Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Against the Run of Play: on USA's win over France

From some perspectives (including that of players on the field), it looks like France outplayed the USWNT in the World Cup semifinal. But France lost. [Necib, in today's edition of L'Equipe: "The worst is that we were better than them." 14 June]
It has been said, too, of France’s game against England, that they dominated possession, played the better game. But they only won on penalties. Many felt that Brazil played a better game against the US in the Olympics, some might say they played a better game (in a few ways at least) than the USWNT last week – but Brazil lost the Olympic and the World Cup matches.
Defensive work from the whole team provided the architecture of the USWNT’s recent wins - from Solo, Sauerbrunn, LePeilbet, Rampone, Rapinoe, Lloyd, Kreiger, and more. Even pressure from Alex Morgan contributes to this side of the USWNT game: I never understood why the striker was brought on so late in match after march until I saw her entry into the game with my own eyes.
The minute she took to the field, she began harassing the keeper and France’s back line – when they had the ball.
For long stretches against a ‘technical’ opponent like Brazil or France, it looks like the USWNT isn’t playing pretty football. Those teams love to hold the ball. They play a possession game.
The media trains us to look at the game through the logic of attack. When we do so, we act as if a team only plays when they have the ball. But of course this is just not true.  
Be wary of sports talk about possession and the “run of play.” Possession is not nine-tenths of the law in the game.
Think of Italy. The team’s style polarizes the football world for its ungenerous play, but the record speaks for itself. That kind of team is expert in weathering attack. It’s siege-mentality football, in which one lets the opponent do a certain kind of work – in which one lets them spend and spend and spend energy and imagination. Eventually, they pass a tipping point. One pass too many, one moment of hesitation, and you can see frustration settle in. Attack that much over an hour without success and the last thirty minutes become desperate. 
Flashes of counterattack exploit the cracks that have developed under the dynamic stress of the possession game. [That is when Morgon comes in.]
The USWNT isn’t playing as cynically as Italy at its most notorious. But some of the same principals are clearly in play, and have worked.
I still don’t understand Japan’s game. They look more “total” – end-to-end, there is something jaw-droppingly complete about the way the team plays. Personally, I am thrilled they beat Sweden and are in the final. They are the most exciting team in the tournament, and lord knows, there is a global sense of good will for the team.
Whatever happens, Sunday’s match is going to be fantastic.


  1. I've had many discussions about "aesthetic" soccer as it is often opposed to "winning" soccer. When a team I care about is playing, all I want is a victory. I don't worry if France played the beautiful game better than did the U.S., I'm just glad the USA won.

    But if I have no rooting interest, I want aesthetics. Italy (or anyone), who can win 1-0 and delight their fans, bores me when they take a stodgy, wear-them-down approach.

    So when the third-place game takes place, I'm rooting for an entertaining match full of attacking soccer. When the title is on the line, though, I'm rooting for the U.S. to win, and I don't care how they do it.

  2. Point well-taken about possession being misleading, but I think the USA simply lost a lot of midfield battles and struggled to put passes together against France. They stayed in the game with defense (most of France's shots were from Dresden), then beat the fading France late. And it helped that they took advantage of their opportunities.

    Dan Loney has an amusing and insightful counterargument:

  3. I always feel that so many football commentators and critics neglect all the work that is done off the ball and I am glad you pointed it out in this post. I know this is a cliché (comparing every football team to Barcelona) but what makes Barcelona a great team is not only their possession play, but the work they do when they lose the ball. The forwards put so much pressure on the backline and the midfield is always quick to close down, FCB are a machine that tires their opponents on and off the ball. The USWNT have Wambach and Morgan (yes, please put her in earlier!) that are excellent at this, but I do think that the midfield struggles and the final will be a huge challenge in that area. My theory on why Morgan does not play more minutes is maybe the coaching staff want to use her fresh legs when the defense is more tired, because she is that good at putting pressure, but this can also be risky, especially against a team like Japan that move the ball so quickly. USA will spend lot's of the game chasing the ball instead and their pressure upfield will not be effective.
    USA has an excellent work rate, physical condition and determination, but they need to keep the ball more. Japan will put a lot of pressure on the midfield and break quickly towards the goal. So far, Hope Solo has been excellent, but the defense will be run down if they are under constant pressure (supposing the midfield doesn’t keep the ball or send it forward quickly enough). I guess what I don’t want to see the USA do (which they have been doing) is just launch balls forward for Wambach. I know nobody will care if the USA wins this way but I am convinced that if Brazil and France had better goalkeepers or if the goalkeepers could cope with aerial threats better things could have been way different... (I am sure the japanese goalkeeping coaching is training coming off the line, catching and punching more intensily for this final)For all the tactical talk in the end it’s goals that win games so anything can happen. I look forward to this final because for me who enjoys tactical jigsaws like this one, this game will be great. I find it funny as well that some reporters have pegged both teams as favorites because it’s their “destiny” to win the final. USA has the belief after some last minute drama and Japan are the disciplined team that just keep beating everyone without anyone paying too much attention or calling them favorites. It’s kinda of like a la Fontaine fable «Le lion (USA) et le rat (Japan)» because if Japan wins, everyone (ok, maybe just me) will say : «Patience et longueur de temps/ Font plus que force ni que rage.» But if USA wins then everyone(ok, maybe just Pia) will repeat : "I come from Sweden and this American attitude, pulling everything together and bringing out the best performance in each other, that is contagious." Japan has a more technical and disciplined unit while USA has the unpredictability of bewildering determination that can make a team almost impossible to beat, even if they are weaker “on paper” .

    Sorry for the long comment, I just started writing and got sooooooo wrapped up.

  4. The big winner Sunday will be the game of football. I would watch it regardless if Burkina Faso were playing the Maldives, but the presence of the American women, who rose from the dead against Brazil, and Japan, Cinderella Giant-Killers and Uber-Underdogs, makes this as compelling a matchup as one could hope for. Both are here because they showed a mental toughness that their opponents couldn't match, but their styles are as different as East is from West. The US couldn't match most of the tournament teams in terms of ball skills, but their rope-a-dope tactics allowed all that skill to huff and puff and pepper the Solo goal with wildly speculative shots until the time was ripe for a black mamba strike for the jugular. The Asian ladies do have these consummate skills and are wonderfully organized to boot, and simply wear the other team down with their keep-away strategy. Throw out the US's 25 game unbeaten string against Japan; they've already busted their losing streaks against the Teutons and Vikings, and adding one more Caucasian scalp will render all historic analogies, well, history. But Abby wants this too badly not to put a couple of headers into the ol' onion bag, and Solo will not make the egregious mistakes the Swedish goalie made. USA 3 Japan 2 in ET.

  5. Wonderful analysis. I am definitely remiss in not giving the defense it's due, and the Italy analogy is a good one.


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