One look at the National Women’s Soccer League standings and there is one side that immediately stands out: the North Carolina Courage. They may be level on points with the Portland Thorns but have double their goal difference. This is due to them not only boasting the third-best defensive record in the league but also being the most prolific goalscoring unit in the division. This level of performance is unsurprising. This is the side that claimed both the NWSL Shield and Championship last year.
Paul Riley has developed a force in the women’s game. And it is worth looking at some of the tactics behind such an entertaining and ruthlessly effective group. This tactical analysis serves as a scout report on the North Carolina Courage set up during the 2019 NWSL season up to this point. The analysis will look at some of their strengths and weaknesses.
Riley has shown a willingness to change shape, but he has a clear favourite and that is the 4-4-2. The alternatives that he has deployed at times such as the 4-3-1-2 or 4-2-2-2, don’t veer far from his favourite. There is always the flat back four and midfield with four players that can come in varying shapes. But this is as much variety that one would get with this side.
In attack, there is always the two strikers. This goes against what is seemingly the trend within the league, with most teams using the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. This may be due to the wealth of options available to him in the striking department. Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald, Kristen Hamilton and rookie Leah Pruitt are all forwards that Riley can rely on. They’ve combined for 15 of the team’s 26 league goals, despite star forward McDonald only featuring in three games.
Playing from the back
When North Carolina build-up from the back, the play starts centrally to draw opponents out of position and open up the flanks in particularly. NC Courage push the fullbacks up high with the midfield pair dropping to help with build-up. This forms a sort of 2-2 block at the back.
The wide players can then remain out wide to create overloads and combine with the fullbacks or move centrally to offer options. If they stay wide, then one of the strikers could drop to become an option between the lines.
There are some clear benefits regardless of the opposition’s response to this. When they press with only the first line then this ensures that North Carolina have the numerical advantage. They can easily deal with that first line of pressing as it is normally a front two or three. This is usually the case as the fullbacks’ positioning essentially pins the midfielders back. This is because they cannot leave the fullbacks completely unmarked. But if the opponents do bring the extra player/s to press, then North Carolina can play around the pressure and advance forward with favourable numbers. But the Courage have also experienced the troubles that come with this approach. Mistakes in possession can leave them vulnerable.
They have also shown they can also play directly. Long balls to the forwards such as Williams or McDonald being particularly effective. They can use their size and strength to hold the ball up or lay the ball off to a teammate.
Strikers will also make runs wide to stretch the defence, usually between fullbacks and centre backs. And with the fullbacks wary of the wingers, this can draw centrebacks out of position. This is particularly a threat with Williams as she has the pace and skill to turn even the most speculative of passes in behind the defence into a scoring opportunity.
Numbers in the box
One of the benefits of having two strikers is that the centrebacks will always be occupied and there will be many options in the box. A single striker such as Williams or McDonald can demand the attention of both centrebacks using intelligent positioning and movement. To add another player for the defenders to keep track of makes their task even more difficult. And that goes without mentioning the runs into the box from advancing midfielders or any of the wide players. All that is required is for quality service into the box and this gives the side a viable weapon in their wide play.
Combinations down the flanks can usually give players the space required to send in a cross but even if outnumbered, players such as Dunn can deliver dangerous crosses consistently. Couple that with the aforementioned threats inside the box and there is a recipe for plenty of goals.
North Carolina have a variety of ways to hurt teams when they are on the offensive and have shown a willingness to shoot on sight. It comes as no surprise that they have taken the most shots in the entire league. They’ve amassed a total of 183 shots with the next closest coming at 143. 86 of their shots were on target. This is also a league-high with the second-best coming at 65. Lynn Williams leads the league in shots taken with her five goals coming from 46 shots, 24 on target. Her closest rival is Sam Kerr of the Chicago Red Stars. She has scored nine goals from 35 shots, 25 on target. These stats are just to illustrate how confident this side is when given a sight of goal.
They press their opponents who want to play out from the back. Directing their opponents’ possession of the ball into the wide areas. It is in these areas where they press more aggressively in a man-orientated press. Angled runs by the forwards allow them to apply pressure while simultaneously blocking off passing options.
If the press is broken
The issue with the press is that if it is broken then the opponents usually have numerical superiority from the midfield onward. For the Courage, it is usually the 2-2 block that remains at the back to immediately contribute defensively. The fullbacks are usually too high up the pitch. This is similar to what they face when they lose the ball while playing from the back. This results in them being exposed at times, and the gaps between these two lines of two leave them susceptible to balls between the lines.
Paul Riley’s side is a great team to watch and alongside the Portland Thorns, are the sternest test to the other teams. But much like most sides that play the way they do, they have their vulnerabilities. These problems are inherent in the way they play and they can be exploited by their opponents. But they have the talent, experience and depth to still be the best side in the league. The North Carolina Courage will certainly be looking to retain their titles this season.
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