The week 14 of the NWSL saw Orlando Pride host Sky Blue FC at the Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Florida. The two teams sitting at the bottom of the NWSL table were battling for points. Sky Blue FC have shown a rise in form with wins in their last two games, while Orlando despite star-studded names in attack, had only won two games so far.

Still fresh from the FIFA Women’s World Cup finals this month, most NWSL teams were missing players from the USWNT. The challenge was to avoid a drop in their rhythm despite missing the World Cup Champions. In this tactical analysis, we see how both teams’ tactics played out in an exciting NWSL fixture.

Lineups

Orlando Pride, coached by Marc Skinner played a 4-2-3-1 mid-block with the Brazilian six-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Marta as the central striker. During the game we will see how she played the role of an attacking playmaker by dropping deep and creating plays. The central midfield was marshalled by Alanna Kennedy and Joanna Boyles. 22-year-old American rookie, Marisa Viggiano played a decisive role in the game with freedom as a number 10, while the fullbacks, Erin Greening and Ali Kreiger had important roles in attack.

NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Lineups (source: NWSL website)

Sky Blue FC were led by interim coach Hugo Macedo and although on paper they matched Pride with their 4-2-3-1, during the game they played with more of a 4-1-4-1. Missing the World Cup winner Carli Lloyd in attack, the responsibility to score goals fell on the shoulders of Raquel Rodríguez and Imani Dorsey. The Sky Blue game model was based upon short passing and gradual build-up play to create combination plays in the attack. Things did not go according to plan, however, due to the effective counter-strategy employed by Orlando.

Orlando pressing

From the whistle, we saw a conviction about Orlando in their desire to win the ball back when lost. They engaged in a mid-block and gave a lot of freedom for the Sky Blue defenders to build from the back often sitting deep as a 4-4-2 with Marta and Viggiano up top. They only began to press a couple of meters before their half, but aggressively. The back four held their line zonally, as they left it to their central midfielders to engage in a man-oriented press. If Sky Blue would take longer in possession around the central areas of the pitch, the Orlando forwards, Chioma Ubogagu and Marisa Viggiano participate in double marking to win back possession.

NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Orlando Pride tight marking in their pressing

Orlando have conceded a whopping figure of 31 goals this season which has been their major problem. One of the reasons is their nature to play extremely attacking utilising fullbacks who push forward with intent leaving spaces behind. But in this game, Skinner looked to play with greater security and stability through effective and timely pressing. The crucial defensive roles played by Marta, Chioma Ubogagu and the two central midfield pair eased the pressure off the central defenders who were able to recover possession and initiate attacks.

Sky Blue kept the passes short and tried to deploy rotations in the midfield as we will examine further. This required players between the lines to link play. Orlando worked on effectively cutting these passing lanes to win the ball back. Since Sky Blue lacked variety in the midfield with their build-up or players with the ability to switch play effectively, pressing them became quite predictable for Orlando.

Orlando Attacking Strategy

Skinner’s philosophy during this game with Orlando’s 4-2-3-1 was to try and get the ball into wide areas with players transitioning into attack well in time. From the wide flanks, they would play dangerous crosses into the Sky Blue penalty area to create chances. The Sky Blue defence were known to falter upon pressure and Skinner looked to take advantage of this rather than giving them the freedom to build-up.

NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Orlando Pride 4-2-3-1 shape out of possession. Central midfielders sat back deeper for security.
NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see how the Orlando shaped in possession. Right-back, Greening overlaps, while Marta drops into midfield as a playmaker. These attacking overlaps provided numerical superiority in the midfield while overloads on the wide flanks pinning the Sky Blue defenders back. This also gave more freedom to the Orlando defence to recycle possession and engage in patient buildup without the threat of an immediate counter-attack.

Since the front four and fullbacks of Orlando had the divided responsibility to offer numbers up in the attacking phase, the central midfielders, Boyles and Kennedy sat back defensively to cover. This provided the Florida side plenty of stability overall, yet significant attacking threat at the same time.

NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Orlando’s successful crosses during the game came from both flanks as part of their attacking strategy

Orlando’s pressure to score

Orlando only managed two goals from their first eight games of the NWSL struggling to put the ball in the back of the net. But in their last five games, they managed to score 13 and picked up their form. Even with the absence of Alex Morgan, Skinner’s primary task was to create enough opportunities to score to overshadow their defensive drawback of conceding many goals.

Rachel Hill was intended to play the role of right attacking winger but had a rather quiet game which wasn’t an issue for Orlando because of Marta’s incredible work rate covering for when needed. The left side proved more lucrative for Orlando with Viggiano’s debut goal coming off a well-worked dribble from the left. Ubogagu also managed to create plenty of problems for Sky Blue.

NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Map showing successful dribbles for both teams (Orlando in blue and Sky Blue in Red) Orlando’s opportunities and the goal came from the left side of attack, while Sky Blue failed to create a lot of successful chances.
NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Rachel Hill had a silent game overall as she was not too big of a threat for the Sky Blue defence. She managed to get a couple of crosses in and a shot on goal while she was on. Before the end of the first half we saw Marta cover in for Rachel Hill as they swapped positions. This covered up effectively and ensured Orlando were an equally potent threat from both sides.

Marta played an effective playmaking role in the attack using her astute and experienced game intelligence. She was able to pick the right moments to drop deep and distribute the ball out wide effectively. When Marta dropped deep, Viggiano or Ubogagu would put pressure on the Sky Blue defence.

Sky Blue’s final third problems

Sky Blue looked to play a short passing game which worked effectively against Chicago Red Stars and Utah Royals previously. They were seeking to keep possession and exploit the spaces in front of the Orlando defence. But because Orlando played a mid-block, they were neutralised. Sky Blue also lacked the speed in combination plays to match the pace of Orlando’s intense pressing in the centre of the pitch.

NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Sky Blue’s 4-1-4-1 shape out of possession. We see Marta dropping deep between the lines forcing the shape backwards. When Sky Blue won possession, they chose to keep the passing short and lacked movement to give the defenders options to get the ball in behind the Orlando defence.

The support range during build-up was high and Sky Blue looked more like a 4-1-4-1 with one of the attacking midfielders (usually Dorsey) joining Rodriguez in the attack. Although the midfielders showed plenty of rotation while building up from the back, Orlando were very effective in cutting down the spaces with the Kennedy-Boyles due coupled with Marta tracking back.

NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see Sky Blue midfielders dropping deep to receive and keep the passes short. But Orlando pressed in a mid-block and thus minimised the spaces in the midfield. The Sky Blue defenders also lacked the technique and quality to be able to switch sides of play and played a lot of vertical short passes that were often premature and easily intercepted by the Orlando midfield overload.
NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Sky Blue’s overall heatmap shows their inability to convert their midfield buildup into chances in the final third. We see a lot of accelerations and possession in the midfield but hardly any around the Orlando penalty box.
NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Sky Blue’s unsuccessful passes show why they were unable to penetrate the final third. The excessive reliance on short passes between the lines was easily read and intercepted by the Orlando midfield which resulted in an immediate turnover and a counter-attack.

There were situations when Sky Blue looked promising with their passing in the midfield, but they failed to translate them into chances in the final third. They barely managed to test the Orlando keeper, Ashlyn Harris or force the Orlando defenders into 2v1 or 3v2 situations.

NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Dorsey trying to initiate an attack along with Rodriguez. There was no support from the wide areas and it was too ambitious to try and attempt to beat the Orlando defenders in a 2v2 situation. Orlando’s central midfielders track back effectively to apply greater pressure on the Sky Blue forwards to time their counter-attacking moves.
NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see another instance of Sky Blue’s attacking chance. Orlando’s two deep pivots managed to avoid a 2v1 threat by tracking back effectively.

Players that stood out

Orlando’s victory was well deserved and Skinner’s team need due credit for working as a solid unit with well-balanced attacking and defensive tactics. They were a few key players who should be highlighted in this game for their performances.

Firstly, without a doubt, it was Marta Oliveira who showed tremendous character and led from the front. With the absence of Alex Morgan, she showed why a player of her class can make such an impact single-handedly in the opposition half. Her incredible work rate and creativity to thread fine passes and break open the fragile Sky Blue defence formed the backbone of Orlando’s attacking game.

NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Marta’s heatmap shows her overall presence wherever the game needed her

If Marta was the playmaker up top, it was Boyles who shadowed her from behind. She formed a key partnership with Kennedy and served as a crucial link between defence and midfield. Her intelligent reading of the game and ability to pick the perfect moment to release the forwards constantly put Sky Blue on the back foot. She set herself apart with a pass accuracy of 77.3% out of 44 passes and four tackles in this game.

NWSL 2019: Orlando Pride vs Sky Blue FC - tactical analysis tactics
Boyles’ intelligent reading of the game to pick out the perfect passes for Orlando’s forwards. With Marta providing diagonal balls across the field from the front, and Boyle releasing early key passes from the back, the Sky Blue defenders found themselves at the mercy of constant defensive transition that wore them out in the second half.

Conclusion

As this analysis showed, Orlando were able to work upon their defensive errors in previous games and looked a lot more stable at the back. They were also flamboyant and decisive in the attack. The return of Alex Morgan after a period of deserved rest will only serve to fortify Pride’s aggressive attacking game. Marisa Viggiano’s debut goal to seal the game makes us expect to see a lot more of her this season.

Sky Blue are ambitious with the kind of football they look to play despite not having the quality of players who can play in tight spaces or the speed that is required against an experienced side. Sky Blue will have to work on some vertical passing and third-man combinations to make sure that the work they put into constructing play into the midfield can translate into chances in the final third. Nevertheless, they do hold a lot of promise with the beautiful football that they dare to play.


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

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