After an exhilarating NWSL Challenge Cup, the NWSL continues its 2020 season with its “Fall Series” of matches as teams compete for the Verizon Community Shield. The Fall Series consists of three teams in regional pods playing each other home and away. As teams have entered into their second matches against their respective opponents in their pods, it has led to some very interesting tactical battles between NWSL foes. This tactical analysis will focus on the October 3rd match between the Portland Thorns and Utah Royals, who faced each other for the second time in 2 weeks.

Lineups

NWSL Fall Series 2020: Utah Royals vs. Portland Thorns - Tactical Analysis - tacticsThorns head coach Mark Parsons opted to continue with the 4-4-2 diamond formation they have employed thus far in the Fall Series, helping them to two wins in two matches thus far. One of the main features of this formation is Candian International Christine Sinclair who drops into the top of the Thorns midfield diamond for Parsons, instead of her previously more often used role as a central striker. In a similar fashion, Utah Royals Interim Head Coach Amy LePeilbet continued with the 4-3-3 formation that she has employed thus far in the Fall Series, which features US Women’s National Team standout Amy Rodriguez as the central striker. These formation choices lead to an interesting tactical battle as there were obvious differences in each team’s formational setup.

Royals: ability to solve Thorns pressure

One of the important pieces of the Royals’ game model is the ability to play out from the back and progress the ball through the thirds of the field. In their previous matchup, Portland was successful in making this difficult for the Royals because of the Thorns pressing structure. Portland’s pressing structure emphasises forcing the ball into central midfield as they have a numerical advantage (4v3) due to their formational shape. Thus, the Thorns forward pair attempts to take away the passing lanes from Utah’s central defenders to their outside backs by using their cover shadow to eliminate the outside backs as a passing possibility. In addition to this, the top of the Thorn’s midfield diamond often uses a cover shadow to try and effectively eliminate the Royal’s central defensive midfielder.  The Thorn’s will also use the outside players of their midfield diamond to put pressure on the opposition’s outside backs if they are able to receive the ball. This often forces central defenders to either play a direct ball into their forward line or try to progress the ball by playing into advanced central midfielders, which the Thorns will then press and try to win the ball with their numerical advantage. However, in this match, the Royal’s were able to come up with a solution to solve this pressure and progress the ball through a safer route.

LePelbeit and the Royal’s were able to solve the Thorn’s pressure by creating a numeric advantage in their defensive third and open up space for their outside backs to receive the ball. In possession, the Royal’s typically drop their defensive midfielder deep to help create a numerical advantage. However, against the Thorns that player is typically well marked by the false nine playing at the top of their midfield diamond, in this match it was Sinclair. The Royal’s opted to keep a similar shape, but instead of only having their defensive central midfielder drop deep to support the centre-backs in possession, they chose to have an advanced central midfielder drop deeper into the midfield to support their centre-backs and form a double pivot with their central defensive midfielder. In doing so, they were able to draw an additional Thorns midfielder up the field which created space for their outside backs to receive the ball. In addition to this, the Royals asked their wide players to stay in advanced positions up the field in order to occupy the Thorns defenders and allow space for their outside backs to progress the ball forward into the attacking half.

The Royals drop two midfielders centrally to create a numerical overload in the centre of the field during their build-up phase.
The second midfielder (#9) dropping in attracts the Thorns midfielder (#10) and opens up space for the outside back to receive the ball
Another example of a second dropping midfielder creating a passing lane to the Royals outside back

As you can see, this additional player helped to create a numerical advantage for the Royals which led to them being able to access passing lanes to their outside backs and progress the ball higher up the field. This was influential in the Royals attack and led to them taking an early advantage in the 9th minute of the match. Furthermore, with their ability to consistently progress the ball up the field, it forced the Thorns to recover defensively into their own defensive half. This was significant as even when the Royals conceded possession of the ball; it enabled them to pin Portland in their own half at times via counter-pressing. Additionally, it increased the distance between where the Thorns won the ball and the Thorns attacking half, which is obviously helpful defensively and helps to eliminate counter-attacking opportunities – just like the Liverpool tactics in the Premier League.

Thorns’ numerical advantages and dominance in possession

It is no doubt that one of the key emphasises for the Thorns and their coaching staff thus far in the Fall Series and their 2020 campaign has been establishing and controlling possession of the ball.  In fact, the Thorns have only conceded more than 50% of possession to their opponent once in their nine matches thus far in 2020. The Thorns were once again successful in controlling possession in this matchup with Utah as well. The Thorns were able to do this via their intricate shape in possession that focused on creating overloads all over the field and having multiple passing angles and options for the player in possession of the ball.

The Thorns are often able to settle into an expansive shape in possession against their opponents, and this match was no exception. The Thorns were able to spread their centre-backs wide and push their outside backs higher up the field, which allowed their midfield diamond to stay more central and maximise their numerical advantage in the central part of the field. Thus, they were able to ask questions of the Royals defence and maintain an advantage in possession. 

One of the key areas for both the Thorns and the Royals in this match was the wide channel of the field. Given Portland’s shape in possession, the outside backs that occupy the wide areas are often available passing options while the Thorns are in possession. Knowing this, the Royals attempted to use a Portland pass to their outside backs as a defensive pressing cue in an attempt to win the ball off their opponent. However, Portland were adept at creating numerical overloads in these wide areas and were often able to bypass this pressure and progress the ball upfield or move the ball to the opposite side to try and shift the Royals defensive lines.

The Thorns were able to overload wide areas to effectively hold possession and shift Utah defensively.
The Thorns overload creates a passing lane to a centre-back who can receive the ball in space and facing forward.
The Thorns are able to create a wide overload in their attacking third and cause a numerical disadvantage for the Royals

Another advantage to the numerical overloads that the Thorns were able to create in this match is the ability for the Thorns to counter-press in wide areas when they did lose the ball. By having this numerical advantage around the ball, Portland was able too quickly and effectively counter-press upon the loss of possession and retain it quickly. This led to the Thorns having a commanding 59% of the ball and having the Royals pinned in their defensive half for much of the match, especially in the second half.

The Thorns overload allows them to have players in close proximity to the ball with the ability to quickly apply pressure upon losing the ball.

Royals pressing adjustments

As the match progressed each side attempted to make subtle changes to their game in an effort to gain an advantage over their opposition. One of the more notable changes was the different pressing structure used by LePeilbet and the Royals. Early on in the match, the Royals pressed in a distinct 4-3-3 shape and attempted to put pressure on the Thorns defenders. In addition to this, the Royals were attempting to press the Thorns outside backs and create turnovers in wide areas. However, the previously discussed ability of the Thorns to create numerical advantages was causing problems for the Royals defensively. In addition to this, the Thorns outside backs were able to often play the ball in behind the Royals backline to a forward occupying the half-space and positioned on the inside shoulder of the Royals outside back. The Thorns ability to play these balls into the space behind the Royals defensive line was of grave concern to LePelbeit and the Royals as Portland has several strikers with good pace who were able to latch on to these passes and run at the Royals goal. As the game continued on, the Royals opted to try and eliminate this attacking option for the Thorns through a small adjustment to their pressing structure.

The Royals originally pressed out of a 4-3-3 shape with three high strikers pressing the Thorns backline.

The Royals opted to change their pressing structure from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 in the latter stages of this match. They did this by dropping their wide players deeper into the midfield to create a more solidified block of 5 players. This adjustment served multiple purposes for the Royals as they sought to win the match. Firstly, by having five players in the midfield block, it enabled them to match up more evenly with the number of players that the Thorns had in the same block. In addition to this, it also enabled the Royals to eliminate the passing lanes into the midfield for the Portland defensive line. By eliminating these passing lanes, it forced the Thorns to try and progress the ball through wide areas of the field, which is typically more difficult due to the lack of space and wide areas and the presence of the touchline that limits options to attack.

The Royals pressing structure adjustment to drop their two wingers deeper into the midfield to force the ball into wide areas

Perhaps the most important of the advantages that this change afforded the Royals was the ability to effectively press the Portland outside backs and force them to play backwards. With the Royals wingers in deeper positions defensively, they were able to curve their runs to take away forward passing options for the Thorns outside backs as the game went on. By doing this, the Royals were able to eliminate both the ball in behind to Portland strikers that was effective early on, as well as close down the space available to Portland on the outside flanks, forcing them to play backwards to try and recirculate the ball. 

The pressing adjustment used by the Royals enabled their wingers to curve their runs and prevent the Thorns outside backs from playing forward.

Another effect of this change was the ability for the Royals to quickly launch counter-attacks upon winning the ball. With more players behind the ball, when the Royals were able to win the ball back, they had wingers and midfielders in position to join the attack facing forward instead of coming back towards the ball, away from their attacking goal. In addition, since there was less pressure on the Portland centre-backs in the 4-2-3-1 pressing structure, Portland was more expansive in possession which created space for the Royals to attack upon winning the ball. 

This change was effective for the Royals as the Thorns had difficulty progressing the ball into their attacking players late on in the game. At times in the second half, the Thorns were able to push higher up the field and pin the Royals back in their own defensive third. However, this change to their defensive pressing structure was impactful for the Royals as they looked to mitigate the Thorns attack and create their own. 

Conclusion 

This analysis has shown the unique tactical battles that are becoming prevalent towards the end of the NWSL Fall Series. As the Portland Thorns and Utah Royals faced off for the second time in two weeks, both coaching staffs had made small but important tactical adjustments to try and gain an edge over their opponents. Both sides were relatively successful in their adjustments and the 1-1 draw was a fair result all things considered. These teams will both look to finish off their 2020 campaigns strong as they each play the OL Reign in their final match of the season before looking ahead to 2021. 

Adam Miller