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The USWNT need a tactical backup plan

The 4-3-3 currently employed was exposed by both England and Spain

United States v Spain - International Friendly Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Almost every team in the world wants to employ a 4-3-3 formation. Some teams stay true to it while others either evolve that formation or switch to different systems when the 4-3-3 aka “Plan A” has been fully studied and dismantled by an opponent.

The 4-3-3 has been a staple for the USWNT since Vlatko Andonovski took over and during the first major tournament Andonovski debuted at, it failed. Due to external forces (the pandemic, injuries, etc.) many could be forgiven for thinking that a few more tweaks and a little more time was needed for the USWNT and Andonovski to fulfill the potential of this 4-3-3. Instead, as time progressed, the problems with this tactical formation became more and more glaring. This culminated in the two recent losses against England and Spain.

The way the tactical system Vlatko Andonovski wants to employ can only work if he has a fully fit Julie Ertz to play as the holding midfielder. The USWNT hasn’t had a fully fit Julie Ertz since the 2019 World Cup. Trying Lindsey Horan in that role during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics utterly failed and although Andi Sullivan is more suited to the six role, she is still no Julie Ertz. Through no fault of their own, both Horan and Sullivan have been asked to fill a player profile that neither of them can match. Instead of looking to try and address that by changing his tactics to fit the player pool he currently has, Vlatko Andonovski has stuck with his tried and tested 4-3-3, even with the loss of Sam Mewis and Catarina Macario, two players he has heavily relied on in the past.

England Women v USA Women - International Friendly
The current system isn’t bringing out the best in Lindsey Horan
Photo by Rob Newell - CameraSport via Getty Images

With the World Cup less than a year away, many of those who follow the USWNT will hope that all the key players for the team will be fit and ready to go when next summer rolls around but here’s the thing: what happens if they aren’t? What if, and fingers-crossed this doesn’t happen, Rose Lavelle or Sophia Smith or Mallory Pugh join Ertz, Macario, Christen Press and Mewis on the long-time injury list? Is this version of the USWNT ready to adapt should the worst happen? Is Vlatko Andonovski ready to flip the script if needed?

So far, the answer to that last question is no. No, the head coach of the USWNT is not ready for the unthinkable and should the unthinkable happen, he will try to fit square pegs in round holes like he’s tried to do since he took over the team.

Let’s pose a different question now. What tactical switch would work with this current roster (if everyone is fit)?

That’s an easy answer. A 4-2-3-1 would work very well with the current personnel that the USWNT has at their disposal. Lindsey Horan has already shown she can play as a double pivot (see: the most recent Champions League final) and this will give Andi Sullivan the help she desperately needs in the deeper part of midfield. At the 10, you could have Rose Lavelle or Ashley Sanchez or even move Macario back to play behind Alex Morgan in the same formation. This will also help bring the best out of Mal Pugh and Sophia Smith who work best when given the opportunity to roam from out wide to in, instead of being the focal point of the attack for the USWNT. On top of that, the license that Andonovski has given his fullbacks to bomb forward will also be addressed as the double pivot will cover whichever fullback has gone forward to join the attack, thus not exposing the two center backs to counter attacks to deal with by themselves.

Spain v United States - International Friendly
Andi Sullivan continues to struggle as the lone six in this formation
Photo by Ion Alcoba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

That’s just one example of a tactical switch that could work for the USWNT. The other is the 3-5-2. The personnel again, is there with Emily Fox and Sofia Huerta, or Crystal Dunn when she’s fully back to form, are great attacking threats and have great engines to run up and down the flank all day. You could then add the experience of Becky Sauerbrunn at the back that’s then supported by the speed and agility of Alana Cook, Naomi Girma or Tierna Davidson. You once again, have a better midfield grip as you have two midfielders in front of your backline instead of one and then finally, you can play Smith or Press or Pugh or Macario or Morgan (take your pick) in a two, which all of the named players can play in.

The tactical change doesn’t have to be a permanent one but most managers will go into major competitions with a backup plan or a “Plan B” to use if “Plan A” isn’t producing the results needed. Or even just to surprise an opponent who would’ve spent a long time studying your “Plan A” and therefore not ready or unable to adjust to a “Plan B” if it shows up against them on game day. Sweden did exactly that to the USWNT in the opening match of their group at the Tokyo Olympics.

The options are there for Vlatko Andonovski to address a glaring weakness within the USWNT. The question is, will he utilise them or stick to this one plan until the wheels come off?