Why does the United States Women’s National Team struggle to break down compact, deep defensive teams?
In many ways, this has been the defining question of the two years since the US crashed out of the Olympics after failing to pick apart a very defensive Sweden. Hope Solo called them “a bunch of cowards” for playing that way. But Sweden weren’t cowards; they were just being practical.
Return to the question: why does the US struggle to break down a defensive block? Because everyone does. That’s why teams do it.
Soccer is a game of inches, of low margins and tiny probabilities. The default is for teams to not score, and it takes something special to upset that balance. Good teams still win because they possess the talent necessary to make the difference, but it’s hardly a certainty. We’ve all seen games where one team dominates but simply can’t break through, thanks to a goalkeeper standing on their head. Or games where the dominant team hits the crossbar three or four times. Just a few inches in one direction and they’d have cruised to victory.
This is frustrating, but if you’re the better team, the best you can do is expand the number of good shots you generate, and rely on your talented players to convert some of the chances.
Conversely, for weaker teams, it can make a lot of sense to play a defensive style. By reducing the chances available to both teams, you’ll hurt your own odds of scoring. But you’ll hurt the odds of the other team more. Playing defensively doesn’t change the basic structure of the match: the superior team is still superior and remains the favorite. But it can change the odds. By cutting down on the number of chances, you reduce their ability to exploit that superiority to the fullest extent.
Not every defensive approach is the same. At the extreme, teams can put all eleven players behind the ball, retreating deep into their defensive quadrant. In a more limited form, they can employ the classic ‘two banks of four.’ And there are plenty of ‘defensive’ setups that don’t necessarily rely on a lot of deep numbers but instead look to clog up the middle. The popular 4-2-3-1 setup can be quite defensive if both holding midfield players are more destructive than creative.
These all pose slightly different tactical problems. But when people talk about ‘bunkers,’ they usually mean teams who set up at least two lines of deep defense, conceding much of the midfield into order to shorten the space between their lines. The goal is to create two walls of bodies that close off the elusive ‘pockets of space’ that soccer commentators so love to talk about.
This generally makes for tactics that resemble nothing so much as the siege of a fortified Medieval castle. The superior team will unleash plenty of shots, but usually from distance, or from poor angles. They’ll have space to maneuver 30 yards from goal, but will have trouble getting any closer. They’ll have plenty of room on the wings to send in crosses, but will rarely get a clean head on the ball when it comes in.
When this sort of defensive play works, it’s usually down to a combination of three factors: good execution by the weaker team, poor execution by the stronger team, and luck.
The missing element here, often the most critical factor in other matches, is tactics. That’s because the whole point of deep defensive blocks is their capacity to severely limit the number of tactical issues in a game. There is no special sauce, no secret ingredient, no tactical innovation that will ‘solve’ this problem. A deep defensive block eliminates most of the spaces that players want to poke into. It jams up all the locks that smart tactics are trying to pick. The whole point is to reduce the number of unknowns in a game, to prevent superior teams from exploiting a wide range of game states.
This doesn’t mean defensive blocks are unbeatable. Far from it. Good teams can beat them, and more often than not they do. But not because of any particularly innovative techniques. The solution to beating this approach is to do the obvious things, execute them, and wait for the weight of probability to turn one of your half-chances into a goal.
So what are the obvious things?
First, play good crossers on the wings and good headers up front. This is where a ‘classic number 9’ can be useful—a big, bruising player who can out jump and outmuscle the opposing defenders. Think Abby Wambach. But while a strong #9 is important here, the bigger element is simply having wide players capable of posing a serious threat. Defensive blocks are strongest when they’re narrow. The more dangers you can create from wide spaces, the more stretched the defensive lines will have to be, and the more opportunities you’ll find in the middle.
Second, press aggressively when you lose possession. Defensive lines work because they’re tight and controlled. In a true bunker, the weaker team will treat this solidity as paramount, and won’t even try to counter for fear of losing their shape. But very few teams play that way. And the more that the opponent tries to attack, the harder it will be for them to recover. That can be exploited.
Third, shoot from distance. Deep defensive teams will generally offer plenty of space from 30-35 yards out. Coming out to pressure the ball is risky, because it creates holes that can be exploited. But if you have players willing and able to unleash dangerous shots from that range, it makes holding the defensive lines much more difficult.
Fourth, work the ball quickly through tight spaces. No block is impermeable. There will always still be space, just less than usual. A player with exceptional skill on the ball or with superb passing agility will often be able to exploit the tiniest of opportunity. This isn’t easy, and will often result in losing the ball, but that’s a cost that must be paid.
These are all simple ideas, and usually, they’ll get the job done. A defender will make a mistake, get caught out of position, miss a crucial tackle, or lunge in and concede a penalty. Or they’ll just get unlucky. A deflected shot will go in, or a cleared ball will fall right to the feet of an attacker. Moreover, even if they execute perfectly, there will still be half-chances. High-quality finishers aren’t guaranteed to convert those chances, but more often than not, one will eventually fall.
But probability isn’t certainty. Sometimes the chances just don’t fall. And when that happens, there can be a temptation to say that the coach needs to try something else. Unfortunately, the simple reality is that there aren’t really any other options. You just have to keep plugging away, putting the defensive team under pressure, and forcing them to execute.
None of this is to say that coaching has no role to play here. In a game of small margins, every opportunity to exploit an advantage needs to be taken. Good coaches will prepare for defensive teams by working on set pieces, by developing setups that will be capable of exploiting wide spaces, by emphasizing the importance of quick ball movement. They’ll be willing to adapt their approach. Perhaps they’ll bring on a big physical number 9 who normally wouldn’t start. Perhaps they’ll shift to a 442 which allows them to get four wide attackers involved without losing numbers in the middle. And so on.
Of course, it’s always worth looking for improvements in these margins. But marginal improvements are the best that can ever really be hoped for. At the end of the day, these games are usually determined by execution, not tactics.