In general, the WoSo community believes that Becky Sauerbrunn is one of the best defenders in the world, and there is a growing consensus that she is the best centerback currently playing. Sauerbrunn is so consistently excellent that many assume her play on the pitch is without flaw. But don’t let her unnerving composure or her charming intellect fool you.
I am here to tell you that Becky Sauerbrunn has flaws. Several flaws.
She’s not really speedy
Becky Sauerbrunn is not fast. That is a fact. She does not claim to be fast, I don’t claim that she’s fast, no one does. All an opposing team has to do to get around her is send a ball past her and have one of their speedier players collect it. Or perfectly place a ball far enough away from Sauerbrunn to give the attacker time and space to run around her.
Without putting the ball too close to the keeper. Or another defender. Or the sideline. Or Broon’s head. Did I mention that she can jump really high?
It’s as simple as that. Oh, and if there seems to be a lot of space behind her to dump the ball, it’s probably wise to check the offside line, because Captain Becky runs a tight ship, and it’s probably a trap.
But if she’s so slow, can’t attackers dribble around her?
Well, of course they can!
If she doesn’t immediately intercept the ball or dispossess them at midfield, as she is wont to do, they may very well have a shot (pun intended). But they can’t draw the line too close. Once players get within her reach, they may find themselves shouldered off the ball or subject to a rare but clean Sauerbrunn tackle. So, yeah, all attackers have to do is place a ball perfectly over the top or gain a step on one of the world’s best positional defenders. Because she’s slow.
She doesn’t score
As anyone who has experienced the USWNT under Jill Ellis knows, one of the cornerstones of good defending is the ability to score. This another area in which Sauerbrunn is lacking. We know that she can score (she has done so a handful of times over the years for club), so the real question is, why can’t she score for her country?
Well, to start, she only has a handful of shots on goal to her name. She was tried out as a set-piece option for years before Julie Johnston came along and showed us what a real scoring centerback looks like.
Sure, Sauerbrunn’s been racking up assists lately from her beautifully floated free kicks and set-piece garbage cleanup, but it’s not really the same, is it? She’s a captain now, and captains lead by example. How is she supposed to inspire the team if she’s standing behind them the whole time? I mean, I guess she is using those long throw-ins now. Too bad she can’t score directly from them. Maybe Jill Ellis can get her to take corner kicks too.
She has too much hope
Although she has described her on-field defensive mindset as that of a pessimist, it is clear that when setting play Becky Sauerbrunn is as hopeful as she is Hope-less. Time and time again we have seen Sauerbrunn win a ball in her defensive half only to turn around and pass it up the field in largely pointless endeavors. Too often the ball is sloppily turned over or sent out for a less-than-threatening corner kick.
No matter how many times she sends the ball forward, it always comes back.
One would think that she might reconsider her tactics and try something new. But no, she continues to pass to the fullbacks and the midfielders and the goalkeeper and the other centerbacks, with the hope that players will move around and open up a path forward. She also hopes that her teammates will see those paths when they emerge and respond accordingly. Sometimes Sauerbrunn is so optimistic about her teammates’ ability to see these chances that she passes the ball along those paths to where her teammates should be rather than where they are. As if she could somehow magically communicate her intentions to them nonverbally.
Clearly, if she sees these passing lanes so well, Sauerbrunn should just take the ball up the field herself and distribute directly to the forwards. After all, it has worked in the past.
She is too good at what she does
Yes, this is a flaw—perhaps her worst. As we’ve seen over the past year, Becky Sauerbrunn is fully capable of taking on more defensive responsibilities than are normally required of one centerback. Jill Ellis has been systematically dismantling the defense that won the USWNT its third World Cup.
For every step that the fullbacks move up, space opens up behind them for attackers to maneuver around Sauerbrunn or to drop a ball in behind. Now, that may not seem overly threatening, right? Every team has to deal with that kind of stuff. And it’s not like Sauerbrunn is covering the entire back half by herself. Well, except sometimes she is.
Well, except sometimes she is.
It wasn’t so noticeable when the USWNT played lower-ranked teams, where the centerbacks usually hang out by themselves at the midfield stripe anyway. Julie Johnston would push up to send in some long balls and destroy hopes and dreams while Becky Sauerbrunn stood ten yards off camera. But somehow it’s gotten to the point where Sauerbrunn and whichever other centerback she’s been assigned are fending off counterattacks in the midfield with no support—even against top teams. And no amount of speed from a fullback can make up 20 yards on an equally quick or quicker opponent, as we saw in the USWNT’s recent match against the Netherlands.
What all of this means for the national team
Becky Sauerbrunn is essentially unbeatable when her opponent is next to her. And she is very good at putting herself next to them. It has been emphasized endlessly that Sauerbrunn’s strongest skill is her ability to read the game. It’s how she is able to cut off counterattacks and intercept passes so well.
This ability helps to cover the migration of the fullbacks and the lack of a true defensive midfielder up to a certain point. It works as long as other teams still play as if the US has a regular 4-back formation. But once the gap in behind becomes large enough, the game plan of other teams works to exploit that gap. And that handicaps Sauerbrunn. Because even if you can read all of the options, you have to be able to counter them if you want to reap the benefits of your player’s skills. So, because she has been so good at what she does, it has become much harder for her to do what she does effectively.
Sauerbrunn and her centerback partners have been doing an admirable job of toughing it out. However, though they may not have been beaten outright very often, little by little, signs of strain are beginning to show. Tackles, defensive fouls, breakaways, last-second blocks, etc., have all seemed to increase in matchups since the World Cup win. And for critics and fans of the team who became so accustomed to the nearly flawless play of the “Department of Defense” by that Women’s World Cup backline, the difference in play has been stark. Through luck, opponent errors, and heroic goalkeeping, there were very few goals conceded that might have forced a change before the Olympics. And while those goals finally came in Rio, we hadn’t really seen any changes to the system until the most recent friendlies against Switzerland.
In the 3-back formation used in those two friendlies, Sauerbrunn was placed on the outside, and Allie Long anchored the center.
Allie Long, Portland’s league-renowned attacking midfielder.
Allie Long, who was converted to holding midfielder on the USWNT.
Allie Long, who is known for distribution, not defending, was converted to a centerback.
And Becky Sauerbrunn, arguably the best centerback in the world, was shifted to the outside. Because she’s good enough to manage there. And because she’d practically been playing there anyway. Once again, a player known for their distribution—with no experience as a defender—was moved into a defensive position with limited distribution capabilities, and a central defensive player whose main weakness is a lack of speed was moved to the outside, where speed is the number one tactic used to get around the opposition.
Jill Ellis loves to shoehorn players into new positions, but most who follow the team thought that Sauerbrunn, at least, would be safe from this game of musical chairs. But apparently because Becky Sauerbrunn is fantastic and unflappable, just having her on the field is a good as having a real defense. Why shouldn’t she be able to handle this? It’s just the next step forward toward the cliff’s edge. Anything that goes wrong is just because of the growing pains that come with learning a new position, someone having an off night, or a goalkeeper error.
That’s the narrative, right?
It is becoming harder and harder to remember what Becky Sauerbrunn at the top of her game with a solid backline looks like. Because as she is spread thinner or pushed into a different position that does not suit her, she is not allowed to be excellent. She gives the same level of quality each game—her performance hasn’t slipped—but applying skills to a task they are not geared toward will lessen their yield. (Please, please understand this, Jill Ellis.) Sauerbrunn can play quite well in that outside defender role, but you never give up excellence when you have it. Becky Sauerbrunn is not a jack of all trades. She is very much the master of one.
Versatility is all well and good if you can get a top-notch performance. But this is the national team level. These players are at the top in their respective positions. It is okay to sacrifice some skill or talent for team chemistry (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and all that), but if Jill Ellis can’t find excellent players (if not necessarily the absolute best) in each position to put together a team with chemistry, then she has not tried the right players.
Because, as we’ve seen with the recent NWSL call-ups and even with call-ups from earlier this year, there are plenty of players out there with the skills to play at the international level.
You don’t need to reduce the value of the players that already work well, like Becky Sauerbrunn.
Let Broon be Broon.