Women's soccer has moved away from a physical, direct style of play in which the teams with the best athletes win more often than not, and toward a sport dominated by the teams with the best technical ability. The best attacking and defensive teams score goals and prevent them through possession. Flicks and through balls are the best way to create high-percentage scoring opportunities in the center of the pitch, and the likes of France and Germany are now much better at this than the United States.
But there is a time and place for everything. Against previous opponents, the USWNT might have had a more comfortable time getting positive results if they'd moved well off the ball, created triangles and passed quickly on the ground, through the center of the pitch, but that won't help them on Friday. China is built to stop that and only that.
China play a defense that's rarely seen anywhere in the world, in women's or men's soccer. They use an extremely narrow back four that regularly looks like they have four central defenders and no fullbacks.
They're basically conceding the wings entirely to make sure that no one plays through the center. It's a really unorthodox strategy, but if you don't think your team has the talent to beat elite sides while playing an orthodox formation, it makes a lot of sense. It's a tactic specifically tailored to deny the passes that create the most dangerous types of scoring chances, like through balls and one-twos, as Michael Caley has written about extensively.
Their formation also doesn't operate how it's listed -- as a typical 4-2-3-1 -- in ways other than the back four. The players in what's usually referred to as the "attacking band of three" do a ridiculous amount of running, essentially playing two positions. The attacking midfielder often runs all the way back to a fairly deep spot without the ball and plays as a pressing defensive midfielder, but gets up alongside the striker when China win possession. The two wide players are asked to cover an entire wing, dropping in at fullback when China are defending and getting up the flanks quickly when they win the ball.
It looks like this.
It would be insane to ask anyone to do what Han Peng, Tang Jiali and Wang Lisi do over the course of an entire season. They'd be run into the ground. But China have spent years preparing their team for this tournament, and they think their players can do this much running for seven games, even if they couldn't do it for 30-plus. So far, it's working out well.
While it's really hard to score against a team playing like this, there are two things about soccer that are always true. One, the easiest way to create scoring opportunities is to pull defenders out of position. Two, there is no such thing as a system that is immune to matchup problems.
The place this system can be exploited is down the wings. Because China's back four is so narrow and their wide players are asked to get forward as much as they're asked to defend, there are often big spaces available down the flanks. The United States have been playing without a true winger on the right and without a regular-footed winger on the left, so they haven't been using these spaces a ton.
As much as it sounds like old-school, rudimentary, out-of-date soccer, the U.S. needs to put on a couple of real wingers in a 4-4-2, work it wide and let them act as the primary playmakers. Possession and passing triangles might be the future Plan A of the U.S. women's national team, but even Germany's women and Barcelona's men have to go to Plan B when the opposition is putting everything into stopping their primary game plan.
One of just three outfield players yet to feature for the USWNT in this tournament is Heather O'Reilly, who used to be one of the first names on the team sheet. Despite being just 30 years old and being marginalized in the last two years, she has 219 caps. But because she's a classic "run straight ahead and cross right winger," she's not getting any run in this World Cup. But in this game, that kind of player is exactly what the U.S. needs.
Through balls were one of the types of passes mentioned in that Caley piece at the Washington Post, but the other was cutbacks. China do a great job of restricting through balls and one-twos in the middle, but to do so, they have to give up the flanks. That inherently gives opposing attackers a chance to play themselves into some space out wide, then hit a cutback. China mitigates the risk of this a bit by packing the center, putting six or more players in a position to clear that cutback, but they're still giving up that pass.
So, back to the first thing that's always true about soccer: the easiest way to create scoring chances is to pull defenders out of position. China are very organized and know what spaces they want to restrict access to, but they don't just stand in place. They close down, and when the ball gets worked into a dangerous wide position, everyone shifts over a bit and they close down so frantically that they lose their shape.
With that loss of shape comes a chance to score.
American fans might not like it, but the way to create dangerous chances against China is to play direct down the wings to old-school wingers and let them operate as the primary playmakers. They should play some square balls to the back post and lofted crosses to Abby Wambach's head for the sake of variety and keeping the defense honest, but those direct plays down the flanks should mostly end with cutbacks towards the penalty spot.
It's not the way USWNT fans necessarily want their team to play, but it's the way to beat China. They're set up to counter the style of soccer that's currently en vogue, so trying to play like Germany isn't going to do the Americans any good. They just have to play like a slightly smarter version of themselves.