Where is the Game Going? An Analysis of Systems, Trends and Technique (cont.)
Receiving - Solving Pressure, Dribbling: Brazil’s individual ability to ‘receive the ball at speed’ with their first, second, third, and fourth touches into space and away from pressure was electrifying to watch. And trust me, we on the USA team and bench spent a few games watching their prowess. Every player on the roster is comfortable receiving the ball with any and every surface. It’s as if they have velcro on their feet, chest, quads, and even their head. Take a tape of any one of Brazil’s games and make a highlight video for your team to watch tonight. That tape can serve as the role-model for ‘receiving under pressure’ and inspire our next generation of young players to prioritize their training so that we can produce players with Brazil-like levels of confidence and competence on the ball.
The two most striking differences between the USA and Brazil in the finals were how the teams solved pressure. US players solve pressure with 1-3 touches, quite often relying on good support and dynamic movement off the ball from a teammate, otherwise known as ‘team play.’ Brazilians, on the other hand, don’t really need teammates to solve pressure. A Brazilian’s idea of pressure arrives after the 4th defender arrives. The art of dribbling was elevated to a new height never before seen in the women’s game by the young and talented Brazilian, Marta (#10). We must look for ways to encourage this creative dribbling in our players without punishing them for taking too many touches. Where does ‘receiving’ end and ‘dribbling’ begin for a Brazilian? They are capable of taking 5-6 touches, yet the touches are so dynamic, productive, and unpredictable it almost always results in a penetrative pass or shot, as well as maintains possession so that the team can advance more numbers into the attack. It should be noted that the USA is renowned for ‘1v1 personalities’ such as Mia Hamm and Carin Gabarra. Hamm is the best penetrative dribbler the world has ever seen, and penetration is the key to scoring. However, the next level of development in our personality players is developing the creative dribbler who can open something up when it looks shut down, as well as penetrate like a hot knife through butter. After all, how do you teach defenders to stop a player who has such a fluid and elegant touch on the ball as Marta?
Service – instep, end line, flank, and final pass: Service has often been a technique that players overlook in their development. Particularly, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of excellence and pride in one’s ability to play a ball consistently with both feet or with the next play of the ball in mind. Aly Wagner is a great final passer. The pace and accuracy of her service is exquisite. And, Brazil’s Marta is the single best dribbler with vision and the technical ability to serve the final pass the women’s game has ever seen. Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly both serve good balls with both feet - driven, bent, or floated. It seems to take players on the WNT several years in the team before they acquire the ability to strike long balls with their instep accurately, shoot the ball with their instep with power, and serve a cross with the appropriate pace, accuracy, and flight pattern. Quite often our younger or newer players are many years behind in their technical development of ball striking. In these Olympics, we saw the USA team make remarkable progress in the area of service, as compared to the World Cup just 10 months earlier. Two great examples are Foudy’s early service to Lilly against Australia and Hamm’s end line service to O’Reilly against Germany for the game winner. Several players emerged as magnificently proficient with their instep. Shannon Boxx’s ability to strike a moving ball with either foot and get the shot on the frame is statistically stunning, and her ability to change the point with a 50-yard ball is remarkable. The first goal we scored in the tournament was a fine example of Boxx’s ability, and yet we’ve seen her do that time and time again. Birgit Prinz, Germany (#9) is marvelously competent in striking the ball, serving the box, or changing the point with both feet. The Chinese and Japanese players’ technique is textbook. A fine example of remarkable improvement in the use of her instep during residency training was Lindsay Tarpley (#5). She arrived in January without the ability to strike the ball well with her left foot or consistently and with power with her right foot. Every day, after or before practice, Tarpley worked on power shooting. The goal she scored in the Olympic finals replicated identically the technique she worked on every single day.
Tactical – Attacking:
New Personality Players: These Olympics saw many great new personalities emerge: Marta, Wambach, Japan’s Arakawa (#9), and many more from Australia’s Walsh (#7) to Mexico’s Dominguez (#10). We’ve tracked others that played extremely well, and if they stay healthy, we know they’ll be stars in 2007. Keep an eye on Tarpley, O’Reilly, Brazil’s Cristiane (#12) and Rosanna (#11), and Germany’s Odebrecht (#6) and Bachor (#14). What we’re seeing is an influx of young and highly developed players that are technically, tactically, physically, and psychologically advanced for their years. It’s hard to imagine that Marta is only 19 years old, and Abby Wambach is just 23. These are two of the finest players in the world, with many years ahead of them to entertain and elevate the game! Finally, these marvelous individuals have an amazing sense of team play. They are keenly aware that they can take over a game in a moment, and that the defenders they draw often opens up a teammate for a dangerous opportunity. Finally, after the Olympics, FIFA published a “Women’s Short List” of the top 21 players in the world to consider for their annual player of the year award. On the list, 11 forwards, 6 midfielders, 1 defender and 3 Goalkeepers were named. The USA had 3 players mentioned (Wambach, Hamm and Lilly), to Brazil’s 4 (Marta, Cristiane, Formiga #7 and Pretinha #9), Germany’s 2 (Prinz and Lingor #10), and Sweden’s 3 (Svensson #11, Ljungberg #10 and Mostroem #6).
Possession/Rhythm: Every team in the Olympics demonstrated a greater ability to maintain possession in their defensive third. The final four teams, however, established the greatest success in possessing the ball in the midfield and attacking thirds of the field. Germany is perhaps the best team in the world in possession. They are so rarely dispossessed in their half of the field. Brazil was the best team as possessing the ball in their opponent’s defensive third. A great example (yet painful reminder) of this was their lone goal against the USA. Cristiane held off three US defenders inside our penalty box and then played a ball straight across the 6-yard line for Pretinha (#9) to finish. As compared to the 2003 World Cup, the USA team demonstrated greater composure in the back, more creativity in the midfield, and significantly more patience in possessing the ball with the purpose to get more numbers involved in every attack. As the game continues to evolve, greater possession, less predictable possession, and the impact of possession will be rewarded more on the scoreboard. In today’s game, it’s still possible for teams to dominate their opponents in possession, create more chances, pepper their opponent’s goal with shots, and yet come away without the win. As the technical level improves in the game, so too will the tactical understanding and application. A positive byproduct of this will be a greater level of free flowing, creative, and balanced possession game.
Changing the Point of the Attack & Recreating Width: In looking at team play and the evolution of the women’s game over the last several years, more players and teams are able to change the point of their attack through a variety of ways, thus recreating width. Historically, teams used several players and several touches to switch the point of attack from one sideline to another. At these Olympics, we saw several defenders and midfielders serve a 40-50 yard unbalancing ball to the weak side. Most notably, Germany’s Hingst (#17) and the USA’s Catherine Reddick (#4) - both central defenders that have the capability to switch it with one accurate and swift pass. In the midfield, players like Boxx (#7) and Brazil’s Daniela (#8) demonstrated that under the pressure of being in the center of the field, they could look up and serve a dynamic ball to the opposite flank with either foot, often putting the receiver in behind defenses. At the international level, we’re starting to see a gap between players and teams that change the point more consistently. Germany, China, Japan, Brazil, Sweden, and the USA are all able to employ tactics, such as changing the point that other teams cannot because of technical inefficiency. Germany and the USA will switch the attack using two tactics – a combination of players and touches that moves the ball from one flank to another either through the midfield, through the back line, or bouncing a ball off a checking forward, or the lethal long diagonal ball. Brazil, China, and Japan consistently prefer the use of many players and many passes when they look to change the point. The USA has made remarkable progress in the creative qualities in our attacking game. Largely, we can credit time spent together in residency. Having said that, there is still work to do in all areas, technical and tactical, for the American team. Again, the importance of each player arriving at the full-team with a strong technical foundation cannot be overstated. Tactics are a moot point if a player can’t execute technically.
Team Play Elevates: The US won the Olympic Gold Medal using 17 of the 18 players, getting goals from 6 different players, playing 6 games, giving up 4 goals, limiting Germany to 2 shots on goal in 120 minutes of play, and being the only team in the tournament to score against Brazil (4 goals). The style of play was a balance of tremendous attacking and defending and reliance upon groups of players to excel in their area of expertise. In a nutshell, total team play. While Wambach lead the team in goals and Hamm is the most famous player in the world, our team relied upon every player, rather than one player, to win games. Brazil was the only other team in the tournament to also play 6 games. They shutout every opponent, except the USA, and scored more goals than any other team in the tournament. What stands out the most about Brazil is their collective brilliance individually. Every player raised her level and sustained it throughout the tournament to elevate Brazil into their first world final. Nigeria also demonstrated for the first time that their players can play on the same page, and subsequently, they advanced farther than expected.
Tactical – Defending:
Organized Back 4’s: Every team employed the use of a back line consisting of 4 defenders. Why? A) The gap is closing between the top teams and the second tier teams. In soccer, it’s not uncommon for a stronger team to out perform a weaker team yet come out on the losing end. B) Now that women’s soccer is gaining international recognition and each nation’s national media attention, coaches are under greater pressure to win. C) The space between sidelines is difficult to cover by just 3 women…to name a few reasons. In the end, the women’s game is getting more and more organized, and it’s showing in the way that teams are putting together their back lines. Teams like the USA and China are squeezing the space attackers have to work with in an effort to apply pressure on the ball and limit time and space for the attack. While teams like Brazil, Japan, Nigeria, Australia, and Mexico are content to concede space in front of their defenders but not behind. Germany and Sweden fluctuate based on the overall pressure they are under within the game. Sometimes we’ll see them retreating and other times they’re squeezing the space. Brazil (against the USA) and Mexico played 4 at the back, but they played with a sweeper and markers rather than ‘flat’ like all the other teams in the Olympics. Only Brazil chose to use a 3 back system, yet if they faced a 3 front, they were forced to adjust. It is said that coaches organize their teams from the back forward and that ‘defense wins championships.’ If the Olympics were a research study, then we could anecdotally support these two theories. Every team used 4 backs. Brazil and the USA only conceded 4 goals, despite playing more games than the teams in the other two groups.
Sweeper with Markers: Are bell-bottoms and disco coming back? All things are cyclical and indeed we’re seeing the sweeper system return to the women’s game. Brazil, Nigeria, and Mexico played with a sweeper and either two or three markers. Brazil and Nigeria played with a deeper sweeper, while Mexico’s sweeper tended to play in closer support of her markers and often trapped players running into off-sides positions. It’s been almost 9 years since teams have regularly faced a sweeper system. Might we see more sweepers in the 2007 Women’s World Cup? I suspect we will. What will be interesting to see is if teams play with a sweeper in one system and then flat in another? That would be difficult to pull off because of the radically different principles employed. It is very exciting to ponder, however. It’s also interesting to consider how might a more modern use of the sweeper be implemented? I suspect teams may mark vertically, pass players laterally, and the sweeper will flatten out the game at appropriate times. Wait and see.
Low Pressure: As the game has evolved we’re seeing more and more teams engaging in a bait and snap approach to the game. Very few teams will high-pressure opponents all over the field. USA, Brazil, and Sweden lead the pack in terms of their preference and confidence they derive from playing high pressure. However, with FIFA’s insistence on scheduling games during world events with just 2 days rest, it is not very realistic to think we can play 6 games of high pressure. And, during the course of a game, fatigue inevitably sets in so teams often sit in to weather the storm. Norway led the world in mastering the low pressure and counter game during the ‘90s. Teams that are often inferior employ the same tactic in the hopes of capitalizing on their few chances, and now we’re seeing teams lower their restraining line to prevent conceding space behind their defense, not necessarily just to counter. The USA uses three levels of pressure: high, medium, and low pressure, not to be confused with 100 percent, 75percent and 50 percent effort. The intensity, pressing, and togetherness mentality is always 100 percent; however we’ll pick a place on the field to confront opponents based on tactical advantages in doing so. Germany, Japan, and China are all playing low pressure for long stretches of games, if not entire games. The USA played high and low pressure against Brazil in both the first game and the finals. And, we played 120 minutes of low pressure against Germany in the semi-finals.
New Personalities: Shannon Boxx (#7) is the best defensive center midfielder in the world. It’s such a demanding and evolving position. Brazil’s Daniela (#8) is a very close second. Generally speaking, the defensive center midfielder role has been under developed and under valued in the women’s game. Certainly, Akers was a great player that played there in the ’99 World Cup to extend her career, but she was a player-maker with skill playing that role, not to be confused with a great defender. Hege Riise for Norway and Bettina Weigman for Germany have also played as the holding midfielders on their respective teams, but like Akers, their primary responsibilities were to play-make in that pocket. Boxx and Daniela are the quintessential defensive center midfielders who play-make, hold, change the field, balance the attack and defense, ball win in the air and on the ground, and help create and/or score goals. These two women are redefining the role and thus elevating it’s importance to a team. I can honestly say that the USA would not have won the Olympic Gold Medal without Shannon Boxx on the field. And conversely, Brazil doesn’t get the silver without Daniela, because the other 5-6 forwards and midfielders on their team are almost exclusively interested in attacking. On FIFA’s list of the top 21 players in the world to consider for their annual player of the year award, of the defending personalities listed, the USA had 2 players mentioned (Boxx and Scurry), to Brazil’s 0, Germany’s 2 (Stegemann #2 and Rottenberg #1), and Sweden’s 0.
The USA is back on top. We worked hard, smart, and persevered by sticking together. The players deserve the credit and the opportunity to celebrate this great achievement because in the words of one veteran who has played in 4 World Cups and 3 Olympics, “this was by far the most difficult world championship to win.” Parity has arrived, the gap is closed, any team can win, and the rest of the world is displaying aspects of the game in which we can take home and develop further. Brazil is exciting and is elevating the game to new heights technically and creatively. Norway, China, and Canada all demonstrated in the last 12 months how quickly one’s candle can go dim. Japan, Nigeria, and Australia are all in the hunt to be giant killers. Winning consistently is the most difficult aspect of soccer, yet if we focus on the areas we can control, we will maintain our position as one of the top 3 teams in the world. These Olympic Games provided a platform for the best display ever of attacking and defending in a world event final. Brazil and the USA have set a new standard for all to aspire to achieve. I’d pay money to watch the Olympic finals once again. After every world event, we evaluate and analyze lessons learned, trends, personalities, and systems of play. We now have 3 years to prepare for the 2007 Women’s World Cup. It’s time to apply the lessons learned.