength and pace, and her frequent positioning on the last defender means that should there be any loose ball in midfield, she is always an option for a simple over-hit through pass which she will nearly always get to first. From here she can push forward into a one-on-one with the goalkeeper or use her frame to hold up possession and bring her teammates into play as the support arrives.

Tactical Analysis: Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels - tactical analysis tactics


North Carolina are a side who are going to be difficult to beat this season, as is already evident with their 7-0 record at the time of writing. They have well defined principles and effective tactics used across all four phases in the game, and whilst this is a young side still with plenty of potential as a group, it’s evident to see it’s littered with individual talent who will no doubt go on to play in the NWSL and at international level too.