A Tactical Analysis of UNC’s 3-4-3 and the 2012 NCAA Women’s College Cup

December 6, 2012

You really have to hand it to the University of North Carolina’s coach Anson Dorrance. In the 32 years that the NCAA has held a national championship tournament, North Carolina has come away with the title an amazing 21 times.

Dorrance has done it primarily with tactics that are so retro that they’ve actually become progressive.

Dorrance traditionally deploys UNC in a 3-4-3. He would technically call it a 1-3-4-3 because he likes to include the goalie when talking about his formation—something he chides others for forgetting.

While at first glance the formation looks like the 4-3-3 sweeper-stopper that many Americans in the 1980’s and early 1990’s learned, the way that Dorrance runs his system is precisely why it is so successful.

The heart of Dorrance’s 3-4-3 comes from the defensive work rate of his forwards. Where he finds forwards willing to work that hard without the ball is a mystery. As Julie Foudy remarked a few years back at the College Cup, when a coach talks about playing team defense, that really just means they’ve convinced their forwards to play defense—every other player seems to just naturally know it’s part of their job.

With Dorrance’s three front-runners heavily pressuring the opposition as soon as UNC loses the ball, teams do not have the time or space they want to build possession out of the back. (It is precisely the type of football they are not prepared to play as America has strove over the last decade to create more possession-oriented players).

With the intense pressure from UNC’s forwards, opposing teams are generally forced to resort to hoofing the ball up the field and are thereby drawn into exactly the type of game that UNC wants to play.

North Carolina’s back-three are trained to step as high as possible as UNC’s advances out of the back. Therefore, when the Tar Heels do lose the ball, there is little space for the opposing midfield to operate in as UNC has shrunk the field to 30 yards of play.

When the opponent does whack it forward, their forwards are either caught off-sides, or face the unenviable challenge of trying to beat UNC’s back-three in a foot race.

UNC’s defenders are also trained to recognize the moment the ball is going to be played long and, in close concert with another, instantly begin dropping.

UNC’s goalkeeper must also be keenly aware in this situation and be able to correctly judge when, and when not to, come off her line. (Ironically, Penn State’s lone goal in the final this year was when North Carolina’s goalkeeper should have stayed home as her defender was recovering into the play).

If teams are able to break the pressure from the Tar Heels forwards, they face a difficult challenge from the UNC midfield as well.

Dorrance arranges his midfield in a diamond shape, with two wide players, one center midfielder holding and one center midfielder attacking.

The midfielders know that pressure on the ball is key to UNC’s system and they work very hard to make sure no opposing player has time to turn or pick up their head.

The outside midfielders will also come centrally when needed to apply pressure to an
opposing player who has found space.

The result is that the opponent rarely has the time to find an open attacker that might be able to take advantage of UNC’s lack of width at the back or UNC’s high defensive line.

In addition, while the strong-sided outside midfielder may come narrow to apply pressure, the weak-side outside midfielder will often drop all the way into the back line to provide defensive cover should the back-three have to over commit ball-side.

As successful as North Carolina has been in this system, in Sunday’s College Cup, Dorrance actually switched out of the system at halftime going into a 4-2-3-1.

For North Carolina, pulling out of the 3-4-3 is akin to blasphemy. However, the strategy worked perfectly, if fortuitously, as North Carolina scored 46 seconds into the second half forcing Penn State to attack and open up themselves defensively.

Additionally, speed, fitness and the college substitution rules are key to North Carolina’s success over the years.

All of UNC’s players must be incredibly fast to cover ground defensively in a short amount of time. The back-three spend the entire game stepping and then having to drop for 50-60 yard recovery runs for balls played over the top. (North Carolina beat Brigham Young University in large part due to such a recovery run).

North Carolina’s fitness regimen is also legendary and helps UNC’s front-three, back-three and midfield cover so much ground in game.

Additionally, the rules of the college game make this type of strategy possible in the first place. The style that UNC plays certainly can produce a choppy back-and-forth game, but because of its substitutions, UNC never has to sit back. They can play their high-pressure strategy the entire game.

In Sunday’s national championship game, Tar Heels Kealia Ohai and Crystal Dunn, two of the nation’s best players, only played 66 and 54 minutes, respectively.

In the final, 21 players from UNC saw the field. Part of that was due to the lopsided scoreline near the end of the game, but in the national semifinal, UNC played 17 different players in an overtime win against Stanford.

In the game against Stanford, Dunn was on the bench for nine minutes and Ohai, whose incredible fitness was apparent in her U.S. U-20 World Cup performances, was on the bench for an incredible 28 minutes.

If UNC were forced to play by international rules, where re-entry was not allowed and each team was limited in its substitutions, North Carolina would not be able to run teams into the ground as they do.

However, Dorrance’s vast substitutions not only work on the college level, they serve other purposes as well. Team solidarity at North Carolina is legendary, something not easy to achieve and something also supremely important in the women’s game.

With his substitutions, it is easier for Dorrance to achieve “buy-in” from his players as many of them get what every players wants—playing time. It also allows him to take full advantage of NCAA scholarship restrictions and some of UNC’s built-in recruiting restrictions (North Carolina state law requires over 80% of the student body to be in-state) as some of the team’s key players are actually in-state walk-ons.

Finally, on Sunday, North Carolina benefited from another idea that Dorrance has made legendary—and instilled in the United States Women’s National Team as well—the concept of the “five-minute moment”. These moments are the first and last five minutes of each half, and the five-minute periods after a goal is scored.

On Sunday, North Carolina’s opening goal, and the game-winner, both came in those “five-minute moments”.

Congratulations to the Tar Heels and Anson Dorrance on a well-deserved 21st NCAA Championship.

John D. Halloran

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One Response to A Tactical Analysis of UNC’s 3-4-3 and the 2012 NCAA Women’s College Cup

  1. DE Dupuis on December 7, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    OK yes, UNC won. Yes they win alot. Does that mean they play good soccer – no it does not. Does that mean that they and the rules that allow them to play the way they do are good for the game in the US – no it does not.
    Given that the rules are what they are, Dorrance does make the most of them – no doubt about that.
    However, the NCAA and high school subbing rules hurt the game in America – hurt it alot. And this was clearly on display in the final.
    UNC has a bunch of really (potentially) good soccer players, with Greene, Dunn, and Ohai leading the pack. Having watched these three women play some really high level football at the world cups it was gut wrenching watching them chase the ball around. I think you could count on one hand the number of times UNC strung 5 passes together. For the most part the UNC first touches were no where near national class, and the number of aimless and stray passes was shocking (and I’m not counting the ubiquitous just kick it hard efforts). And UNC does not really press like Barca. When they lose the ball, Barca attacks at well chosen angles to cut and limit the field and then in packs when options are limited. The UNC players just run around a whole lot. And when they get tired doing this they sit down and someone else does it. The finals was the perfect game to see the pernicious effect of the subs-a-lot rule on football. With a different coach UNC probably could, with all those amazing players, play some lovely football and still win. But why take a chance, just run your opponent into the ground with your rotating 20 member squad.
    I’ve seen this happen with Akron alot, the other teams mostly look silly chasing Akron’s passing around, but because they can keep on subbing and running eventually a pass goes stray or a touch fails and the other team can then kick the ball really hard and everybody must then chase it – and sometimes the other teams win with lots and lots of kicking and running. Its not so much football, certainly not football that will help the US be competitive at the international level, but because with enough kicking and running and subbing teams don’t have to play football to win, they don’t – hey, its harder and takes longer to get technical and tactical skills to a high level.
    So Dorrance took 3 of the best American young women soccer players and barely let them play soccer at all (Dunn’s beautiful set up of Ohai notwithstanding – it was a lot like football), they just lost 6 months of development – at least they are staying in shape.
    So I can not join you in congratulating a man who has very deliberately and consistently weakened American soccer. So one could say – not so, UNC is a national team factory – yes, but how much better would these players have been if they played like Akron (to pick a realizable model)?
    Until we fix the subbing rules, high schools and colleges will not be incentivized to play technically and tactically sound football – and our national teams will not get better, as our players will continue to miss 7 crucial falls of development. So our best players will still effectively be trained abroad. This is why our development academies want to keep their players away from high school (I know I cringe thru out the whole high school season).
    Mix and Gatt just look plain different from most of the rest of the USMNT.
    By the by, Pelosi has been getting a lot of playing time in the Next Gen series where he plays along with Morgan and Cody – he looks just a year or two away from the senior squad if Rogers stays.
    Wouldn’t it be better to change our organic system to incentivize the outcome we want?
    Yes the rant is over – keep up the good work, if anyone else cares about women’s soccer it sure doesn’t show much – until Hope splits from her thug husband, then there will be loads of woman soccer headlines.

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