In January of 2014 Chelsea Women’s manager, Emma Hayes announced the signing of South Korean player Ji So-yun. Hayes was quoted as saying “She is one of the best midfielders in the world and our fans will love her.” This was an important step in the right direction for a club who had just finished four points above the relegation zone with only three wins throughout the 2013 season.
The beginning of the 2014 campaign brought a team that had time to grow and work into a level of consistency and performance with its new central midfielder. At the end of the 2014 season Chelsea were tied for first place in the league (coming in second due to goal differential) and qualified for the Champions League.
It should be no surprise that Ji, as a central midfielder for a team that went from the bottom of the table to the top in the span of one season, won the FA WSL Player of the Year and collected the Players’ Player of the Year honour at the PFA Awards.
Since Ji has joined the club, Chelsea Women have been crowned FA WSL champions twice and also finished as runners up twice. How can one player have such an impact on an entire team? In this tactical analysis/scout report we will discuss the abilities that make Ji a formidable talent.
Attacking defensive blocks
As a PFA Team of the Year winner in four of her five seasons in England, there can be no doubt that Ji is a prolific attacker. Ji with the ball at her feet in the attacking third and in space is often a cue for defending teams to swarm her. No opponent wants to let Ji penetrate freely near their goal. Ji, well aware that she will immediately absorb pressure from opponents, uses her strengths as an attacker to create goal-scoring chances for her teammates.
Ji can often be found in front of the opponent’s defensive block when in the attacking third of the pitch. When the ball arrives at her feet, Ji often chooses to aggressively drive forward directly into the defensive block. By aggressively dribbling into the heart of the opponent’s defensive block, Ji draws in pressure from all nearby opponents. This movement opens nearby attacking platforms for her teammates. She does this often at both the club and international level.
During group play at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Ji put this aggressive individual tactic on display against Nigeria. After a weak clearance from the Nigerians, Ji finds herself with the ball and in plenty of space in the attacking third of the pitch. Directly in front of Ji is eight opponents in a very compact defensive shape. A typical option at this point is to use her team’s structure to play the ball wide to eventually play into the box.
Instead, at this moment, Ji recognises that the Nigerian back four are not positioned to adequately defend the offside line (white dotted line in the image above). The Nigerians have left a large gap in the box that is open for exploitation. Instead of playing the ball wide, Ji immediately dribbles forward directly into the Nigerian block of eight.
As she dribbles forward, the Nigerian block holds it’s positioning and all players are focused on the Ji as she moves forward.
Ji’s teammate uses this moment to move into a position to receive in the large space behind Nigeria’s left-back. Ji holds on to the ball until the last possible moment and then releases the ball into space to her teammate who is set to make a penetrating run into the gap. This results in a chance on goal for South Korea.
Ji also uses this tactic at the club level with Chelsea. Below we see that Ji has positioned herself in a gap in the Rosengård midfield line. As Ji receives the ball across her body, she immediately takes a first touch forward into five opponents.
Once again Ji is aware that an off-the-ball teammate is in position to receive in a dangerous area (Ramona Bachmann, off-screen in the left half-space). Ji penetrates forward and draws in all nearby Rosengård players.
In the last possible moment, Ji releases the ball to the left half-space to a wide-open Bachmann. Bachman easily scores and puts the nail in the coffin of Rosengård’s Champions League hopes.
By aggressively (and almost recklessly) dribbling at opponent defensive blocks in the attacking third, Ji often helps generate space and time for her teammates to create chances on goal.
Often times in team tactical duels, manager’s game plans will revolve around the numerical battle between the midfield lines. If your team can win the midfield battle while underloaded or equally numbered in the middle of the pitch, numerical advantages can be created elsewhere on the field.
Ji’s aptitude in 1v1 defending scenarios gives her team a massive advantage in these midfield battles. Ji can be trusted to create a large number of problems for the opponent she is tasked with marking. She can often be found dispossessing skilled opponents and creating team counter-attacks on her own.
Ji tends to favour positioning herself on the blind side of her direct opponent when pressuring the ball carrier. By prioritising pressuring from behind, Ji can often surprise ball carriers. She also aims to physically disrupt the ball carrier and be patient in waiting for the ball to be pried loose from the attacker.
This is opposed to defending players who tend to dive straight in for the ball. Ji uses patience and steady disruption to make the attacker uncomfortable and eventually force a turnover.
We see Ji’s 1v1 defending technique play out against Lyon in the 2018 Champions League semi-final. It must be noted that Lyon is widely considered to be the best women’s club team on the planet.
Lyon are pressing high up the pitch and force a bad pass from the Chelsea goalkeeper. A Lyon midfielder gains possession of the ball and has her sights on creating a counter-attack upfield. As the turnover was occurring, Ji was already in motion to approach the attacker on her blindside.
Ji immediately surprises her from behind and gets touch-tight to disrupt any attempt by the attacker to dribble. Ji continues to physically pressure the ball carrier until the Lyon player loses balance and clean possession of the ball. Ji taps the ball away and carries the ball forward into space.
In this moment, all ball-near Chelsea players turn upfield and look to penetrate into gaps in and around the Lyon back four. Ji carries the ball forward all the way to the attacking third of the pitch, creating a counter-attack on her own.
Ji’s 1v1 defending skills allowed her to completely destroy a moment in which Lyon have gained the ball and are positioned to score a quick counter-attack goal. Ji single-handedly regained possession and create Chelsea’s own counter-attack.
Creating space for teammates
As a skilful midfielder, Ji is often tasked with aiding progression through the midfield when her team is in possession. Ji excels at misshaping the opponent’s midfield line, whether being in front of the line or behind it.
Once again, using ball possession as a tool, Ji will occupy specific areas of space with the ball to manipulate the shape of the midfield line. This takes a large amount of awareness of several reference points on the pitch.
Before she receives the ball, Ji has a mental snapshot of:
- The space she wants the ball to be played into.
- The positioning of teammates in that area.
- The positioning of opponents in that area
- An awareness of how the opponent will react to her possession (i.e. zonal movements or player to player movements).
The South Korean takes in and processes all of this information constantly throughout the match. When observing her off the ball movement, one can see that she is constantly scanning the pitch to assess the correct route of attack.
An example of Ji manipulating the midfield line from in front of it can be seen in a match against Tottenham earlier this season at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea have set up with Ji as a single pivot midfielder in the buildup phase.
At this point, Tottenham are content with any Chelsea defender possessing the ball and aim to prioritise keeping a compact 4-5-1 shape. Ji recognises that the Tottenham block will slide as a full unit with the movement of the ball. Below we can see Ji receive in the central channel with the nearby presence of three Tottenham midfielders and a forward.
Before receiving the ball, Ji has already scanned the field and sees an opportunity for an attack on the right flank. Ji maintains her position in front of the Tottenham midfield line and dribbles towards the left flank. By doing this, she draws the Tottenham unit with her.
Ji has now dragged two midfielders out of the central channel and has created a Chelsea 4v2 overload on the far side of the field.
Once all but one of the Tottenham midfielders has been dragged out of the central channel, Ji quickly turns and plays a pass to a wide-open Chelsea teammate in a position to create a dangerous attack.
In a Champions League match against PSG we see Ji misshape the opponent’s positioning from inside the midfield line. She does this by manipulating PSG’s player to player marking assignments.
Below we can see that PSG have set up in a 4-5-1 with a staggered midfield. At this point, Ji positions herself directly in the middle of the midfield unit and has scanned the area. She communicates to her teammate by pointing that they need the ball played into space behind the midfield line.
Immediately after the ball-possessing centre-back is aware of where the ball should be played to, Ji checks in towards the Chelsea defender to receive. Ji is well aware that if she receives the ball, a PSG midfielder will pressure her from behind immediately and aggressively. By receiving the ball in this position, she is opening up even more space for her forward-positioned teammate.
Ji receives a pass and plays a one-touch no-look pass to her teammate upfield, who is ready to receive in a vast amount of space between the PSG defensive and midfield lines (red in the image below). Despite quick pressure from the PSG midfield, who clearly did not want Ji to have time on the ball, Ji was able to play the ball through a line of five players with one touch.
This type of lightning-fast attack could only be done because of Ji’s ability to scan the field and immediately take in the reference points around her. Ji is able to immediately analyze the optimal attacking actions in the moment and play them out instantly.
Rarely do we see an individual make such a large impact upon arriving at the club. Ji can be counted as a player who immediately improves a team of eleven with her individual playmaking ability and skill in tactically manipulating entire teams all by herself.
It is no shock that Chelsea Women currently sit at the top of the FAWSL table with the most goals scored in the league and not a single loss to date in the current campaign.
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