Were Jill Ellis and the U.S. WNT playing possum? The question came to mind as the U.S. outplayed the world’s number one ranked team, Germany, Tuesday night on the way to a 2-0 victory and a World Cup Finals rematch against Japan this Sunday.
It seems far fetched, but then how likely was it that Ellis, who had coached cautiously to that point, would change formations with berth in the World Cup Finals at stake.
Ellis had previously kept faith with the good ol’ 4-4-2, the formation that U.S. has long been identified with, even as Germany and its 4-2-3-1 had become the standard in the women’s game.
Years earlier Jose Mourinho had put it rather simply saying that his three central midfielders would beat your two every time. Eventually even Alex Ferguson would concede and the 4-4-2 was reduced to a fringe formation.
The formation hasn’t fallen from favor as dramatically in the women’s game, in part because of the highly rated Americans stubborn adherence to the set up.
As Canada 2015 unfolded, the United States won games and racked up negative reviews in equal measure, but the 4-4-2 remained. Television commentator and former U.S. WNT coach Tony DiCicco led the chorus of pundits calling for a switch to a 4-3-3, but Ellis held firm.
It wasn’t that Ellis was afraid of change, the coach had shuffled the deck throughout the World Cup as she searched for the right combination to unleash the stagnant U.S. attack.
Abby Wambach started, Wambach sat. Christen Press was played as a wide midfielder, then as a forward. Sydney Leroux got a start up top with Press against Sweden, when the duo failed to click it was back to the bench for Leroux.
Players came, players went, the 4-4-2 remained. The crux of the problem was the center midfield position. Namely the lack of a defensive midfielder to absorb pressure, make the simple pass and allow Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd the freedom to push forward, the freedom to attack.
Yellow card problems benched Holiday and offensive talisman Megan Rapinoe for the Round of 16 match against China, forcing Ellis’ hand.
The only player on the U.S. World Cup roster with the job title defensive midfielder embossed on her business card is 38-year old Shannon Boxx, whom Ellis has entrusted with just 16 minutes against Nigeria in this tournament.
Instead the coach turned to Morgan Brian against China, sending the team’s youngest player out with explicit instructions, defend and defer to the veteran Lloyd.
An attacking midfielder herself, the youngster filled her role as asked and Lloyd at last began to resemble the force that has terrorized opposing defenses for so long.
Against China the U.S. also broke out a few wrinkles in its set piece game, but then coaches have been to known to keep at trick or two up their sleeve for the latter stages of tournament play.
Those minor set piece adjustments hardly foretold the bold gamble Ellis had saved up for the Germans, but when the U.S. lineup was released twitter lit up like a slot machine that had hit jackpot.
Ellis’ lineup elicited so much clamor because she had included the veterans Holiday and Lloyd while still finding a place for the youngster Brian. With Rapinoe and Tobin Heath also in the lineup and just Alex Morgan from the team’s stable of forwards in the starting 11 it was clear that Ellis had rolled the dice.
Those dice came up with a 4-3-3, though others labeled the formation a 4-2-3-1. Whatever it was, it was clear what it was not. It was not a 4-4-2.
In practice Lloyd joined Morgan in the attack at times and at others roamed slightly behind the speedy striker. Holiday and Brian shared the defensive midfield duties better than Holiday and Lloyd had, and in fact better than they themselves had in several pre-World Cup tuneups.
That the U.S. got more than a little help from the officials against Germany is not in doubt, but it is just as certain that the U.S. were the better team on the night.
Also true was that the Americans played by far their best game of the World Cup, against by far their toughest opponent. The U.S. had improved as they got deeper into the tournament, but this was a performance that few had predicted.
Then Ellis showed her hand and her team backed her bold play. Like a riverboat gambler, Ellis pushed all of her chips to the center of the table and came up trumps.
Had Ellis been playing possum all along or had the coach simply adjusted her tactics to the opposition. Either way Ellis has led her team to Sunday’s World Cup Final against Japan, a final the U.S. must now be favored to win.