The fable of the US's lack of technique
By now, you have all heard the US women's national team celebrated for its physicality and just about everyone else in the world praised for their technical skill.
Usually, these terms describe Manchester United versus Barcelona, England versus Spain, the “European” versus the “Latin” game. But this summer, the brutes are our women and their elected representative is the “dominating” presence of Abby Wambach.
Pundits (like myself) are being asked to explain how the US women are going to handle a crafty technical team like Japan – the desired answer, of course, is “We are going to crush them!”
Throughout the tournament we have seen some dramatic clashes in style. Nowhere was this more the case than in the semifinal showdown between the US and France. The French team experienced the loss as a moral failure of the game: “pretty” attacking football should win, no?
Processing their defeat, French midfielder Louisa Necib told L’Equipe: “The worst is that we were better than them.” As if needing to reaffirm that sense of belief in their possession game, she punctuated that assertion with a question, “You saw that too, right?”
France attacker Gaëtane Thiney described the US women as standing in front of the goal for 90 minutes and sending long balls down the field. Defender Laura Georges observed, “one team was very athletic, and another played football.” Ouch.
But the French took 25 shots on goal and scored only one. The US took 5 and scored 3. Guided by these stats, L’Equipe described the US as “realists” whose “sangfroid” unraveled the optimism of Les Bleues. That sounds about right to me.
Casting one team as the “physical” team and another as a “technical team” belies the dependence of these two qualities on each other.
It belies the importance of and the technique in a great defense. If it only takes one goal to win a match, that is because the defense has prevented your opponent from scoring at all.
Some of the world’s greatest sides have been infamous for this: The Italians were so good at it that the defensive game is synonymous for their style of it: Catenaccio.
Those romanced by the attack cite the emergence of the defensive “lock” as the beautiful game’s death knell. It certainly is when both sides play this way – and that has been the case for a long time as Germany and the US has traded gold medals and trophies with each other.
The dominance of the defensive strategy in the women’s game might be on the wane. Brazil’s nod to its teams of yore (which threw the whole squad into attack), France’s passing game, Japan’s total game – people are excited about the women’s game right now not because women can handle the ball (of course they can), but because they are allowed to handle the ball, playing in formations and systems whose engine is movement and attack. It is fun to see teams shoot the ball.
A lot depends on how things go today. Japan, like France, sends a lot of passes into the box, and takes a lot of shots. Their finish is better than the French, their mental toughness and concentration is, too. They have a total game.
One of my blog readers described the US women as practicing a “rope a dope” game that wears its opponent down, only to finish them off with “a black mamba strike for the jugular.” That is a style; that is a technique.
Employing that style, your concentration and your speed have to be better than your opponent’s, because for much of the game, you are reacting to them. But to see that side a match, you have to look past possession and read what players are doing off the ball. It demands your attention. If all you see is attack, you get the impression that defending isn’t playing at all.
But of course, it is. The whole team is engaged in this work.
It’s hard to see this from our living rooms, but when the USWNT and Japan face off, look for what the people on the field who don’t have the ball are doing. Look at who are they tracking, where are they steering the action. Look at how they hand players off to each other. Look at the point when the attack collapses, or breaks through. Consider how long that attack took to build – and how much practice it must take to make that “black mamba strike” look like it came out of nowhere.
Look at the game this way, and you will see the strength in the technique, and the technique in the strength.