The now completed FA Women’s Super League 2019/20 season has seen Fara Williams further enhance her already formidable reputation. England’s record cap holder was a key reason for Reading’s impressive fifth place finish in the FAWSL.
In this tactical analysis we will examine Williams’ season from a tactical and data perspective and how she’s settled in Reading’s tactics.
Quality and volume of work in possession
Williams was chiefly used this season as a ‘number 10’ in a 4-2-3-1 set up or as the attacking midfielder at the point of a 4-4-2 diamond. Williams also played as the second striker in a more traditional 4-4-2 tactic. She is adept at playing in a range of formations for Reading, but the constant is Williams playing as the link between midfield and attack. She is the player Reading want to get on the ball in the attacking third, as her heat map below demonstrates (data from Wyscout).
Williams’ data from the 2019/20 FAWSL season is remarkable. At 36-years-old she has arguably had one of her best seasons. In possession she is formidable and, based on the stats, you could make a strong argument that she is one of the best attacking players in the league.
In some regards, she is an outlier as the only player outside the top three who comes near the top of almost every attacking metric. The stats are even more impressive when considering Williams isn’t always surrounded by the same calibre of teammates that players at Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal benefit from.
Williams offers a threat as both a goal creator and a goal scorer, ranking third in the FAWSL for expected assists according to FBRef/Statsbomb data (4.7xA) and fifth for expected goals (6xG).
Her shot creating actions and goal creating actions (actions such as a pass, dribble or drawing a foul leading to a shot or goal for her team) per 90 are similarly impressive, ranking eighth in the FAWSL for shot creating actions (4.03) and eighth for goal creating actions (0.67)
Williams combines a high quality of work with a high volume of output. This is one of the keys to her success: not only is what she does effective, but she also executes these skills a high number of times in the game.
According to FBRef/Statsbomb data, Williams ranks well in both the number of attempted shots per 90 and the number of key passes per 90 (passes that lead to a shot) played in the FAWSL. Williams ranks third for shots (3.93) and fourth for key passes (2.44). This amount of work, added to its quality, suggests a highly effective player.
One of the things that makes Williams so good is her positioning. She is exceptional at finding space between the lines of an opposition’s midfield and defence. To watch footage of Williams is to see her constantly work to get into this position despite the opponent being aware of what she is trying to do and stop her. This is achieved through subtle movements, constantly scanning her surroundings and looking for space to exploit.
The footage below against Brighton demonstrates this point about Williams working between the lines. Brighton are known for making sure they are vertically compact, but by constantly scanning, Williams is still able to keep finding this space and receive the ball between players in this dangerous central area.
Once Williams is in this pocket of space, it causes uncertainty as to whether she should be picked up by either the opposition midfield or defence. Williams looks to get on the half-turn, putting her in prime position to either play a positive pass or shoot.
We have already seen in this scout report that Williams likes to shoot and she is capable of striking the ball powerfully with either foot. Whilst Williams has the quality to score from range, the majority of her goals actually come from inside the box (purple dots), however her ability to hit the target from outside the penalty area (blue dots), as her Wyscout shot map below shows, creates options.
If the central defender is drawn to Williams, worried abut her shooting ability, she will exploit the space behind them with a weighted pass to put a runner through on goal. If the defender sits off or drops, worried about the pass, Williams can shoot.
Against Birmingham, we see Williams in her typical position, receiving on the back foot having let the ball run across her, but rather than shooting with the left foot, as she has shaped to do, Williams instead plays a disguised pass through the defender’s legs to set up a shot on goal for a teammate. Her two-footedness is a huge asset and allows Williams to play a variety of passes and receive the ball to play forwards from different angles.
Williams is also very patient and disciplined in playing this role. Despite her high levels of ability, she doesn’t go chasing the ball deeper into midfield as some players do, knowing she can be at her most effective higher up the pitch. When Williams does sometimes find herself in deeper areas, she is happy to bounce the ball and retain, allowing Reading time to build and give her the opportunity to move upfield to take up her preferred position rather than trying to force things from less productive areas.
Passing and running forwards
Data analysis shows Williams’ passing numbers are another impressive aspect of her game. She played the sixth most passes into the penalty area according to FBref/Statsbomb, another clear indication that she is looking to play forwards whenever possible.
Williams can also play these passes with a high degree of invention and disguise. Against packed, low block defences, she can play over the defence with different parts of her foot and play first time, even off awkwardly bouncing balls: this is the sort of invention that can create goals from unlikely situations and breakdown organised opponents.
The footage below, against West Ham, demonstrates this: Williams opts to play a dropping ball, first time, with the top of her foot, over the defence in front of Brooke Chaplan at the correct weight for her to score. This was a difficult pass given all the variables, but the vision to play it stands out too: Williams’ scanning before the ball arrived allowed her to see the opportunity from the picture she had gained before receiving.
In the fixture against Everton, below, we see a different sort of forward pass, but again one with a high degree of difficulty as Williams threads a side foot ball to penetrate multiple players at the perfect weight to set up a shot on goal from an ‘out to in’ run.
Williams also retains the power to run beyond her striker to take up dangerous positions in the penalty area. When the Reading ‘number 9’ drops in, Williams uses this run as a trigger to attack the space that has been vacated with a powerful forward run to receive a pass from midfield after the ‘set’ from the centre-forward.
The picture below against Manchester United shows this. Amalie Eikeland has come short to receive and the ball leaving her foot is the trigger for Williams to set off on a hard run, attacking the space behind the defence.
Set piece effectiveness
Williams’ set-piece prowess is a notable aspect of her game. She is a threat from direct free-kicks and capable of getting the ball up and over defensive walls with power and precision.
Reading were extremely effective from set-pieces this season, scoring five times. Williams’ delivery was key to this. One of Reading’s preferred corner routines was to use four attackers to ‘box in’ the opposition goalkeeper, close to the goal line, in the area slightly favouring the near post. On the cue of Williams striking the ball, the players would push off to create a slight separation to head the ball past the unsighted and ‘blocked’ goalkeeper: the move also allowed the Reading attackers to lose their markers, who become focussed on the threat around the goalkeeper, allowing them to dart in front of the defenders from their ‘blind’ side.
Williams regularly delivers the ball to the right spot with pace and whip. This means the goalkeeper and defenders have no time to line up the ball and move beneath it to make an effective jump. By the time they have reacted to the movements of the Reading players, the ball has arrived. The timing and quality of Williams’ delivery is crucial to the whole process. She is capable of delivering Reading’s preferred inswinger with either her left or right foot.
The image below shows Williams’ delivery for the routine against Bristol, with the ball being played to the exact spot required at the ideal speed and trajectory, leading to a goal.
Williams, however, possesses the intelligence and technique to hit different deliveries, fooling opponents who think they know what is coming. At times Reading have used a short corner routine, freeing Williams to dribble into the box, as in the picture below from the game against Brighton.
Without the ball, Williams will drop on to the opposition’s pivot player when playing at the head of Reading’s midfield, stopping them from progressing play in central areas.
When playing as part of a front two, she will work with her strike partner to screen central passes through Reading by playing close together and forcing the play wide, where she will then look to slide across and put pressure on the full-back, forcing a hurried pass and preventing the ball back inside.
The footage against Arsenal demonstrates this, with Williams having blocked the central passing lane and now making play predictable by quickly moving across as the ball progresses to the right full-back.
Williams will also work hard to get back goal side of the ball to help support her defence. If Reading are caught on the counter-attack she will chase back at speed, even from her advanced area, to provide support while the Reading defence look to delay the attack. Her desire to stop the counter and running power over distance is demonstrated in the footage below against Manchester United, where Williams made a 60-yard sprint to help her team.
Williams is still one of the best performers with the ball in the FAWSL and one of its most effective players in the number 10 position. Her desire to play forwards, allied to her shooting and passing abilities, plus the volume of these actions, make her a huge threat from the position she is so good at taking up: central and outside the penalty area between the midfield and defensive lines. Williams also has the running power to go beyond her striker and break into the box. Her set-piece delivery, with either foot, means teams should be wary of conceding free-kicks and corners against Reading.
Williams may not be a player for England’s long term future, but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that she could add to her 172 international caps should she carry this impressive form into next season.