The NWSL season comes to a close. Two teams battled it out for the biggest prize in women’s football in the United States. Chicago Red Stars took on North Carolina Courage in what was expected to be a highly anticipated clash between two of the league’s heavyweights.
Chicago have made the playoff semi-finals five times, and on Sunday they made their first appearance in the final. This will be the third consecutive season in which North Carolina Courage and Red Stars have met in the playoffs with the Courage coming out on top without conceding a goal. The league portrays a different story with Chicago winning five times and drawing three. It was safe to say that North Carolina had the advantage going into the final.
Both teams opted for near similar line-ups with only one forced change coming from the Red Stars camp. North Carolina Courage went in unchanged with their customary 4-2-2-2 formation. Debinha and Crystal Dunn are two of the best attacking midfielders in the league supporting the Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams.
We can see from North Carolina Courage‘s pass map against Reign FC in the semi-final that they tend to play centrally and look to try and concentrate play in that region. They have a good mix of offensive and defensive stability in midfield, especially with Dunn’s role as a left-back for the USWNT. Samantha Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan sit a little deeper offering Abbey Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper protection. This was expected to come in handy against the narrow front four of Chicago Red Stars.
The Red Stars made one change with Katie Naughton coming in to replace the injured Tierna Davidson. Rory Dames set up his side in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. It’s been used 62% of the time this season and got them to the final. Sam Kerr led the line with her partner in crime Yuki Nagasato slotting in the number 10 position.
North Carolina Courage (4-2-2-2): Labbé; O’Reilly, Dahlkemper, Erceg, Hinkle; Mewis, O’Sullivan; Dunn, Debinha; McDonald, Williams
Chicago Red Stars (4-2-3-1): Naeher; Gorden, Ertz, Naughton, Short; Brian, Colaprico; McCaskill, DiBernardo, Nagasato; Kerr
Tactical Analysis – The Courage use the channels
Over the course of the season, North Carolina have relied on their exquisite front four for goals. Paul Riley has assembled a star-studded attacking quartet and managed to integrate them into the same line up seamlessly. McDonald, Lynn Williams, Debinha, and Dunn have been ever-present for the Courage and their interchanging play has grown from strength to strength in each game. The final was a testament to their ability as a unit as they carved open Chicago Red Stars’ defence multiple times.
Part of 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 and around the Red Stars’ centre-back and full-back. The illustration shows the positioning of the two strikers and how they like to peel away from the centre-backs, allowing Debinha and Dunn to make late runs into the area from different angles to create confusion amongst the defenders. Williams, in particular, was seen dropping deep into her own half defending and retrieving possession for her team.
Not only did the two attacking midfielders benefit from Williams’ and McDonald’s movement but they created space themselves. Debinha’s and Dunn’s movement dragged Chicago’s midfielders out of position, opening up more space in midfield for the other to drive in to. The third goal was a prime example of this, with Debinha peeling off to the right flank bringing Morgan Brian with her, thus allowing Dunn to make a late, unmarked run for the goal.
The first goal perfectly illustrated the movement between the front four. Look at how narrow Chicago’s back four are and the space Williams has to pick out McDonald on the far side. The Courage quartet are flexible in their movement and positioning where you can see Williams is the one dropping deep to collect possession and it’s McDonald and Debinha who have gone wide. This was part of Williams’ willingness to track back to assist her midfield. The ball out to McDonald gives her time to assess her options and pick out Williams or Debinha.
Throughout this move, the Brazilian is unmarked by Sarah Gorden, manages to ghost into the six-yard area unnoticed and scores. The Red Stars’ midfielders are calling out Debinha’s run but it’s too late. Debinha was a menace with her unpredictable movement and expert dribbling from her attacking midfield position. Her combination play with Williams and switching positions was a particular highlight as she was responsible for the first goal.
Chicago Red Stars poor in transitions
Chicago initially looked to sit back and play a tight, compact, mid-block to counteract the fearsome attacking line-up. They wanted to play on the counter-attack and utilise the quick transitions and pace of Nagasato and Kerr. However, this invariably left gaps in the channels and wide areas which North Carolina used to their advantage. The Red Stars have utilised a narrow, compact back four for much of the campaign, but it has had its downfalls – they weren’t able to effectively move possession between the thirds.
This tactic works better against teams they dominate because it allows the back four to manoeuvre themselves into positions to prevent any opposition attacks. However, while on paper it is a useful strategy against a team such as North Carolina Courage who primarily attack through the middle, it requires constant discipline and communication to mark players and close gaps.
During the meeting between these two sides in July, Julie Ertz was deployed as a defensive midfielder rather than as a centre-back. Her influence over proceedings, especially in the second half, was telling. Ertz’s ability to switch play and progress the ball into the final third by choosing the right pass is unheralded. Her leadership and ability to organise her defence and ability to disrupt Courage’s attacks that day were key. That evening, the defensive midfielder made 12 interceptions with 11 coming in Chicago’s half.
This time she played at centre-back and even though she was equally as impressive playing further back for much of the campaign, she had an off night against North Carolina.
There were moments in the first half early on where Daniele Colaprico and Casey Short made interceptions higher up the pitch which gave Chicago some momentum going forward, but there wasn’t enough of it. They looked to try and utilise their creative forwards in Vanessa DiBernardo and Nagasato to unlock Courage’s defence. Catching a disjointed back four would allow Kerr to dictate their positioning with her movement.
Nagasato finds space behind Heather O’Reilly pulling two Courage players towards her. Her movement out wide has made space for DiBernardo and Savannah McCaskill to make unmarked runs into the penalty area. Kerr drops into space in front to collect the cross and potentially play them in. While this was the intended plan, both DiBernardo and McCaskill failed to make runs forward, much to the annoyance of Kerr.
Isolating Sam Kerr
Kerr was voted the league’s MVP for 2019 a few days before the final. Deservedly so, as the Australian striker racked up 18 goals and won the golden boot yet again, leading her team to the final. Some centre-forwards are tasked to hold up play whilst others are asked to create space for more clinical attackers. Kerr can do it all. She has the ability to create space, hold up play, and most importantly score a plethora of goals. At 5’6 you wouldn’t expect her to have the aerial presence to worry the Courage central defenders, but with her smart positioning, movement, and timing, Kerr is able to win aerial duels. Kerr is the heartbeat that gives life to the Chicago Red Stars from an attacking perspective.
Through analysis, we can see it was very important for North Carolina to restrict Kerr from dictating play just as she did against Portland Thorns in the semi-final. Courage went about stopping Kerr in two ways – to cut off the supply to her, and isolate Kerr by placing two to three women around her when she was in possession. Doing so would limit the number of attempts and chances Kerr created and also limited her influence in the forward lines. Kerr expertly played on the shoulder of the defenders in the semi-final taking advantage of the space in behind. Courage clearly analysed that game well and prompted their full-backs not to push forward.
One of Jaelene Hinkle and O’Reilly would always stay back to support the central defenders in case Chicago countered. In this example, Kerr manages to latch onto a pass from her teammates but is now faced with three Courage defenders including Hinkle and Denise O’Sullivan tracking back. Stopping was possibly the biggest key factor of the match and one that gave North Carolina a massive advantage in the tie.
North Carolina Courage’s midfield dominance
Both from an offensive and defensive point of view, North Carolina Courage dominated in midfield through the brilliance of Mewis and O’Sullivan. The two defensive midfielders were tactically switched on and intelligent in their positioning and movement between the lines. They may have given some space to Red Stars in central midfield but any movement into their defensive half was met with Mewis and O’Sullivan sitting in front of their back four.
They operated in a 4-2-1-2-1 hybrid formation out of possession to give themselves enough cover between the lines and press Chicago in all three thirds. Dunn(#19) /Debinha (#10) and Williams (#9) would move laterally to close down the wing-backs, while Mewis and O’Sullivan would shore up the central areas. The full-backs would watch any movement by the attacking midfielders. Mewis would slot into the full-back area any time one of them would push up when in possession to ensure that North Carolina had four defenders back at all times. Mewis was excellent in her positioning as she dropped into different positions to fill in for her full-backs if they pushed up to press.
Both Short and Gorden have been ever-present for Chicago and tend to become attacking presences for Chicago Red Stars. The semi-final against Portland Thorns showed how effective Gorden was in her movement up and down the right flank, keeping their Megan Klingenberg at bay. Hinkle’s slightly defensive positioning and Dunn and Williams’ pressing on the left side really helped nullify that threat.
Courage wanted to win the midfield battle and pressed Chicago early on to gain some control. Any time Chicago received possession in the middle, they would try to force them back towards their own goal or into channels where they felt they could win back the ball. In doing so they would cage the ball receiver, forcing them into a mistake by overloading that area of the pitch.
This strategy was especially effective in the deeper, wider areas for Courage. As this example shows, DiBernardo receives possession from Nagasato but she is immediately pressed by O’Sullivan forcing the Red Stars attacker into making a quick pass into Short. However, the pass goes awry and North Carolina regain possession to build out another attack. Chicago benefited from a lack of pressing from Portland Thorns, but were much more contained against a well-organised side like North Carolina Courage.
After such a spectacular season, it comes to an end with a dominant victory by North Carolina Courage. They were steady throughout the campaign with the Chicago Red Stars looking like serious contenders and favourites at one point. No doubt this will hurt the Red Stars after their first appearance in the final after five attempts. They are reliant on goals from Kerr and if she doesn’t deliver, there aren’t enough players who can step up to the occasion. One thing is for sure, the 2020 season is expected to be another close-knit affair with these two teams surely in the mix once again.
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