Dissecting the USA’s Defensive Block & Pulisic’s Free Defensive Position: How the US Defended England’s Buildup

Article by Ben Griffis

England and the USA played to an energetic and exciting 0-0 draw in the 2nd Group Stage match of the 2022 World Cup. England, favorites in the game and in the group, had just come off a commanding 6-2 win over Iran while the US had a game-of-two-halves 1-1 draw with Wales.

Gregg Berhalter tweaked his side’s defensive structure for this match, and the result was effective. England found it near impossible to consistently play through the US block and around their less-frequent-than-expected press. The US stifled England, and specifically Declan Rice, for almost the entire 90 minutes.

While the US lined up in a rigid 4-3-3 against Wales, the defensive shape was much more fluid here, taking several shapes, and typically asymmetrical shapes at that. Everything from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, and many times, a 4-3-1-2 asymmetrical shape with Pulisic between the midfield and forward lines on the flank.

In this article, I’ll dive into the US’ shapes and block tactics. I’ll focus mainly on their defensive block instead of the full scale of the tactics, so I’ll touch less on their press than some might prefer. I’ll essentially be focusing on how the US effectively defended during England’s buildup phase. However, the block was the main feature this match as it frustrated England. Paired with a less intense press than they expected, England were unable to lure the US out of their shape, but also not effective at going through their shape. The main threats came from using Saka and Sterling’s pace to go around the US’ shape, but even that was difficult with Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson’s pace to match.

(Lineups from FotMob)

GENERAL TACTIC

Even just in the first few seconds of the match we got a view into the overall structure. It’s impossible to call the starting lineup a 4-3-3- or a 4-4-2, as it took on different forms in both attack and defense. So, most times I’ll try to use player names instead of “strikers” or “wingers”, as Pulisic was at times one of 3 strikers or a winger, and McKennie was at times a central midfielder and sometimes a winger.

But enough rambling. This first image below shows us what the primary duties were.

Pulisic marked Trippier, and to a lesser extent, Bellingham. Bellingham was often higher up the pitch than in this image, with Trippier taking up Bellingham’s location here, and Musah typically covering Bellingham. But overall, Pulisic had the task of closing down Trippier who stayed fairly deep in England’s buildup.

McKennie, as mentioned before, was part CM, part winger. His main duty was to stay in line with Musah and Adams, but rush out to close down Shaw whenever the England left back dropped deep to get on the ball.

One key difference in this regard is that McKennie tended to actively press Shaw, but Pulisic simply closed down Trippier to limit his space and time. Pulisic wasn’t always trying to win the ball back, but it appeared as though McKennie was.

Up top, Weah and Wright worked tirelessly to completely shut off all possible angles to Declan Rice. Rice stayed deep, in front of the center backs, as Bellingham pushed up near Mount and Saka. While Weah and Wright sometimes pressed Stones and Maguire, they did not constantly press them. It seems as though England expected more constant pressure and felt they could lure the US out of their shape to get Rice on the ball, but when this wasn’t the case, England were unable to adapt.

This image shows how important it was to the US to mark Rice out of the game, blocking all pass angles or being too close to him to successfully receive.

Weah is staying right on Rice, not pushing up to press. Wright is also not pressing, but rather just tracking. The work rate of these players was nonstop, constantly moving to mark Rice and block off passing angles to him in buildup. Below is another image showing how narrow and close to Rice Weah and Wright were.

We also see McKennie moving to press Shaw in this frame. McKennie would press Shaw (or Mount or Sterling if they dropped) partially so that both Wright and Weah could stay on Rice. Many times, when a team plays two strikers, one will drift wide to press the opposing full back in this situation. But since Berhalter wanted two players on Rice at all times, McKennie came out.

Of course, every tactical decision has pros and cons. While this effectively took Rice out of the game, McKennie leaving his midfield partners did create a positional gap behind him. England tried to play behind McKennie, but many times Tyler Adams shifted over to clean up. Adams’ ability to challenge Mount, Sterling, or Kane right as they receive the ball was a crucial element to allow McKennie to push up.

In this next image, we’ll see several things I’ve already mentioned coming together.

First, Pulisic leaves his spot in between the lines to close down Trippier when he receives the ball and turns. Weah specifically stays very tight to Rice despite play being far away. Next, Musah is tracking Bellingham’s run as he tries to open a lane on the flank, past Pulisic.

Overall, the USA’s shape was very sturdy and had several key components to it that made it difficult for England to play how they wanted to play. And from a tactical defense viewpoint, that’s a success. However, the US’ success was partially due to England’s inability to change their game plan.

One easy way to begin to counter the US’ shape would have been to drop either Bellingham or Mount (or Saka, as he roamed centrally often) between the lines. This could either allow them on the ball immediately, or drag Musah out of position to more easily bring others into the game. Bellingham was perhaps too high too often and was unable to help facilitate England’s buildup.

PULISIC’S FREE ROLE

Now that we’ve seen much of the general tactic from the midfielders and forwards, let’s dive further into what was, to me, the most interesting component of the USA’s block: Christian Pulisic.

Pulisic, as I’ve mentioned, often sat between the lines of Weah/Wright and McKennie/Adams/Musah. He was often near Trippier, who sat deeper in buildup than Shaw on England’s opposite flank, ready to push out to close him down when he received the ball. However, I think there was more to Pulisic’s positioning than just responding to Trippier’s position.

This image above is the basic tactic for Pulisic. He was not attached to the front line, as he was against Wales. He also was not attached to the midfield three. He often sat between these lines, making the defensive formation closest to an asymmetrical 4-3-1-2.

Below is a nice example of Pulisic’s position.

Especially when England did drop a player, Pulisic was there to help ensure the US were not outnumbered like in this frame. But this gives a good view into Pulisic’s positioning. He’s perfectly between the lines. And it’s not like he played as a CAM, where he would naturally be between the lines and shift over to the flank the ball is on.

This image shows us just how asymmetric the US shape was because of Pulisic. Here, Bellingham has dropped relatively deep so Pulisic is able to mark him, leaving both Weah and Wright free to take Rice out of the game. Both English central midfielders are not able to receive a pass here. The US’ goal of forcing England to keep the ball with their defenders worked very well. Due to Pulisic’s position and England’s desire to buildup more on the right flank than left.

Here is another image, showing Pulisic’s position. We can also see the difference between him and McKennie. Pulisic is much more static than McKennie on the opposite flank, as Pulisic was not tasked with actively pressing. However, when the press was on, Pulisic would join in.

While this was not often, it was a feature of the tactic. This flexibility in Pulisic’s positioning and pressing duties made it that much more difficult for England to adjust.

Here’s one more image showing Pulisic in this relatively free defensive position.

Given England’s preference to build up initially down the right, Pulisic’s typical position between the lines helped him be closer to the first player on the right to receive the ball from a center back. If he was in the midfield, he would have to rush out to close them down, like McKennie on the right had to do. If Pulisic was in line with Weah and Wright, any pass to Trippier or Bellingham would be past him and Pulisic would have to track back from behind the ball, thus making it harder to defend as it’s always easier to defend when you’re in front of the ball.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall, the US did a great job at defending England’s buildup. While I don’t cover all phases in this article, I think the US played very well defensively and hardly put a foot wrong. Especially in buildup, England were frustrated and searching for ideas. Declan Rice found it difficult to get on the ball consistently, and England were unable to consistently build up through the middle.

The unique positioning of Christian Pulisic coupled with the non-stop work rate of Musah, Adams, and McKennie allowed the US to stifle England in their buildup. When England managed to get forward, the midfield three were typically effective at defending them, with a few problems being caused by Saka and later Grealish. The key for this US side, in desperate need of at least a draw, was that England were unable to consistently and effectively play the game on their terms.

The US were proactive out of possession, and it was a key area of the match that they dominated. After a rather lazy second half defensive performance against Wales, this was a bright spot for a side that can now take momentum into a must-win match against an Iran side who will also have momentum after beating Wales with a very late winner. Gregg Berhalter has already shown he is willing and able to make tactical adjustments in the World Cup, so we should expect another interesting tactic versus Iran.

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