Updated: Jan 1, 2020
The US defeated England last night, in one of the most thrilling games of the tournament. It had everything: Great goals, great passes, a goal taken away by VAR, a saved penalty, a red card. In the end, the US booked their place in a third consecutive World Cup final, a monumental achievement.
There are plenty of reasons why the US came out on top. But the critical difference-maker, somewhat shockingly, was the tactical decisions from coach Jill Ellis.
I know. I’m as surprised as anyone.
Christen Press made a big difference on the left wing
The starting XI announcement brought several interesting changes, but by far the most notable was the replacement of Megan Rapinoe with Christen Press. As details emerged, it became clear that this was a switch from necessity more than choice. A hamstring strain meant Rapinoe would never have been able to start.
Just like four years ago, outside circumstances prevented Ellis from sticking with her same XI. And just like four years ago, the resulting change worked out extremely well.
All the pre-game hype had focused on Rapinoe—partly due to the surrounding political controversies and partly because she had scored all four of the US goals so far in the knockout phase. But that goal-scoring record did not actually tell the full tale. Rapinoe had one of her worst games in memory against Sweden to end the group stage—losing the ball repeatedly and offering virtually no successful attacking moves. She was better, though only marginally against Spain, despite facing one of the weaker right backs in the tournament. The two goals she scored both came from penalties. They count the same, of course, but it was hardly a vintage Rapinoe performance.
She was better against France, though still hardly looked like the Megan Rapinoe who has been one of the best players in the NWSL over the past two seasons. But that made her third game in eight days, and Rapinoe is no longer young. For a player in her mid-30s, who had already looked sluggish over the course of the tournament, it felt like a bridge too far to expect anything close from her top level in the semifinal.
On another team, with limited options, the case for starting her would still be powerful. Look at the Netherlands, who keep running out a clearly less-than-fit Lieke Martens. But the US has the deepest roster in the world. Specifically, they have Christen Press, who has arguably been the US forward in the best form over the course of 2019. And unlike in previous years, when Press was an ill fit out wide, she’s increasingly grown into that role—developing both in her ability to serve as creator of chances for others, and as a striker herself.
Then consider what else Press brings. She has speed to burn. And crucially, unlike Rapinoe, she’s capable of putting in a solid defensive shift. That would be critically important against England, who have the world’s best attacking right back, and some of the best right wingers, and had every intention of targeting Crystal Dunn as the weak link in the US backline. With Press on the pitch, England had far less room to run at Dunn in space. Spain actively shifted the defense away from Rapinoe’s position, urging the US to attack that space. But with Press’s superior ball retention, England could not afford to do the same. That kept Bronze back further and limited her influence further up the pitch. And Press is obviously no slouch on the attacking end, either. Despite a history of checkered performances in big games, she turned up huge last night, delivering the first goal, and playing a key role in setting up the second.
Called into the spotlight, Christen Press delivered at the highest level, and was potentially the difference-maker in the match. It wasn’t surprising that she was great. But it was surprising that she got the chance at all.
Sticking with Rose Lavelle
The other big talking point of the USA XI was the midfield. Over the tournament, the US have repeatedly faced the happy problem of having four players that all deserved to start, but only three spots for them to fill. With Julie Ertz apparently nailed in as the unchangeable number 6, that really left three players—Lindsey Horan, Sam Mewis, and Rose Lavelle—for two spots. In the octofinals and quarterfinals, Ellis had chosen to sit Horan. It was a move met with bewilderment and frustration. That’s not a knock against Mewis and Lavelle, who have been among the best players in the tournament. But Horan is on the very short list of players who might conceivably be called the best in the world. It felt like madness to leave her on the bench.
After a rotten performance from Lavelle in the quarterfinals, the obvious move seemed to be to rest her for a game and call on Mewis and Horan. The extra athleticism and mobility in the midfield would provide some needed steel, and lessen the risk of getting torn to bits whenever Ertz went on walkabout.
But Ellis didn’t take the obvious move. Instead, she stuck with Lavelle and sat Mewis. Which turned out to be extraordinarily prescient.
England set up in a hybrid 4-4-2/4-2-3-1, with Nikita Parris in the free role, drifting between the midfield and front line. England coach Phil Neville may have been looking to find a way to get four dangerous strikers on the pitch, but in practice it left the England attack disjointed. But that left England’s holding pair of Jill Scott and Keira Walsh busy trying to cope with Horan and Ertz, and Parris somewhat adrift, Lavelle repeatedly found herself with the ball and acres of space to utilize. And she certainly took advantage of the opportunity, putting herself into dangerous positions over and over.
It wasn’t entirely a one-way affair. With Lavelle on the job, the US also occasionally found itself understaffed in the midfield, which allowed Walsh and Scott to occasionally get free. But overall the trade-off was a huge victory for the US. Lavelle was the most dangerous player on the pitch for the first half, while Parris accomplished far less in a similar position.
Neville outsmarted himself, and Ellis made him pay
England’s 4-4-2 didn’t make a huge amount of sense on paper, and it made even less sense once the US lineup was released. And the players themselves hardly seemed committed. As noted, Parris never really played like a second striker, dropping back far more often into a withdrawn striker role. The result wasn’t really any different from England’s more standard 4-3-3, except that the personnel were less well-suited to their positions.
As a huge fan of Rachel Daly’s work, I was thrilled to see her starting. Her speed, physicality, and directness made her a smart choice to double up with Bronze in an effort to overwhelm Crystal Dunn. But partly because of the Press-Rapinoe swap, and partly due to a lack of effective linkages with the midfield, this never worked as well as intended.
England’s greatest strength in this tournament has been the stratospheric rise of Ellen White—whose ability to split central defenders and work magic with a little space has absolutely taken the world by storm. But this setup provided her vanishingly few chances to work that magic. The ball went out right, and while Bronze and Daly were certainly able to beat Dunn on a few occasions, it was a slow process, which allowed the rest of the US defense to set up and block out White.
It’s precisely the same thing that happened to France a few days earlier, which makes it all the more confusing that Neville fell into the same trap. What France was missing, desperately, was a creative midfielder who could pick out angles and punish a defense with little room to maneuver. France doesn’t currently have that player. But England has two of them—Fran Kirby and Georgia Stanway—neither of whom saw the pitch until the final half hour.
Imagine having the key to a door, but insisting on trying to pick the lock anyway for an hour, while everyone stands around watching in frustration.
Whether it was stubbornness, or an inability to diagnose the problem, Neville wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t seem to find his way out.
Winning ugly is still winning
I wrote after the quarterfinal that ‘winning ugly is still winning,’ and that proved true once again last night. For the second straight game, the US settled into a back five during the second half, looking to close down attacking chances rather than to create much themselves.
Once again, it almost came back to haunt them. After all, it was during this period of deep-defending that England scored a goal—invalidated by VAR by the narrowest of margins—and earned a penalty. An inch or two difference in a run, and a better-taken penalty, and England could have taken the lead in the course of a few minutes.
But they didn’t.
That’s two games in a row where the US decided to sit on a lead, effectively daring the other team to prove they could rise to the moment. And that’s two games in a row where the other team faltered.
One could certainly criticize Ellis for exposing the team to risk. Why not keep attacking? The US is better, and were controlling the game. Why not continue to exploit the advantage? But when you have the lead, time is your friend. Scoring goals is hard. Even with some golden opportunities, England (and France before them) couldn’t get it done.
If they had, the US could certainly have opened back up. But they didn’t, and so after weathering the storm, the US spent the final quarter hour of the match drawing fouls and suffocating the game dead, content in the knowledge that their opponents had no more tricks up their sleeve.
Ellis is still a frustrating coach. But so is everyone else
Over the course of the tournament, Phil Neville has been a good coach. Not a great one, but that’s the thing. There aren’t any great coaches in the ranks of women’s soccer right now. The jobs aren’t lucrative or prestigious enough.
So Jill Ellis is a source of endless frustration to US fans and media. But she successfully out-managed Neville last night and Corinne Diacre a few days earlier. Kenneth Heiner-Møller’s anti-football only got Canada to the octofinals. Sarina Wiegman has effectively no ideas for the Dutch. Australia were a disaster. And on and on down the ranks.
So no, Ellis isn’t great. Especially when it comes to big picture tactics and style. But she’s managed to incorporate a few minor tactical tweaks. As I wrote two years ago, she’s a terrible strategic thinker, but a pretty solid tinkerer. And when you’re blessed with the best roster, that is often enough.
There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated with Ellis as a coach. This tournament doesn’t change that. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees. Because for all her limitations, she’s now 90 minutes away from winning her second consecutive World Cup.