As we enter week 16 of the NWSL, the league standings are starting to take shape across the board. Chicago Red Stars continue to battle it out with North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns for the top position with just two points separating the three teams. The Utah Royals, however, are languishing in seventh place with 18 points to their name, eight points behind the Red Stars.

This defeat was the Royals sixth this campaign and have been expected to do better considering a squad full of talented players including the clinical Amy Rodriguez and Christian Press. The Red Stars, however, have made a triumphant come back after a winless June when star striker Sam Kerr was at the World Cup. Since then they have won six of their eight matches only losing to Reign FC and Sky Blue.

This tactical analysis will detail the tactics used by Rory Dames and his team to lead the Chicago Red Stars to yet another victory as they continue the battle for the NWSL title.

Lineups & Squads

Both teams made significant changes with the USWNT stars away on their victory parade. This gave an opportunity to many fringe players to stake their claim in the starting eleven making this game an even more intriguing contest.

The Red Stars made two changes with Julie Ertz and Morgan Brian being replaced by Danielle Colaprico and Nikki Stanton in midfield. Dames persisted with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation that has served him well. It has brought the best out of Kerr, Vanessa DiBernardo, and Yuki Nagasato with the three showing exquisite link-up play.

The Utah Royals were forced into three changes from their loss against North Carolina Courage last week. Christian Press, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Kelley O’Hara were replaced by Gaby Vincent, Katie Stengel, and Mallory Weber. Losing three core players would have affected any team but the Royals were determined to put their woes behind them and improve on their recent results.

NWSL 2019: Chicago Red Stars vs Utah Royals - tactical analysis tactics
Team lineups [Credit: Wyscout]

Utah Royals ineffective domination

While Chicago Red Stars came away with three points it wasn’t a walk in the park for the Chicago based team with the Royals dominating possession throughout the 90 minutes. With 59% possession, the Royals played as though they were the home side with the Red Stars sitting in and absorbing pressure well. While Utah had more possession, they weren’t as effective with it.

Part of the Royals tactics was to try to get their creative players Veronica Boquete (Vero) and Lo’eau LaBonta on the ball to unleash the dangerous Rodriguez and Stengel. Playing with a front two meant the Red Stars’ centre-backs had their work cut out for them. Managing their threat along with the playmaking from midfield. Even though Kerr’s early goal disrupted the Royals rhythm and flow, they eventually settled into the game and started to show signs of their game plan.

With Chicago Red Stars holding a slightly deeper, more structured line, the Royals were looking to switch play with diagonal crosses into the central areas to play in Vero and LaBonta. This worked to an extent. The wing-backs and strikers were especially important for this to succeed. Using Katie Bowen and Weber for width, they forced Chicago out wide. This propelled Vero to try and utilise the space created in the centre.

NWSL 2019: Chicago Red Stars vs Utah Royals - tactical analysis tactics
The Royals look to switch play with the majority of the Red Stars team on one side of the pitch [Credit: Wyscout]
Using analysis, we can how the above graphics highlight the Chicago Red Stars compact line and Utah Royals’ partial success in exploiting this. The Royals’ full-back interchanges with her teammate trying to exploit the narrow defensive shape held by the Red Stars. We can see the number of Chicago players shifting towards the right side towards the ball. Casey Short is the widest player on the pitch and is hovering around the half-way line.

NWSL 2019: Chicago Red Stars vs Utah Royals - tactical analysis tactics
LaBonta has acres of space to run into with Casey Short the last defender available [Credit: Wyscout]
LaBonta has acres of space to run down to collect the cross and is a considerable distance away from Short. The Royals tried to manoeuvre the Red Stars midfield and defensive line to try and get in behind throughout the match but ultimately failed to do so.

With no goals to show for their dominant possession, Boquete and LaBanta did get into decent positions, however, the Royals were wasteful with the chances they created. Rodriguez, for all her attacking prowess and five season goals, was ineffective. Part of the Red Starts tactics was to stifle the Royals’ midfield creators.

Key to this was the double pivot combination of Stanton and Colaprico. The duo replaced Ertz and Brian in midfield and did well to replicate their effect. Stanton made three interceptions, 13 recoveries and attempted 21 duels winning 11 in the process. Colaprico contributed with five interceptions, 12 recoveries and engaged in 11 duels winning five.

Ertz is an ever-reliable presence in midfield for the Red Stars, being the fulcrum to the side’s play offensively and defensively. In her last outing against Reign FC, Ertz managed nine interceptions, 16 recoveries and attempted 21 duels winning 10. The numbers are higher but both Stanton and Colaprico held their own and made their presence felt. This experience will hold them in good stead and went a long way in keeping the likes of Vero and LaBonta from supplying Rodriguez.

The Royals were missing their own talisman in Press who was a menace against Portland Thorns last week. Everything positive flowed through Press as she was their main attacking outlet with Rodriguez playing off her. She played a part in both of Utah Royals’ both goals showing her immense class. Her ability to beat defenders in one versus one position is undeniable and key to getting her goal. Beating the full-back Elizabeth Ball, Press was able to sneak through and slot it through the legs of the Thorns goalkeeper.

Chicago Red Stars’ dogged defensive display

For a team that thrives in possession, it seemed uncharacteristic for the Red Stars to have less possession at home. But, could this have been an intentional move on Dames’ part? Utah Royals have had over 50% possession in their last two league matches losing both. One could deduce that giving Utah and keeping a compact yet aggressive defensive setup is the key.

Vero and LaBonta are two midfield dynamos and creative outlets for the Utah Royals. Stopping them would be key to killing off any service for Rodriguez. The Royals utilised a 4-3-1-2, which really focuses on attacking through the central areas using Vero, LaBonta and Gunnhildur Yrsa Jónsdóttir.

The Red Stars held a tight, compact defensive shape with Stanton and Colaprico supporting to keep them at bay. By keeping the back four closer together they would create numerical superiority against the two Royals strikers and suffocate the space in front of them forcing the midfielders to play possession out wide.

NWSL 2019: Chicago Red Stars vs Utah Royals - tactical analysis tactics
Vero is closed down by three Chicago Red Stars’ players [Credit: Wyscout]
As this graphic portrays, anytime Vero or LaBanta got on the ball, the Red Stars midfield would look to use two to three players to try to dispossess them. This would give them the chance to initiate counter-attacks using Katie Johnson and Kerr’s pace. Also, notice the compact shape the Red Stars have kept in both examples.

NWSL 2019: Chicago Red Stars vs Utah Royals - tactical analysis tactics
LaBonta being closed down as she enters the midfield area. Notice the compact shape of the Red Stars defensive line [Credit: Wyscout]
They wanted to deny the Royals any space to work in. Halting their influence further up the field by pressing them from the half-way line would disrupt their build-up and create a numerical counter-attacking advantage. Every time they tried stepping into midfield they were dispossessed which forced them to play out wide.

Casey Short – MVP

What made the Red Stars’ defence impenetrable was the dogged display of Casey Short. The right-back was a powerhouse defensively and was critical in stopping LaBonta from playmaking in the Red Stars defensive third.

Casey Short’s average statistics compared to her match statistics [Credit: Wyscout]
While Short isn’t the most effective attacking full-back, her defensive actions stand out; she is considered one of the best right-backs in the NWSL and was a surprise omission from the USWNT squad that went to France. In her 14 matches in the NWSL this season, Short has one goal, one assist and a solitary yellow card showing her astute defending. The full-back was one of the stand out players against Utah Royals registering 12 duels and playing one key pass that led to Kerr’s opening goal. 

NWSL 2019: Chicago Red Stars vs Utah Royals - tactical analysis tactics
Casey Short’ initial narrow position leaves space in behind her but she quickly identifies the distance between her and the attacker [Credit: Wyscout]
Short was able to deal with all types of defensive situations, particularly up against the opposition full-back, Weber, time and time again tried to use pace to take on the American full-back.

NWSL 2019: Chicago Red Stars vs Utah Royals - tactical analysis tactics
Short times her run perfectly using her pace and intelligence to dispossess the attacking in her area [Credit: Wyscout]

Conclusion

In truth, the match was very much a case of attack versus defence with the Chicago Red Stars marching on with yet another victory. The Royals need to find another way of getting Rodriguez on the ball and affect the final third. In truth, they missed the energetic Press upfront with her experience and eye for goal. Her return next week should lift them and give them a much-needed lift and reunite Rodriguez with her regular partner.

For Chicago Red Stars its a matter of continuing their fine form and waiting for both North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns to slip up and capitalise on their slip. They showed their class without the likes of Ertz, Brian, and Naeher. Stanton and Colaprico proved they were more than capable replacements. The Red Stars will always be a threat and will force the title down to the final week.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #11: July 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the July issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.