Coach Vlatko Andonovski's Olympic challenge: How to get all four excellent midfielders on the field

How do you fit four of the world’s best 20 players in your lineup, especially when all four do their best work in the center of the field?

Most coaches would love that problem, and U.S. women’s coach Vlatko Andonovski surely doesn’t mind, even though it complicates his lineup choices and could even result in the omission of a national team star on the short Olympic roster.

The four players are:

Julie Ertz, the 2019 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year and the highest-ranked U.S. player (ninth) in The Guardian’s Top 100 of 2020.

Sam Mewis, the 2020 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year who’s vying with Tobin Heath to be the most impactful U.S. player in England this season and is 15th in the The Guardian’s rankings.

Lindsey Horan, who has a strong argument to be higher than 18th in The Guardian’s rankings given her dominant national team play and Best XI selection for the NWSL Challenge Cup.

Rose Lavelle, who ranked seventh in the 2019 Guardian rankings and also made the Challenge Cup Best XI. Like Christian Pulisic, she is the best attacking force of the WNT but is consistently hindered by injuries. The unimaginative lineups of Manchester City coach Gareth Taylor haven’t helped. But she is surely in the top 20 when such impediments are removed.

Fortunately for Andonovski, they don’t all play exactly the same position. Ertz is the template for a defensive midfielder, destroying attacks and deftly passing to start the attack. Mewis is a pitch-perfect box-to-box midfielder. Horan wins duels, as detailed in depth in Joey Jenkins’ scouting report, and she has been a potent scorer whenever she has been in that role. Lavelle is a creative force.

Jill Ellis rarely managed to find room for all four players in her 4-3-3. Any combination with three of the four midfielders works well in the center. The lack of wing play among this group isn’t a problem because the outside backs overlap with gusto, and the three forwards also spread the field wide.

But should this fearsome foursome play at the same in 2021? The options are:

1. Move Ertz backward. She burst onto the international scene as a center back, and she can still go there in case of need. But as long as Abby Dahlkemper (53rd on The Guardian’s list) and Becky Sauerbrunn (one of the best ever) are healthy, Ertz isn’t needed there, and she can’t use her full skill set when she’s tethered to the back. Emily Sonnett or Tierna Davidson can fill the backup center back role as well.

2. Move Lavelle to left or right forward. Taylor is trying her up front for Manchester City, to much consternation. But that position doesn’t take advantage of her ability to move the ball up through the center of the field. Also, Heath is in the best form of any U.S. front-liner right now, and right forward is her spot.

3. Move Horan to center forward. She played forward through her late teens and early 20s at PSG and scored goals by the dozen. She also scored 13 goals for Portland in her 2018 MVP season.

4. Change the formation. Could Andonovski deploy a diamond in the middle of a 4-4-2? The difficulty with that formation is getting wide play, but Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara are as perfectly suited as any outside backs in the world to deal with the pressure of overlapping while still getting back on defense. Also, the two forwards can drift wide and let Horan or Lavelle go marauding in the center.

The difference between 3 and 4 is slight. They can play Horan as the tip of the central spear, and calling her a forward or a midfielder would just be a matter of semantics.

Here’s the scary part: Assuming Heath has the right forward slot nailed down, this formation leaves Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Lynn Williams, Carli Lloyd, Mallory Pugh and Megan Rapinoe competing for one spot.

And this is where we see the inherent tension in a cantankerous WNT fan base that spans from a small but growing number of knowledgeable supporters to a larger group of fans and media pundits who are prone to caterwaul at any perceived slight of the most famous players.

The most famous player in this group is Rapinoe, who won but didn’t really deserve the World Cup Golden Ball and Ballon d’Or in 2019. The least famous forward is the one in the best form this year -- Lynn Williams.

Fame in women’s soccer comes with age. Awards tend to lag behind a player’s peak. Rapinoe deserved more consideration for awards in past years but was named to the shortlist of 55 players contending for the FIFA/FIFPro World 11 for 2019-20, when she has hardly played. Same goes for defender Ali Krieger and Carli Lloyd, future Hall of Famers who have barely seen the field in 2020.

Look past the glitz, though, and you’ll find a national team whose only forwards under age 30 with significant experience are Pugh, who is a long shot for the Olympic roster, and Williams. You’ll also see players who’ve missed a lot of time in 2020 for various reasons.

Rapinoe has been idle for months and already did the least running of the team’s field players in the 2019 World Cup, and sitting idle through much of 2020 raises concerns about her fitness when she takes the field in Tokyo at age 36.

Lloyd, also idle much of the year, will be 39 in Tokyo and doesn’t pass particularly well -- 63.3% in 2019 NWSL play (54.5% in the opponents’ half), 68.2% in the World Cup.

Press recently missed time with some sort of nasty illness but tied with Horan for the most WNT goals in 2020 and should be fine.

Morgan is back from pregnancy. Most of her national team goals in recent years have come against inferior opposition. She has a couple of goals for Tottenham in a short time since her return, though both were from the penalty spot.

So if Horan or Lavelle is bumped forward, the competition for the abysmally small 18-player roster gets that much more intense and should be picked on form, not fame. Andonovski’s glowing talk on Lloyd’s prospects is discouraging -- it’s difficult to see her justifiably playing any role beyond a supersub unless she turns the clock back to 2015.

If Andonovski takes six defenders -- as he should, especially given the fact that he could always call on Dunn or O’Hara to move forward if needed -- that leaves 10 spots. The midfield quartet takes four, and they may need a backup like Andi Sullivan or Kristie Mewis -- or perhaps the highly touted 21-year-old Catarina Macario. We’re down to five. Assume Heath, Press and Williams are locks. That leaves two spots for Morgan, Lloyd and Rapinoe. (Or just one if the uncapped Macario proves too good to keep out.)

And that means the knock-on effect from reconfiguring the lineup to get the WNT’s four best players on the field at once could be leaving a fan favorite and hero of recent World Cups off the roster. Andonovski could even opt to take both Sullivan and Kristie Mewis, leaving two legends home.

Would Andonovski dare?

If it’s a choice between taking an out-of-form forward and unleashing the full power of his outstanding midfield, he should.

9 comments about "Coach Vlatko Andonovski's Olympic challenge: How to get all four excellent midfielders on the field".
  1. Michael Saunders, December 24, 2020 at 11:02 p.m.

    Great article Beau!   I am one who believes in the old adage regarding great goals are scored by forwards; midfielders win championships.  To that point, the US midfield was the main reasoon the WSWNT won the WC.  

    It will be difficult to find "space" for all four midfielders.  A formation I believe to be more suitable to achieve that would be to have a 4-2-3-1. It is one that allows for a a great balance between attacking and defending.    It facilitates for overloads and is one that make the already high press which the US uses that much more difficult to contend with.

    Of course the question will be the roster.  While LLoyd and Rapinoe are questionable, I believe that after Morgan (assuming she gets into form), our strikers are limited.   Press is not a striker in the purest sense.  She is far more effective as a wing.  Yes, Williams has the makings, but she needs to be more clinical.  That leaves Lloyd.  Despite your concerns about her passing, she still has that instinct for the goal.  Yes Horan is a choice, but she eccels as an attacking mid.

    My concern about not rostering Rapinoe is that we not only lose her soccer acumen with the diverse way she challenges opponents; but we have yet to find a player that provides the threat she does with her free kicks and corners. That being said, she may be a liability as I am not convinced she can recover from such a long lay off.

    Of course the dynamics would change if Macario lives up to or exceeds expectations.   We'll see.




  2. R2 Dad, December 25, 2020 at 2:42 a.m.

    Lloyd and Rapinoe have been excellent servants of the USWNT, should the thanked and retired with as much fanfare as we can muster in the schedule.
    We will miss the clinical finishing of Llyod and the creativity of Rapinoe, but making that up is Vlatko's problem. No coach can complain with a roster like ours.
    I too like the 4-2-3-1, but think we could also apply the 4-1-4-1 (transitioning to 2-3-2-3 in attack). Pugh has stagnated. We don't need Williams; she is an able sprinter but weak finisher. We don't need Davidson since Ertz can fill in at CB. Vlatko can put Macario anywhere on the pitch in a pinch, preferably central midfield or up top. The international game is for young players not aging stars, unfortunately.

  3. frank schoon, December 25, 2020 at 10:45 a.m.

    The discussion shouldn't be about our luxury problem of having so many good midfielders but of how to raise the quality of soccer on the women's team.

    Comparing the US women's team to their competitors ,we have all the horses, period! The midfield problem of luxury , is like Imelda Marcos  of the Phillipines in a quandary of having to decide what shoes to wear.

    I have no idea why the big 'commotion'. You have 4 good midfilelders but have 3 positions for them at mid. I don't see any problem here, i'm sure the competitors wish they had this problem.
    I would turn it around say you have depth at midfield by employing 3 and have one on standby.

    The main problem with this team to me is the low level of quality soccer they play, reminding me of how soccer was played 70years ago.  Every pass is made to the feet ,to a stationary player. The lack of movement off the ball makes it very predictable, reminds me of the Subuteo board game. The only reason the opponents have not taken advantage of this weakness is they don't have the horses. We can play bad and still win  because we have the horses.

     If we could play like Spain, ball possession ,ball control and movement in small spaces, like we saw their women exhibit and add that to the athleticism of what we already have than we could be unbeatable. 

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, December 28, 2020 at 10:22 p.m.

    I agree Frank. Looking at the competition, they have an impossibly small roster and an impossibly compressed schedule. I have always thought that this was a way to cut down the roster advantages of teams like the USA.

    So in planning the roster you have to look at the big picture and face the reality that everyone will need to be rested. Trying to fit all the best players into one starting 11 is not the issue in this competition.

    Jill Ellis was a master at managing the team's fitness. That is one of the reasons she won back to back World Cups.

    Complaints about the 433 puzzle me because the classic 433 always had 4 players in the midfield while in possession (343 attacking shape). For some reason the USSF doesn't get that.

  5. Terry Lynch, December 28, 2020 at 5:49 p.m.

    One of the best analyses of this group that I've read.  Agree with all of it.  Many folks are not going to like the truth, but he is right.

  6. James Madison, December 28, 2020 at 6:13 p.m.

    Good job, Beau!  Both Lloyd and Rapinoe are on the cusp of their "sell by" date, if not beyond it, and Mallory Pugh is not quite in the class of the others. However, internal tensions may arise if either of the former is omitted from the roster.

  7. Gary Levitt, December 29, 2020 at 9:39 a.m.

    Nice piece Beau.......BUT, the manager's approach is to play the system and players that equal altering the starting 11 to provide a spot for the players you discuss is secondary.  With the schedule compacted in most tournaments dovetailed with injuries/illness, Ando is blessed with a high level player pool, especially in midfield.  Ertz, should the situation be required, can always slide into a CB slot, etc.  This is great situation for the USWNT - talent and depth.  

  8. Donal Mahon, December 29, 2020 at 5:40 p.m.

       One, Williams only looks good against inferior competition.  Against the power teams (France, England, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and now Neatherlands and Spain) she is a non factor becaue she only has one tactic-knock the ball past the defense and out run them to the ball.  That she has not deveoloped into a futball player is an indicment of US coaching and her own self dawareness as she seems not to realize what a limited payer she is.
       Two, Ertz is a center back.  I laugh when people talk about her on the attack.  Turnover central.  Chasing the ball all over the field a sa midfielder.  Look at the games, check the stats.  US is better with Horan as defensive midfielder and Ertz as a second stopper.
       Three, Morgan sacrificed her goal scoring to drop deep and support an out-played midfield in 2019.  Among our two or three best players but no acknowledgement of her sacrifices for the team.
       Four, Mallory Pugh is not a wing.  She belongs in midfield.  Lack of progress is a product of misusing her.
       Finallly, overwhelming talent is the reason US wins in 2019.  Shouldn't have gotten past France, but France choked under pressure.  US was costantly outplayed in midfield but depth got them through.  Lack of development of outside backs is criiminal.  Moving our best outside midfielder to left back covers up the problem, but misuses another outstanding player.  3-5-2, 4-4-2 play to the strengh of the US talent pool despite all the talent at forward.
       And when are Ashley Sanchez and Catarina Macario going to get called up?  Third division English football is not going to keep the US on top much longer.

  9. frank schoon replied, December 30, 2020 at 11:27 a.m.

    Donal, The problem with Williams is that Americans love speed, for that is the answer to everything. The coaches, if you want to call them that even though they are licensed are an absolute failure when it comes to developing players. The youth that are successful do so because of their own innate talent.  Johan Cruyff once told me in private that these coaches don't know what they are doing. He stated openly in an interview that if a player who plays wing asks a coach to teach him or show him ,rather, about 4 or 5 moves with the ball, the coach wouldn't know what to do, his eye balls would tilt. Yes, it is an indictment on US coaching on William's lack of technical abilties.

    Ertz is as slow as mollasses to be playing centerback. As a coach of the opponent's team seeing her as one of the centerback, probably right centerback, I would make sure to place a fast centerforward on her leftside and wait for a quick diagonal pass coming from our  leftwing or lefthalf that runs directly behind her. This would mean ,one ,she has a choice to either watch the attacker or the ball but can't do both. That means the moment she turns her head towards the ball, she loses sight of the attacker , who then can make a run, but not before. Two, if she watches the attacker, after the pass she is forced to turn to her left and follow with her right leg being next to the attacker ,which means she not only can't tackle but also loses on the speed. 

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