I enjoy watching the US Women team play. They are the top of the heap of soccer for women. And, being American, it is nice to be able to always be the favorite — even when you are playing European teams! At the same time, I think there is an argument that they could be even better if they handled the ball more.
It was impressive to see the US Women start the New Zealand game with the amount of pressure they applied. Everywhere NZL went, the US pressed them farther. That stood out. What also stood out was the speed of movement when we had the ball — I am not referring to the movement of the players, I am referring to movement of the ball. Generally speaking, the USWNT exercise one-touch passing. While all directions are explored, the only real areas they seem interested in are forward and wide. Almost every pass played backwards is followed by a long ball up. The right back, for instance, played it long the following times she had the ball played back to her (I only charted the first 33 minutes):
10:34 drop then long ball led to loss of possession
11:19 drop to right back and sent up (long) – maintained possession
19:00 right back played another long that led to loss of possession
21:43 right back played another long that led to loss of possession
27:33 right back turned the ball over again
I only started charting at the seventh minute – in the note on the 10:34 entry, I note that it was the fourth time the backs had played long resulting in loss of possession. This is all interesting, but not the real point of the blog tonight. I just wanted to point out that there is no such thing as playing the ball out from our backs. And, as I have written before, the argument between territory and possession, I prefer possession unless you can have a shot off the long service.
Getting back to dribbling, there were several instances in the first 1/3 of the game where a player had the ball and space. Given that situation, why pass? If the pass is a killer pass, it makes sense, but what if it is not? What if the player has the ball and space in mouth of the goal (but outside the box)? At the 16:34, Abby has just that situation. Rather than press the ball into the throat of the goal (allowing a teammate to cut in behind the defense or allowing a shot), she immediately sends it wide to Rapinoe. In this particular instance, Rapinoe crossed it immediately back in and it almost resulted in a goal (to be fair). But, if you have the ball and space, why not require the defense (in front of the goal) to commit to you? Abby does that at the 28:45 mark – opting to dribble instead of throw the ball wide. The result was a fantastic through ball up the middle, in front of the goal, rather than away from it.
In the Olympic Edition of Sports Illustrated (August 6, 2012), Megan Rapinoe is profiled. I had not read this article but as I was telling my wife about what I observed, she recommended it. Rapinoe was one of the few Americans who at least held the ball at times. While her moves in the first 1/3 of the game were limited to cuts and turns out wide, she at least handled the ball. Interestingly, she is viewed as an “un-American” player.
“Truth be told, Pinoe is the most un-American player in the U.S. women’s soccer, and that’s a compliment. For decades that U.S. has thrived on strength and speed more than skill…Rapinoe relies instead on clever dribbling, fluid movement and visionary passing…The key to her creativity, she says, was playing under Danny Cruz, her club coach at age 13 with Elk Grove United in Sacramento.
‘I don’t think he ever really told me how to play. . . He was really good about letting us make mistakes and play free. . . There are a lot of really bad coaches in the U.S. who maybe don’t focus on the right things. Sometimes creativity is stamped out at a young age.'” (Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated, August 6, 2012)
Funny thing — Sam Snow, US Youth Director of Coaches, says the same thing — we are coaching the game out of the players! Do we give our players the same opportunities?
Back to the game against NZL, the first goal was created after an excellent ball through the defense (from right to left, diagonally) with which Alex Morgan held onto it. She challenged the defender to the left of the goal, in the box. The defender had to retreat, giving Alex space to send a superb cross (shorter range). Abby finished it. This was in the 26:28 minute of the game. Alex’s challenge to beat the defender 1v1 created her space to send the cross.
And, to answer the question about passing too much. The default in soccer, I understand, is that if there is an open teammate, we should send the ball there. We should stretch the defense with width (and length). But, watching Pirlo play for Italy in the Euros, there is something to be said for at least “carrying” the ball (not necessarily beating people off the dribble, but drawing defenders to you then distributing is en effective way of managing the midfield.) If you pass the ball too quickly, it may have the opposite effect on the defense — they do not have the time to commit so they just stay in place.
We used to use a similar strategy in basketball. At high school, while our basketball team was above average, we competed at the highest level of Texas basketball (5A). Our coaches’ philosophy was to play zone – we usually played a 2-3. We allowed the opposing team freedom of ball movement anywhere outside our zone — we used it for breathers. At the same time, penetrating dribblers challenged our defense – requiring us to commit and move.
I hope that, going forward, as a new generation of soccer players are developed, that we do not default back to the strength and speed philosophy.