NWSL 2019: Chicago Red Stars vs North Carolina Courage – tactical analysis
With the National Women’s Soccer League in full swing, the standings are taking shape with the top four teams within three points of each other. This week saw an eagerly anticipated clash between two sides that needed a win to keep the momentum forward. Chicago Red Stars welcomed North Carolina Courage to the SeatGeek Stadium with a record attendance of 17,388.
This tactical analysis will portray the fast-paced nature of the two sides and how one team just edged their way to three points. Both coaches opted for familiarity as the long-standing rivalry continued. The game was finely poised till Sam Kerr’s winner but head coach Rory Dames’ tactical changes at half time proved the difference.
Squad selection & line ups
Chicago Red Stars made three changes from their last game against Houston Dash with Savannah McCaskill, Katie Johnson and Nikki Stanton missing out. They were replaced by Tierna Davidson, Julie Ertz, and Morgan Brian. Head coach Rory Dames lined them up in familiar fashion utilising a 4-2-3-1 formation. The return of Kerr has been monumental with the Australian forward scoring a number of goals including a hattrick on her return.
North Carolina Courage opted for a 4-2-2-2 formation, looking to stifle the Red Stars midfield. They also looked to make three changes. World cup returnees Abby Dahlkemper and Sam Mewis returned to the starting line up while Jessica McDonald preferred to Kristen Hamilton up front partnering Lynn Williams. North Carolina have lost four of their eight league games against Chicago. They have only lost six times against the rest of the league combined.
Tactical analysis – Attacking the channels
Much of the first half was a cagey affair between two sides trying to settle into the game. However, neither were able to really test one another until the 20th minute after which Alyssa Naeher was busier of the two goalkeepers. From that moment on, North Carolina Courage started to exert some pressure over the Red Stars.
Part of Paul Riley’s tactics was to utilise the pace, ingenuity, and strength of the two strikers. Lined up in a 4-2-2-2 formation, the Courage looked to use McDonald and Williams’ intelligent positioning and pace by playing them through the channels, specifically between the Red Stars’ centre-back and full-back. The Courage wanted to exploit the relative inexperience of young full-back Tierna Davidson and much to the delight of Riley, the plan worked.
Through Debinha and McCall Zerboni, the Courage were able to effectively create overload combinations with the full-backs and strikers. Through progressive overload, movement and passing combinations, they were able to create a few chances down both channels. Both Courage full-backs joined the attack to really pressurise Red Stars’ defensive line.
As the graphics here highlight, Jaelene Hinkle brings possession forward down the left flank. Notice Zerboni’s intelligent run into space with absolutely no pressing intent from the Red Stars. Ertz was out of position and Brian was too slow in getting back to cover her midfield partner. This allowed the likes of Zerboni and Debinha space to operate in overloading the centre-back or full-back.
Zerboni’s through ball splits the defensive line and allows Debhina to make a blindsided run behind Kathleen Naughton with Sarah Gorden ball watching. In addition, this also isolated Davidson putting her up against the bigger McDonald. Using her pace, McDonald had the advantage and could have scored if Debinha had squared her cross.
It was abundantly clear from the get-go that the key battle would take place in midfield. Mewis vs DiBernardo and Debinha vs Ertz were tactical battles that would decide the outcome of the game. Early parts of the match suggested that Mewis and co. had the upper hand (just) as they tried to play through the lines using the narrowly positioned Zerboni and Debinha.
Indeed, North Carolina’s first goal was courtesy of some good midfield pressing by Denise O’Sullivan. The Courage tried pressing Ertz but her ball-carrying ability was a class above, however, as possession transitioned into midfield, they found Brian and DiBernardo easier pressing targets.
As the graphics here show, O’Sullivan looks to press DiBernardo in centre midfield. Chicago Red Stars were looking to quickly transition into the final third but O’Sullivan’s valiant effort to press propelled the Courage forward. Being able to dispossess DiBernardo during the transition allows North Carolina to exploit spaces made from the unorganised backline.
As McDonald receives the ball, she plays Debinha through as she makes a quick run into the unoccupied space. Once again, the Courage were able to exploit the unoccupied space in front of the centre-backs. This time Debinha’s first time ball into Williams on the opposite side puts her through and creates a one v one situation against Naeher. Once again notice Williams’ channel run between the two defenders.
However, despite the good work put together by North Carolina Courage throughout much of the first half, Dames was able to make fleeting changes as the half wore on. Personnel changes, tactical adjustments, and more focus allowed the Red Stars to come back.
Wide spaces & the Ertz effect
Williams’ goal seemed to have revitalised the Red Stars and quickened the tempo as well as gaining more possession control in midfield. Ertz, Brian, and Nagasato saw more of the ball and that allowed the team to exert more passing combinations and building out play from the back.
The return of Ertz was crucial to the Red Stars as she has often been the catalyst to the teams defensive and offensive mechanisms. During the first half, she was caught out of position and was unable to exert her usual influence mainly due to her exertions at the World Cup. However, as the game wore on her influence increased both on and off the ball. The defensive midfielder made 12 interceptions with 11 coming in Chicago’s half. The team’s inclination to play out from the wide areas coincides with her pass map below. It indicates the number of passes she made from her defensive third, recycling possession and moving it out to the wider players.
Coach Dames wanted his team to utilise the wide areas more often and get Nagasoto, Johnson, and Wright to feed Kerr. While the Davidson was seen moving up the left flank, Casey Short was given a bit more freedom in attack in the second half allowing Wright to play a slightly narrower role for parts of the first half. This coincided with Ertz’s pass map of playing her passes into the wide areas.
Both goals originated from periods of sustained possession and attempts to break the Courage’s defensive shape and line through diagonal crosses for Kerr. The two minutes leading up to DiBernardo’s goal was littered with set pieces and cross-field passes as Ertz and Brian tried recycling possession horizontally. With Wright and Nagasato occupying the half-spaces, it provided Chicago with a different crossing angle for DiBernardo and Kerr to attack.
As this sequence of play shows, Wright receives possession in the channels she spots Ertz, Kerr, and DiBernardo on the shoulder of the Courage defensive line. As the ball is crossed in, you can see Kerr act as a decoy and drops behind the line from an offside position with no intention with playing the ball.
This confuses Abby Erceg and Dahlkemper who almost stop playing. DiBernardo’s slightly deeper run goes through unnoticed to calmly collect the pass and slot it past Labbe. Multiple attempts were made during the latter parts of the second half with one finally managing to come off.
The half time team talk from Dames would have been more of the same. Transition possession out wide through the wingers and get Kerr on the ball. Kerr was seemingly isolated through the first half playing on the shoulder of the defence being marshalled by Dahlkemper and Erceg.
As the image here portrays, Kerr is isolated up front as the Red Stars had initially adopted a direct approach which was easily thwarted by Dahlkemper and Erceg. Kerr was frustrated and not receiving the type of service she usually thrives on.
However, the introduction of Johnson and a tactical change from Dames sparked a change in movement by the forward line. The introduction of Johnson prompted a move to left-back for Arin Wright with Nagasato switching over to the opposite flank. Johnson’s introduction was to push Merritt Mathias back and get the Chicago Red Stars to play from the wider areas. Dames’ tactics looked to have provided the impetus towards getting the second goal.
The second goal was inevitable. Kerr finished off a quick attacking move to score Chicago’s second goal. The attack started off with the Courage looking to switch play from right to left but Johnson’s positional awareness and pace allowed her to intercept the pass to Mathias. In doing so, she was able to initiate a quick counter-attack with the defensive line disjointed as seen in the image above.
Here, Kerr has been able to receive possession off the left flank in space and manages to turn past Erceg, putting herself in a one v one situation against Lebbe. Whilst much of the work to move into a goal-scoring position came from Kerr’s great footwork, the Red Stars’ persistence in playing from the wide areas paid off.
Based on this performance, the analysis has shown us the incredible turnaround by the Chicago Red Stars to thwart second-placed North Carolina Courage in the NWSL. Through tactical ingenuity and in-game adjustments, Kerr and co. were able to positively take three points and propel them further up the table. They now sit third three points behind league leaders Portland Thorns. The race for the NWSL title will be fascinating, to say the least.
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