NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics

The race for the NWSL regular-season title had been as competitive as ever leading up to the clash between the Seattle Reign and the Portland Thorns. Seattle were four points behind their opponents in the standings, knowing a win would propel them closer to the top, two points off first place. Portland were sitting in second and looking to regain momentum after a disappointing home draw to struggling side Sky Blue.

This tactical analysis will examine how the Reign were able to claim a tight 1-0 win. The analysis will detail some of the tactics on display with a focus on Seattle’s play, and the key moment of the game.

The lineups

NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
The lineup for the Reign.

Vlatko Andonovski sent out the home side in a 4-3-3 formation. There were a few changes to their lineup from their win vs Houston. Theresa Nielsen came in for Celia Delgado at right-back. Allie Long came in for Morgan Andrews and slotted into the midfield alongside Rosie White and Beverly Yanez. And Jodie Taylor was placed up front with Bethany Balcer coming out. She was supported by Shea Groom and Ifeoma Onumonu out wide.

NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
The lineup for the Thorns.

Mark Parsons set Portland up in a 4-2-3-1 shape. They also rung the changes from their previous starting XI. There was a change in goal with Adrianna Franch in for Britt Eckerstorm. Emily Sonnet was put into central defence for Katherine Reynolds. Lindsey Horan came into the double-pivot midfield role replacing Dagný Brynjarsdóttir. Tobin Heath came in for Caitlin Foord to join Hayley Raso on the flanks. Christine Sinclair would then be in support of lone striker Midge Purce.

Portland on the ball

The away side managed a substantial 58.7% of the ball during the game. Their possession-based approach came with some recognisable patterns of play in the modern game. Their full-backs would push up and form a line with their double-pivot midfielders. These midfielders and the defenders would look play out of any press and play progressive passes to the forward options.

NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
The Thorns’ shape during the build-up.

The Reign mostly backed off when Portland were building up from the back, allowing the opposition defenders the opportunity to do so. They would aggressively press whenever the ball was received in the central areas. This way they could swarm a Portland player to induce a loss of possession. Out wide they would usually face their defensive assignment one on one to avoid creating numerical superiority elsewhere on the pitch.

NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
Purce is pressed by three players as soon as she receives the ball.

Portland tried to play plenty of balls behind the Seattle defence, trying to utilise the pace of Heath, Purce and Raso. This was especially true on the left-hand side where Klingenberg and Menges attempted many of these passes first-time, probably to try to catch Seattle off-guard. The runs from Purce would usually be made possible by the wide players vacating the space and positioning themselves centrally. This would drag opposing fullbacks out of position and create opportunities to get Purce one-vs-one against a centreback.

NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
Raso drops to create space for Purce to run onto the ball. She can then attack Barnes in isolation.

Seattle on the ball

Seattle would build up play similarly to their opponents. The fullbacks would also push up high but usually, one midfielder would drop to assist the centrebacks instead of Portland’s double-pivot. This allowed for the other two midfielders to push and offer options higher up the pitch. This would be particularly useful as they played plenty of long balls and the extra players up top helped them win second balls.

NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
The Reign’s shape during the build-up.

Speaking of long balls, Seattle would try to use this approach often. Sending long balls to two or more players who would try to keep the ball or flick it on to areas with teammates around them.

NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
A long ball from a goal-kick towards a pair of Reign players. The ball is then flicked on to a teammate.

Portland would at times have a minor press of the Seattle backline with only two players. They did this to try to force their opponents into long balls without committing too many players forward. Intelligent pressing from the two, usually Purce and Heath, meant that Portland could apply pressure while mitigating the risk if their press was beaten. But at times, this approach made it easier for Seattle to build from the back.

NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
Portland pressing with Purce and Heath. Here the Reign could simply play around the press.
NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
After breaking the press, Nielsen can advance with the ball freely.

When not pressing, the Thorns would organise into their 4-2-3-1 shape. The wingers would be positioned to press the fullbacks if they received the ball. They did run into some problems with the Seattle build up because of this. At times, Seattle wouldn’t have a midfielder drop to assist the defence with building up the play. Instead, the entire midfield would be behind the first lines of the Portland shape. This meant that the Portland double-pivot were outnumbered and a midfielder could find space out wide.

NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
Yanez in the fullback role. Catley in space as Long and White occupy the Portland midfielders. Barnes can play long ball to Catley.

Seattle width

Much of the Reign’s most effective offence came from the wide areas. And for a side that has struggled to score goals this season, it was key for their play out wide to provide a spark. With this goal in mind, they looked to get their wingers isolated with a Thorns defender with their fullbacks in support. This is where their pace and skill could make the difference. This was especially effective in the second half.

NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
The Reign finding Onumonu out wide with Catley joining to provide support.
NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
Catley makes the overlapping run. Here Onumonu draws the foul attempting to get past Ball.

The only goal of the game came from play out wide by Onumonu. A ball sent her out wide and into a one-vs-one situation against Portland right-back Ball. She showed great strength and skill to get by Ball and then past Raso and eventually send the cross in that was nodded on for White to poke home.

NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
Catley feeds Onumonu out wide where she can turn and face Ball.
NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
Onumonu in a one-vs-one against Ball. She manages to get past her by the touchline.
NWSL 2019: Seattle Reign vs Portland Thorns – tactical analysis tactics
After getting past Ball, she then beats the recovering Rash. Onumonu then sends the cross in that led to the goal.

Once they conceded, Portland had much more urgency and produced better play going forward, relying less on direct play. This created some good chances but they couldn’t take any of them as they pushed on late in the game.

Conclusion

The NWSL served up yet another competitive contest where the sides cancelled each other out for most of the game. It took a moment of quality from Onumonu to get the goal-shy Seattle to find a way past the Portland defence. This win puts the Reign a point behind Portland with their next fixture against mid-table Utah Royals. The Thorns, on the other hand, face league leaders, North Carolina, in another game that is pivotal to the regular-season championship race.


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