THE PERILS OF GETTING THE BASICS WRONG
More than a few people I follow on Twitter commented with varying levels of dismay about the shortcomings of the USWNT U20 team at the recently completed Womens World Cup in Papua New Guinea.
From being heavily outshot in many games to their failure to keep and constructively use possession of the ball, it ought to be coming abundantly clear to all by now that unless something changes at the National level, the USA risks getting left in the dust. US Women’s Soccer is the Hare dozing in a stupor under a tree while more and more of the world’s Tortoises grind determinedly and relentlessly pass us in terms of technique, tactics, and mentality and catch up to us athletically.
One thing that really shocked me about this particular team was the absolute shambles they made of their restarts. How can a team preparing for international competition not be better prepared for standard situations that occur over and over again in games? Yet from watching the team, it seems that no premium at all was put on retaining the ball in basic situations like goal kicks and throw ins
To make my point, I broke down footage from the 3rd place game between the USA and Japan. I isolated and included every throw in for either side and all of the USA’s goal kicks and long clearances. The footage is as detailed as the camera work allowed.
I saw quite a bit of discussion in social media about the USA’s absolute refusal to even attempt a single goal kick short in the tournament. Everything went long. Okay, so either the coach didn’t want to play short or felt that the team could not play short. If the ends justified the means, you can say it’s just a matter of style and philosophy. Fair enough.
Except that the USA’s ability to play and retain long balls was dismal. Above is a video of every goal kick, punt, long ball, and even some injury time balls served in the box as the USA pressed for another late equalizer. As you can see, the vast majority of sequences end with the Japan comfortably in possession
It’s worth noting that Japan played short as much as possible, sometimes faking long before playing short (a ruse that the USA bit on more than once). Not all of the POFTB was brilliant, but overall it was solid. There were occasional breakdowns, but those breakdowns did not lead to any danger. The willingness and ability of the Japanese to play out was a major factor in them owning the ball in this game.
Ironic, given the choice to always play goal kicks long, but the USA keeper did frequently look to distribute short when the ball was in hand. Unfortunately, spacing issues, poor decisions, an the Japanese press rendered this tactic ineffective and the USA had serious problems getting the ball out of their defensive third without losing possession
This is something that caught my eye from the USWNT U20 team because it is a pet peeve that I have been actively addressing in my club the past few weeks: The typical attitude of American Soccer teams at the youth level (and sometimes even higher) is to treat a throw in more as a “jump ball” free-for-all rather than an opportunity to restart the game with clear possession of the ball.
If you watch the video above, you can see that the USWNT looked just like a typical American youth team: losing more than half of their throws, and few of the balls they did keep were retained cleanly or for very long. As with youth soccer, the first impulse was most often to “chuck it down the line”, and the results were annoyingly similar, with Japan effortlessly winning possession and switching play immediately out of danger. Sometimes the ball was literally thrown straight to a Japanese player who intercepted the ball under no pressure.
When the USA did retain or immediately re-win the ball, play was rarely expansive. The players tended to try to force the ball through the immediate crowd of pressure around the ball, usually to poor effect. On one of the rare occasions where they did win the ball, drop, and switch play, the sequence culminated in a dangerous cross in the box. This was the only dangerous opportunity that originated with a USA throw and shows what our players could be capable of doing.
Japan was a different story. If you watch the video above you will see that they kept possession of almost all of their throw ins with ease. In fact, their two shaky moments came in the 88th minute. While it’s true that the USA made no effort to press in Japan’s defensive third, Japan had no problems keeping the ball elsewhere on the field. In fact, I would expect that the USA’s unwillingness to press throw ins deep in Japanese territory most likely came from their understanding of the futility of that venture.
When Japan does retain the ball, play is often expansive, either switching play or going forward with line breaking passes immediately after knocking the ball backwards and expanding their team shape.
On three occasions, a Japanese throw in launched a sequence that led to a dangerous ball being played in Zone 14. Two other sequences forced excellent saves from Murphy (arguably the best two scoring chances before the goal)
So it begs the question: Why couldn’t this USA team get some basic fundamentals while Japan can play out of the back and retain their throw ins in their sleep? Is it a function of CAN’T or WON’T? Is this stuff not trained my our National Team coaches? Not trained correctly? Is it even something that is considered when putting together a long term training plan for an International Tournament?
Throw ins matter. Goal kicks matter. Especially at the International Level where margins of victory can be extremely slim. Every opportunity that your team has the ball is an opportunity to score. Every opportunity that the opponent has the ball is a chance to concede.
The maddening thing with watching Japanese throw ins was how easy it was for them. There were no elaborate rotations or movement patterns (we are working on some very simple ones at my club). The Japanese players simply checked away and back to the ball, then the receiving players and the players they combined with showed basic technical competence and solid team shape. Nothing more. I cannot believe that our players could not be taught to do the same. Why aren’t they?
The rest of the world is catching up and surpassing us when it comes to the women’s game. The days where we can just put out the best athletes and overwhelm everyone physically at any level are gone. If we want to stay competitive internationally, maybe a good place to start is with the fundamentals; such as keeping the ball when you already have it.
What do you think?