Washington Spirit – OL Reign Opposition Analysis – scout report
This tactical analysis is part of a project series I will be doing with Abdullah Abdullah. The purpose of the project will be primarily conducting an opposition analysis for women’s teams against sides they have struggled against in their respective league campaigns. It will include a team analysis, two scout reports, and a data analysis.
This analysis will focus on the Washington Spirit from the perspective of OL Reign. Olympique Lyonnais’ newly acquired side found life difficult against the Spirit last season, drawing all three of their matches even as they dominated for much of each of them. We will start by breaking down Washington’s tactics in and out of possession, before going into what OL Reign did well and poorly against them. The final section will come up with solutions for the issues OL Reign faced against Washington.
Washington Spirit are built on the foundations of the defensive side of their game. They aim to defend deep with numbers and look to move forward on the counter when opportunities present themselves. During the 2019 campaign, Washington used the 4-3-1-2 formation in 38% of their matches and a 4-2-3-1 24% of the time. In both of these systems, the defending focus in the centre of the pitch.
Using these systems, the Spirit aim to be very compact and force opponents to move out to wide areas looking for space to attack. The major use of the 4-3-1-2 formation specifically highlights this focus with no wide attacker being utilised. Using these systems involving three central midfielders, Washington is able to block off these central channels for opponents. This creates a barrier keeping possession away from the top of the penalty area. As these channels are blocked off, the central players are forced to move wide or deep looking to get an opportunity to get on the ball, which in turn can isolate the striker or strikers in this situation. Most of the time, opponents are forced into trying to move their attack wide right or wide left.
In the image above you can see the Spirit’s midfield structure blocking off any passing lanes into Reign’s central attackers. The stances of these players are key in forcing the player in possession to move exactly how they want him to.
When the player in possession lays it off to her teammate, the nearest Spirit midfielder jumps forward quickly. She immediately puts pressure on the player’s right side to force her away from the inside of the pitch. The result is the play going out to the wing, where Washington now have a massive numerical advantage to close out this Reign attack.
When this occurs, the Spirits compact nature continues and they shift to either side as possession moves. They look to cut off any options other than moving backwards or a cross from a non-favourable position. In the image below you can see this ideology. As the opponent moves their attack to the Spirit’s right side, the defensive structure shifts along with it. They are now focused on pinning Portland in this area and forcing a turnover using seven players to keep play contained here.
Contrary to the general idea of sides with deep defensive structures producing high passes per defensive action (PPDA) stats, Washington maintains theirs to be relatively low. Sitting at 10.63 for the 2019 calendar year, this gives us an insight into the pressing tactics of Richie Burke and his side.
When opponents gain possession in their own third, Washington look to press high with their attackers and midfield. Once again, the objective with this out of possession structure is to move the opponent into wide areas and look to create numerical superiorities. Their primary focus with this is to force turnovers in these high areas and get opportunities to move forward when their opponents have numbers higher up the pitch. Cover shadows are most frequently used in these scenarios. This set up allows Washington to keep their defensive shape and be ready to step out looking for an interception if an opportunity presents itself.
Due to the heavy defensive tactics employed by Burke’s side, a vast amount of their attacking production comes from the counter-attack. Their xG in the year 2019 came out to an average of 1.15, representing their struggle in this side of the game due to their defensive nature.
Building out from the back, Washington looks to make their structure very wide. The full-backs move out to the touchlines and the centre-halves will typically push to the sides of the penalty area. The purpose of this is to try and keep opponents from being able to centralise their press in one area.
When possession moves to either side, the near-sided midfielder drops in to assure that the side has numerical superiority in this area. This player looks to act as the outlet as Washington’s primary focus in transition using these central midfielders. In the image above you can see two of the three midfielders in deep positions to give Washington superiority in their own third. Their aim is to move the ball quickly forward using these numbers. Their passes per minute in possession is the highest in the NWSL at 13.2, emphasising this idea.
Possession is moved from side to side as Washington break down their opponent’s press. As you can see above the midfielders remain deep as they enter the middle third until possession is moved into this central area in order to sustain their 7v6 advantage during the build-up. Here the centre midfielder looks to progress play themselves once they receive the pass.
The main issue in their structure here is the risk in the initial build-up. Playing as widespread as they do presents a greater risk of losing possession in these areas. As we will discuss in the next section, this was a consistent theme in Washington’s matches against OL Reign that gave their opposition various golden opportunities to score.
The main form of attack for the Spirit is on the counter-attack and their high press. Similar to their structure defensively, they press very narrow to cut off central options. The sidelines are used as an extra defender to pin the opponent’s full-backs and wingers once possession is moved into this area to try and force a turnover or to get the player in possession to have to clear their lines.
In the image below you can see this centralised press taking away these options for the keeper, who is forced to look long for her winger. The three central midfielders positioning is key in this scenario. They are blocking off any passes into the central attackers, while also sitting in an area ready to press any Portland midfielder who receives a pass in this area, which would represent a big risk for a turnover.
When this ball is played, the Washington right-back is anticipating this and is ready to step forward and intercept it. Once this is done Portland are caught with a lack of cover in the outside channels and the Spirit are able to counter to try and create an opportunity for themselves.
Head-to-head with OL Reign
Now we will look more specifically into Washington as they played against OL Reign in 2019. In each of the three matches, the sides have come out with a point apiece. Despite continued dominance from Reign, in two of the matches, Washington stole the lead forcing Reign to scramble to find an equaliser.
Taking a look into some stats, this idea of Reign’s dominance in this matchup is supported. Looking at combined expected goals (xG) from the three matches in 2019, Reign accumulated a 4.61 xG. Spirit, on the other hand, created an xG of 3.1, with two of the three matches producing an xG under 0.75. Reign attempted 47 shots with 21 finding the target. Washington, meanwhile, attempted 31 shots with only 11 on target. Despite this attacking output from Reign, they were unable to produce any end product for major periods of these encounters.
It is also interesting to note the difference in pressing tactics from both sides. As we touched on earlier, Washington look to press high even though their natural defensive structure is rather deep. Against Reign specifically, though, they shifted this tactic, moving away from their press and opting to sit off more out of possession. In these three matches, the Spirit maintained a 12.22 PPDA. This shift is most likely a result of the acknowledgement of Reign’s attacking ability. With players such as Megan Rapinoe and Bethany Balcer in attack and Beverly Yanez in midfield, Reign possess a host of attacking talent capable of taking advantage of any space left in behind the pressing structure.
Reign’s tactics themselves are also likely a reason behind this. The Seattle club averaged a PPDA of 8.81 in matches during the 2019 year. Against Washington specifically, this number was even lower at 7.6. This high pressing scheme is one of the key reasons behind Reign’s sustained attacking dominance against Washington.
This system forced Washington into clearing their lines when deep in their own half. This gave Reign the ability to regain possession on the aerial ball and restart their attacking sequence. However, the biggest positive from this tactic came when Washington attempted playing out from the back. The Spirit’s defenders are susceptible to making mistakes under pressure and this resulted in sloppy passes being attempted as they tried moving possession from the defensive to midfield lines. In Reign’s usual 4-2-3-1 formation, the front four are extremely aggressive as you can see in the image above with all four in the attacking third of the pitch. The double-pivot in midfield is the key to this, as they hold a massive responsibility of keeping the side in balance during this phase. They step forward to look for opportunities to intercept one of these misplaced passes, but they have to be careful not to overcommit and leave the defensive line without cover. Typically one will move forward while the other maintains a deeper position and looks to block any potential threat. In the image below you can see the press from the central midfielder on the player receiving the pass in the earlier image forced her into making a misplaced pass. The full-back easily steps forward to intercept it with no Washington player close and now the home side is caught out with numbers forward, with OL Reign having a huge numbers advantage up front.
Shifting the attack
OL Reign’s difficulties in attack stemmed from Washington’s defensive strengths. As we broke down in the Spirit’s defensive structure, they were able to contain Reign for the bulk of time in this matchup and keep their opportunities to a minimum. Sitting off more in their initial press added to this dynamic.
Washington’s structure worked to perfection. Once OL Reign would look to enter the Sprit’s defensive half of the pitch, they were met with a compact wall in the centre. This blocked off any forward movement in this area, and Reign reacted just as Washington were hoping by shifting possession into the wide areas through their full-backs and wingers. Here Washington were completely content in cutting off inside and forward options and allowing Reign to hold onto possession in these areas. As you can see in the image below, this space presents little to no threat to the Spirit’s defence.
As Reign became frustrated at the lack of potential in these forward moves, they turned to crosses. However, this was largely ineffective due to Washington’s numerical superiorities. Because of their deep set-up, they were able to keep one or two midfielders in and around the edge of the penalty area to aid the centre-halves with clearances. On the other side, Reign were outnumbered high up the pitch in this area because the central midfielders and wingers were dropping into deeper positions themselves in order to find space to get possession. Below you can see a cross-map from Reign in the 2-2 draw between the two sides, where they completed 9 out of the attempted 26 crosses on the night.
Looking for solutions to this issue, the biggest idea that stands out is accelerating the speed of play. Reign gave the Spirit too much time out of possession to set up their defensive structure and find their compactness. To get in behind Washington’s system the opportunities are available when they are higher up the pitch looking to attack. However, if the Spirit are able to drop back into this compact defensive shape, it is difficult to break them down.
In the image below Washington’s attacker has been dispossessed and a pass is played back into the keeper. Instead of working it out from the back, the keeper looks long in an attempt to find a quick equaliser.
When OL Reign are able to win the initial ball in the air, they are able to look to work in behind Washington’s midfield structure. This is an area they were unable to get into for the vast majority of each of the three matchups between the two sides. With the breach now made, a centre-half is forced to take a step forward out of her side’s normal shape which opens up a passing lane to play the winger in behind.
When possession is established in wide areas and Washington have set up in their block restricting play from moving into the centre areas, they use a massive amount of their personnel to achieve this. While effective, it leaves holes which primarily come on the far side of the pitch. Shifting the focus of the attacks to moving possession to one side of the pitch to draw this press before playing a cross-field pass into the opposite full-back or winger would provide numerous advantages, much like what we have seen as a staple tactic in Pep Guardiola’s sides at Barcelona and Manchester City. The biggest would be the opportunity for these players to get into scenarios where they are isolated with a sole defender and have the opportunity to run at this defender in space. We have spoken of the attacking talent that Reign has. Balcer, in particular, is excellent with the ball at her feet. While she spent a large period of her first year with Seattle playing as the number nine, she is also capable of playing in these winger roles and exploiting situations such as this.
This also provides a tactical response to the Spirit’s plan. Moving the ball in this manner would create difficulties in Washington’s attempts to overload the sides of the pitch. This would force them into having to spread out this compact plan, which would create gaps after time. Below you can see an example of Washington in their defensive structure looking to pin Reign in on the left side of the pitch. However, the Reign right-back is left completely unmarked. A ball over the top is available in this situation to find the open player.
Once this is achieved the right-back is able to move forward into space. This has multiple effects. It forces Washington to not only try to regain their central shape but now they have to react to the player in this area exploiting the room in front of her. Here is where gaps are created, as the midfielders of the Spirit are forced to step out of their structure to put pressure onto the player, this can open up potential channels on the inside as you can see in the image above, or the full-back can look to continue to push possession down this side into the winger to make a run at her defender as we discussed above.
OL Reign were dominant over Washington Spirit in the past year. However, in each of the three encounters between the two sides, they were only about to come up with one point in all of them. While part of this is down to Washington’s tactics in their defensive set-up working very effectively, Reign did themselves no favours by playing into their hands.
In this scout report, we have broken down the Washington side to identify their strengths and weaknesses in and out of possession. Afterwards, looking at them specifically against Seattle, we can see where Reign have done well and poorly against their opposition. Alterations in their attacking system could be the key in getting the better of Washington in the years to come.