Tactical analysis: Eric Bell’s TCU Horned Frogs
TCU went the fall season of 2020 undefeated in NCAA Women’s soccer, with an 8-0-1 record, and have picked up where they left off by beating Oklahoma 2-0 on March 20th, after having their first two Spring season fixtures against West Virginia and Baylor cancelled.
Head Coach Eric Bell, the winner of 2020’s Big 12 soccer coach of the year, has forged a winning program in his time at TCU thus far. In 2016, the Horned Frogs made their first NCAA tournament appearance, and they have been a mainstay in the tournament ever since. Thanks to their impressive undefeated run in the fall of 2020, they also won their maiden Big 12 championship. Under Bell, TCU are going from strength to strength and along with Florida State, North Carolina and UCLA, they rounded out the top four in the United Soccer Coaches NCAA D1 soccer rankings for the fixtures through to Feb 28, 2021.
Formation and personnel
In terms of a formation, there seems to be a little debate around what TCU field. Instat claim they use a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 but truthfully it is more of a 4-5-1. Bell prefers his wide attackers to stay relatively wide and link up with the full-backs, particularly on the right flank. Right-back Chaylyn Hubbard is more expansive than the defensively solid Brandi Peterson at left-back, as the diagram below shows. The width provided by TCU’s wide players leaves plenty of space either side of the centre-forward for their central-midfielders to push up in attack.
Out of possession, their shape begins more in a 4-1-4-1 where there is a clear definition between the positioning of the pivot and the rest of the midfield, but as the ball progresses with the opposition they will fall back into a 4-5-1. However, when they press, their shape starts far more aggressively, and we will look at this in more detail later on.
As for other personnel, Emily Alvarado has been consistently good in goal, whilst in central defence Serbian international and Senior Tijana Duricek partners the incredibly talented freshman Marz Akins. In central midfield Payton Crews can play as the pivot or in one of the two central-midfield positions in front, whilst freshman Olivia Hasler appears to be a natural in the pivot position herself. Gracie Brian and Michelle Slater take up the rest of the minutes in the central midfield positions. As for their attackers, they have some outstanding options. Yazmeen Ryan, who was drafted sixth overall by the Portland Thorns in the 2021 NWSL draft, is a player of true quality on the left-wing but can also play centrally, whilst sophomore Grace Collins shows quality in front of goal, combined with the ability to play in tight spaces, take on the left-back in a 1v1 with a good level of success, and possesses an excellent understanding with right-back Hubbard.
TCU have two strong options for their lone forward position, with both Maddy Warren and Messiah Bright two players with pace, strength and finishing ability. Of the two, Warren likes to drop deeper more and is potentially stronger with her back to goal. She will move out of the forward position and link up with the midfield like in the image below.
Whilst Bright can do this, she is the quicker and stronger of the two and as such is more of a threat facing goal. Bright is difficult to stop when running with the ball, and she plays superbly off the shoulder of the last defender. Warren can do this too, but defences can be less wary of playing a higher line against her. However, a high line against Bright could lead to TCU finding her behind the defence with accurate passes over the top.
The importance of the pivot
For TCU the pivot ties together much of what they do, and not just in the possession phase.
However, when TCU have the ball they look to circulate possession a great deal, waiting for space to open up to play forward into, and as you would expect, the pivot is used to aid quick and successful ball circulation.
Regardless of whether it’s Crews or Hasler, or even Brian dropping into this position, Bell wants his pivot close to possession at all times during build-up and they are required to work hard to get across the width of the pitch. TCU aren’t the quickest side on transition, but due to the pivots consistent proximity to a turnover in possession, TCU look to find them and allow the rest of the side to fall into formation whilst they look after the ball.
We can see this pattern occurring in the image below as the ball is won back by TCU and quickly recycled to the pivot. We can see these two passes, along with the space the pivot finds themselves in, allows TCU’s back line to get deeper and wider, which will subsequently facilitate effective ball circulation.
Teams facing TCU have to be careful when deciding to clear their lines. If they are simply looking to relieve pressure and allow their defence to push up, then the long ball needs to clear TCU’s backline. If it doesn’t, it’s likely the pivot will be close enough to receive a quick pass from their defence and allow TCU to continue their attack once more. Even when the long ball forward from the opposition, intercepted by a centre-back as we can see in the image below, is supported by a press, the pivot is able to find space to receive a quick forward pass.
Another way around this would be to ensure the pivot is closely marked, but that would require you to leave more players forward when defending deep against TCU, which is a risky strategy in itself.
Finally, the pivot plays close enough to the defence to support them when they are pulled out of position. Bell has no issue with his full-backs pushing forward to press in wide areas, but he wants his pivot close enough where they can fill in at full-back in case the opposition look to hit this area once it is vacated by the TCU full-back.
Using triangles and wide areas to build attacks
The pivot plays a key role in build-up, specifically when it comes to TCU’s use of triangles in wide areas to progress the ball. If the pass is played from one of the centre-backs into one of the wingers, as we see in the image below, then the pivot is close enough to allow TCU to pull out of playing down this flank, and give the option to switch the ball to the other side. If the pivot isn’t close in this situation, then the winger only has the choice to play straight back to the centre-back or play to the outside to her full-back, and this makes the job of pressing far easier for the opponent.
TCU will generally have their triangle on the flank structured like in the image below. This is most commonly made up of the full-back in the deepest position, with their winger directly in front and a central-midfielder inside. TCU look to use these three players to overload on the flank and advance possession in this shape. However, the pivot again is close enough to allow them to move the ball out of this area if they don’t feel if the overload isn’t on.
Bell has his centre-forward ready to support this triangle further forward, and as they drop in to receive, they immediately have an option either side of them, with the winger continuing their run down the wing, and the central-midfielder pushing forward. We can see this in the image below.
These triangles give TCU a basic but effective structure when playing forward.
The centre-forward won’t always shift across like this, and as mentioned in the formation section of this analysis, Bell likes his two central-midfielders positioned in front of the pivot, to push up either side of the striker. With TCU’s forward staying central, it forces the opposition defence to sit slightly more compact, and this creates more space on the outside. When TCU have the likes of Ryan and Collins on either flank, this is a good outcome for them.
Below we can see a quick interchange between Collins on the right-wing and her central-midfielder positioned inside. Collins has drawn the Oklahoma left-back forward, but the rest of the Oklahoma defence has stayed more central due to the presence of Bright up front. We can see in the image how Bright moves towards goal at this moment, rather than shifting across towards Collins. Collins can then play inside, and loop around into the highlighted space to receive the ball behind the Oklahoma defence.
Of course, TCU won’t work the ball inside every time when they have these triangles, and teams need to be aware of right-back Hubbard’s overlaps on her flank, as she links up so well with Collins. Collins will drop in to receive the pass, again drawing the left-back forward, and Hubbard has the pace to overlap and hit the space behind before Collins plays her in.
Pressing and defensive shape
TCU aren’t necessarily an intense pressing team for the full game, but do use an intelligent pressing structure when the opponent immediately looks to build-up from the back, often from a goal-kick. They initially press with their lone forward, and frankly she doesn’t press with much intensity or intention, and although the centre-back chooses to play forward in the image below, the striker isn’t doing enough to show them to play into this area of the pitch, and the centre-back could have switched the ball to the other centre-back.
But nevertheless the ball is played forwards into the Kansas State pivot, at which point TCU begin to press with a little more intensity and the centre-forward, Warren comes alive. We can see TCU have three players in the second line of the press – their two wingers and a central-midfielder. The latter presses the ball-carrier, showing them back to the original centre-back, whilst their wingers are narrow, but in a position where they can push forward to press if needed.
But Bell keeps his two wingers narrow with the striker, now pressing the centre-back, and the central-midfielder pressing forward at an angle, leaving the pivot she had just pressed in her cover shadow. The left-winger doesn’t push wide to press the full-back, instead hanging back and blocking the forward pass.
The left-winger intercepts the pass as a result, plays in Warren with a through pass, and we can see how TCU’s right winger is now in a position to help TCU exploit the 2v1 against Kansas State’s lone centre-back.
This move didn’t come to anything, but it shows how dangerous this pressing trap can be. TCU want the opposition centre-back to play into their pivot and receive the pass back, as TCU press this pass. By then staying compact, they can intercept the pass and with the opposition defence now very spread apart,TCU can counter with their narrow, compact attacking structure.
Beyond an initial pressing structure, TCU operate with a defined midfield four, with the pivot bridging the gap between this four and the TCU defence. Just as they have a defined approach in their build-up, they are similarly defined and well-drilled in their defensive set-up too. We can see the midfield four are very flat, and in this case isolated from the rest of the team. In the image below the centre-forward and pivot aren’t in shot, showing how vertically stretched TCU can be in the defensive phase.
The lack of vertical compactness can lead to opportunities to bypass the midfield four. The opposition are best served attacking either side of the pivot, and looking to play directly into the centre-forward, who can receive the ball behind the pivot too. In doing so the pivot can’t simply shift across the pitch to try and break up play, but the pass can take them out entirely. If this pass is supported by a third-man run, as we can see in the image below, it can cause TCU problems.
At times the midfield four can even lack compactness, and as long as the opponent can ensure a presence between the lines, there is a chance to play through their defensive structure. However, if the ball is played between the lines as it is in the image below, the pivot will push forward with some intensity. As long as the player receiving possession is scanning, and aware of this, this can even be used to their advantage. The opponent can bypass the midfield four and potentially draw the pivot out of position. If this player can move the ball on quickly to an overlapping full-back for example, a team could quickly and effectively play through TCU’s entire midfield.
Finally, we hark back to the beginning of the analysis where TCU’s lack of urgency on the transition was noted. If the ball can be turned over, there is a good chance to hit the space between TCU’s centre-backs and their full-backs, if the full-backs are positioned wide and high. This can be seen happening in the image below, although the Oklahoma midfielder looking to hit this space hits a ground pass, which is intercepted by Akins. However, if this player had simply lifted their pass, and forced Akins to have to turn to face goal before running after the ball, whilst the Oklahoma striker was already facing goal, then there would be a far greater chance of catching them on the transition with this ball in behind.
TCU are going to be a tough team to beat this season, and likely going forward, such is the young talent on this roster who still have plenty of college soccer left to play. Credit goes to the entire TCU staff who have not only instilled a solid, clear style of play, but also recruited well and created a roster full of technically gifted players who are developed athletes too. They are a patient team in possession, who will continuously circle the ball and wait for the right opening, yet are still a dangerous attacking team, whose wealth of attacking talent on either flank allows them to get behind teams in these areas. Yet there are still areas that can be exploited, and if an opponent can make a few adjustments to make TCU’s build-up play less comfortable, whilst deal with their press, look to consistently break the lines during their own build-up, and seek to hurt them on transition, they’ll give themselves every chance of causing an upset.