On Women’s Soccer: Is the USWNT’s 4-3-3 formation here to stay?

USWNT Starting Eleven Team Photo

By CAITLIN MURRAY

When Tom Sermanni was fired as head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team, it was clear U.S. Soccer didn’t have much confidence in his vision.

But when Jill Ellis took over last week – quite possibly as an audition for the permanent job – she saw something in his approach worth keeping: the 4-3-3 formation.

The USWNT has typically preferred the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, a popular formation featuring a crowded midfield that can be difficult for opponents to penetrate. But could the 4-3-3 become a new staple for the team?

The 4-3-3 is a more attack-focused formation, giving the USWNT extra options up the field. That seems to mesh with the style the players are looking for – both Abby Wambach and Heather O’Reilly cited a move away from “aggressive” attacking soccer as possible reasons why Sermanni was ousted.

But it will ultimately be up to whoever is the next head coach – and that person will have a real conundrum at hand. Since the USWNT has so much attacking prowess, how can it be used at once without going to waste?

The 4-3-3 may be the answer, allowing players like Sydney Leroux and Christen Press to be closer to goal at the same time as staples like Wambach or Alex Morgan.

The formation may also address something even Wambach acknowledges – when the next World Cup rolls around, she will be 35, hardly in her prime as an attacking forward. But in a 4-3-3, the USWNT may not need to forfeit speed by playing her as a center forward, all while still taking advantage of her ability in the air.

On Sunday, Ellis started Lauren Holiday as the target forward to keep possession through the box with Sydney Leroux and Heather O’Reilly working the flanks. In the 4-3-3, those outside forwards will be counted on to do extra work, tracking back to help the defensive line.

The opposite is also true – the defensive line will hang back more in a 4-3-3. Under the 4-4-2 of Sermanni’s predecessor, Pia Sundhage, the emphasis was on having the outside backs race up the flanks for overlapping runs with the midfield. It worked to great effect, with starters Kelley O’Hara and Amy LePeilbet providing service into the box and becoming key figures in the attack.

But the next coach will need to look at who is in those outside spots, as the back line has been something of a revolving door under Sermanni.

When the USWNT used the 4-3-3 in the past, it has typically been late in games as a surge when their opposition was tired and slow. Under Sundhage, that had been when Leroux was unleashed as a “super sub,” using her fearless physical play and speed to batter defenses.

In Ellis’ 4-3-3, many of the USWNT best chances on goal started from long balls, which was a style of play Sermanni had seemed determined to phase out. But with the pace of the USWNT’s forwards, the long and direct ball continues to work, which the 4-3-3 will only help.

Sundhage had strongly favored the 4-4-2 and it worked incredibly well for her: silver at the World Cup and gold at the Olympics. But she did attempt to switch the team to a 4-2-3-1 in the lead-up the Olympics, putting Wambach alone up top.

Wambach didn’t quite have the speed to make the lone-striker formation work, despite the other assets she brought to the field. With a fast young up-and-comer like Morgan rising through the ranks, Sundhage thought better of it. She made Morgan a starter under a 4-4-2 with Wambach and never looked back.

But even with more attacking options on the field at once, the 4-3-3 can make it more difficult to play the ball wide as the midfield line will want to stay compact and work together in numbers. That was exactly the problem when Sermanni tried his first 4-3-3 experiment against New Zealand in October – the USWNT lines struggled to connect and got few shots on goal, resulting in a frustrating draw.

Morgan Brian didn’t play in that game and she may be part of the reason the 4-3-3 worked better in the last two attempts. The USWNT has been on the hunt for a holding midfielder ever since losing Shannon Boxx, who played defensive mid so well. After earning her first cap last June, Brian quietly asserted herself as someone more than capable of playing a more defensive role while midfielders like Carli Lloyd can roam free and focus on attacking.

Sermanni clearly saw Brian as a starter and World Cup material. But now, anything can happen.

Ellis said the 4-3-3 was a formation the USWNT should have in their arsenal, and a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the player pool suggest that to be very true. Just how important a role the formation plays in the next World Cup cycle will come down to the coach U.S. Soccer ultimately hires as Sermanni’s replacement.

But it is a good bet that whoever is hired will see the value of the 4-3-3 and keep it in rotation, potentially as the formation of choice.

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23 Responses to On Women’s Soccer: Is the USWNT’s 4-3-3 formation here to stay?

  1. VaFan says:

    All are good points.
    Bigger questions are whether the vague dismissal of Sermanni will (a) discourage the new head coach from experimenting and (b) undermine the confidence of younger players who have been just getting started with the WNT. I think those are very real concerns.
    In a recent interview, Sermanni said one of his most important accomplishments was to develop the attitude that we are building an entire squad, not just a starting XI. Amen, amen, amen. I hope the new coach shares that approach.

    I do quibble with your doubts about our outside backs being able to get forward aggressively. O’Hara, Krieger, Klingenberg, and Dunn all are very good on the attack. They may just need to get some time in a 4-3-3 to modify their approach, but I think this position is now one of our assets.

    One of the things I noticed about the 4-3-3 with Brian on the pitch was that all three midfielders — Lloyd, Rapinoe, Brian — felt comfortable with exchanging positions, moving from one side of the field to another, etc. It felt mature and communicative. (Now, if we could get two of those midfielders to get over their reluctance to pass to another midfielder.)

    On the other hand, in the second half of the second China match — when Brian was out and Wambach was in, with Holiday dropping into the midfield — things were ‘way more frantic. We went over 44 minutes without scoring a goal against an exhausted Chinese team, not an encouraging sign. Whenever Wambach is in, her personality so dominates her teammates that everyone feels they have to get the ball to her head as soon as possible. That attitude may trump any formation.

  2. Huan Nguyen says:

    I think that the development of Morgan Brian or another sort of holding midfield is the key to the US’s success. Since Boxx has been “phased out” and Lloyd has moved forward there has been a hole there. I’m not sure Brian is the answer, her skills seem to be more attacking and I feel that it is a square peg round hole situation. But I’m curious to watch the position develop.

  3. Taylor says:

    Excellent article. The subject of formations is something worth noting and I would add in 4-2-3-1 as a possibility. I know that sounds blasphemous given the considerable talent up top. But what is USWNT’s main goal? Is it to advance and develop the women’s game via the tika-taka style of football or purely to win now regardless of “attractiveness” and sophiscation of play? I realize it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive but if I remember clearly Pia initially wanted to implement more of a possession style attack but gave way to FINALLY unleash the untapped potential of Morgan – and that gave USWNT great results.

    I’d venture to saythat we have more talent in the middle and up top than before and certainly more than when Pia initially started with so whoeveer is coach could use that formation now. I’m mentioning this because NWSL fans see it can work with attractive and effective results. Holiday was awesome in that 10 role but she isn’t able to be as effective in a 4-4-2 formation for the NT. She maybe technically an AM in that formation but when she teams with Lloyd w/ her tendency to go forward Holiday then falls back. It under utilize her skills. But in this formation, NT would then have to under utilize their marquee and talented forward corp.

    Some cringed at the return of long ball play for the USWNT side but you can’t argue with the winning results and by extension to the Abby critics. She may have her flaws but she gets the job done. She’s clutch. I’ll be curious to see what formation and line ups will be drawn up. But at the end of the day it’ll be who has the most chemistry toh ether and for some that might be a return to staples of the NT team.

    If chemistry is a big thing, I’m afraid that Press might have a very hard time to crack the startin XI as a forward unless she’s featured more as a lone striker up top. I’d like to see what Morgan and Press can do together since that’s the only forward pairing we haven’t seen and got a great glimpse of it with when if i can recall Morgan brillantly dummied a through ball to Press for a goal but I wonder if Tommy never played them because in practice they had even less chemistry than Press and Leroux – and that’s not a great barometer. But I wonder if chemistry was forsaken because they both wanted to make an individual mark on the pecking order – which is the drawback of having continuous uncertainty of line-ups and roles.

  4. Nate Dollars says:

    nice breakdown, caitlin. would love to see tactical analysis like this for the men’s side, too.

    • RB says:

      Caitlin Murray is the best thing to happen to SBI in a while, for my money.

      However it has also been very nice to see comments on reports here about the women’s side of the game be more consistently focused on soccer, and to feature far less of the old knuckle dragger type of stuff.

  5. JAF22 says:

    I would like to hear people”s opinion on where Tobin Heath And Press fit in when Morgan gets back.

  6. hartley says:

    Back the day when Mia Hamm was scoring goals and helping the US win World Cups, the 4-3-3 WAS the formation. The 4-4-2 has been shown vulnerable to attack in both the women’s and men’s game. Besides, once you have a lead you can always morph to 4-2-3-1 and still attack but from a more defensive formation.

  7. Alex H says:

    My problem with the 4-3-3 is that assume that Morgan’s injury and Wambach’s age aren’t going to be an issue. Also of the other forwards mentioned in the article, I am not convinced that Leroux and Press are part of the best 11, while O’Reilly and Holiday are equally good, if not superior, in the midfield. I think one of the principal reasons that the 4-3-3 seems to be fashionable right now is that the USWNT wants an “attacking formation” more than they want a “winning formation.”

    • A says:

      You don’t think Sydney Leroux is part of the best XI?

      She’s considered the best forward in the world…

      • RB says:

        By who?

        Don’t get me wrong, as I love to see her play. But I’ve never heard anybody claim she is te best forward in the world, much less that that’s sort of the CW on the question…

      • Allex says:

        Great player? Yes, of course. Best forward in the world? Good grief.

      • The Garrincha says:

        You Know A, a real valid point, now that you mention it.
        Today Leroux, probably is the best forward in the world.
        She is a great finisher and play maker, she can dribble and make attacking runs with skill and at pace.
        She has great range, and tenacity, and she breaks defenses down better than just about any forward today.(Along with a fit Morgan).

  8. Karin says:

    I’ve thought for a long time that the personnel on the USWNT would be best suited to a 4-3-3. The US has some of the best attacking players in the world and that formation allows more of them to see the field at one time. I would argue about the outside backs being asked to sit more defensively though. When I’ve run a 4-3-3 with the teams I coach I use the outside backs to get width on the field in the attack. The three midfielders are more central and look for through balls to either the outside forwards or overlapping outside backs. Depending on the opponent there do have to be adjustments made at times, but the formation pretty easily lends itself to that. There are always adjustments to be made depending on opponent and situation, but I definitely think that the 4-3-3 is a formation that should be experimented with a bit longer.

  9. kernel_thai says:

    Sundhage played a straight version of the 4-4-2 so her two wings could provide service to Wambach in the middle. By keeping her wings wide it left the US over matched in the midfield and made it very hard for the team to link up with forwards against good teams playing five in the midfield. Sermanni introduced (or maybe reintroduced) the 4-4-2 diamond when he arrived. He pinched his two wings inside more to help with the linking of passes and leaving space on the sidelines for his two outside backs to get forward.

    The 4-3-3 would make a nice change of pace during games but I doubt they ever make it their primary offense. None of their four top forwards seem built for it. Wambach is definitely a center forward, case closed. Leroux neither handles the ball well enough not passes well enough to be out wide. She is much more of a counter attack player. What Leroux would be good at in this system is defending up and down the sidelines. Press has a better touch and passing game than Leroux and is an ok defender. Her problem is she wants to be in the middle of the pitch. No matter where she starts she ends up operating across the top of the box and is very effective there. Morgan is also a very good passer and a decent ball handler but I not sure she can handle the defensive load. Probably the best players to put at wide forward would be Rapinoe and Tymrak. Both can handle the ball when its on their side of the field and attack the post when the ball is opposite them. I think the new coach goes back to the 4-4-2 diamond.

    • The Garrincha says:

      Kernel thai, regarding your summary of Leroux’s play, non sense!.
      Could make one wonder if you even watched the last couple of China matches?.
      Leroux, seems to have good chemistry with Rapinoe, Holiday, and Lloyd. We have always known that O’reilly is fairly one dimensional but makes up for it with hustle, a good work rate, determination, and decent defensive ability.
      In closing Leroux, currently has a far greater overall impact on the game than Press.

      PS would really like to see Tymrak, Hagan, O’hai, a little more.

      Hope Powell, anyone?…

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  11. USAFan says:

    Good conversation about formations though I think formations are over analyzed. Though, I don’t think any formation with a 1 at the top is a mistake for a team with talent. I think the trick is finding the best 11 and getting them on the field. (No duh, right). Given all of TS’s experimenting and injuries, it was hard to figure out where he was going.

    He did seem to have a lot of faith in Press. I am not sure where she fits (other than a sub role) with a healthy Wambach (who will be starting no matter what), Morgan, and Leroux. None of those players are particularly brilliant with the ball at their feet — though Morgan’s technical work is underrated.

    Morgan and Leroux can track back well on defense, but you still need to have MF’s behind them with superior technical skills.

    The player TS appeared to have fallen in love with the most is Brian. I love her play. She is strong technically and has the competitive attitude that has been a staple of the team (and of US Women’s Soccer since the McLean Grasshoppers who started it all). But seeing her as a holding midfielder always seemed odd. She proved capable, but I always saw her as an attacking mid or even a forward. Perhaps she is THAT good that she can adapt and become a world class player at a position she has never played much.

    Heath. Pia had her designated to be the next #10. If healthy, she has to be on the field.

    O’Hara. I love outside backs who can transition into the offense (and with O’Reilly and Rapinoe on the flanks, they can cover). If healthy, she has to be on the field as well. I would also see Krieger who has looked very good, get even better in the attacking third.

    TS did seem to lock in on upgrading the back four. If the US can find four solid defenders with two outsiders who can truly attack, the formation at kickoff really doesn’t matter and more of a total soccer approach can be used.

    I think the talent is there to pull it off. Though we aren’t as deep as we think we are.

    • bluenun says:

      I agree with your breakdown. I would like to know your thoughts on Heath and if you think think teams are figuring out O’Reily just dumps and runs. Thanks!

      • USAFan says:

        When O’Reilly is on the flank, I think teams pretty much know what to expect. As a result, in some games she doesn’t have much impact but in others she can be a difference maker. I could certainly see a 4-4-2 with Rapinoe and Heath on the outside and O’Reilly being a sub brought on to energize. O’Reilly in interviews has been the first to admit she isn’t the best technically. But with her workrate and ability to make plays, she is absolutely on the team (no, duh) and if she isn’t in my top 11, she is in my top 13 or so. She can also play forward which could be useful if Morgan stays injured, Wambach starts to break down more and either Press or Leroux get banged up.

        Unfortunately all of this does not bode well for Rodriguez, another person who seems to have a lot of class. But, there are too many others that does what she does better than she does it. She has served the team well though.

  12. USAFan says:

    ack, typed too fast. I think a formation with a single forward is a mistake FOR any team with talent.