If you read my in-game and post-game comments, you know what to expect here. The tactical breakdown is going to be extensive. I will start with the usual coverage of what happened before going into the why. Vanderbilt hosted the Georgia Bulldogs on West End in an important SEC East battle. Division points matter for who wins the division title and guarantees a top 2 seed in the SEC Tournament.
The possession advantage is a stark shock after watching the game live. However, the territory of the possession explains it a bit. Vanderbilt would spend 11.5 minutes within 30 yards of the Georgia goal. The Bulldogs would spend just a touch more than 14 minutes within shooting or crossing range of the Commodores’ goal. Further, Georgia spent 66% of their time on the ball (26 minutes) in the Vanderbilt defensive half. The portions of the pitch where the teams were able to have the ball explains the huge shot advantage (12 to 5) the visitors held. The 8 to 2 shots on goal difference made a Commodore victory highly unlikely.
Kate Devine was back from injury and showed why she is the #1. She made seven saves including this one for the highlight reel.
The Commodore goal came early. It might have come even earlier if Raegan Kelley had not been about a foot offside 1:17 into the match. The fans in attendance did not have to wait long to celebrate again though as Alex Kerr would strike home after a slick feed from Abi Brighton just 2:27 later. Then the attack would stall with Kerr’s goal being the only official shot attempt taken in the first half. The visitors would equalize in the 16th minute.
The second half was much the same until a late flurry saw the Dores nearly take the lead themselves a few times, though Devine had to stay at her best as seen above. She would face 6 shots in each period with 4 on target in the first and 3 in the second. So why did Vanderbilt have so much possession but do so little with it when they are typically a team that not only keeps the ball but puts the opposing team under immense pressure?
For anyone fairly new to reading my soccer musings, I am a huge fan of Vanderbilt Head Coach Darren Ambrose. Great coaches can still have their flaws. The Georgia match was an example of Ambrose’s biggest flaw coming to the surface. He is a very pragmatic coach and, in my estimation not by his own admission, trusts his team more to win or draw a cagey affair than get into a back-and-forth fight. He is the fighter who wants to duck and evade while throwing jabs instead of coming out swinging. That attitude has served Vanderbilt extremely well as Ambrose has built the program from a doormat to a perennial SEC contender.
Some of Thursday’s tactics can also be chalked up to injuries. Rachel Deresky was not available, and Caroline Betts was a very limited participant. Without those two, Vanderbilt lacks players who are good one-on-one attackers. Instead of going with tactics that might have let the creative qualities of Amber Nguyen, Raegan Kelley, and Abi Brighton shine in midfield, Ambrose decided to basically dissolve the central midfield areas with a 4-4-2 using a diamond midfield.
The back 4 was the same personnel as always, but the fullbacks Alex Wagner and Abena Aidoo were mostly held back from joining the attack, which is a start departure from their normal role in the 4-3-3 used most often this season. Hannah McLaughlin was the defensive midfielder playing just in front of the CBs. Brighton was pushed wide left with Nguyen on the right. Kelley was in her normal attacking midfield role but playing almost like another forward. Peyton Cutshall and Alex Kerr were the original two strikers.
The early success came from Kelley and Cutshall flashing out to the right for through balls then cutting inside or crossing to the near post. The effectiveness faded soon after the goal that counted though. Maddie Baker would come on for Brighton who was mostly ineffective outside of the assist that came soon after a free kick, so she was not in the wide left position assigned her. The irony is not lost on me because it shows more accurately what should have happened.
I understand departing from the 4-3-3 with the injuries, but the better answer was probably a 4-2-3-1. It would have kept the defensive and midfield alignment essentially the same except it pulls the wingers into roles more even with Kelley vertically while giving the fullbacks the same room to get forward down the outside. Doing so gives McLaughlin and Brighton in their holding midfield positions options to play the ball to feet instead of over the Georgia back line into space. Vanderbilt, especially without Betts and Deresky, lacks the pace for those balls to be consistently successful, though Maddie Baker showed her pace a few times. Cutshall is perfectly suited for the lone central striker role. Kerr is listed as midfielder/forward and has the ability to play as one of the wide attacking midfielders beside Kelley. Nguyen is not an exceptionally fast player, but she is very clever with the ball at her feet. She also consistently combines well with Kelley, so those three playing behind Cutshall could have caused some effective chaos.
As it was, the Dores resorted to launching long balls either towards the heads of Kerr and Cutshall or playing through the Georgia back line. Raegan Kelley rarely got a chance to be her most effective self by receiving the ball to her feet in the central areas of the field. Which, there is my biggest gripe with the tactics. It put too many Commodores in positions that did not fit their best skills.
Brighton was a complete non-factor on the left of midfield and played less than 2/3 of the match. Kelley’s creativity and ability to drive towards goal was neutered by the deployment of players around her. Wagner and Aidoo were kept from adding their pace on the flanks to the attack. Cutshall and Kerr were sent chasing wide too often instead of getting to play more central and put their finishing skills to use. Nguyen was the least effected of the non-goalkeeper or center back players, but she is at her best in quick give-and-go passing while taking on defenders in tight spaces. None of that was consistently useful with the midfield so spread open.
Hopefully, Deresky and Betts are available because history says Coach Ambrose will stick to the tactics we saw against Georgia, especially for a road match with #9 Arkansas. The Razorbacks are 9-2-1 (4-1-0). They drew 3-3 at #13 BYU and have lost 1-0 at St. Louis (shocking result, really) and 2-0 at Mississippi State. They have a 1-0 win at #8 South Carolina under their belt.
The most dangerous Hogs are Anna Podojil (5 goals and 4 assists), Jessica De Filippo (5G 3A), and Ava Tankersley (3G 9A). Arkansas has outscored opponents 24 to 8 on the season. The defense is held down by Barbara Grace in goal who has started all 12 matches and made 39 saves on 46 SOG faced. Her defense is only allowing opponents to shoot 9 times per match, too.
Today’s match kicks off any moment from Fayetteville, Arkansas. It is being streamed on SECN+/ESPN+. Vanderbilt can make a big statement facing a Top 10 team on the road. We shall see if lessons were learned Thursday.