SheBelieves Cup 2020: USA vs England – tactical analysis
USA faced England in one of the opening fixtures of the SheBelieves Cup 2020. After their high stakes encounter in the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 semifinal that USA managed to win 2-1, this was the first time again that the two nations clashed in an international tournament. The expectations for an exciting match-up were sky high with England Women steadily improving their form over the past months.
This fixture was also the first major tournament for Vlatko Andonovski, the head coach of the USWNT appointed after Jill Ellis stepped down. Although he has managed to maintain their dominant momentum from last year’s Women’s World Cup victory through friendly fixtures, a tournament like the SheBelieves Cup 2020 against top nations like England, Spain and Japan serves as a real test for any national team head coach. The USA came out with flying colours in a comfortable 2-0 win in this fixture, but how did their tactics overcome a strong England side? In this tactical analysis we will breakdown both teams’ tactics and analyse the game objectively with an analysis of specific instances from the game graphically.
United States: Alyssa Naeher; Kelley O’Hara, Abby Dahlkemper, Becky Sauerbrunn, Crystal Dunn; Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle (Samantha Mewis, 70’), Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath (Lynn Williams, 70’), Carli Lloyd (Jessica McDonald, 89’), Christen Press (Megan Rapinoe, 62’)
Substitutes not used: Mallory Pugh, Andi Sullivan, Ali Krieger, Tierna Davidson, Emily Sonnett, Ashlyn Harris, Casey Short, Adrianna Franch
Head coach: Vlatko Andonovski
England: Carly Telford, Leah Williamson, Millie Bright, Steph Houghton, Alex Greenwood, Georgia Stanway (Toni Duggan, 71’), Jill Scott (Jordan Nobbs, 65’), Keira Walsh, Nikita Parris (Chloe Kelly, 89’), Ellen White (Bethany England, 73’), Lauren Hemp
Substitutes not used: Rachel Daly, Demi Stokes, Ellie Roebuck, Abbie McManus, Lucy Staniforth, Alessia Russo, Sandy Maclver, Grace Fisk
Head coach: Phil Neville
Formations and numerical superiorities
From the lineups earlier, we see that Phil Neville lined up England in a 4-4-2 although during the game it was more of a 4-3-3 with a single, deep-lying pivot played by Walsh, with Scott playing as a more attacking box-to-box midfielder and Stanway playing just behind or alongside White as a number 10. Parris would operate on the right wing and Hemp on the left wing. Neville received criticism for picking this lineup in place of Nobbs and England who happen to be in sharper form in the FAWSL, but perhaps he trusted an experienced lineup to face a formidable opponent like USA.
Against USA’s 4-3-1-2 formation, we saw Ertz controlling the midfield and winning her duels against Stanway. Although Hemp and Parris had a couple of opportunities to threaten the spaces behind USA’s attacking full-backs, they struggled with being fed the ball consistently into these wide areas. USA had a whooping total of 22 shots, six of which were on target against England’s eight shots, three of which were on target.
England’s defence looked nervous and error prone from the beginning. We could see that the quality of players like Lloyd and Press threatened Houghton and Bright early on. The two forward system with an attacking midfielder in the form of Lavelle behind them created a 3v3 scenario against the two centre-backs and the holding midfielder of England. To add to this attack, Horan and Heath would attack the inner corridors while the full-backs, Dunn and O’Hara would push up aggressively at times to add pressure on England’s full-backs in 1v1 situations which added to the overload in England’s half.
As we will see further on during this analysis, England were unable to establish numerical superiorities behind USA’s lines of pressure as the deep players could not effectively connect with the advanced players like Scott and Stanway often. We saw that when Stanway managed to win the ball she provided an immediate threat with her touch and finely timed passes, but England struggled in the buildup due to USA’s high pressure.
This game was exciting to analyse, particularly from the perspective of how both teams pressed from the top. By countering each other’s buildup from behind, they managed to transition very quickly through the middle third and there was lesser activity in the midfield than there were in the final third for both teams.
England’s pressing strategy from the top
England were calculated and methodical in the way they pressed from the top. They often pressed USA’s centre-backs who started the move with one forward. The other forward would drop deep and mark USA’s holding midfielder, Ertz to cut the passing lane to her.
In the first scenario we see the ball being played short from Naeher to Sauerbrunn. White moves up to press her, while Stanway drops to mark Ertz, forcing Sauerbrunn to play Dahlkemper who is free.
As soon as the ball is played to Dahlkemper, White leaves Sauerbrunn free and drops to mark Ertz, while Stanway pushes to press Dahlkemper with the ball. If Dahlkemper played the ball back to Sauerbrunn, they continued the same system of movement. If Dahlkemper played it wide to her full-back, O’hara as we see in the graphic below, the wide midfielder Hemp would close her down while the deeper central midfielder, Walsh would push up to mark USA’s advanced midfielder Heath.
This would create a 4v4 situation on one side of the pitch cutting down USA’s buildup. This strategy was quite effective in the beginning for England and they looked quite strong in the first half because of their pressing. The first half ended 0-0 with both teams neutralising each other tactically.
USA’s high pressing strategy
In contrast to England, USA would often press the two centre-backs Houghton and Bright high with the two forwards Press and Lloyd. Lavelle would follow up with the press closely behind with an attempt to cut the passing lane to Walsh who was England’s solo pivot in most circumstances. Horan and Heath would position themselves in the inner corridors, ready to shuffle across to the left or right depending on where England would play the ball.
This forced Houghton and Bright to play the ball to their fullbacks. When the USA full-backs would press up aggressively in the wide corridors, they would effectively shut down England’s buildup and force them to go long. Ertz was very dominant in winning the aerial balls in the centre of the park and lay it off to her teammates.
In this graphic below we see that when USA pressed high as explained above, it created a situation of numerical equality or 5v5 against the outfield players. In usual circumstances, the keeper gets involved in the buildup and acts as the ‘free-man’ but for England, Telford wasn’t comfortable enough with the ball at her feet to beat experienced veterans like Press and Lloyd pressing high in her penalty box. This put a lot of pressure on England, who struggled to get the ball out of their defensive third.
In the 12th minute of the game, England got locked down in their box for a whole 90 seconds simply because they couldn’t manage to clear the ball out of their box or kick it out of play. USA made effective use of their full-backs who had the experience, game intelligence and courage to overload the final third and continue winning the second balls to circulate possession. Here we see an instance where England luckily manage to make an interception and keep the ball away from the penalty area but it lands up at Dunn who is first to win it ahead of Parris and continue attacking Telford’s posts.
England’s opportunities during the game
The best opportunities for England came during attacking transitions when the full-backs for USA were out of position leaving space behind for Parris and Hemp to attack. The problem was that these opportunities were too few as England couldn’t managed to get the ball out of their third effectively. Here we see a scenario where Walsh manages to pick a pass to Parris behind the defensive line. Parris wins the lofted pass and takes a good first touch but only manages to play it into the hands of Naeher.
In another situation during the second half we see Stanway advancing forward on the break with Parris attacking the right wing. Stanway manages to find a lot of time to play a splitting pass for Parris into space behind the defender as we see Dunn (#19) is still tracking back from an advanced position. This was another golden opportunity for England to get back into the game but the angle was too tight for Parris to finish.
We saw that once England managed to get the ball to Stanway, they put themselves in an advantageous position as she was able to pick the right passes and force USA into defensive transition working with White. Finding Stanway was the tricky bit with the massive presence of Ertz in the middle.
Ertz’s midfield dominance
The key to USA’s success during the game was Ertz’s intelligent reading of the game, positioning and aggressive interceptions. Her sixth sense to read the play and make vital sliding tackles to feed her teammates controlled the midfield and served as the perfect antidote against England’s attacking transitions.
Here we see a loose aerial clearance that Stanway is looking to pick up, but Ertz intervenes timely and manages to find a teammate to win possession and continue threatening England’s back line. She made numerous such interventions that helped clean the midfield up and allow players like Dunn and O’Hara to stay wide in advanced positions
In another instance we see Ertz receiving the ball in the middle of the park and playing a sublime aerial pass to O’Hara in the wide corridor with the outside of her boot.
Ertz managed to dominate the midfield with her defensive qualities, distribution technique and clever anticipation. She set up the first goal in the similar manner by intercepting the pass to Stanway that we will look at further on.
Why were England unable to make successful progressions through the middle?
The other issue for England was the link between the defenders and the forwards. Scott mostly operated in the right half-space which was tightly controlled and overloaded with the quality of Horan, Dunn and Ertz. This left Walsh as the lone midfielder in the middle to receive the balls from Houghton and Bright who were under constant threat of Press and Lloyd. Although Walsh did manage to find the space to receive, she always played too many passes back to the defenders and did not have the courage to turn towards goal and look for the forward pass to break the lines of pressure.
Here we see an instance where USA are comfortably ahead with only a couple of minutes in the game remaining and are subsequently sitting back. England’s players are moving into advanced positions on the pitch. However, when Walsh receives the ball without any pressure, she plays it back to Bright instead of turning and looking for the easy pass to Nobbs who is unmarked. This was a huge handicap for England throughout the game, as they did not manage to make clean and successful progressions from back to front to actually threaten USA.
A tactic that began to work for England towards the end of the first half was using Stanway more effectively as a playmaker who dropped deep. If Stanway dropped deep, as we see in the graphic below, she helps overload the middle from the left half-space. This increases the options for the full-backs and the centre-backs to connect with and Walsh is much more confident to play the ball forward. We also see the Ertz is dragged out of her deep position to close down Stanway leaving behind the threat of White, Hemp and Parris who can receive the ball in the space in front of USA’s defensive line. This tactic seemed to solve England’s buildup problems despite temporarily sacrificing Stanway’s attacking potential but they did not use it often enough to create opportunities for themselves.
Houghton versus Lloyd
It was the battle of the veteran captains that ultimately dictated the script of the game, as the two goals that secured the win for USA came from the sheer class of Carli Lloyd and the defensive errors of Steph Houghton. A short clip of the highlights of this game would reveal a nightmare of a game for the English captain against the US captain, but it’s a bit harsh to blame Houghton for the result as there were issues that began early on.
We already elaborated USA’s high press and how it created problems at the back for England. Houghton had to repeatedly leave her defensive position to intervene to try and cut down the passes to Lloyd who often attempted to receive the ball in the space right in front of the English defensive line. Here we see early on during the game, Heath attempting a low cross to Lloyd who is positioned in a dangerous area in front of the defenders. This forces Houghton to beat her to the ball.
It is common that when a centre-half is forced to juggle between the role of a defender who holds the line and a defensive midfielder who commits forward to make vital interceptions, there are defensive errors beckoning which exactly happened in Houghton’s case.
If we analyse USA’s first goal we see the move starts as Ertz intercepts a pass to Stanway with England attempting to transition into attack. Ertz interception is targeted to Lloyd who looked to receive the ball in the space in front of the English defence. Houghton leaves her position to close Lloyd down leaving a big gap in the defence that Press intelligently attacks. Lloyd is able to hold the ball, turn and feed Press back who manages to curve it into the far post beyond the flailing arm of Telford with neat precision.
The second goal could be a debate for offside as we see here, Lloyd coming back from an advanced position is off at the moment the ball was played. But the bigger error here is from the part of the English defence that looks completely unaware of Lloyd behind them and find themselves all over the place with three players pushing up into ‘no man’s land.’ This perfect chip ball from Horan finds Lloyd who once again shows her class to finish with her left foot after caressing it with a touch of finesse.
Tactical changes and substitutions
With a two-goal cushion, USA brought on Rapinoe in place of the goal scorer Press. Rapinoe played wider than Press and the formation looked more like a 4-5-1 to secure the lead. Rapinoe operating in the wide corridor allowed Dunn to attack the half-space and push forward to overload the attack with underlapping runs. Horan dropped deeper when this happened to receive the ball from the central defenders. On the opposite flank, O’Hara would be the free player ready to attack the right wing as an option to switch the play with a long ball.
If Phil Neville’s lineup was not the best picked to face USA, his substitutions made little effect. He first brought on Nobbs in place of Scott to provide more creativity in attack and operate between the lines of pressure. An immediate objective of Nobbs was to combine with Parris and play more crosses into USA’s penalty box from the right half-space as we see in the graphic below.
Nobbs would have combined well with Stanway and the pair could have caused problems for Ertz and forced Heath and Horan to track back, but he immediately replaced Stanway with Duggan, a striker. He then changed White for England which changed the dynamic of England’s attack and the lionesses simply did not have enough time to work out the new relationships with the substitutes and get back into the game.
Neville rightly referred to the USA as the benchmark and the best team currently in women’s football. However during this game, it felt like the lionesses treated their opponents with too much respect and failed to push hard enough for a win. There were times when England looked like they could tactically push the world champions but did not believe in themselves and their strategy strong enough.
There is a lot to go back to the drawing board for Neville and his players after this game, and if anything, USA managed to expose England’s weaknesses that they need to immediately amend during this tournament. USA displayed a top-class performance and were simply better in every department. The experience of players like Lloyd, Ertz and Press shows how the instinctive chemistry developed over the years can manage to trouble even the most tactically superior teams.