This weekend’s semifinals of the NWSL kicked off between the North Carolina Courage and Reign FC. The first and fourth place sides respectively came together in a tense match on Sunday afternoon. In this tactical analysis, we will look at how Reign FC set up to counter the North Carolina Courage’s attacking tactics.
In the end, the quality possessed by the home side made the difference, but Reign FC’s tactics produced a respectable performance and got them into extra time. Here is an analysis of the main points from North Carolina’s 4-1 win over Reign FC to set up a final with Chicago Red Star next Sunday.
North Carolina Courage (4-2-2-2): Stephanie Labbe; Heather O’Reilly, Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, Jaelene Hinkle; Samantha Mewis, Denise O’Sullivan; Crystal Dunn, Debinha; Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams
Reign FC (3-4-3): Casey Murphy; Kristen McNabb, Lauren Barnes, Stephanie Cox; Steph Catley, Alexandra Long, Beverly Yanez, Darian Jenkins; Megan Rapinoe, Jodie Taylor, Bethany Balcer
Both sides were able to field strong lineups. Multiple coaches have talked about the idea of having different seasons within this season. Most of this is due to the Women’s World Cup over the summer. There were no international fixtures to worry about for this match, though. The club’s best players were on show across each lineup for this semifinal.
The Courage lined up in their normal 4-2-2-2. Dunn, Mewis, and O’Sullivan returned to the starting eleven following their rest in the midweek match against Sky Blue FC. Paul Riley came into this match hoping to use his side’s quality to dominate the match right from the start.
Reign FC set up in a 3-4-3, but as we will discuss later, their formation for much of the game was a deep 5-4-1. Manager Vlatko Andonovski aimed for having his side remain compact, and look for their wingers to counter. Star Megan Rapinoe was the main outlet of attack for the visiting side.
Reign FC’s defensive plan
For Reign to have a good chance to get to the final, they needed a very strong defensive performance, and for the Courage to have an off night. This is exactly what happened in normal time.
Out of possession, Reign set up in a 5-4-1 formation. The four in midfield attempted to block the area between North Carolina’s two lines of midfielders. Their goal was to force possession out wide. Due to the lack of width up top for the Courage, Reign kept numbers inside to make it difficult for the attacking talent on show for the home side. This left space for O’Reilly and Hinkle to get crosses into the box from deeper positions out wide. The full-backs accounted for 17 out of the 35 crosses attempted by Riley’s side alone.
Because of Reign’s set-up packing numbers into the middle areas, they were well equipped to deal with this threat. The starting four in their backline combined for 25 clearances.
However, Andonovski was well aware that his side would not be capable of containing the Courage’s attacking talent all match. He needed to set up a scheme for when Dunn or Debinha received the ball behind his midfield line.
In this event, Williams or McDonald are tasked with moving into wider positions. This gives more room centrally for the woman in possession to make the right decision. Reign used this tactic to their advantage. When one of these strikers moved wide, the defenders allowed them to take space in this area. They instead made sure that the central options were covered, and the pass was made to the wide striker.
Here, Reign relied on their brilliant keeper Murphy. Giving her the best opportunity to make saves by allowing shooting chances from wide areas, she did not disappoint. The 23-year-old made 11 saves in the match. Most of them came in normal time as she kept her side in with a chance to extend the game.
Key to Courage’s constant pressure
Due to the attacking intent of Riley’s side, they needed to be extremely disciplined at the back. Reign FC wingers Rapinoe and Jenkins both looked to expose space in behind the full-backs whenever the opportunity presented itself.
In North Carolina’s defensive double pivot, Mewis and O’Sullivan offer very different skill sets that allow the Courage to set up in different counter-pressing schemes. Mewis plays a deep holding role for the side and often takes up space in between the two centre-halves. Ahead of her, O’Sullivan is usually used as the main link between the defensive players and attacking players. The full-backs push up in line with her or even higher, which creates a 3-3-2-2 formation in attack at times.
Mewis’ ability to drop into a deeper central position set up the Courage to better defend against Reign’s wide threat. The centre-halves had the authority to move into wider areas. Here, they allowed the full-backs to press higher up the pitch when the opportunities arose. When they were holding, it gave the Courage two defenders to halt any potential threat from the Reign FC wingers. This enabled the Courage to win possession back quicker and restart attacks.
Higher up the pitch, when possession was lost by the Courage, they set up pressing traps to win the ball back in dangerous positions. Reign defended in large spells during the match, which forced them to try and retain the ball when they got it to give their side a chance to catch a break before resuming their defensive duties. The Courage encouraged this, though, as their pressing caused various opportunities due to Reign’s sloppiness with possession in their half.
North Carolina Courage attack the channels
The home side wasted no time in implementing their attacking philosophy on Sunday. Within two minutes, they were breaking down the left side and sending a dangerous cut back into the box. This move was an omen of what would come: the Courage creating chance after chance, only for Murphy to deny them.
North Carolina is well known for its signature box midfield. At the top of the box, Debinha and Dunn are given the task of creating opportunities for the team. Each of these players offer different abilities that make them successful in this role. Dunn is very quick and direct. Her intelligence allows her to get in the right places for opportunities to score. Debinha is one of the most skilful players in the league. She can beat any defender with her quick thinking and even faster feet.
The two of them looked to occupy the room in between Reign’s defensive and midfield lines. The quality of Mewis and O’Sullivan prevented Reign’s midfield from dropping too deep, allowing this space to form. Here, Dunn and Debinha looked to receive passes into their feet. Their ability with the ball allowed them to turn in possession and run at the Reign defensive line.
Williams and McDonald consistently moved into wide areas in this match. When one of the forward midfield players received possession, they would spread out into wider areas, as we discussed earlier. The Courage found their most dangerous opportunities would come from getting into these spaces and looking for cutbacks, rather than trying to beat the in-form Murphy from wide angles.
This space is inevitably where the North Carolina Courage found the goals needed to secure their place in the final next weekend. Late in normal time, Dunn picked up possession with time and space to move forward. Seeing the opportunity, Williams made her run into the room left between the centre-half and the full-back, who was forced into remaining wide because of O’Reilly’s advanced position. In behind the defence, the centre-half was forced into making a desperate sliding attempt to block the cross which resulted in a hand-ball, giving the Courage a penalty which O’Reilly stepped up to covert.
Once again, in extra-time, it was substitute Kristen Hamiton who exploited this space to put the home side out of reach. O’Reilly, pivotal once again in the goal-scoring move, picked up possession out wide before coming inside. The area left open because Dunn had taken up a wide position. The central midfielders of Reign did not have a player to mark on the right side and sat deep instead of pressing forward to limit space. O’Reilly took advantage of this and found Hamilton moving off of the back of a defensive midfielder into this space in the channel. Her cross deflected off of Lauren Barnes and gave Murphy no chance.
The Brazilian was a fitting player of the match on her 28th birthday. During the first half, she struggled to make an impact. The Reign FC defensive scheme limited the number of times she was able to be found in the space between the lines.
In the second half, however, Debinha found her form. She began taking a deeper position to receive possession and using her natural ability to beat players to create space for herself. She also began to vary her movements more often to give the Reign midfield more difficulty in marking her out of the match. Her moment of magic in extra time with a stunning free-kick proved to be the difference on the day.
Looking at the statistics from this match, a 4-1 scoreline might not surprise you. However, seeing that it took extra time to achieve it for the North Carolina Courage summed up the night. Poor finishing let the home side down throughout normal time, but their quality came through in the end. Riley has called his side the fittest in the division, and they showed that in this match by continuing to create quality chances throughout the 120 minutes.
For Reign FC, this is the end to a solid season. With their star winger Megan Rapinoe out of the side for the majority of the campaign, a fourth place in the league should be a great building block to look to improve upon next season.
A final with Chicago Red Star awaits for North Carolina. The tactics were executed well in this semifinal, but the Courage will know that they will need to be more clinical to win the title next weekend.
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