As Florida hit Donald R. Dizney Stadium for an extended spring season, head coach Becky Burleigh began experimenting.
Through four games and one exhibition in the spring, Florida has played in a 4-4-2 religiously, a change from the 4-2-3-1 which Burleigh heavily frequented in 2019 and the fall of 2020.
Burleigh picked three different midfield pairings through the five matches the team played.
Redshirt senior midfielder Parker Roberts remained the Gators’ constant. She started next to Laney Steed in the opener against College of Charleston, midfielders Cameron Hall against USF and FSU and Ava Kuyken against Georgia Southern and LSU.
Roberts has started every match and played 336 of 380 minutes, the most of any outfield player. The 2020 all-SEC second-team player racked up two goals, two assists and a goal contribution of .84 per 90 minutes.
Roberts’ strength lies in her ability to sit in front of the back four and deliver passes across the field. This allows her midfield partner to focus on other aspects aside from distribution: think the role that Chelsea midfielder Jorginho fit in while he played under Mauricio Sarri at both Napoli and Chelsea-ish.
Two midfielders usually accompany a player in this role on either side. These two play a “shuttler” role, someone who’s very active and transitions the ball forward in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 diamond.
It’s unusual to see this type of midfield system play out in a 4-4-2 wide, so it begs the question — who should partner her in midfield?
When it's sophomore midfielder Laney Steed, Florida keeps its best two passers at the center of the pitch.
With them, the Gators should have generated more chances, but this wasn’t the case against College of Charleston. In the first half, both goals came off set pieces. While the Gators controlled the match, they couldn’t link up play well enough in the opposition’s third.
Florida produced five shots at the half. To start the second half, Steed moved to left midfield. This distributed the creativity through the team more equally with a threat out wide.
Florida then accumulated nine shots and added three goals. Steed worked wonders out wide, opening the offense with passes from the wing.
After the teams’ second half against Charleston, Steed started both matches out wide, and allowed Hall to come into the midfield.
While the formation stayed the same, Florida played more defensively.
Hall and Roberts needed to organize the midfield in front of the defense because they would be backpedalling. They stifled the opposition’s attack somewhat yet still couldn’t nullify their shot and chance creations completely.
Florida was outshot 27-9 across the two matches, but held onto clean sheets due to the back line’s defense.
In the game against USF, Hall received a red card and a two-game suspension. It counted toward the first match against Georgia Southern because the FSU game was an exhibition.
This brought Kuyken into the midfield, and the England youth international shifted how the formation worked.
The team started out in its 4-4-2, but as the game against GSU played out, it shifted to more of a 4-1-2-1-2 with Kuyken playing box-to-box.
As Florida controlled the game, the playmaking ran through her and Roberts handled more defensive duties.
Florida recorded 37 shots in the game with 19 on target and much of this had to do with Kuyken.
Her movement off-ball and ability to link play in tight spaces made it easy for herself and her teammates. It generated space that they could use to progress the ball either out wide to Steed and Nicole Vernis or through the middle.
While the Gators created their most shots in games where Kuyken started, one weakness glared against GSU in particular.
When making her way up the pitch to occupy advanced attacking positions, space opened up behind her that teams could capitalize on. Opponents can wait for her to receive the ball and use that as a trigger to press.
It is currently unclear who will take up the helm at Florida before the fall but one thing is certain is that they will have their choice on who starts in their midfield.
Contact Myles Herbert at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @myles_herbert