“This is just a starting point”: Why England showed their World Cup credentials with “fortunate” win against the USA – tactical analysis
2022 has already been a year to remember for England’s women’s football team, with their Euro 2022 win ending the country’s 56-year wait for a major trophy whilst also increasing national interest in the women’s game. With that in mind, the visit of double world champions the USA was always going to be a match that current and new fans would look forward to, and it did not disappoint, with the two teams putting on a performance that demonstrated why both are currently in possession of major titles.
This tactical analysis will look in greater depth at both sides’ performances, looking at how the USA’s press caught England out in the first half and how they changed their game plan as the match went on, whilst also identifying how England’s key tactics caused problems for their opponents, but also how mistakes let them down at key moments.
England manager Sarina Wiegman had a few selection headaches ahead of this game, with the influential captain and Arsenal Women centre-back Leah Williamson ruled out with an ankle problem in the build-up, joining Manchester United Women striker Alessia Russo and West Ham United Women defender Lucy Parker in withdrawing from the squad. Ellen White’s retirement meant that Wiegman had no fit strikers in her squad, so Manchester City Women’s Lauren Hemp operated in a false nine role, with club teammate Chloe Kelly and England women’s player of the year Beth Mead either side of her. Alex Greenwood partnered Millie Bright, who had been given the captain’s armband, in central defence, whilst Aston Villa Women’s Rachel Daly, who has impressed as a forward for her club this season, was once again positioned at left-back.
USA head coach Vlatko Andonovski also had injury problems in this match, with key players including Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh, Christen Press and Catarina Macario all currently out of action. As a result, Washington Spirit captain Andi Sullivan was handed a start in front of the defensive line, whilst fellow Spirit player Trinity Rodman was included in a wide attacking role and Portland Thorns’ top scorer Sophia Smith led the line. Lindsey Horan had the captain’s armband, with regular skipper Becky Sauerbrunn on the bench, and San Diego Wave star Naomi Girma was selected to partner Alana Cook in central defence.
The USA’s attacking play
Whilst the history books will show that the USA lost this match, it should be mentioned that they had a clear game plan and knew what they wanted to do, with England finding it difficult at times to match the pace and precision of some of their attacking play in particular.
One thing that they do a lot when on the offensive is to get numbers up the field and press their opponents’ defensive line, and that is clear here as they have four players all in a line and ready to win the ball high up the field.
However, where they are clever is that players are not expected to remain in one position and are instead encouraged to move around and occupy different roles in order to make it as difficult as possible for their opponents to predict which will press, which will move infield or hold the width, and which will not be the main threat. The fact that their players are adaptable means that every one of them is a weapon that the USA can use, and it’s generally the case that, if it isn’t one player making the key contribution, then it’s another who is causing the damage, and that again demonstrates how unpredictable they are to play against.
However, the reason that they can get this number of players into advanced areas and have them all inside the pitch is because of the support that they receive from the full-backs, with OL Reign right-back Sofia Huerta particularly good at getting up the field and controlling the wing, meaning that Rodman, in this case, can focus purely on the ball and not have to worry about any responsibilities in the wide channel.
This then leads to the final point that needs to be made with this, which is that, by getting this number of players up the pitch and yet still keeping their width, they force the opposing defensive line to spread out as they look to close off as many different attacking routes as possible. That means that gaps are left open for the central players to run through, which is where Sophia Smith in particular is at her best. Therefore, one reason that the USA were so dangerous in this game was that their key players were all playing to their strengths, which was because all the different elements of their attacking setup were working well.
When spaces weren’t as available, the USA didn’t worry and instead looked to manipulate England’s defensive line into creating gaps for them to exploit. Here, Smith has the ball but is in a wider position and is being closed down by Millie Bright, so, as things stand, the visitors are not in a position where they can shoot at goal. However, Megan Rapinoe has noticed this and runs across the goal area in order to attract the attention of Lucy Bronze, who follows the OL winger towards the ball.
This takes Bronze out of the way and gives Rodman time to run forward into the space left unoccupied by the England full-back, with Rapinoe not touching the ball and the home side realising too late what their opponents were looking to do here, and Rodman was unlucky to see her effort here be chalked off for a questionable offside. However, the fact that different players were working together here in order to create the shot on goal again shows how their clever movement is essential to them posing a threat in the final third, as well as demonstrating again how their success is built on players being able to move into different roles around the pitch as required.
However, for all of the USA’s positive attacking play in the first half, they had been lacking in defence, with spaces being left open and England having plenty of opportunities to break through and access the areas behind them. As a result, the visitors’ focus in the second half switched towards sitting back and making themselves harder to beat, as they showed more patience out of possession and then counterattacked with numbers at speed once they won the ball.
One way in which they went about this was by setting traps for England to fall into in different areas of the pitch, with Chloe Kelly receiving the ball here in her own half and instantly finding herself surrounded by five opponents, making it hard for her to find a teammate and for England to keep possession. The pressure from the USA and her body position means that her only realistic passing option is Georgia Stanway, in the yellow circle, although her pass towards the Bayern Munich Frauen player is easily intercepted by Lindsey Horan, who immediately plays the ball forwards and looks to get her team back on the front foot. Therefore, this shows once again how the USA are adaptable during matches, although this time it was tactical rather than through the positioning of individual players.
England, for their part, did play well at times, demonstrating good ball control and an ability to alter their way of playing depending on what their opponents were doing, and that is something that has changed under Sarina Wiegman’s leadership and helped them to succeed at Euro 2022 by winning matches in different ways.
In this game, it was very much about the pace going forwards, with England looking to be patient at the back and wait for their opportunity, before attacking at speed once a chance arrived. It was relatively easy for them to play this way because the USA’s passing in the early stages lacked accuracy and control, with this pass from Rapinoe to Huerta being intercepted easily by Kelly, who then had space to progress the ball deep into the USA’s half and create a shot on goal.
The fact that she was joined by Fran Kirby and Lauren Hemp in this move further added to the threat, and, even though this chance didn’t lead to a goal, it was clear that England were always going to be a threat when allowed to have this much space and time to move the ball around in, and it was something that the USA needed to be more aware of during the first half.
It was for this reason that the USA sat back more after the break, with England having to show a lot more patience in possession and needing to wait for the chances to move the ball up the pitch to come. This did invite increased pressure from the USA’s front line, as the visitors looked to force mistakes, but one thing that England have always done well under Wiegman’s tutelage is playing through their opponents.
The reason that they are so good at this is because of the role played by Keira Walsh, who has become a vital cog in England’s machine and has helped them to move the ball around the pitch with her wide variety of passing. However, it is her defensive positioning here which was essential, with England’s back four in good positions and giving themselves the option of moving the ball up the pitch and gaining territory without taking too many risks, but Walsh plays the crucial role by moving across the pitch and always being where the ball is, allowing her team to create these triangular structures and pass around individual opponents, beating their press.
England needed to keep the ball for extended periods of the second half due to the spaces in the final third being closed off, and this was a successful tactic that they deployed in order to play with that mentality and ensure that the USA had as few chances as possible to get on the ball and create clear shots on goal.
However, when the home side did look to attack, they didn’t have enough quality in the middle of the pitch, often losing their way and not playing forwards quickly enough and allowing the USA to get numbers back behind the ball. This was something that Wiegman clearly noticed, with her decision to introduce Manchester United playmaker Ella Toone in the 68th minute helping them to play more forwards passes and give Hemp some much-needed support, and her presence seemed to elevate England’s second-half performance as they looked to finish the match off as a contest, with Toone providing a link between the midfielders and the forwards and not dropping back as much as Kirby had been before being taken off.
The effect of this was that it gave the other England players added encouragement, with Stanway in particular never too far away from Toone and more often than not looking to play forwards rather than taking the easy option of going back towards her own goal. The Bayern Munich Frauen player has arguably been one of England’s best players since the start of the Euros and is definitely someone that her team at the moment can’t be without, and her ability to dictate periods of play in the second half was key to England creating goalscoring opportunities even when they looked to be second best on the field.
There is no doubt that England will take a lot of positives from this performance. Still, there were also some key details that they will look at again and know that they could have done better in, and it is these that Wiegman will no doubt be concentrating on ahead of next year’s trip to Australia and New Zealand.
One aspect of their game that the home side lacked all evening was their decision-making, especially at the back. As mentioned, their tactics were to keep the ball moving in their own third and tire the USA’s forward line out as much as possible, before striking with pace when the opportunity arrived. However, this was a brave way of playing, and, in order for it to work, teams have to be tidy at the back and not give the ball away cheaply, which unfortunately wasn’t always the case with England.
Here, Bright is looking for a teammate to move the ball to, with Bronze the obvious target on the far side of the pitch, but the Chelsea Women player either didn’t see her or opted not to use her, with the ball instead travelling up the field towards Stanway, who is out of shot. However, she had less time than Bronze to control the ball and turn, due to Horan closing her down, so there was more risk that the ball would be lost with this pass. This mistake was exactly what the USA had been waiting for, as they had been looking to force errors and capitalise on loose passes like this one, and the fact that Horan dislodged the ball and Smith, in the red circle, put it in the back of the net showed how easy it was for the USA and just how much England’s poor judgement cost them at times.
However, it was unsurprising that Smith was in this area of the pitch in the first place and showed this clinical finishing ability, with this heatmap showing how she often frequents these advanced areas of the pitch and doesn’t tend to drop back that often. This was something that England needed to be more aware of, but moments like this showed that they lost their awareness just when they needed it, and the fact that Smith currently has 14 NWSL goals to her name so far this season means that the result was inevitable once the ball came to her.
The other thing that England had problems with was their final pass or cross in the final third, with a lack of accuracy and quality meaning that they failed to convert a number of their opportunities. Here, Kelly has received a good pass from Stanway and moved into a dangerous area of the pitch, but her cross went behind Toone and Hemp, who had both gone forwards, meaning that the ball bounced a number of times before finally reaching Beth Mead, in the yellow circle.
However, whilst the Arsenal forward is still a good player to get on the ball, the time that it took to reach her meant that the USA could get numbers back and close off any possibility of a shot being taken, and that is the key point. This was not a one-off either, with it happening on plenty of occasions, and it would have frustrated Wiegman as she has always said that she wants her team to score as many goals as possible and take their chances in front of goal. Unfortunately in this match, there were some finer details missing that prevented them from showing their usual potency.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the much-anticipated clash between England and the USA, seeing why England ultimately came out on top and why the USA, despite showing their ability to adapt during the match, came out as second-best.
England would not have been expecting a perfect performance, given the calibre of their opponents, but they might have hoped to have been better in defence and not given their opponents as much space as they did, and that is what a lot of fans will have been worried about when watching on Friday night. Wiegman did say afterwards that this game was merely a starting point in their preparations for next year’s World Cup, and they undoubtedly showed their tournament credentials by beating the current world champions. However, as has been clear throughout this analysis, there are still things for the Lionesses to work on between now and then, so they aren’t the finished article yet.
The USA, meanwhile, will have been disappointed with the loss but encouraged with their performance, and there is no doubt that England were fortunate to come away with the win. Again, it is worth mentioning that they were missing several key players who should be back for the World Cup, but the fact that some of the next generation impressed in their places is a huge positive and showed that there is a lot to look forward to once the likes of Rapinoe, Morgan and Press have hung up their boots.
England’s next game sees them host Czech Republic in another friendly on Tuesday evening, which will take place at Brighton and Hove Albion’s Amex Stadium. Meanwhile, the USA continue their mini tour of Europe with a trip to Spain on the same day, with that game being hosted by Osasuna’s Estadio El Sadar.