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Bush: Ellis’ Three-Back Formation Fails the Test

Ali Krieger goes up for a header against Jodie Taylor in the SheBelieves Cup (photo: Chelsey Bush for The Equalizer)

Ali Krieger goes up for a header against Jodie Taylor in the SheBelieves Cup (photo copyright Chelsey Bush for The Equalizer)

Ever since Jill Ellis rolled out her three-back formation last October in direct response to the USWNT’s inability to break down a bunker that cost them a chance at an Olympic medal, everyone has been waiting for it to be truly tested. Despite a few nervy moments that made many uneasy, neither Switzerland nor Romania provided the desired test, and it was accepted that the time would come when three of the top five teams in the world traveled to the U.S. for the second SheBelieves Cup. We got the test we were waiting for, more than once, and, well, they failed it. Badly.

LACKLUSTER GERMANY PROVIDES LITTLE PRESSURE

With Germany the reigning Olympic champion and number two-ranked team in the world, expectations were high that new head coach Steffi Jones’ side would come out swinging, forcing the retooled U.S. defense to deal with the kind of pressure to which they had yet to be exposed. However, a sputtering German squad, who like the U.S. ended up scoring only one goal in the tournament, preferred to sit back and attack center midfield.

The result was that while Samantha Mewis and Morgan Brian were overrun in the middle of the pitch, Becky Sauerbrunn, Allie Long and Casey Short were never really pressured. It was the fifth straight start with Sauerbrunn on the right and Long in the middle, and the fourth with Short on the left, cementing this as Ellis’ preferred lineup. The biggest test for Alyssa Naeher in goal came in the 12th minute when Sara Däbritz got a step on Brian and fired a rocket from the top of the box, surpassing the back line completely. While Dzsenifer Maroszán rounded Short late in the game and got a superb cross off, no German player was there to trouble Long or Sauerbrunn, and the game ended with, if not an outright pass, at least a checkmark for the defense. They may not have been troubled, but they didn’t look too out of sorts.

{MORE: Williams wins the day for the US}

ENGLAND PRESSES NEW BACK LINE

Ellis went with wholesale lineup changes in the game against England, including Julie Johnston for Long, Ali Krieger for Short and Ashlyn Harris for Naeher in goal. For both defenders, this was the first ninety minutes for the US since the Olympics and first start since September. Interestingly, England has played with a three-back of its own of late, so we might have had the opportunity to compare the two at once, but they reverted back to a traditional four for this game.

England immediately went on the offensive, and although we saw rust from both the new faces in the back line (and late signs of fatigue from Krieger), they defended well despite a few slip ups that forced Harris to work. This includes a 32nd-minute clearance by Johnston who dropped the ball to the feet of Nikita Parris, who then split Krieger and Rose Lavelle for a point-blank shot. The English goal that let the game slip away in the 89th minute was off a set piece and a result of a weak clearance and miscommunication between Brian and Johnston. Neither the goal nor the preceding corner kick can be argued as direct results of the weaknesses of the formation; rather, they were simply the consequence of poor defending all around. Overall, the Lionesses presented a much stronger product than the Germans, and the defense was put to an equally stronger test. While it didn’t pass with flying colors, neither did it fail.

{MORE: USWNT loses 1-0 to England late | Photo Essay: USA vs England}

FRANCE BRINGS THE HEAT

During the 2016 SheBelieves Cup, France didn’t score a single goal. Prior to the tournament, they were unlikely candidates to play the best game against the U.S., never mind win the tournament entirely. But they did both, and emphatically.

Somewhat inexplicably given the stronger performance against England, Ellis reverted to her Germany lineup for the France game, only swapping Lavelle for Dunn at right wing. The result was that France put on a clinic, and the US was thoroughly embarrassed. A 3-0 score line in and of itself is not the end of the world – the U.S. regularly beats up on teams by much worse. It was the manner in which France picked apart the U.S. defense, a game in which every single goal was the result of a repeated defensive breakdown.

Let’s look at France goal by goal. In the eighth minute, Amel Majri stripped the ball from Brian in midfield and immediately slotted it through to Eugénie Le Sommer, who sped between Long and Short as if they were standing still, leaving Naeher no choice but to come out, fouling Le Sommer. Abily put the resulting penalty kick away, and they were on the board.

A perfectly weighted long ball from Wendie Renard landed at the feet of Le Sommer again, already well ahead of Short. Again, she easily outpaced Long (despite what appeared to be jersey and arm grabbing), caused a closing Sauerbrunn to slip on the wet grass with her crossover and sent it past a poorly-positioned Naeher. Up by two within ten minutes.

The U.S. attempted a brief rally in the second half, but in the 63rd minute their defense fatally stumbled once more. With Tobin Heath already covering Elodie Thomis on the left side, Mewis stepped toward Thomis from Le Sommer, and Short did the same, leaving Eve Perisset wide open on the flank. Thomis passed the ball to Le Sommer, who popped it to Perisset. With yards of time and space, Perisset sent in a low cross to Abily, who was inside the box unnoticed by Long despite Naeher both yelling and pointing. Sauerbrunn left Majri open at far post to try to close on Abily, but it was too late.

{MORE: France stuns USWNT | Lauletta’s final thoughts on France, USWNT}

REINVENTING THE WHEEL

Critics of the USWNT have long said the team was too afraid to lose, and Ellis has shown an admirable commitment to giving her players time to adjust to the new formation. However, it’s been six months, with seven games and a long camp in January, and they failed their biggest test with a big fat X.

To refer to the above example, Washington Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra rolled out a surprise three-back formation in the 2016 NWSL final, and it worked for most of 123 minutes, only falling in the last minute of stoppage time off a set piece, which doesn’t really reflect the formation. No matter how much time he’d practiced it, that formation and lineup had not seen any actual game time previously, so why does Ellis need months?

To answer, let’s look at the personnel. Gabarra placed his slowest center back, Whitney Church, in the center, putting two more center backs – Shelina Zadorsky and Megan Oyster – on either side. Above the back line he placed Tori Huster at defensive mid in the center, with fullbacks Ali Krieger and Caprice Dydasco (later subbed for Alyssa Kleiner) at wingback.

Ellis has chosen to put an attacking midfielder (Long) in the center, with one of the world’s best center backs whose biggest flaw is her lack of pace on the right (Sauerbrunn) and on the left, a fullback whose best quality is her attack (Short). In her second lineup, she placed an actual center back in the center (Johnston), with a player who has spent the vast majority of the last decade at right back on the left (Krieger). In all three games she went with a dual pivot above Long/Johnston and a rotating cast of a left wing (Tobin Heath), two forwards (Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh), and a center midfielder (Lavelle) at wide mid – all among the U.S.’s most creative attacking players.

The three-back requires two things – pace and defensive cover. Because a defender is removed when you go from a four to a three-back, they have more ground to cover and thus need the speed to do so. With the potential for space to be exposed, a strong defensive mid is also necessary, as are wingbacks with the defensive chops to fall back. While Heath and Dunn are both willing and able to drop back, it lessens their offensive threat, and honestly, it’s a waste of their talent. Pugh doesn’t have the necessary defensive skills, nor has she yet learned how to work with center midfield from a deep position. Lavelle was thrown into two new positions for her first two caps (both left and right mid) performing admirably, but a larger sample is needed to judge her at the spot.

Not to mention, Ellis does not consider her wide midfielders to be wingbacks. Rather, they are pure wingers who will only provide defensive cover if absolutely necessary, as they would in a more traditional four-back situation. A three-back formation is already vulnerable to being overloaded on the flanks, and the removal of the defensive mindset and responsibilities of these midfielders makes it even more so, as France exploited so thoroughly.

“These guys are not to drop into our back line unless they absolutely have to, which is what they would do in the same position as being a wide mid. If we’re overloaded in the back, they’ve got to provide cover,” Ellis said after the U.S. game against England. “So if you watch when they drop in, they actually drop into our midfield lines. It’s a three and then it’s a four. Are there times when they have to drop in and cover? For sure. But I don’t call them wingbacks. They’re full steam attacking players, and that’s their profile and that’s what I’m choosing to go with in those positions is attacking-minded players.”

Mallory Pugh tries to beat Jordan Nobbs to the ball at the SheBelieves Cup (photo: Chelsey Bush for The Equalizer)

Mallory Pugh tries to beat Jordan Nobbs to the ball at the SheBelieves Cup (photo copyright Chelsey Bush for The Equalizer)

It’s also not as if the U.S. lacks players who should excel at wingback. Krieger, Short, Kelley O’Hara (who saw little time at the tournament due to a slight groin injury) and Meghan Klingenberg (left off the roster as she regains fitness from a back injury) all deserve looks at the spot, although Klingenberg’s lack of pace and defensive positioning proved a great liability for both the U.S. and Portland last year.

Mewis, a center midfielder who started all three games as part of the dual pivot and had one of the better tournaments on the team, proves the players know their roles when they’re allowed to play in a natural and experienced position.

“I think that my defensive role becomes more important,” she said when asked about moving from a four-back to three. “I think that if I can disrupt tackles in the middle, that will save them from having the pressure, or having them [opponents] run at them. Also coming back and winning second balls is really important because there’s just one less person in there, so if we win the first one, I need to recover quicker and be ready to pick up that second one.”

So who should be back there? The center is obvious. Sauerbrunn reads the game better than nearly any of her peers and plays three moves ahead of the opposition, which is why she rarely needs to go to ground. Johnston, who has improved tremendously from her long ball and risky tackle days of the World Cup, didn’t show quite the composure one wants to see from the anchor but still played a strong game and would probably fit better on the flank. Krieger, although also a good fit at wingback, has a keen sense of positioning on the outside and knowledge of when to push forward. Both Johnston and Krieger are allowed leeway at this point in time given how few minutes they’ve seen in the formation compared to others. Short defends tremendously but appears uncomfortable with going forward and leaving space, something at which both Sauerbrunn and Krieger were noticeably better. Short was also pushed to her limit by Thomis, although to be fair not many defenders in the world can contain an in-form Thomis. And what about Emily Sonnett, banished to the bench; Emily Menges, who led the best defense in the league last year; or Whitney Engen, apparently dropped to move Long to center back?

Allie Long is a good soccer player who is key to Portland’s success and one of the best attacking midfielders in the league. Allie Long is not a defender. Yes, she’s being played out of position, and there is some leeway for that, but if Ellis is going to invest months and months, games and games, into converting her, results have to be better. Long is too prone to ball watching, hasn’t figured out her positioning and probably could have been called for two penalties against France. After spending her entire career in the attack, she simply doesn’t have defensive instincts. Ellis calls her the “quarterback,” citing Long’s strong passing game as one of the reasons she was moved back. That is all well and good–Long is a very strong passer–but that doesn’t matter when she’s so uncomfortable she simply acts as a conduit between Sauerbrunn and Short. Even at defensive midfield, a spot where she had a forgettable Olympics, Long appears immediately more comfortable on the ball. She’s just not the answer. Why, then, is Ellis so willing to spend so much time on this project?

“There’s always risk-reward in anything that you do, 4-4-2, 3-5-2, any positioning, any formation that you play. There’s always a risk-reward thing, and that’s what we’re trying to figure out,” said Johnston. “How can we play our best soccer?”

However they play it, this was certainly not their best soccer. They have the players to make this formation work, and Ellis is correct that they need more tools in their arsenal. But she’s making it harder than it has to be. The wheel is there. It doesn’t need to be reinvented. It just needs to roll.

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