The recent round of fixtures in the National Women’s Soccer League saw a clash between the Houston Dash and Sky Blue. Both teams were coming off losses during the past week. Sky Blue went into the game struggling for form and placed at the bottom of the league table. Houston, on the other hand, were looking for a result that’ll keep them in the playoff picture.

This tactical analysis examines the 1-0 Houston victory and details some of the tactics on display during their clash. The analysis will look at how Houston were able to get a win despite their opponent’s best efforts.

Lineups

NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
The starting lineups.

James Clarkson sent out the Houston Dash in a 4-2-3-1 shape. There were a few changes from their last outing. Lindsay Agnew came in for Allysha Chapman at the left-back position. Kristie Mewis moved from attacking midfield into the double pivot alongside Christine Nairn with Sophie Schmidt coming out. Kealia Ohai joined Jamia Fields on the flanks as Kyah Simon made way. Sofia Huerta completed the advanced midfield three while the lone striker was England’s Rachel Daly.

Sky Blue matched the Dash and lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation as well. The only change from their previous starting XI was the introduction of Elizabeth Eddy for Julie James in midfield. Otherwise, it was much the familiar names with Carli Lloyd leading the line against her former side.

Build-up play

Both sides played similarly when building from the back. While in possession, the Sky Blue full-backs would advance to form a line with the double-pivot midfielders, Eddy and Killion. At times, only one of them would be in this deep midfield spot to create a triangle with the centrebacks. While the other would move further forward to give another option for a more progressive pass between the Houston lines. And since the centre-backs were usually given time on the ball, they would attempt to find teammates in advanced areas.

NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Sky Blue playing from the back with fullbacks pushed up.
NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Sky Blue using centre back to play progressive passes to players between the lines.

When one of the fullbacks pushed up the field, their winger would operate more in the half-space to give the full-back the room to pose a threat. The opposite full-back would then drop back and at times tuck in more centrally to provide cover against potential counter-attacks.

NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Dorsey dropping into halfspace to give room for Dydasco to run. Lewandowski moves centrally to provide cover.
NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Sky Blue finding Dydasco running into space.

Another option employed by Sky Blue was to let the centre-backs advance with the ball to draw out opposition players from midfield and free up their teammates. The positioning of their teammates would be crucial since Houston would press the centre-backs once they moved forward.

Teammates forward of the charging centre-back would need to position themselves to offer a passing lane. Yet there is the risk that a teammate could bring their marker towards the centreback, therefore, clogging up space. And of course, some cover would need to be provided whenever one of the centrebacks went on this type of run. And whenever the centre-backs lost possession in advanced areas there would be an immediate threat at the back which would be difficult to defend with limited numbers.

NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Skroski advancing with the ball from the defence.
NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
After Sky Blue lost the ball, Houston can immediately send Daly through on goal since Skroski is out of position.

Sky Blue were able to create overloads in wide areas and tilt the Houston shape towards in that direction. This freed up players on the opposite side. They could then quickly cycle the ball through the back or use long balls to find these players.

NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Sky Blue circulating the ball at the back to find the free player. This is after they used an overload to drag Houston to one side.

Whenever Houston had possession, they played similarly to their opponents. Pushing their full-backs up, when building from the back, in line with their double pivot. One notable variation in their build-up was the positioning of these double-pivot midfielders. As is the norm in the modern game, one would drop in between the centre-backs or sit in front of them to create a triangle. The other would provide an option further forward.

NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Nairn dropping between Houston centrebacks as they build up from the back. While Mewis searches for space further forward.

At times, they would both offer options ahead of the centre-back. Other times, one would move into a sort of full-back role. This could’ve been to make use of their passing quality since the defenders were often afforded the most time during the build-up.

NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Mewis dropped to receive the ball in the fullback position where she has the time and space to play the ball.

In the wide areas, they would also create space for their full-backs by having their winger tuck inside, dragging the full-back with them.

NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Schmidt finding Agnew running into space that Ohai vacated as she tucked inside.

Both sides had joy finding players in between the lines, with strikers Lloyd and Daly constantly moving to find space as well as creative players such as Huerta and Rodriguez. Forward players such as Daly and Ohai would also make runs behind the defence into wide areas. Using their pace to stretch the opposition backline and they had the quality in these areas to retain possession and create chances.

NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Huerta finding the space to receive the ball and turn towards goal.
NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Lloyd dropping into midfield to receive the ball and carry it forward.

Without the ball

Defensively, Houston mainly retained their 4-2-3-1 shape but at times it would turn into a 4-4-2 when the wingers dropped alongside the double-pivot midfielders. They allowed the centre-backs to have the ball at the back. But would also press in certain scenarios such as the full-back getting the ball. This would disrupt their opponent’s build-up and force them to play long balls to avoid danger in possession at the back.

NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Houston began to press as soon as Lewandowski gets the ball.

In the defensive phase, Sky Blue would also allow the Houston backline to have the ball and press as soon as they attempted to progress up the field. The Dash seemed less inclined to take risks at the back and would readily play the long ball when necessary. This did lead to them conceding possession and having to fall back into their defensive shape. This theme in the play was a factor in the early dominance of possession by Sky Blue. Un

Key moment

Houston grabbed the only goal of the game during one of their few periods of sustained possession in the early stages. Once they effectively kept the ball, they managed to position their players to construct a threatening move. Houston pushed a full-back up the field, one of the advanced midfielders would support Daly up front. This led to situations where Sky Blue defenders had to make tough choices when selecting a player to mark. This sort of chaos led to the poor marking that caused the only goal of the contest.

NWSL 2019: Houston Dash vs Sky Blue – tactical analysis tactics
Prisock plays a ball towards a dropping Huerta. She then leaves the ball, which runs to Daly who is completely unmarked. Daly then produced a great finish to score the opener.

After they took the lead, Houston did eventually grow into the game when it came to keeping possession. This may be due to them wanting to control the tempo and maintain their advantage.

Conclusion

Both sides played similarly from a tactical point of view. Sky Blue played well early on, dominating possession and creating great chances. Unfortunately for them, they conceded in this promising period of the game due to some defensive miscommunication. Houston were simply more clinical on the day and hung onto their early one-goal lead. They will be pleased to have kept their playoff hopes alive while last-placed Sky Blue can take plenty of positives from their play.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #11: July 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

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Julian Chingoma

Aspiring tactical analyst/coach and Juventus fan
Julian Chingoma