The Washington Spirit was one of the original National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) teams from the inaugural season of 2013. The team has seen its ups and downs starting in its first season finishing eight to being a finalist in 2016. After key departures of players including captain Ali Krieger, Christine Nairn, Diana Matheson, and Crystal Dunn the Spirit finished the 2017 campaign in tenth place. This triggered the club into a rebuilding mode in which a lot of young players came into the squad. The introduction of good tactics and a defined style of play worked to support a climb back to finish fifth in the 2019 season.
Out of Possession
Washington Spirit’s coach Richie Burke likes to have numbers in defence. In the 2019 season, he deployed a 4-3-1-2 38% of the time, 4-2-3-1 shape 24% of the time, and a 4-5-1 20% of the time. At times the Spirit would play very compact to win the ball. In the image below you can see how they committed nine players to one side of the pitch to force the opposition to playback or lose possession. As the team moves to compact the field they sit very centrally to force the other teams into wide positions. This does leave space for the other team if they can pick out the opportunities to switch the ball. In the image below you can see that if the opposition could see the switch of play that is needed they would have bypassed the Spirit’s initial five pressing the ball and caught the Spirit in transition.
In the image below you can see how the Spirit wants to push high up the field and win the ball as teams try to build out of the back. The forwards work to direct play of the other team into the middle where the midfield line work to cover passing lanes. The Spirit wants the opposition to play into these midfield channels. As the Spirit converges on the ball they look to start a counter-attack when the other team is spread. In the graphic below you see how the team’s high pressure results in turnovers inside the attacking third. This team pressure helps them recover the ball quickly high up the pitch in order to have solid chances on goal.
Wining central battles
Due to the central defending nature of the Spirit, they organize behind the ball in a very central position. In the image below you can see how they do not allow teams to access the space in front of the goal. They organize with players behind the ball and collapse back into the goal. This does allow the opposition to put crosses into the box. The aerial duels graphic shows the results and is where the Spirit conceded a lot of opportunities to the other teams.
The Spirit works in the possession-based model in order to spread the defense and open up opportunities going to goal. Many times the buildup play starts with the keeper. They look to isolate one side of the field in order to gain a numerical advantage out of the run of play. In the image below you can see how the Spirit looks to spread wide and open the game with the defensive backs. This allows more room in the middle of the pitch for the midfield or the forwards to check to the ball and receive it between the lines of defense. These quick balls into the channels help break the defensive lines while allowing the Spirit midfield to support the pass moving towards the attacking third.
Washington works to move the ball up the wings, but typically do not show success in crosses. In the graphic below you see the overall look at how their crosses are unsuccessful. Many times this is due to the counter-attacking nature of their play. They do not have enough good runs in the box or they outrun their support. They also look to cut the ball into the middle and come across the top of the box looking for a shot. In a sample of the shots below, they look to get into shooting range and work to get a shot off rather than playing in behind the defensive line. The shots closest to the goal are long passes starting just inside the attacking half were the forwards had room to run. There is also a strong correlation when they get their shots. They see 18% of their shots in the first 15 minutes and they get 48% of their chances in the last 30 minutes of the game. This is due to the counter attacks and the pressure they apply to the other teams. They end up striking early and usually wear down the other team and gain chances late.
Attacking deadball situations
You can definitely see Burke’s intent on attacking set-pieces situations. In the image below you can see the areas in which the Spirit is looking to attack with their corners.
From the left side, they want to place the ball at the front post. In the next image, you can see how the initial setup helps clear players out of those areas. The Spirit look to stack the attacking players 16 yards from goal even with the back post while showing short options to pull oppositions players out. From the right-sided corners, they look for the same but have a long option available. Due to the flight time of the ball is less likely to provide the initial threat but the Spirit wants to push that ball back across the front of the goal in order to create an opportunity.
As the Spirit looks to access the final third off of free kicks they play very direct. In the image below you can see the summary of how they look to play the balls directly into the box. From the right free kicks, they are again looking to go direct to the back post. From the left, they have a better variety of how they are trying to access the goal directly.
Defending deadball situations
In the image below you can see how the Spirit line up to defend a corner. They set three across the top of the six with players on each post. The rest of the defensive unit looks to go 1v1 with the other players. Also, you see that the Spirit reacts late to covering a run by the opposition for a short corner. Additional players forward by the other team would outnumber the Spirit and force them to make choices on the fly. If done at the right time the opposition would have free runners inside the box. The marking in the 1v1 is providing too much run to the attacking players. The opposition’s runners in the box are allowed too much run and they are able to gain momentum in their runs. For defensive players, this could be devastating on set-piece situations.
Burke has continued to build the team around good young talent with some senior leadership. They are young and are capable but need to minimise mistakes at the back. Their problems in 2019 came from teams that were well organized in defense and could handle the counter-attacks, while also managing the high press by the Spirit. If a team can switch the ball under pressure and use the width effectively they will have success against this young team.