The NWSL entered the final matchday with a clash between North Carolina Courage and Sky Blue of New Jersey. After analysis, we see that North Carolina employed positional attacking tactics to take advantage of vulnerable spaces within the Sky Blue team shape. Although Carli Lloyd put on an impressive performance for Sky Blue, the visitors were barely able to hang on for most of the match.
In the end, North Carolina finished the regular season on a high note and with strong momentum moving into the playoffs. This tactical analysis will examine exactly how it happened.
Team notes and line up
North Carolina entered the match with a first-place finish in the NWSL already clinched. The Courage also entered the match as the only team with over fifty goals scored throughout the campaign. North Carolina are led by two-time NWSL coach of the year Paul Riley.
Sky Blue, on the other hand, entered the game second to last place and with no hopes of participating in the NWSL postseason. Sarah Killion started the game knowing that she might accomplish the rare honour of playing every minute for her club throughout the season. Sky Blue enter their fifth game under interim manager Freya Coombe.
North Carolina lined up in a 4-2-2-2 with interchanging midfielders. Sky Blue stepped on to the pitch with a 4-1-4-1 formation.
North Carolina Courage find space in the Sky Blue defensive shape
The main pillar of North Carolina’s attacking plan revolved around progressing up the flanks. By staggering players at different heights within Sky Blue’s 4-1-4-1 shape, the Courage were able to advance up the pitch with relative ease.
Within a 4-1-4-1 shape, we can see four areas of space open for attack (red boxes in the picture below). In front of and behind the midfield line of four is one player in the central channel (centre defensive midfielder and forward). These two players are typically tasked with stopping attacking play through the middle.
Because the centre defensive midfielder and forward prioritise positioning in the central channel, large spaces can be found to attack in the flanks and half-spaces behind and in front of the midfield line of four. North Carolina’s progression through the thirds revolved around using this space.
North Carolina aimed to start their attacks by circulating the ball to a full-back located on the flank. As the ball travelled to the full-back (Jaelene Hinkle below), midfielders McCall Zerboni and Kristen Hamilton moved to create passing options in front of and behind the Sky Blue midfield four. Because Zerboni and Hamilton lined up in the half-space, the Sky Blue central defensive midfielder (Sarah Killion) and forward (Carli Lloyd) were unable to shift over to cut out the Courage players as options
We saw this attacking structure play out multiple times throughout the match. Because Courage were easily progressing in the space between the midfield and defensive lines, Sky Blue eventually attempted to minimize the space between the lines. As we can see below, this more compact shaped worked to eliminate Zerboni as an option between the midfield and defensive lines.
Unfortunately for Sky Blue, as their right-back pushed forward to minimize space around Zerboni, Courage’s forward Lynn Williams immediately moved into the now vacant space behind the right-back to receive. This sequence of play lead directly to Courage’s third goal of the game.
If Sky Blue maintained their base 4-1-4-1 shape, Courage would progress using the space between the midfield and defensive lines. If Sky Blue pushed a defender forward to minimize this space, the North Carolina forwards were ready to take advantage of the newly opened space left by the pressuring defender. Sky Blue did not have an advantage in either situation.
By positioning players in open space within the Sky Blue defensive unit, Courage were able to progress upfield to the attacking third consistently throughout the game.
Courage forwards attack the Sky Blue back four
Once the Courage progressed the ball to vulnerable spots within the Sky Blue defensive block, forwards Jessica McDonald and Williams would position themselves outside of the defensive line to pin and push back the Sky Blue defenders.
As the ball was played in between the midfield and defensive lines, the Courage forwards would immediately press forward on the outside of the Sky Blue back four. By pressing forward and maintaining wide positions, the two Courage forwards were able to pin and move back the entire Sky Blue backline. Because Williams and McDonald are dangerous and pacey attackers, the Sky Blue line was unable to press forward and restrict the attacking space of the North Carolina midfielders. The forward furthest from the ball would also lurk on the blindside of the defensive line waiting to spring a run into space to create a chance on goal.
In the examples below, we can see this tactic at work. Hinkle plays forward to Hamilton, who receives in space between the Sky Blue midfield and defensive lines. As we can see, the Courage forwards immediately press ahead to pressure the Sky Blue back four. Jessica McDonald, on the far side of the field, stays on the blindside of the defensive line and in a position to score if the ball can be moved to her.
Hamilton now has two options, she can dribble into space in front of the defensive line that is being moved backwards by Williams and McDonald to move the ball closer to the Sky Blue goal. Or she can quickly play the ball behind the defensive line into space for Williams to receive and potentially create a chance on goal. Both are positive options and allowed North Carolina to remain unpredictable in how they created chances on goal.
Going back to North Carolina’s third goal, we can see this tactic play out again. The ball had progressed though the left flank by Hinkle. Williams immediately made an attacking run into space behind the Sky blue right-back (Erica Skroski). Hinkle passed the ball into the path of Williams who received and aggressively dribbled to the goal.
As Williams pushed forward with the ball, McDonald positioned herself on the offside line in the now open space behind the Sky Blue left-back (Caprice Dydasco). The ball was then played to McDonald, who was wide open at the top of the six-yard box and easily put the ball in the net.
By positioning themselves in the space outside the back four and moving forward with pace, McDonald and Williams were able to create a constant level of discomfort for the Sky Blue back four. The aggressive off the ball play of William and McDonald allowed other Courage players to play in space that the Sky Blue defenders were afraid to pressure into. If the defenders did move forward to pressure, they were quickly punished by off the ball attacking runs by the Courage forwards.
Although North Carolina dominated the match, Sky Blue’s Carli Lloyd was a constant attacking threat to the opposition. At times she individually dictated entire sequences of play and created scoring chances out of nothing for Sky Blue
Lloyd created a majority of Sky Blue’s chances on goal. Sky Blue’s first goal of the game came from a ball being played up the left flank to Lloyd, who was prowling in space. Despite being outside the box and in the half-space, Lloyd controlled a bouncing ball under pressure and fired in a shot that the goalkeeper had no chance of saving.
Lloyd’s overall ability and play was a major bright spot for Sky Blue throughout the match.
The best example of Lloyd as a single person dictating the match with twenty-one other players on the field came from Sky Blue’s second goal. Lloyd won an aerial ball in the central channel with pressure behind to turn upfield and dribble into space. At this moment Lloyd had no attacking passing options and five Courage players in her immediate area. Lloyd aggressively carried the ball forward drifting to the left half-space and drew all five Courage players with her.
By dribbling to the left half-space Lloyd drew every Courage defender to the left side of the field to open up a massive amount of space on the right side (red in the picture above) for her incoming teammates. Despite being outnumbered five to one, Lloyd maintained possession of the ball long enough for her team to catch up.
By the time Lloyd released the ball to an incoming midfielder, Lloyd had completely misshaped the Courage defensive unit and allowed her teammates to position themselves in the now open wide areas of the pitch.
This sequence led directly to Sky Blue’s second and final goal of the game.
Through her high levels of technical skill, tactical know-how and sheer aggression, Lloyd was able to keep Sky Blue relevant throughout a game that North Carolina dominated.
In the end, despite Carli Lloyd’s overall brilliance, North Carolina walked off the pitch victorious and enter the post-season with sight on the NWSL crown. Sky Blue will look to rebuild over the offseason and start the 2020 campaign on the front foot.
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