The North Carolina Courage returned to National Women’s Soccer League action after their participation in the Women’s International Champions Cup. After losing in the final, they were aiming to return to winning ways and continue to hunt down the Portland Thorns at the top of the table. They faced the  Seattle Reign, who were themselves looking to push for a playoff spot as the end of the regular season draws closer.

This tactical analysis will examine North Carolina’s 1-0 victory. The analysis will detail the tactics of both sides and focus on the Courage’s performance.

Lineups

North Carolina Courage (4-2-2-2): Stephanie Labbe-Jaelene Hinkle, Abby Erceg, Abby Dahlkemper, Merrit Mathias-Denise O’Sullivan, Samantha Mewis-Debinha, Crystal Dunn-Kristen Hamilton, Lynn Williams

Paul Riley lined up the home side in a 4-2-2-2 formation. The side remained unchanged from their defeat to Olympique Lyonnais Féminin in their last game. Stephanie Labbe remained in goal. Jaelene Hinkle and Merrit Mathias would be the fullbacks with Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper in central defence. Samantha Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan would form the double-pivot in midfield. Debinha and Crystal Dunn would be the advanced midfielders supporting the pair up front, Lynn Williams and Kristen Hamilton.

Reign FC (4-2-3-1): Casey Murphy-Steph Catley, Lauren Barnes, Megan Oyster, Theresa Nielsen-Allie Long, Celia Jiménez Delgado-Beverley Yanez, Rosie White, Bethany Balcer-Jodie Taylor

Vlatko Andonovski set up the away side in a 4-2-3-1 shape. He made one change to the lineup from their previous game against Sky Blue FC. Celia Jiménez Delgado came in for Shea Groom and slotted in next to Allie Long in the double-pivot, at least on paper. Celia would actually drop back to be on the right of the three central defenders to make the formation a 5-2-2-1. Beverley Yanez would remain in the double-pivot with Allie Long.  The advanced midfield duo of Rosie White and Bethany Balcer were behind the lone striker in Jodie Taylor. The defence remained unchanged with Theresa Nielsen and Steph Catley as fullbacks with a central defensive partnership of Lauren Barnes and Megan Oyster.

The Reign with the ball

Initially, the Reign were very much in the game as they would win the ball back from North Carolina and counter before their opponents could get in an offensive rhythm. Reign would attack out of the 5-2-2-1 and have the fullbacks push forward to join the line with the double-pivot or further if necessary.

North Carolina Courage would aggressively press out of their 4-2-2-2 formation. When not pressing, they would fall back to a 4-4-2 formation with Dunn and Debinha dropping back to flank the double-pivot.

NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
North Carolina pressing the Reign at the back.

Reign would often send direct balls towards Taylor where she’d either hold the ball up or immediately play it to a supporting teammate. To this end, the Reign would try to have the players such as White and Balcer in close proximity to receive any lay-offs. Taylor also made runs in behind the Courage backline where her teammates would look to find her as well. These weren’t particularly effective during this game.

The Reign’s best moments came when they would go from defence to attack after regaining possession. Whenever they did win the ball, Reign would often find themselves in numerically favourable transition situations. With the Courage committing plenty of players forward, the Reign would try to capitalise during their counter-attacks.

NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
The Reign with a promising opportunity in transition. The pushed-up fullbacks mean the Courage centre-backs are exposed.

There were very few periods where the Reign could retain possession and put the North Carolina backline under consistent pressure. And whenever they did hold the ball, their conservative approach made it difficult to create quality goalscoring opportunities. They began to rely almost exclusively on the counter-attack. They did well throughout the game to threaten with these but couldn’t find the back of the net.

North Carolina in control

Once the Reign began to sit back more often than not, North Carolina began to have a strong grip on proceedings. They were retaining possession easily, denying counter-attacks and creating chances at will. The conservative approach didn’t work out too well for the Reign with multiple issues arising in defence. Reign would drop back and defend in their 5-2-2-1 most often. At times it would be a 4-3-2-1 when one of their fullbacks were still caught up the pitch.

NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
The 5-2-2-1 of the Reign now looking more like a 4-3-2-1 as left-back Catley is behind the play.

North Carolina were able to exploit the space in the midfield and found gaps between the lines. The Reign fullbacks would also help the midfielders press at times. Or a centre-back would follow a Courage attacker that dropped into the space behind the Reign midfield. North Carolina used intelligent movement and combination play to exploit this as well. Their players dropping in to draw defenders out of position and create gaps that teammates could run into.

NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
Debinha dropping to draw a defender. She lays the ball off for an onrushing Dunn. Williams runs into the space the defender vacated.
NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
Dunn can immediately play a pass through for Williams after receiving it from Debinha.

When the Courage were building up they would send their fullbacks up high. The double-pivot would help the centre-backs bring the ball out in a sort of 2-2 block. One of Mewis or O’Sullivan could even drop between the centre-backs to make it a 3-1. When they progressed the ball, they would position their forward players in various ways. One that was effective was when one of the strikers moved wide with one of Dunn and Debinha operating in the half-space on that side. The other advanced midfielder would then move centrally, causing a situation where the Courage are overloading one side of the pitch with all their forward players. This would free up space for the fullback on the opposite side in a one-vs-one situation. Or if there wasn’t adequate Reign marking then one of Dunn and Debinha would be free in the midfield.

NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
North Carolina’s attacking players all orientated to one side. Hamilton is out wide with Dunn in the right half-space. Debinha is central with Williams just ahead of her out of the frame.
NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
Seconds later, Mewis can find an unmarked Debinha between the lines. Out of the frame, left-back Hinkle is completely free as well.

Other times Dunn would move out wide with both strikers staying centrally. Dunn would look to deliver quality crosses into them. Debinha would remain more central, looking for space or waiting to support the strikers with runs into the box.

NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
Mathias playing a ball to Dunn, who is making a run out wide. Debinha makes a run towards the box.
NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
Dunn cuts it back for Debinha who Is running into the box unimpeded. She is unable to score from here though.

Reign also used a press initially but would often do so when the ball reached the wide areas. They would try press to direct the ball to these areas and try to force long balls or a loss of possession. The Courage didn’t have much trouble breaking the press as they could free up one of Dunn or Debinha quite easily. With Williams and Hamilton, they could occupy the entire Reign backline. This pinned the fullbacks who couldn’t freely move to mark Dunn or Debinha. If they just dropped deep, they would need to be marked by a Reign midfielder. This would leave the Reign outnumbered as they pressed.

Game-winning moment

Lynn Williams was a threat throughout the contest. Her positioning in and around the box and her quality whenever she dropped deep as on full display all game. It was fitting that she claimed the winning goal to show for her efforts. And it all came from great work by substitute Jessica McDonald in the half-space and her combination with Dunn. The sequence can be seen in the following images.

NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
McDonald receiving the ball in right half-space while Dunn makes a move towards the box.
NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
McDonald manages to evade the interests of her markers and moves towards the box. Dunn continues her run into the box to give McDonald an option.
NWSL 2019: North Carolina Courage vs Seattle Reign– tactical analysis tactics
McDonald plays it through for Dunn who sends a cross towards Williams. Williams darts in front of her marker and finishes first-time past Murphy in goal.

Conclusion

The final score doesn’t fully convey the performance produced the North Carolina Courage who could’ve scored plenty more. Early threats from the Reign didn’t materialise into any sort of foothold in the game. The Courage will be glad to have got a win as they look to leapfrog the Portland Thorns. They now go to New Jersey to face Sky Blue FC. While Reign moves on to play host to the Orlando Pride, they are still very much in contention for a playoff spot.


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Julian Chingoma

Aspiring tactical analyst/coach and Juventus fan
Julian Chingoma