With Ertz in the holding role, Press dropping back, and the fullbacks ranging forward, Chicago overloaded the midfield and dominated the game.
After suffering a 2-0 defeat away to Houston to open the season, Chicago fared far better in week 4, producing a suffocating performance that allowed them to reverse the scoreline and earn an easy three points.
Now, controlling the game against Houston is not particularly difficult at the moment—given their weakness in the midfield—and Chicago absolutely should expect to beat them at home. Still, there’s a world of difference between expectation and reality. It’s a credit to Rory Dames and his team that they were able to diagnose Houston’s primary weakness and set themselves up to capitalize.
Chicago has been a bit of a tactical enigma so far in 2017. They’re a team with a lot of options and a stated desire to develop a range of styles and setups. In her Unsung Hero column this week, Jacqui Porter noted that Chicago’s defenders have embraced the idea of flexible deployment, with everyone potentially ready to slot into a variety of roles on a given day. And the big news for the Red Stars this year, of course, has been the varied uses of Julie Ertz—who has jumped from center back to attacking midfielder to holding midfielder just in the course of these few games.
But for all that talk, the reality is that Chicago has done very little to move away from their standard approach: a 4-4-2 midfield diamond, with pinched wingers and overlapping fullbacks. Yes, when Chicago was chasing the game at Portland in week 3, they briefly switched to a back three. But on the whole, the basic setup has remained the same. Whatever shifts they’ve tried have mostly happened within that framework—with the same names simply swapping places within the diamond.
That does produce some genuine unpredictability. After all, the 4-4-2 may look the same on paper but it will play quite differently depending on who occupies the spot at the top of the diamond. With Ertz there, you get very little playmaking through the middle, as she focuses more on crashing the box and using her physicality to force play directly down the defense’s throat. With Press, the approach is far more technical and dynamic—with the associated cost of drawing their best scorer away from the goal.
An attacking diamond: capitalizing on Houston’s weakness
On Saturday, though, we saw a third variant—and one that produced a lot of positive results. This time, DiBernardo took the attacking midfield slot, giving Press the freedom to push forward into a withdraw forward role, and allowing two of the team’s most skillful and perceptive players to work together in the attacking corridor. And although she didn’t produce her best game this time around, DiBernardo has the potential to be a true #10 (one of the very few in the US player pool who can make that claim). In the long term, using her front and center could pay enormous dividends for Chicago.
Meanwhile, Ertz was pushed back to the holding midfield role and Colaprico sent to the left, with Mautz mirroring her on the right.
This setup maximizes the team’s offensive capacity—giving each of the front six room to express themselves and encouraging good build up through the middle. It does, however, come with some drawbacks. First, while Colaprico is certainly capable of playing on the left, it is a bit of a waste of her talents. She is arguably the best holding midfielder in the league, and has less chance to control the game from the left. Second, while Ertz is an excellent defender, she is far less restrained positionally. Where Colaprico is a midfield conductor, keeping a firm hand on the play and easing smoothly on the throttle, Ertz is far more rambunctious—more a traditional box-to-box midfielder than a true holding player. Those forward runs can be devastating, of course, but they can also leave the backline exposed.
However, when executed well, these two dangers mostly cancel out. One of the advantages of using Colaprico on the left is her capacity to drop back to occupy that central holding space when needed–something that most wide players can’t be trusted to do. What’s more, Houston is precisely the sort of team to use this approach against. Given their midfield frailty, they simply can’t risk a high-pressure game in the midfield. That allows Chicago to dominate possession in that area, granting Ertz the freedom to playmake from the back and allowing the Red Stars to dictate the run of play.
At least, in theory, that’s what should happen. But for the opening half hour, it didn’t look to be working all that well, with Colaprico making a number of very un-Colaprico like errors, and Ertz ranging out a bit too aggressively. However, the Chicago defense did its job—double and triple teaming Ohai to limit the damage, and giving the offense time to settle into their roles. During this period, Chicago was the better team, but still looked a bit out of sorts.
A tightening vice
As the game progressed, however, everything began to flow a bit more smoothly. And the key to it all was Christen Press, who remains goalless on the year, but has turned in some excellent performances nonetheless. Saturday was her best game of the season, and a big part of that is down to the flexibility that this setup affords her. As a slightly withdrawn, wandering forward, she is free to hang on the shoulder of the last defender one minute and then drop deep into the midfield to link play the next. Given her skill and confidence on the ball, the defense can’t afford to leave her unmarked as she flits between the midfield and the front line, but neither can any single player afford to stay with her indefinitely lest it fracture the team’s overall defensive shape.
It was a problem that Houston was never able to solve. Time and time again, Press would drift back, overloading the Houston midfield, and allowing quick transitions through the middle. Then, as Houston would push their backline higher in an effort to close down all that free space, she and Huerta would race through and take a ball over the top from Colaprico, Ertz, DiBernardo, or the fullbacks. Press, in particular, found plenty of joy down the left channel. Some excellent defending (from Roccaro in particular) kept those assaults from turning into goals, but it was a constant threat on the day.
Both Ohai and Daly worked hard to contribute defensively, in the hope of rebalancing the numbers, but their efforts were more sound and fury than they were a tactical success. The crucial danger zone for Houston was that pocket of space between Chicago’s midfield and front line, and for all that their forwards put in good shifts to race back and defend, they were mostly trailing behind the play—looking to provide cover after the seam had already been split.
Morgan Brian – very good, but is it enough?
Things did change in the final twenty minutes, due largely to the season debut from Morgan Brian. With her on the pitch, Houston looked a different team, far more confident in possession, and far more resolute in the midfield. It just goes to show how much they’ve missed her (and Andressa) over the last few games. Still, even with that jolt of energy and additional skill, Houston didn’t really resolve the underlying problems; they simply managed to play around them a bit more successfully.
So, going forward, even if Brian is ready to play 90 minutes every week, it remains to be seen whether they can develop an approach that will capitalize on the extra bit of stability she can bring. Because even with Brian at her peak (and Brian at her peak is one of the world’s best players), Houston will still face the underlying problem of a defense that is excellent when defending deep, or when coming out, but which all too easily gets twisted and turned the higher up the pitch they go. All of which goes to the point I made a few weeks ago: for the Dash, the best bet is likely to defend deep—‘solving’ the problem of an overloaded midfield by simply conceding the point—draw the opposition forward, and look to spring them through a quick counterattack. So far, the team has shown flashes but little sense of a real desire to play that way. One of the big questions going forward is whether Waldrum is willing to make that commitment. And if not, whether he’ll come up with a solution to this persistent problem.