Leah Williamson is currently one of the most versatile and efficient defenders in the world of Women’s football. The 24-year-old centre-back started her football journey at Arsenal Women back in 2006 when she was playing with the youth, and she’s continued plying her trade with the Gunners up to today. This stability has helped Williamson grow in confidence in her abilities and enabled viewers to watch a very solid, intelligent, quick and confident defender over the last few years. Moreover, playing for all the England national team categories has helped to improve Williamson’s performances in many aspects and now, she is one of the pillars of the Lionesses.
In this tactical analysis in the form of a scout report, the focus will be oriented towards Williamson’s defensive performances, her main skills and abilities, the roles that she can occupy, as well as the possible improvements that she can still make to become an even better defender in the upcoming seasons. This analysis will be carried out relying on data and footage in relation to Williamson.
Positions and Roles
Williamson is naturally a central defender who masters her position very well and who leans towards the right often, as you can see in this heat map. However, Williamson can also play as a defensive midfielder and possesses all the abilities necessary to excel whenever she is employed at this position. The map also shows that Williamson likes to advance a lot towards midfield and sometimes towards the final third too. What is even more fundamental and exceptional with Williamson is her ability to not only build from the back but also have a great vision of the pitch and serve her teammates well in midfield, on the wings and in attack. Indeed, the idea of defenders contributing in playmaking and replacing midfielders in executing this role is no longer a trend as it is becoming one of the necessities that defenders are trained on. Nevertheless, not every central defender can execute such a role with precision, efficiency and accuracy. Williamson is one of the few defenders in Women’s football who is capable of executing accurate key passes and long-passes regularly and with a high success rate. Such a trait gives any head coach the luxury of having a secret additional weapon in terms of playmaking.
The element of surprise helps Williamson a lot in this aspect since opponents do not always expect such key passes from her as they are often instructed to mainly mark midfielders when the team is building up. However, central defenders are not always marked. The only times when defenders can’t play freely is when the opposing team decides to press high, and this usually doesn’t last for 90 minutes because it depends on the result and on the players’ level of tiredness too since high pressing is very tiring.
Playmaking and assists
Along with her ability to usually provide accurate simple passes and read the game before receiving the ball, Williamson is a great long passer and this is something that differentiates her from most other defenders. As you can see below, Williamson uses long passes a lot and this helps her as it helps the whole team to bypass defensive lines and win some time during attacks. She usually switches sides with accuracy, giving the players on the other wing time to get some free space for manoeuvre given that everyone was leaning towards Williamson’s side when she had the ball. Therefore, being able to switch sides with accuracy is usually a valid tactical option when opponents seem to be organised.
Williamson often tends to cross the ball to that left-wing in order to create a sudden numerical superiority on that wing, such crosses are even more effective than vertical long passes at times since the latter do not always bring good results. Vertical long passes need perfect accuracy, correct and well-timed player movement as well an ability to avoid defenders and goalkeeper to exploit the long pass well. However, for passes like the one shown below, it is simpler to guarantee that the winger gets such a pass and exploits it well.
Despite this, Williamson is also very good at playing direct vertical long-passes as she was able to provide assists thanks to this type of passing, like the one executed in the following picture. However, Williamson needs to work more on this vertical long pass to make it more automatic and more accurate. Even the best long passers in all of world football do indeed make mistakes when executing such passes, yet Williamson should work even further on this in order to create more assists and rely on such passes more often because she has got the passing quality needed to excel at it.
The reason for raising such a point is that while Williamson has not been using this technique a lot recently despite having the ability to do so, it is also Jonas Eidevall’s task to encourage her to use this option and makes sure the whole team gets used to it, given that Arsenal will certainly need this direct play approach on certain occasions. Furthermore, alternating between the direct approach, the possession style and the counter-attacking solution can be very beneficial during matches.
Interceptions, defensive duels
Williamson is one of the best defenders in FAWSL and in Europe in terms of interceptions, ability to win defensive duels and to read the game defensively. She wins an average of 68,8% of defensive duels per match and is also strong in aerial duels. But what is even more exceptional with Williamson is her ability to intercept passes and read her direct opponents’ intentions.
In the following example, Williamson was going backwards when she saw a pass being directed towards her direct opponent who was behind her. Her reaction was fast enough to intercept the pass and cover the ball with her body before it reached her, knowing that her opponent would attempt to intercept the ball. Such experience in dealing with complicated or risky situations like in this example shows the real value of Williamson. And what is more impressive is that she is demonstrating great defensive experience and maturity despite being only 24 years old.
Furthermore, Williamson is excellent in terms of intercepting passes even when her opponent has the advantage to get the pass. She uses a skill that not every defender uses and only intelligent and quick ones succeed in applying, which is coming from behind the direct opponent who is waiting for the pass, going in front of her and receiving the pass instead of her. All this should be done in a few seconds when the passer is about to execute her pass and before the pass reaches its destination. Williamson is very good at this and she does it quite often, like in the next picture when she intercepted a pass that was going to her direct opponent.
Williamson is also excellent in applying her defensive duties when employed as a defensive midfielder. She occupies her position very well and uses her defensive skills to protect the defensive line from dangerous penetrations. Moreover, she helps a lot in the pressing by supporting the attacking line, using her defensive skills to attempt at intercepting the ball inside the opponent’s own half, like in this example against Germany when she predicted where the defender would direct her clearance and intercept it with a header.
Also, the presence of a player like Williamson in midfield can be very fruitful in terms of possession since she can read the opponents’ plans and especially when she gets very close to her opponents as in the following example. She made the action of intercepting this pass look very easy by confusing her opponent and pretending that she was running one way before she suddenly turned to the pass’ direction at the last second in order to collect the ball. These psychological games create the difference between average and excellent defenders and change a lot in the performances of teams.
Sliding tackles and aerial duels
In addition to the mentioned defensive skills, Williamson is also a great tackler. It should be said that Williamson makes 4,5 interceptions per match, wins 68,8% of her defensive duels and has an average of 40,6% successful sliding tackles. These statistics are quite excellent for an FAWSL defender, yet, Williamson has all the characteristics needed for improving her successful sliding tackles average even further to consolidate her being one of the best tacklers in Europe.
In fact, Williamson usually uses this tackling technique in an intelligent and well-timed manner in order to ensure the success of her intervention. She waits for an adequate time to make her tackling decision and always seizes the opportunities to steal the ball using this specific movement. In the following example, she was successful in executing her tackle with success in her opponent’s own half, which explains that Williamson can be very effective in high pressing and dangerous to opponents’ in their build-up phase, especially when employed as a defensive midfielder.
Moreover, the fact that she doesn’t only use tackling when defending proves the high level of confidence this player has when taking such decisions and shows that she does not hesitate or fear committing mistakes upfront because she masters the execution of these sliding tackles and times them extremely well.
Williamson’s sliding tackles are often decisive, but what is more impressive with her is that she doesn’t really fall into the trap of committing fouls inside the box, despite executing her sliding tackles. Williamson’s height and quick reactions alongside her tactical maturity are the main factors that help her be decisive and usually successful when taking such decisions, such as in the next encounter against Canada when she saw a pass going to the foot of her direct opponent while she was retreating. She made an instant decision of going for a sliding tackle and was successful in doing so and clearing the ball from the striker’s feet without touching her at all, which proves the argument explained above.
Williamson has a success rate of 51,4% in aerial duels. It is a rate that can surely be improved with some more experience and playing time, but at the same time, Williamson is already good with headers and aerial clearances. She usually jumps high enough to beat her direct opponent and win the duel. Moreover, her excellent defending techniques, quickness, vision, and aggressiveness when necessary as well as her playmaking skills make up for her relatively unconvincing statistics in the air.
Leah Williamson is definitely one of the best players at Arsenal and in Europe in general, especially from a defensive perspective, but as we saw in the article, from a playmaking perspective as well. An article on the player cannot really cover all Williamson’s traits or cover all the special things she did on the pitch until today. Yet, it is very clear that this type of player is rare and that the quality of her decisions, passes, and interceptions are exceptional when compared to other players.
What can be improved though is the work on making the vertical long passes accuracy more regular and automatic while at the same time Eidevall should encourage the player to use this option more often, by also adapting the whole team and especially the strikers’ movements to it. Moreover, it should be said that Williamson is playing a fundamental role in Arsenal’s battle for the FAWSL title mainly against Chelsea and with a lesser degree against Manchester United and Manchester City since both teams are actually a bit faraway in terms of points.