In this game, we focus a great deal on the players who do things. And for good reason. Most of the time, the action is…well, where the action is. But there is always a lot more going on than just what’s happening near the ball. And there is no player in the league who better illustrates this point than Tori Huster.
Watching her reminds me of Vicente del Bosque’s praise of Sergio Busquets: “If you watch the whole game, you won’t see Busquets—but watch Busquets, and you will see the whole game.” Huster is a similar player. Watch her and you’ll see the whole game.
Washington 1 – 0 Portland
After spending six weeks out with a quad strain, Huster made her return this week. It was a big ask—coming straight back in for a full 90 without a chance to build back up her match fitness and form. And against Portland, no less. But Huster looked as comfortable as if she’d never left, helping to lock down many of the improvements that the team had made in her absence.
Generally, teams have found success against the Thorns this year primarily through a high pressing game: harass them high up the pitch, break up their rhythm, force them into dumb mistakes, and generally just keep them from playing their game. North Carolina provided the template early in the season, but others have found some good results using the same techniques, including Sky Blue last week.
The problem with that approach is that it needs a lot of pace. In order to keep the channels clogged as you press high, you need to play a high line and do a lot of running. Even more, to play this way you desperately need a midfield who can hold possession under pressure, to capitalize on turnovers and spring attacks in transition.
And while Washington has certainly looked better recently, those improvements haven’t solved those fundamental weaknesses in the team. Unlike their 2016 iteration, which really did have the personnel and speed to play that way, the 2017 squad can’t afford to fully commit to a full field press.
Now, that may change over the coming weeks. After all, the Spirit should soon be getting Mallory Pugh back from injury, Estefania Banini back from Europe, not to mention an increasingly fit Caprice Dydasco (who made a big difference pushing higher up the pitch in her half-hour this week). Combine those additions with some increasingly confident and active players like Francisca Ordega and Meggie Dougherty Howard, and you’ve got the core of a truly solid unit. By the end of the year, the Spirit may well be playing a lot like they were at the end of 2016. But for now, lack of team speed and midfield control will doom them if they try to play too expansively.
High pressing with a low backline: Wait, what?
Their solution is as simple as it is effective: focus your play on the attacking thirds, and don’t worry too much about what’s in between. In effect: keep your defense as deep as possible—to avoid the backline getting turned and their limited pace exposed—while still pushing as high possible in the attacking end.
Your front players should press aggressively and look to quickly close down on the ball high up the pitch. Your defenders, however, should drop off the ball as much as possible. Don’t step up to challenge, and risk getting beat. Just drop, and drop quickly. Keep the other team in front of you and build a wall in front of your goal.
At times, this could be mistaken for ‘bunkering,’ since it involves setting a deep backline and soaking up pressure rather than trying to play through the midfield. But it’s different in the important respect that you’re really only playing with six players behind the ball. The attacking four will drop when necessary, but their focus is upfield, not down. That’s what makes it possible for them to exert effective high pressure, and what keeps them available for good looks on goal.
Now, there are two clear problems with this approach:
First and most obvious: it requires conceding dominance over a (pretty important) part of the field. Games are won and lost in the midfield, and this setup is a recipe for losing a lot of midfield battles. However, there is an important element of expedience here. Because the fact is: given the available personnel, Washington is probably going to get beat in the midfield a lot anyways. So the question is how to structure those defeats. More on that in a moment.
Second, this approach is bad for possession. Creating such a wide gap between the front and back lines makes it difficult to link them together when you do get the ball. It’s a recipe for a lot of long balls over the top and speculative crossing runs, most of which will go astray. This is a real problem since it’s hard to win the game without the ball. But again, this is a matter of facing realities. Even if they wanted to, Washington simply isn’t going to get a ton of joy from keeping the ball on the ground and playing tiki-taka through the middle. So it’s quite reasonable to think about this not in terms of how much possession you get, but rather how useful you’re able to make your limited chances.
Tactical judo: turning your weaknesses into strengths
In both of these cases, the underlying logic owes as much to the martial arts as anything else. Because the key is to use your opponent’s strength against them by carefully managing how that strength can be expressed.
By accepting a disadvantage in the midfield, you draw your opposition out. If they manage to unlock the high pressure, they’ll move quickly through that vacant midfield space, hoping to pounce on the retreating backline. But if you can hold the line, they’ll often find themselves spinning their wheels—far more stretched than they expect. Like the dog who catches the car, you may end up with an attacker who sprang forward anticipating a devastating counter only to find herself 30 yards ahead of any help.
Alternatively, if they do manage to get forward in numbers, that creates the space that you want for your counterattacks. Stay resolute, break up play, and then quickly turn and look for the long crossing ball that will give your forwards room to run.
Everything depends on the holding midfielders
Making this setup work is no simple thing. It requires a lot of organization and needs defenders who are solid with their back to goal. It needs a keeper who is comfortable dealing with shots from distance, and who can handle crosses well. And it needs attackers who can thrive without much support from the midfield—players who can make their own chances, by beating a couple defenders, or by racing down low-percentages balls and making something out of nothing. But more than anything else: you need dependable holding midfielders. And that’s where Tori Huster comes in.
Because while there are plenty of great holding midfielders these days, some with more creative attacking flair, some who are better goal scorers, and some who are better tacklers. But I’m not sure there’s anyone in the league who is more dependable. And this weekend’s game was as clear an example as you could ever hope for.
Washington managed only 38% possession and were consistently overrun in the midfield. But for all that, Portland looked fairly toothless all game—only managing three shots on goals. Certainly, some of the blame can be placed on the Thorns themselves, but a lot of credit needs to go to Dougherty Howard and (especially) Huster—the holding midfielders who held the rock on which Portland crashed for most of the evening.
While the high press gave the Thorns some trouble, it was by no means able to coop them up entirely. But every time they broke through and tried to come in numbers, Huster was there—tracking along and slowing their attack, giving the defense time to drop and set before they were overrun, tracking the front runners and closing down passing angles. And once the defense set, Huster and Dougherty Howard were a constantly-moving shield at the top of the 18-yard box, forcing play to go wide, interfering and disrupting.
One of the hardest things about defending well is the discipline it takes to judge when to step and when to drop. And it’s often even harder to assess that quality from afar. We focus on the perfectly executed tackles, the last-ditch efforts that save a goal, the narrow inches between winning the ball and conceding a penalty. But often the most successful defenders are the ones who keep the dangerous play from developing in the first place. By holding their position, they delay the attack long enough for support to arrive. By dropping, they fill the space where the through-ball might have gone. By being patient, they maintain control.
This is an important quality for anyone, but it’s especially important for the holding player in Washington’s setup. Defense is a team problem, and a defense is only as good as its weakest link. But ‘weakest’ isn’t a static concept. Good players don’t just do good things individually; they also help build an infrastructure that helps everyone do better.
When the Spirit have played well this year, it’s been driven by good performances in those central midfield roles–protecting the defense in transition, preserving the ball long enough to launch attacks, marshaling the troops to keep everyone in line. Dougherty Howard has grown into the role and looks a very useful player. Havana Solaun was deputized there with some success but is far better utilized in a more attacking role where her creativity can shine. And Line Sigvardsen Jensen has filled in where necessary. But Huster’s return is a game-changer.
Watch Huster, and you’ll see the whole game
Think about the quote I mentioned at the start: watch the game and you won’t see her; watch her and you’ll see the whole game. That’s because so much of what she’s doing never shows up in plays that go into the box score. She’ll win her share of tackles and make her share of passes, sure, but more than anything she’s a shepherd. Her job is to make sure everything stays on course, not necessarily to do it herself.
And it takes incredible discipline to successfully play this way. You need someone who will run endlessly just to make sure that the passing channels stay clogged. Who can see play in motion and anticipate where someone will need to be. Who can cover for her teammates when they’re dragged out of position. Who can understand the team’s shape as it ebbs and flows and keep everyone working together.
It’s a cliché when talking about a ‘weak’ team who is tough to score against to say “they’re just really well organized,” but we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about where that organization comes from. Obviously, coaching is immensely important here, but it also takes a lot of work from the players on the pitch to actually execute the plan. And it depends in particular on the field general who can keep everyone marching to the same tune.
Watch Washington play with her on the pitch and notice how often she’s pointing—drop into this space, protect that flank, watch your blind side, pass into that channel, and so on. Watch to see how often she’s moving ahead of the play—protecting space that’s not threatened yet, but which is about to be attacked. Watch to see how assiduously she manages breakaway attacks—not looking to make a spectacular (but risky) tackle; trusting that her defense will be able to stifle the attack if she can just give them the time to reset.
But more than anything, watch to see how often the opponent seems strangely quiet on the night—unable to find those penetrating runs, unable to successfully isolate and turn defenders, unable to do much of anything with all the possession that they seem to have.
There are plenty of flashy players in the league, and we rightly give them a lot of credit for the incredible things they can do. But I’m not sure there was any player more crucial to their team’s success this week than Tori Huster. That her contributions were so quiet only makes them that much more impressive.