This originally started as part of the article looking at the 11 new faces coach Jill Ellis introduced to the roster for the first matches for the USA after the Olympics. We made it a separate posting as this is a different problem to solve (And there are often quite similar (or mostly even more urgent) problems regarding back line players) Because in the offense they have so many extraordinary players improvements are mainly possible in improving the interaction between them. Whereas in the back line there might be improvements also possible by adding better individuals (though on a very high level)
1.An overall problem with back line players ?
A few days ago when we looked for an all star team of the U17 WC we had some problems to put together back line players of a similar quality as offensive players there too.
And how much more have we seen offensive players earn top player awards? Not only overall and worldwide at the mens side. When was the last back line player FIFA player of the year? Is playing back line not very popular for younger talents though? Is it more tempting and rewarding for the coaches to develop offensive players? Would Kealia Ohai be in the US roster at least as replacement if she would be center back?
The massive unbalance for good players all over the world to be used further up the field seems kind of a logical consequence. (If you want to look very far then it might be a sign of that a lot goes wrong tactically worldwide in mens pro football?) There are very few exceptions where the quality of the back line players match the offense. Nearly all the top 20 NTs (women, havent thought about men too. But probably?) of the world are having more or less difficulties in center back positions. (Except the USA and France)
For the younger: No, that was not so much the case 40-50 years ago. The dress number “5” had been quite similarly popular as today still the “10” the “9”. A “6” had been nowhere by the way at that times. Beckenbauer one of the best examples for the “5”. Like Bobby Moore, Franco Baresi, Fernando Hiero lesser known today but at their times much the top players of their countries like todays Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, dont know, … Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ronaldo, Zidane, Figo before that. Have people today already agreed that forwards are more expensive on the transfer market and you “dont need” to spend so much on back line players? Havent thought so much about it. Changed probably slowly but steadily over time. In the meantime (say last 3 WC) you really need your time to find a few countries where the popularity of the centerbacks match the offensive players.
2.Center backs for team USA
If one of Sauerbrunn/Johnston is missing “Houston got a problem” or might get. A problem that is meant to be relative to the extraordinary level of the US team. Emily Sonnett is a solid replacement. But we even yet dont know how good exactly. Not sure about Julie King. Might look stronger in some defensive aspects? But difficult to say for a Boston player(sorry). No idea though how she would be able to build up play with a good team around her. Others in the NWSL? Might be “good old” Yael Averbuch still amongst the next best? Emily Menges, Lauren Barnes? Good players. Seeing them play you get the impression of solid back line players who rarely make mistakes. But they also do not that often catch your eye for outstanding actions. Winning the ball or stopping their opponent when having to start from a bad position into a situation? Exceptional players do win difficult balls from time to time. Some seem to have that magical eye inbuilt to allow them to always stand in the way of their opponents attacks without spectacular running. Not so much of that type of player in the NWSL though. Seen also Oyster with solid matches before she wasnt seen often anymore in Washington. Also build up play is important. Same picture? Johnston; maybe Averbuch with extra points here.
So looking for other alternatives might be the option. Dont see a lot of these candidates being lot better center backs than Ali Krieger and probably also not compared to the actual holding midfielders Morgan Brian, Sam Mewis or Alli Long.
We have written that before the first Switzerland game that we also havent watched. Long was used obviously indeed in a back line of 3. Always wondering why she wasnt called earlier for the NT and remembering the time 2014(?) when she was compared to much weaker players? But now that is just too late for any other purpose than a short hand replacement. Amongst all positions on the field center back is the one where experience is most important (experience in that particular position). Even Johnston and Sauerbrunn are sometimes still got out of position. So for a long time solution you might more think of the other two. On the other hand speed might be something to look out for too. And the other way round? If some of the holding midfielders were injured dont know whether Johnston wouldnt be a good solution there either. And having watched the (CET-friendlier) second match it actually confirmed nearly no valuable conclusions could be taken regarding any aspect of the defense here. Neither 3 back system nor individual skills have been stretched enough by the opponents.
Because wing backs are not so close to the own goal and more often taking part in offensive play we have generally spoken a similar problem but with slight modifications. Much more players are switched from offense into wing backs because that is the smaller step. Not that much experience and adaption is needed there compared to a center back.
Regarding team USA we have talked about these positions having been the (nearly only?) ones where other national teams might be better individually. Frances Boulleau and Majri, Germanys Maier, Englands Bronze, Australians Foord, Swedens Rubensson, are all among the few players who might be an improvement to the US roster. Maybe Canadas Lawrence or others already too.
We will have to see whether the newly added players can close this gap or not. Probably the extraordinary players who are surplus further up front if switched into wing backs would be closing down this slight weakness.
Not special to the US but overall also one of these points where womens football is much more interesting than mens. Because the individual differences are much bigger. Say a team has three world class players as holding midfielders (or any other position with multiple top players). And really weak wing backs (or other positions). Mens teams are so much on level individually most coaches dont even think of switching over players from other positions but use the players who are “specialists” on that position.
Whereas in womens teams with the bigger individual differences the world class player is often better even in positions where she is not a specialist for. Interesting which coaches there are able to see that or just copy what they are used to see at the mens football. (Hello Dash?)
Back to team USA. Not so sure about Tobin Heath. It depends because her extraordinary strengths are very much depending on having possession of the ball. More about Crystal Dunn for example who is similarly good in winning duels with or without having the ball? Remember Dutch VandeSanden causing some problems? She certainly wouldnt have that much if Dunn would defend that wing. Maybe Press also a little bit less? Maybe Williams now? Difficult to tell but worth a try. But of course this would depend also on how much the players would be happy with it.