Route Two Soccer: The Counterattack and Houston’s 4-3-3

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Welcome to Route Two Soccer, a new (semi) weekly column, where I’ll be discussing tactics in the women’s game.

There are plenty of great resources out there already on soccer tactics in general, and a whole lot more applying those concepts, but there’s not nearly as much available about tactical developments on the women’s side of things. I’m hoping to help fill in a little bit of that gap.

To kick things off this week, I want to talk about the Houston Dash, a team picked by many (including yours truly) to finish near the bottom of the table, who played this weekend without their two biggest stars (Carli Lloyd is in England until June and Morgan Brian carrying an injury), and nevertheless managed to secure a 2-0 victory over a strong Chicago side.

Despite the scoreline, it was a relatively even affair with Chicago arguably having the better of the game for the first 70 minutes. However, the manner in which Houston achieved the win deserves attention, since it has big implications for how the team will need to set up over the rest of the season if they hope to replicate this result.

Houston set up in a 4-3-3, led by an attacking triumvirate of Ohai, Daly, and Beckie—a group with the talent to be one of the best frontlines in the league. Ohai and Beckie were nominally positioned on the left and right respectively, but swapped sides easily over the course of the match. Daly mostly held the center, playing off the others, and trying to set the conditions for successful linkup play.

Houston’s 4-3-3: strengths and weaknesses

When it works, this sort of fluid attacking line creates enormous difficulties for the defense. All three are adept at picking off isolated defenders, dragging defenses out of position, and then slicing through the resulting spaces. Working together, they can trigger a cascading effect. As one creates a gap, the next moves through it to receive the ball, further dragging defenders off their mark and creating space for the third to gain a solid look on goal.

However, this approach has limitations as well. For one thing, it misses out on the advantages of a traditional center forward. While Daly can deputize as a #9, she lacks the physical presence to dominate in the air or allow for a game built around hold-up play. Moreover, this trio is chock full of great goals, but is far less adept at the sort of goal poaching that’s so often is necessary to grind out a tough win.

But most importantly, with all three forwards at their best facing goal and/or moving laterally, it can be difficult for Houston to orchestrate much buildup through the midfield. When it’s not working, this 4-3-3 leaves the attacking trio isolated, and the midfield overrun.

This effect is compounded by Houston’s relative dearth of good possession-oriented central midfielders. Andressa certainly fits that bill—with as much skill on the ball as almost anyone in the league—but Denise O’Sullivan and Amber Brooks do not. They both have excellent work rates, and can be trusted to put in a shift, but these are hardly the players to build a tiki-taka game around. Houston’s 4-3-3, therefore, can easily set up their opponent to dominate possession and choke off attacks before they begin, something that happened all too often last year (including an almost unbelievable scoreless run of 567 minutes).

In theory, this setup should be relatively flexible, shifting quickly back and forth between the 4-3-3 in attack to a 4-2-3-1 in defense (with Ohai and Beckie dropping back to the midfield, and O’Sullivan dropping back to form a bank of two defensive midfielders). However, neither of the wide attackers is particularly adept defensively, minimizing the value of this switch. And, even more importantly, the 4-2-3-1 is best suited for facilitating transitions through the center of the pitch, using the extra bodies in the midfield to support the attack. But this isn’t really Houston’s objective, and it remains to be seen whether they try to move more in that sort of direction.

Houston’s 4-3-3 in action – Week 1

On Saturday, we saw clear evidence of both the strengths and weaknesses of the 4-3-3.

On the negative side, Chicago’s excellent central diamond used their extra body and greater skill in possession to great effect, running circles around the beleaguered Houston midfield. Despite their best efforts, O’Sullivan and Brooks spent most of the first hour chasing shadows, giving dangerous players like DiBernardo, Colaprico, and Press far too much time and space on the ball. Meanwhile, Andressa spent a lot of time getting kicked, but didn’t find much joy threading needles through quickly collapsing spaces.

However, on the positive side, as Houston dropped deeper in defense Chicago was forced to come forward, leaving acres of space behind their defensive line. And this sort of expanse is precisely the terrain that Houston’s frontline is best suited to exploit.

You can see the effect quite clearly in Houston’s first goal. It all began with Chicago slicing open the Houston defense and then rattling the post with a shot. But in the space of just a few seconds, Brooks went from standing over the ball in her own defensive third (with five Chicago players behind her) to launching a ball over the top right to the feet of an onrushing Ohai, with only the keeper to beat. It was a ridiculously fast transition: from nearly conceding to putting the ball in the net in the space of 15 seconds.

And this is the issue for Houston in 2017. Their chief resources are blistering pace and skillful attackers who do best attacking head-on, taking defenders on directly, or rushing into space to meet a throughball. In that sense, they seem ideally suited to a counterattacking setup. However, Houston’s primary weakness is its backline, where none of their defenders are without significant questions. A strategy of resolute defending and lightning counterattacks might serve them well, but it could be exceptionally dangerous to sit back and wait for opponents to attack their weakest link.

The return of Lloyd and Brian

These questions will only grow as Lloyd and Brian return. Both are excellent players, of course, but it remains to be seen whether and how they can be fitted into a more successfully tactical setup.

Lloyd, in particular, is a real enigma. Her presence in 2016 coincided with (by far) the team’s best run of form. Consider: in Lloyd’s six full games, Houston scored 17 goals and earned 12 out of 18 points. In their other 14 games, Houston scored just 12 goals and earned only 10 out of 42 points. Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether Lloyd actually fits into the system that Houston needs to play. She’s certainly not well suited for a lethal counterattacking unit built on pace and quick one-touch passing to slice through a defense in transition.

And if she does return to the Dash starting XI, whom would she replace? Sacrificing any of the midfielders would only exacerbate the defensive frailty. Losing one of the front three, however, would radically change the offensive structure—with Lloyd likely slotting in as more of an attacking midfielder at the top of a 4-4-2. We have seen Lloyd excel in that role before—when she is on her game, she truly fits the bill of the trequartista. But those games are rare in the best of times, and Lloyd is now solidly in her mid 30s. Can the Dash afford to build their entire offense around the gamble of getting Lloyd at her best?

What to do with Morgan Brian is an easier topic, though not without its own subtle concerns. Thanks to national team duties and a series of injuries, Brian has never quite achieved what the Dash hoped from her when they selected her with the #1 pick in 2015. But a healthy Morgan Brian is one of the most skillful and gifted (both physically and mentally) players in the world–the sort of player that any team can use.

So, looking forward, the question for the Dash is just how soon they’ll be able to get that version of Brian, and where they should use her once she becomes available. I’ve argued before over at Stars and Stripes FC that Brian’s best role going forward might be as a holding midfielder, in something of the Sergio Busquets role. That position maximizes the value of her skill on the ball, her field vision, and her control in tight spaces. However, if Houston plan to play a counterattacking game, they simply won’t have much use from a short-passing playmaker in the deep holding slot. It might make more sense, then, to continue slotting in Brooks at the #6—where she is more than serviceable—and swap out O’Sullivan instead.

For Houston, Brian’s value will probably be maximized if she plays as a box-to-box midfielder, dropping deep and effectively playing as the second piece of a double pivot when in defense—enhancing the midfield shield that will help to protect the frail backline—but with the freedom to range forward to link up with Andressa, Poliana and the attacking three when in possession. O’Sullivan did well enough in that role on Saturday, but there’s no denying that a fully fit Brian would make it easier for the Dash to shift fluidly between the 4-3-3 in attack and the 4-2-3-1 in defense.

If they’re able to integrate Brian into the system in that slot and if she and Andressa can form a solid relationship in those roles, it would significantly enhance Houston’s tactical versatility, and could be the difference between a successful campaign and another mediocre season.

Going forward

Houston performed well on Saturday, managing to play fairly even with a strong Chicago team, and start their season with three points. But the flaws of this roster were very much on display, and the real problem is: it’s not really clear that there are many solutions available.

The 4-3-3 is the best way to maximize the attacking abilities of their front six, but it’s a fairly rigid framework. When it works, it produces moments of magic. When it doesn’t, it produces a lot of frustration. And unlike other teams in the league, with enormous flexibility to rebalance their team on a given day, Houston doesn’t have a lot of other options.

As noted above, when Lloyd returns they may choose to shift to a 4-4-2 (pushing Ohai to the wings and using Lloyd as the #10), and they did have some success in this formation last year. But it relies heavily on getting top-quality performances from Lloyd (a risky gamble), and also risks seriously unbalancing the midfield.

Ultimately, it’s hard to look at the roster and not think that a trade might be their best option. At the end of the day, Houston’s season will be made or broken on the backline, and while they can and should work on drilling a bit more positional solidity into that backline, there’s a limit to how much water you can squeeze from a rock.

But Lloyd remains an incredibly dangerous player. Might not some other team in the league be willing to offer up some defensive support in order to get her? If it’s possible to bring in some additional strength from outside, they would be well advised to consider it.