Sky Blue FC and Chicago Red Stars along with the rest of the NWSL in the NWSL Fall Series to wrap up the NWSL’s 2020 campaign. Since the NWSL Challenge Cup this summer, teams have been competing against one another in an attempt to win the Verizon Community Shield and prepare themselves for 2021. 

Both Sky Blue FC and Chicago Red Stars were coming off matches against the same opponent, Washington Spirit. The Spirit, who eventually finished on top of the group, had recently defeated Sky Blue FC by a score of 1-0. Just before that, they shared the points with Chicago with a 1-1 scoreline. Sky Blue and Chicago met for the second time in the Fall Series with the first meeting producing a 4-1 win for Chicago at home.

This tactical analysis will give an insight into each team’s tactics in this match while analyzing the effectiveness of said tactics.

Lineups and formations

This match saw the two sides lineup in relatively similar fashions. Sky Blue Head Coach Freya Coombe, who previously coached former Premier League side Reading FC in England, opted to employ a 4-1-4-1 formation in order to try and match up with the Red Stars midield. Sky Blue also chose to use plenty of pace on the wings with the likes of Midge Purce and Paige Monaghan leading the attack. Sky Blue did make one change to their backline with Erica Skroski replacing Sabrina Flores who had been a mainstay at the right back position during the Fall Series. The rest of the backline including Mandy Freeman, Estelle Johnson and Imani Dorsey remained unchanged.

As you can see from above, Chicago Red Stars boss Rory Dames chose his usual 4-2-3-1 formation for this match. However, Dames chose to make several changes to his backline from their most recent match against the Washington Spirit. In fact, only Sarah Gorden retained her spot for this match as she was joined by Casey Short, Tierna Davidson and Bianca St. Georges who found themselves in the starting lineup for this match. The rest of the lineup remained unchanged.

Chicago’s Pressing Scheme

From the outset of the match, the Red Star’s employed a distinct pressing scheme to try and win the ball back from Sky Blue FC and generate their own attack. When Sky Blue was in possession of the ball, the Red Star’s shifted to more of a 4-3-3 formation to effectively employ this pressing scheme. As is typical in the modern game, Sky Blue typically try and involve their outside backs when in possession in an effort to create passing angles into central midfield, as well as try and create 2v1 advantages with their outside backs and nearside winger against the opposition outside back.

Knowing this, Chicago used passes to the Sky Blue outside backs as pressing cues to ignite their press. As Sky Blue circulated the ball, when it was passed to one of their outside backs it was a signal for the Red Stars to begin pressing. The direct pressure on the ball was typically applied by one of the Red Stars wingers, in this game that role was usually filled by Savannah McCaskill, Sarah Luebbert and Arin Wright. As the wingers applied pressure to the ball, the near side outside back converged on the Sky Blue near side winger to eliminate a forward passing option. In addition to this, the central striker moved to the ball nearside to cover the Sky Blue center back on that side, while the Red Star midfield shifted toward the ball and covered passing lanes into the midfield and front line for the player in possession. With the endline acting as an “extra defender” the idea was to limit the Sky Blue outside back’s passing options and tempt them to force a pass into a crowded area that Chicago could attempt to intercept and launch their own attack. A good example of this is shown below.

Pressure is applied to the Sky Blue FC outside back in possession as the near side Chicago outside back and striker move to take away passing options

A key piece of Chicago’s press was the way that pressure was applied to the ball by the winger. Oftentimes, the winger would attempt to encourage the player on the ball to play down the line by using the cover shadow of their cover shadow as an extra measure of protection against the ball being played into central areas. By doing so, this creates an advantage for the defending team as they have eliminated central passing options and have created a 2v2 matchup between the Sky Blue outside back and near side winger, against the Red Star winger and near side outside back.

In addition to this 2v2 matchup, by forcing the ball down the flanks, Chicago also has the advantage of the out of bounds line again acting as an extra defender and as a way of limiting space for Sky Blue to play in. Furthermore, if the ball is played up the line to the Sky Blue winger she is at a disadvantage as she would receive that pass under immediate pressure and would typically be outnumbered due to Chicago’s two holding midfielders who would have shifted over, as well as the Chicago winger and outside back, allowing very limited passing options.  Below is a good example of this pressure being applied by the winger.

The Chicago winger applies pressure and encouraged the player in possession to play down the line while the Chicago striker takes away passing options
This diagram shows ever instance in which Chicago regained possession. As you can see there is a significant majority of instances where they regained the ball in wide areas

As you can see, Chicago’s press was relatively effective as they were able to win possession back often in wide areas as shown above. The added layer of forcing the ball to be played down the line ensured that even if the ball was progressed, Chicago would often have numerical superiority in the advanced parts of the field and would have a higher chance of winning the ball back.

Chicago’s Involvement of their Outside Backs in Attack

In addition to the emphasis placed on applying pressure to the Sky Blue outside backs, Chicago’s outside backs also had significant influence in this match. Chicago was able to effectively involve their outside backs in possession and push them high up the field in wide areas to create numerical advantages in wide areas as well as passing options into and out of central midfield. 

Chicago was able to do this by a manipulation of their formational lines when in possession. As discussed above, when defending Chicago held more of a 4-3-3 formation. However, when in possession, Chicago often set up in more of a 3-5-2 formation to create a numerical advantage in the midfield. Chicago achieved this with a few simultaneous movements from certain positions. Firstly, one of their central midfield pivots often dropped in between their center backs who moved into wider positions. In this match, that player was typically Danielle Colaprico because of her technical ability on the ball and passing range.  As this occurred the Red Star outside backs pushed higher up the field in wide areas to be able to receive the ball in advanced positions. While the outside backs moved up the field, the Red Star wingers moved into more advanced central areas to create a numerical overload in the center of the pitch. In this shape, Chicago had 3 players in the defensive line to provide balance as well as 5 players in their midfield line to effectively overload Sky Blue in that part of the field. In addition, they were able to have two players higher up the field in their forward line to occupy the Sky Blue defenders.

Casey Short receives the ball in an advanced area (in red) the near side winger (yellow) created a passing lane by dropping deeper into the midfield. You can also see the far side winger (yellow) in an advanced central area

This attacking shape allowed the Red Stars to effectively have options in all five channels of the field. Both wide channels were occupied most often by the outside backs, while the central channels were occupied by the central midfielders. In addition to this, Chicago was able occupy the half spaces in between these channels with their wingers who had moved in centrally, which has been made famous by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. This allowed Chicago to have multiple passing lanes open for the player in possession. It also allowed for interchangeability between advanced players which allows different attacking runs to be made into space. For example, if the Red Stars outside back was in possession, this shape would allow for the nearside winger who had pinched in centrally to make a dangerous run in behind. If the winger makes this run, the shape allows for either a player higher up the field to come fill the space she had left or a central midfielder to fill that space and move even more players into advanced positions. 

The Chicago outside back (in red) receives the ball in an advanced area as the near side winger (yellow) finds herself in an advanced central area and the striker (yellow) positions herself to make a run behind the Sky Blue back line
This diagram shows the average position of each player based on where they touched the ball. As you can see, the three Chicago outside backs (in red) where in much more advanced positions then your average outside back

This shape effectively allowed Chicago to hold the majority of possession in this game. In addition, it was effective in pinning Sky Blue deep in their own half as the Sky Blue wingers often recovered into deeper positions to account for the player in that space and try to limit the Red Stars numerical advantage.

Sky Blue’s low Defensive Block

As the game went on, Sky Blue settled deeper and deeper into a low block defensively. There were a few reasons for this. As mentioned above, Chicago was effective in pinning Sky Blue deep into their own half due to their shape in possession of the ball and their ability to move their outside backs forward. While Chicago certainly deserves credit for this, Sky Blue were also happy to settle into a low block in the second half as they had built a 3-0 advantage before halftime. By doing this, they effectively were able to protect their lead and pose a threat to Chicago on the counterattack.

Contrarily to Chicago, Sky Blue defended in almost the exact same shape as they originally lined up in, a 4-1-4-1. This defensive shape allowed Sky Blue to utilize an effective low block due to their compactness in the midfield and their ability to dictate which side of the field Chicago played on. As Chicago swung the ball from side to side, the Sky Blue striker Ifeoma Onumonu was able to effectively use her cover shadow by positioning herself in between the player in possession and the far side center back. Effectively, this cut the field in half for Chicago in possession and allowed the Sky Blue midfield to shift towards the ball and eliminate passing options for the player in possession. Thus, making it very difficult for Chicago to progress the ball forward and create goal scoring opportunities.

Onumonu begins to position herself to cut off passing lanes to the center backs are her teammates create a block of 4 behind her

As you can see below, as the game wore on the Sky Blue defensive line not only settled deeper into their own half but also became more content to let Chicago have the ball since Chicago was finding it difficult to progress the ball into attacking areas. By doing this, Sky Blue effectively eliminated space in the attacking half for Chicago and made themselves difficult to break down.

This graph shows the average position of each teams defensive line. As you can see, Sky Blue moved deeper and deeper into their own half as the game wore on
This graph shows the Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) which measures a teams pressing ability. As you can see, Sky Blue’s PPDA dropped dramatically as the game continued

Of course, this strategy likely would not have continued if Sky Blue had not taken a large lead so early in the game. However, with their lead already established, Sky Blue were able to effectively kill the game off thanks to this low block and their ability to manage the space Chicago played into.

Conclusion

Chicago will likely feel a bit hard done by this result as they were able to control possession at 59%, lead the game in total shots and shots on goal, as well as achieve a higher number in xG (1.24-0.92) than their counterparts. As shown in this analysis, there is much to be said for Sky Blue’s ability to take their chances early on and effectively manage the game throughout the second half. This match concluded the NWSL Fall Series for each side as Chicago finished with 4 points and Sky Blue producing 6 points respectively. Each side’s attention will now turn to the offseason as they prepare for their 2021 campaigns that will hopefully result in more regular matches than 2020.

Adam Miller