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NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics

“Seesaw affair”: why OL Reign and Houston Dash played out a scoreless stalemate – tactical analysis

The 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup is really hotting up now, with the second round of fixtures presenting us with some exciting encounters. One that caught the eye was OL Reign hosting the tournament’s defending champions Houston Dash. OL, so called because they are in the same ownership group as Ligue 1 side Lyon and 2020 UEFA Women’s Champions League winners Lyon Feminin, had not yet played in the Cup, having sat out the first round, whilst Houston’s first match, at home to Chicago Red Stars, had ended in a 0-0 draw. This tactical analysis will look at both sides’ tactics in this match, with OL focusing on creating space and options to move the ball to, whilst Houston looked to play with an organised setup.

Lineups

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics

OL Reign, coached by Farid Benstiti and based in Tacoma, Washington, opted to play with a 4-2-3-1 formation. On-loan Manchester City Women and England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley started between the posts, whilst Spain right-back Celia Jimenez Delgado and Kristen McNabb played as the full-backs. An injury for USA midfielder Allie Long just before kick-off meant that Costa Rica captain Shirley Cruz played in a holding midfield role. Young Brazil international Angelina started in attacking midfield, having originally been named as a substitute. Leah Pruitt and Sofia Huerta played on the wings, with Bethany Balcer leading the line through the middle.

Houston Dash head coach James Clarkson went for the same 4-1-4-1 formation used against Chicago Red Stars, making no changes to his starting XI either. That meant that Lindsey Harris continued in goal, with Jane Campbell away with the USA national team. Haley Hanson and Ally Prisock continued at right and left-back respectively, whilst Gabby Seiler again played between the defensive and midfield ranks. The attacking power in the team came from Shea Groom, who played centrally, whilst former West Ham United Women and Birmingham City Women midfielder Brianna Visalli and Katie Stengel, who is capable of cutting inside from wide positions, played as the wingers. Striker Veronica Latsko again led the line.

OL Reign’s tactics

This analysis will first look at OL Reign’s tactics in the game, focusing on how they could look to play this season, given it was their first match of the new campaign.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics
OL Reign looked to get their full-backs as high up the pitch as possible.

What was most notable in the early stages of the game was how Jimenez Delgado and McNabb pushed up the pitch as much as possible. By doing so, OL wanted to create wide options to move the ball to, building their attacks from the back. In this image, we see how centre-back Madison Hammond, in the white circle, has angled her body to make the pass out to the wing, giving Jimenez Delgado something to run onto. This again highlights how it was a clear tactical plan of theirs, enabling them to get the ball into the attacking areas of the pitch as quickly as possible.

It was often the case that the full-backs were furthest forwards on the wing for OL, helping them to increase their attacking presence centrally. Both Jimenez Delgado and McNabb are able crossers of the ball, so played a key part in OL’s transitional play, setting up chances for the team in the final third.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics
OL Reign made changes in the second half to give them more space in Houston Dash’s half.

The theme of OL creating space and options to play into continued in the second half. This image shows how their attacking substitutes, Tziarra King and Jasmyne Spencer, played amongst the Houston Dash defensive line after coming on, which forced Houston to stay back much more. As a result, the space between Houston’s defence and midfield was opened up.

OL’s starting striker, Veronica Latsko, tended to play in front of the defence in the first half, not offering too much behind it. King and Spencer, in contrast, prefer to unlock those areas of the pitch, allowing OL’s key midfielders, such as Angelina and Shirley Cruz, to advance forwards and play more dangerous passes into teammates, constructing more goalscoring chances. OL were the better side in the second half, with Houston not offering too much in terms of attacking threat, and this was a key reason for that.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics
OL Reign made mistakes in possession that gave Houston Dash the ball too easily.

However, despite this good tactical play, OL drew a blank in this game. The reason for that was that they lacked quality with the ball in key moments. The image above shows one example of them cheaply giving the ball away to Houston whilst passing it around, with the white arrow indicating how a one-touch pass went straight to the advancing Houston player, allowing the away side to launch an attack from a good position on the pitch. Therefore, OL Reign needed to take more care of the ball, because they made plenty of mistakes like this that prevented them building many meaningful attacks.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics
OL Reign also made mistakes when setting up attacking opportunities, leading to them failing to score in this game.

This image shows another time when OL made a poor decision, bringing a promising attacking move to a premature end. Cruz has got herself into another good position, with options ahead of her and around the goal area. However, she ends up chipping the ball forwards, as the white arrow shows, and none of her teammates can reach it. Houston track back to reclaim the ball and clear it here, and this was a constant feature of OL’s play, particularly in the first half, and may explain why they looked to force more space to open up in the second half. By doing so, they tried to ensure that there was less chance of Houston winning the ball so easily from loose passes.

Houston Dash’s attack

However, Houston Dash had their own game plan, which we will now look at, beginning with their attack.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash had an organised attacking structure.

We mentioned how they set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with the clear intention of dominating the midfield. This made sense, given the central areas of the pitch were where OL Reign’s most creative players operated, such as Cruz. The formation also gave them one player behind, linking up the defence and midfield, and one ahead, maintaining a continual presence in the final third.

The most notable thing was that all players knew their roles, and where they needed to be when going from defensive to attacking phases of play. This image demonstrates their transitional play. Firstly, the holding midfielder received the ball, but didn’t advance too far forward, due to a combination of OL’s players halting them, and a desire to hold up the play and allow the other Houston attackers to take up their positions. When all players are set up, the away side have plenty of passing options, and can continue their attack with a good chance of finding an end product.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash had different ways of getting into promising areas of the pitch.

However, Houston aren’t only capable of attacking with numbers. Here, we see an example of them getting forward when few players are available in OL’s half. Winger Katie Stengel has cut inside to drive at the OL defence with the ball, and has three defenders around her for company, as the red square shows. However, playing in these areas is one of Stengel’s strengths, because she has the composure to retain possession when under opposing pressure like this, which is why she is a key part of the team. With her making these runs, Houston could still gain ground when in tight spaces, meaning they always had a good attacking threat in OL’s half.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash looked to get midfielder Shea Groom into dangerous areas of the pitch as much as possible.

The other part of Houston’s attacking tactics was to get Shea Groom in between OL’s players as often as possible. Groom constantly found pockets of space like the one in this image, making her a really effective and important part of the team. We mentioned earlier how she is the one that brings the attacking power in games, and, from positions like this, she can move the ball into dangerous areas around the pitch, helping create chances for her teammates to score. She can also shoot at goal herself, so having her on the pitch also ensured Houston carried a threat in attack, and OL had to be wary whenever she had the ball.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash also made errors with the ball at times, which was a reason they also failed to score.

However, like with OL, Houston didn’t score in this game, making it two games on the bounce where they have failed to find the back of the net. OL played their part in this, carrying the greater threat in the second half and forcing Houston to concentrate more on defending, but the visitors also made mistakes when in possession, just like their opponents. In this image, we see how they are advancing forwards, looking to move the ball into a good area. However, the pass is too heavy, and none of the Houston players around it could get to it in time. Therefore, like with OL, Houston needed to look after the ball more when in good positions, as it might have led to them asking more questions of the defenders than they did.

Houston Dash’s defence

We have mentioned how both OL Reign and Houston Dash lacked attacking quality in the game, not able to turn any of their promising advances into goals. We have also mentioned that Houston had to defend well to keep OL out, and this was another major factor in the eventual 0-0 final score. Houston have three major qualities in defence, which we will look at in turn now.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash looked to press OL Reign at every opportunity.

The first quality is constant pressing of their opponents. This is the biggest tactic they use in their own half, and they looked to close the OL players down all over the pitch in this game, forcing them to play the ball earlier than they would have liked. In this image, we see how Houston have formed a narrow structure around the player in possession, moving inwards to take time away from them. This limited the options OL had on the ball at times, with the home side often clearing the ball out of play, handing possession straight back to their opponents. Pressing has been a key part of Houston’s play in recent seasons, and it is one reason why opponents have found them so difficult to beat.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash were organised when facing OL Reign’s attacks, always remaining in control of the situations.

The second quality they have an abundance of is organisation. Here, OL have won the ball back in the middle of the pitch, with three players moving forwards together to take advantage of the space in front of them. However, Houston’s defence is well-drilled, with each player knowing their roles and where to be to stop this attack coming to anything. Together, they slow down the attack, which allows their teammates to get back and help close off the spaces, making it hard for OL to make anything of the chance, and Houston eventually win the ball and clear it out of danger. We shouldn’t be surprised at the level of organisation in the Houston defence, given we have already seen how their attackers were well-coordinated, and the fact that they have not yet conceded a goal in their two games in 2021 is testament to this.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021: OL Reign v Houston Dash - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash changed their structure in the second half, playing a more counter-attacking style of football.

They had to adapt after half-time, with OL posing more threat in Houston’s third, and this image shows how the visitors got back to stop the home side getting behind them and creating a goalscoring opportunity. We can see how OL have the ball on the far side wing, looking to cross it into the box, whilst Houston have six players back to clear it once it comes in. What is especially notable is substitute Deneisha Blackwood’s positioning, in the yellow circle. The Jamaica international can play as a left-back, left-winger or forward, so adds plenty of versatility to the team, and this is especially important in situations like this, because she can use her pace to lead the counter-attack once her team win the ball, as eventually happens here.

Therefore, Houston saw how they were being forced onto the back foot much more in the second half, and changed their tactics accordingly, playing with a different style of football and looking to launch counter-attacks before OL could block them off. This sums up how their defence was a key part of them taking a point and another clean sheet, and why teams have found it hard to break them down.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this game was an end-to-end encounter, leading to the term “seesaw affair”, as used in one report of the game. Both OL Reign and Houston Dash had moments when they could have scored, but lacked quality with the final ball, whilst they both had to defend well too. The 0-0 final score reflects all of this, and both managers would have taken positives from the game. OL would have expected to start slowly and grow into the game, given it was their first competitive outing in 2021, so a point gets them into the tournament and gives them something to build on. Houston, meanwhile, will be happy with a second consecutive clean sheet, but will also be aware that they need to improve their final third play to turn one point into three next time out.

OL are back in action on Wednesday this week, when they have a tough trip to Portland Thorns in the third round of fixtures, with the Thorns having won both of their games so far. Houston sit out the next round, and will next play on 26 April away at Kansas City.