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Alex Morgan’s Misunderstood Role at the 2019 Women’s World Cup

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

It doesn’t really need to be explained that Alex Morgan is one of the greatest forwards in the history of women’s soccer. As the second highest-scoring player on the current USA roster, Alex has defined a decade of soccer in the United States. Since her breakthrough tournament at the 2012 Olympics, Morgan’s ability to perform in “big games” has been called into question. Various periods of unfortunately-timed injuries and team dysfunction have made it so a portion of Alex’s important matches have been flukes, calling into question her ability to perform on a high level and even prompting arguments whether or not she deserves to be a starter.

The 2019 Women’s World Cup didn’t do much to help put an end to these narratives. Morgan shared top-scorer honors with Ellen White and Megan Rapinoe, all three finishing their tournaments with 6 goals each. The difference between her and them is that White and Rapinoe scored the majority of their goals against difficult competition in the knockout rounds. Morgan, on the contrary, scored five of her six goals against Thailand in a group stage match that became the biggest blowout in FIFA World Cup history. Morgan only ended up scoring one goal in the knockouts despite starting each of those matches. At the end of it all, this top scorer accolade arguably did more harm than good for Morgan’s reputation as a player. After all, forwards are supposed to score, right?

Photo by Alex Grimm, Getty Images

Well, maybe not. Maybe there’s more to a forward’s game than just their ability to score goals or give assists. The burden of her Thailand goals led many people to believe that she is nothing more than a standard “9” with little versatility, technical ability, or understanding of the game, which is a sentiment that couldn’t be farther from the truth. When looking back on each of her performances in the tournament, there is much more to Alex Morgan’s game than meets the eye.

Alex’s expected role within the USWNT system-

Alex’s role for the USWNT has fluctuated at points throughout her career. In her earlier days, she was notorious for her speed and would display her technicality more often than she does now. When she debuted, Abby Wambach was still peaking and was the primary striker for the USWNT. Alex would sometimes play as a second striker or as a winger whose role was to set up for Wambach. As Wambach was phased out, she took over as the USA’s 9 and has been established there since, having little competition from any backup strikers in the player pool.

After a difficult 2015 where she struggled with injuries, Alex clearly became comfortable within the team setup the following years in 2016-2018. She formed a partnership up top with Megan Rapinoe that was imperative to her peak with the national team. The duo hit a stride near the end of 2017 after Alex’s stint at Lyon, and in 2018, Alex was voted US Soccer Player of the Year for scoring 18 goals in 19 matches- 7 of which were assisted by Rapinoe.

By 2019 she became co-captains with Rapinoe and showed no signs of slowing down when she scored her 100th goal for the United States, setting her up for the expectation to be a goal machine at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Alex’s dynamic within the USWNT:

In recent years, Alex typically plays as a 9 and sometimes a false 9 in a 4-3-3 formation. At full strength, this XI will feature Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe on the wings and Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle behind her.

Alex’s main partner in attack, Megan Rapinoe, has had great chemistry with her since she was a debutant. What Rapinoe lacks in workrate and speed, she makes up for with exceptional pass and shot accuracy and a killer attitude. Rapinoe is also known for her creativity in forming the quality crosses and through balls that Alex routinely scores from. Behind Alex to her right is typically Lindsey Horan, another player who routinely sets up Morgan and is known for her attacking qualities.

On the right is Tobin Heath, who tends to stays very wide and prefers to draw defenders away with skill and/or send in crosses instead of cutting inside or getting in the middle. Also to the right is arguably the USA’s most creative player, Rose Lavelle, who is an exceptional dribbler with outstanding vision.

All things considered, Alex had midfielders and forwards around her that were creative enough to propel her into peak goalscoring form and help her be one of the USA’s biggest threats going into the World Cup.

Match 1- Thailand (Group stage)

The USA’s first match of the World Cup was in Group F against Thailand, and the result of a win against the 34th ranked country was no surprise, but the magnitude of the blowout caught major international attention.

Strangely enough, Alex’s best performance as a striker was also what garnered her the most criticism. If you’re reading this you more than likely know why- 5 of the USA’s 13 goals vs Thailand were scored by Morgan in a relentless display of dominance from the world’s winning-est national team.

It’s well-known how little of a challenge this was for the USWNT, so this match is best seen as a way to deconstruct Alex’s abilities as a striker, including her technicality and her killer eye for goal.

From kickoff, the USA was on the attack the entire match. Alex preyed right between the two Thailand defenders and was constantly looking for a goal. Alex’s first two goals were from close range, one with her head from open play and the other a tap-in from freekick service. Her following goals required more of a striker’s accuracy and skill. Morgan’s third goal was a quick cutback between two Thailand defenders that she then shifted to her right foot and shot from just inside the box, and her fourth goal was the exact same setup from 20 yards out except without a cutback. She also contributed three assists to Lavelle, Pugh, and Lloyds goals, which were either simple short passes or piercing through balls.

Her fifth and final goal was a great display of her technical ability. Morgan receives a pass from Dunn just outside the box, takes a touch to beat a Thailand midfielder, takes another touch that rainbows over a Thailand centerback, and once that ball settles, she rockets a shot into the top left corner. It was this goal that made it the single biggest blowout in World Cup history.

It goes without saying that Thailand struggled greatly with set piece marking, aerial duels, and had very little defensive organization, which Alex completely took advantage of. Thailand was clearly outmatched by the USA, so Alex’s game intelligence wasn’t tested as much as it eventually would be in future matches. At a very base level, this match showed everything that Alex Morgan is capable of as a creator, as a forward, and as a goalscorer. Those eight direct goal contributions were also a statement of intent from Alex that she had no intention of going easy, regardless of who she was facing.

Match 2- Sweden (Group stage)

After being rested for the match against Chile, Alex is back in the starting XI for the final Group F match against Sweden.

Alex starts the match how she normally does, applying good pressure to the backline and contributing to buildup play when needed, while still playing up high as a striker. Sweden is very good at defending crosses, which is where most of the USA’s chances come from, so scoring opportunities for Alex are minimal coming from either wing.

In general, Alex doesn’t see much of the ball from up the pitch due to Sweden’s five-man midfield applying significant pressure to the USA’s midfield and defense, keeping the ball almost exclusively in the middle of the pitch. Some breakthrough moments happen in attack though, like this moment of chemistry between Alex (circled in blue) and Lavelle in the 23rd minute.

When Lavelle gets on the ball, Alex makes a run towards the right wing but stalls her run as she sees Lavelle dribbling forward. In doing this, Alex has already dragged away 3 of Sweden’s defenders, leaving their #15 the only person still in position, which opens up space for both Lavelle in the middle and Rapinoe on the left. This is the first clear opportunity where we see Alex’s role as a space creator come to fruition.

Alex’s tournament takes a turn when around 35 minutes into the match, she faces a clash with Sembrandt and takes a hard landing to her right knee. She doesn’t struggle to get off the ground nor does she require a medical team, but she has a clear limp following the collision.

This injury has already taken a toll on her ability. Previously, she was very comfortable going in for challenges and pressuring, but after the collision, she refuses to do so for the remaining 10 minutes of the half. She cannot run at full speed, she applies much less pressure to Sweden’s defense and can’t jump or fight off aerial duels. There’s even a point near the end of the first half where she has a clear opportunity to take the ball away from a Swedish defender, but she gives up mid-tackle and lets the ball go past her.

Alex was subbed off at halftime having suffered an injury on her knee that clearly caused her a lot of pain and inhibited her ability to play at full strength. By this point, it was unclear how serious the injury was or how much this would impede her performance, but it becomes clear by the next match that she wouldn’t be able to play in the same role that she does normally.

Match 3- Spain (Round of 16)

To some controversy, Alex starts this match, but it’s visible from the beginning that she isn’t at full strength after the hard knock she received against Sweden. Jorge Vilda’s side is understandably going to take advantage of Alex’s injury and try to do what they can to physically and mentally shut down the USA’s most dangerous player. Within the first four minutes, Alex is on the ground three separate times. She’s visibly frustrated as she pleads with the referee, saying “That’s two!” in reference to the two times she believes she was fouled.

Before the match starts to unravel, the USA creates some quality chances due to the positioning of Alex and the nerves of Spain’s backline who haven’t settled into the match yet.

Around 13 minutes, a carbon copy of the chance against Sweden reappears where Lavelle (circled in red) gets on the ball and Alex starts running towards the right wing, where defenders follow her and Heath. The USWNT then found its best chance from open play in the entire match with a line-splitting throughball from Rose Lavelle to find Megan Rapinoe.

There is a major gap between Spain’s rightback Corredera and Spain’s other three defenders, who are all now marking Alex. Corredera is caught off guard by Rapinoe’s run inside the box to find the end of Lavelle’s pass, and Rapinoe just barely misses with a near-post shot from very close range. The chance most likely could’ve been prevented if Paredes was not so heavily marking Alex.

Some minutes after Jenni’s unexpected equalizer, the USA’s match plans start to unravel as it becomes clear that Spain are more than motivated to pull an upset. The USA’s attacks quickly become disorganized and panicked, and players go for long shots and unnecessary cutbacks due to the intense pressure that Spain’s midfield and backline is applying to the USA’s midfield and forwards.

Moments like this encapsulate the issues that the USA had in creating chances. Lavelle (red) finds a clear chance to pass to one of Alex or Rapinoe who are both onside and open. Lavelle waits too long to pass and ends up sending it wide to Rapinoe, who Corredera has not stopped marking. Corredera takes the ball away to safety, but ten seconds later, the USA finds it in their possession again after an interception from Julie Ertz.

The ball is back to the feet of Megan Rapinoe who finds herself with an opportunity to pass to Alex again. The attack is fast and poorly-thought-out, and Rapinoe struggles to find an opening as Alex struggles to stay onside. An easy tackle from Torrecilla returns the ball to Spain’s possession and ends the USA’s forward progression. This sequence reflects the USA’s struggle to slow the match down and dictate play, something that seriously inhibited Alex’s goalscoring chances.

Disorganization continues in the second half, and the USA finds a lot of difficulty creating anything of quality from open play. Loss of control and hard injuries from both sides cause the match to get scrappy, and neither team holds back. Spain fouls often (16 total times compared to the USA’s 6), but usually not harsh enough to warrant any cards. Tactical fouling plays a great part in Spain's defensive efforts, as a break in play for a non-card offense only helps Spain catch their breath and restore their defensive shape. Alex takes the brunt of this tactical fouling; she is on the ground eight separate times in the match and is fouled 5 times with varying levels of force. It is an effective demoralization strategy for the striker who is already nursing an injury that inhibits her speed and ability to pressure defenders.

Alex leaves the game contributing zero to the USA’s twelve shots and is subbed off in the 85th minute for Carli Lloyd after a performance with little to talk about.

This match was a total disaster for both sides. Alex had a poor performance, but no player from the USA or Spain was at their best possible level for 90 straight minutes. It was clear that something needed to change with her role going into the match against France if the USA were to continue being a goalscoring threat other than receiving questionable penalties.

Match 4- France (Quarterfinal)

After the many knocks Alex received against Spain, it only makes sense that if she’s still playing, she’ll have to stay back and take a less intense role that requires decreased speed and pressure. In the France match, Alex is up against arguably the best centerback duo in the world for both club and country. Unfortunately for France, Wendie Renard is on a yellow card, so she can't risk a suspension as both France’s top scorer and one of their most important players. It’s not in Renard’s nature, but being rough or going in on risky fouls is out of the question for her.

At three minutes, Alex draws a free kick from Griedge Mbock-Bathy on the edge of the box that Rapinoe ends up scoring from. Aside from the goal, the foul puts Mbock on a yellow card, meaning that both French centerbacks can’t get carded or they’ll be out for a potential semifinal.

Alex's injury not allowing to apply pressure as normal allows France’s centerbacks to freely link up with their fullbacks and midfielders. Renard in particular has a lot of time and space to think of her next move, so France controls a lot of the game in the first half that way.

On the USA’s side, almost every progressive ball that Alex receives is from Rapinoe, who is going back-and-forth on the left side with France’s dominant right-sided players in Mbock, Diani, and Torrent. The USA’s first-half passing network shows that Alex spends a lot of her time in an advanced role assisting Rapinoe, who is linking up with Mewis.

By the second half, it becomes clear that having balls come through the USA’s left side isn’t working because of how relentless France’s right side is. Alex has to find ways to contribute to forward progression other than exploiting backline disorganization. She drops back from her initial position as a 9 and adapts to more of a center-forward/10 role. Instead of facing France’s defense head-on in a physical and aerial battle she isn’t going to win, she plays around them. There are many points in the second half where Alex regresses to midfield, creating, and letting the USA’s wingers advance ahead of her.

Alex’s position as a deeper player is instrumental in the USA’s game-winning goal. In the 64th minute, she intercepts a ball that is meant to be headed by Renard. Alex passes it back to Heath who is waiting behind her, moves towards the wing, and holds up the ball as Heath runs forward. Morgan sends a perfectly weighted through ball to Heath’s feet, who crosses it across Mbock and Renard to find Rapinoe, who comes in from the left to slot it past Bouhaddi.

From this goal and on, Alex is observably comfortable in this new creator role, but not only with her passing and positioning. She begins to be more confident going in for aerial duels, challenges, and interceptions, and plays the most physical game she’s had since the match against Sweden.

Ten minutes later, another goal is created when Rapinoe sends a long through pass to Alex’s feet, who is making a run from midfield.

Given the direction and weight of the pass, it’s more than likely that Rapinoe intends this to be a through ball that Alex would connect with in her run between Mbock and Renard. Instead, Alex opts to cut back and passes it through to Crystal who's already been making a forward run. Crystal crosses it to Tobin who slots it in in a way similar to Rapinoe’s second goal.

Unfortunately, Crystal is just barely called offside, but it’s clear that Alex’s halftime switch from goalscorer to creator has been a game-changing tactical decision for the United States.

In this new, unexpected role, Morgan proved that she doesn’t need her speed, pressuring or shooting to make a significant difference in a match. Thailand was Alex’s best performance as a striker, but against France, she showed what she was capable of as a versatile, all-around player instead of someone who can only score goals.

Match 5- England (Semifinal)

In the semis, the USA’s approach to the game drastically changed when Christen Press was put into the starting XI for an injured Megan Rapinoe. The way Christen Press plays is significantly different from current-day Rapinoe. Press is a more versatile player and has a much higher work rate than Rapinoe. On the contrary, Rapinoe is a more clinical player that has a lot more experience in big matches with the USWNT. She was also carrying the mentality of the team after the tough match against Spain, so the USA had to pull out a good team performance in her absence. In terms of her relationship with Alex, she and Press have been experimented with in many different team setups, but said experiments seldom work because the players typically occupy the same areas. It was unclear how this substitution would work out.

Jill Ellis also employed a different tactical approach by bringing Lindsey Horan back into the lineup to replace Sam Mewis. Ellis was prepared to play a game that would challenge England’s physicality, one of Horan’s most prominent traits as a player. Mewis’s technical, stable, and calm presence was switched out for Horan’s physical presence, mentality, and G+A output, a decision that surely helped Alex returning to her role as a striker.

Alex starts against England back at her standard position, which becomes clear as the match settles after a few minutes. She’s returned to playing higher up the pitch and applying more pressure like she usually does. Alex does not drop very deep at least for the first half, leading to the assumption that she is back to her role of getting in front and scoring goals.

From the beginning, the entire USA frontline puts excessive pressure on England’s defense. England are a team that builds almost all of their plays out the back, so Alex’s added pressure on the centerbacks and defensive midfielders is especially useful in causing disarray to England’s backline and forcing them to make quick decisions with little time to think.

Christen draws the first blood of the match, and like usual, Alex’s positioning has a crucial role in the goal set-up. In the leadup to Christen’s goal, Alex is marked by both of England’s centerbacks and Lucy Bronze. Based on their positions in the box, it’s clear that England’s defense expects O’Hara’s cross to go to the head or feet of Morgan, who’s running towards the right goalpost.

Right when the cross is sent, Scott, Bright, Houghton, and Bronze are all either marking or keeping their eye on Alex and seem completely oblivious to the two goalscorers behind them in Horan and Press. O’Hara’s ball ends up being a lofted cross that meets the head of Press, who has plenty of space and time to perfect her header. Neither Bardsley nor England’s defenders have time to react when she heads the ball right to the top left and in.

Ellis’ approach for a more direct way of playing pays off when Alex scores the USA’s second goal. She’s once again preying within the opposition’s backline, and when Horan gets the ball, she makes sure to stay onside before making her run. Marked by nobody but Stokes, she heads the ball into the top left corner like Press before her in a great display of heading accuracy and athleticism.

For the remainder of the first half when Alex isn’t on the attack, she plays closer to the left side, where she assists Press in shutting down one of England’s biggest offensive and defensive threats- Lucy Bronze. Press, Alex and Horan keep control most of the time, explaining the lack of movement coming from England’s right side.

Alex is transitioning away from her striker role in the second half, but there are still some points where she’s contributing to the buildup. Her simple presence on the ball frees up plenty of space on either wing because of how many opposition players need to watch her at any given time. Around 60 minutes, she dribbles from the wing to the center where four of England’s players are marking her. In this position, she can exploit the open space as a result of her position and has the opportunity to create either a wide or central progressive pass, either of which are likely to result in a goal or a chance. Moments like this demonstrate her role as a space creator.

This is seen again in minute 73 where she receives the ball from O’Hara in midfield and pulls away two English midfielders and Bright, leaving England vulnerable in a 3-back. When Alex passes the ball back to Ertz (red), Ertz has two progressive passing options for either wing.

On her 30th birthday, Alex did what she had to do as a goalscorer in the first half and a buildup player in the second half to send the USA to their third consecutive World Cup final.

Match 6- Netherlands (Final)

Morgan starts her third consecutive World Cup final appearance with the captain’s band, facing a Netherlands team led by Golden Glove shot stopper Sari van Veenendaal. The Dutch are on one less day of rest and exhausted coming out of a semifinal that dragged into extra time, something Alex surely will look to take advantage of. Throughout the first half, she’s seen everywhere in the center, left, and right, and is linking up with each surrounding forward and midfielder.

To her disadvantage, she is being heavily marked by Anouk Dekker, who has no issues displaying her physicality. Alex takes a few knocks from the centerback and it looks like it could be a repeat of Spain’s physicality until it becomes clear that Dekker has to do more marking work than just Alex. The USA is very attacking out of the gate, and there are points where there are 4-5 players playing as forwards.

Mewis and Morgan have good positional fluidity, which throws off the Netherland’s backline. There are points where Mewis takes up a very advanced role, and Morgan takes over her place in contributing to buildup play on the left. Morgan also seems to get to the right for extended periods of time to link up with Tobin Heath, a significant change for a player who has spent most of her time in the left-center of the pitch. Alex’s less intense, less pressuring role is no longer out of necessity due to her injury, but instead it’s a tactical choice by the USA to avoid the center. They instead opt to move up and down the sides of the pitch to exploit the Netherlands’ (relative) weaknesses on the wing.

Morgan routinely faces pressure from Dekker, which she takes advantage of by dragging her out of position. At the 18 minute mark, Dekker’s relentless marking only helps Alex create space for the USA when she drops deep to link up with Ertz,who is circled in red. Ertz then has options to pass up the wing to either Rapinoe or Heath.

There are other moments like this that give a good idea of what Alex is capable of from a deeper role, like some good interceptions against Sherida Spitse and Danielle Van de Donk and quality forward passes up the pitch to Heath, Mewis and Rapinoe.

Alex draws a foul from Stefanie Van der Gragt’s high boot that leads to the USA’s first goal from a penalty. Alex has a significant role in the buildup of the USA’s second goal, as she does with all of the USA’s knockout goals from open play. This time, Rose gets the ball around midfield and Alex has space so Dekker keeps a tight mark on her, understandably thinking Rose is going to send a through ball to Alex.

Van der Gragt and Dekker have a mix-up in communication and Dekker is unsure whether she needs to shut down Rose or to keep marking Alex. She stalls, looks at Van der Gragt, and throws her arms up in confusion because Rose doesn’t stop dribbling to pass to Alex. Rose advances between Dekker and Van der Gragt and just before Dekker extends her leg, Rose takes the shot and scores.

Rose’s goal goes on to secure the United State’s second consecutive Women’s World Cup title and their fourth title overall. In this goal, like most of the USA’s crucial goals, Alex’s positional awareness plays a major factor in the execution and success of the attack. In every match, she was a pivotal part of the entire team’s cohesion. The United States would not have won this tournament without Alex and what she brought to the table as a player.

One of the most imperative things to understand about this sport is that statistics and G+A output don’t define a player’s ability. The game must be observed in ways beyond the numbers. Alex’s numbers, ratios, and percentages often work to her advantage, but when those are put into question, there are always things to look at otherwise that show you the bigger picture of what a player is capable of. Alex is a player with versatility and immense ability, but not only in scoring and assisting. She has an advanced understanding of the game that is undermined and undervalued, and as a result, she is a player whose game is often misunderstood.

Special thank you to Julie @alxiaputellas and Bea @WoSoandStuff


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