Manchester City have been colossal giants since their rebranding and takeover of both the men’s and women’s team. Key signings have been vital to towards the City men’s revolution with players such as Fernandinho, David Silva, and Sergio Aguero critical to their Premier League success. The women’s team have also profited off some excellent signings in the forms of Nikita Parris and Lucy Bronze who both propelled them to the next level. Both women have since made the move across the channel and settled in at the world’s best at Olympique Lyonnais. However, one player that still plies her trade at Manchester City Women is home-grown talent – Keira Walsh.
Much like the role Fernandinho plays, Walsh takes up a similar role for the women’s side. Getting off to a great start to the season with three wins out of three, including a victory against arch-rivals Manchester United Women, the future bodes well for Nick Cushing’s side. However, after Manchester City Women‘s game against title challengers Arsenal last week, Walsh’s presence was duly missed. Her inventive playstyle and defensive qualities were needed in a clash of this magnitude. Walsh has been an integral part of City’s success and will continue to be a key member if they want to compete with Arsenal Women for the remainder of the season.
Tactical Analysis – Keira Walsh
Walsh can be described as a deep-lying defensive midfield aggressor. The midfielder is often seen recycling possession and distributing it quickly to transition City into the final third. She is often seen closing down opposition players, giving them very little time and space to dictate play. With excellent ball-playing capabilities, her main strengths include winning back possession and distributing it in quick fashion to break down compact defensive lines. The following sections will elaborate on her attributes in more detail.
Defensive positional play
The defensive midfield position is one of the most vital positions on the field. It allows the player to read and dictate the tempo of the game. Guardiola has often named Fernandinho as the most important player at Manchester City because of his ability to control games and keep the team ticking. Walsh plays in a similar position and has an equally important role for Cushing’s team. Being aware of her position becomes important in protecting her defence and getting attacks started.
Playing alongside Jill Scott, Walsh compliments her English teammate very well. Scott is classified as a box-to-box midfielder who is a proficient tackler and anticipates situations extremely well. The England international is excellent at plugging in gaps that evade Walsh. Walsh is aggressive in her approach as a defensive midfielder, and having someone of Scott’s ilk beside her is critical for both club and country.
Walsh’s strength in this position is her pace and ball-playing ability. Every time she is faced with an opposition attack she is able to quickly close down space and limit their options. This becomes especially useful in situations where teams look to counter-attack City and catch them in a numerical deficit. Her pace combined with her starting positions bails her out of most situations, but at times lacks the anticipatory skills to block technical players. However, looking at her statistics we can see that she excels in duels against strikers and attacking midfielders. Her 8.04 defensive duels per 90 portrays that she is not afraid of taking on players and is confident in her ability. Walsh is an energetic presence in midfield that at times needs to be dialled down but overall is an important part of her role.
As the image highlights, Manchester United Women look to counter-attack City through Kirsty Hanson. Walsh is looking to close down Hanson and eliminate the gap that would allow the Scottish International to play in her onrushing teammates. Walsh’s positioning here forces Hanson to dribble down the wing or pass to her closest teammate. If Walsh didn’t close down Hanson as quick as she did, it would leave the two City centre-backs exposed to a five-person counter-attack.
To further solidify her excellent positioning, we can examine this pass map against Reading. We can see that Walsh (#24) is centrally positioned in front of her two centre-backs, protecting them from attacking advances.
Part of a defensive midfielder’s repertoire is to anticipate the opposition’s movement towards goal. As we briefly mentioned earlier, Walsh is exceptional due to her positioning and pace but there were times last season where she would lunge into tackles prematurely. This would allow the opposition to take an extra touch and play a pass or cross. Walsh has improved in this regard this season and is an attribute that will improve with experience. This makes Scott’s presence next to her even more important.
With Manchester City Women controlling most of the possession, it becomes even more imperative to concentrate and accurately judge player movement and ball trajectory. Understanding where certain types of players will look to move and judging the positions of the players around her becomes vitally important to allow support to arrive.
As the pass map above illustrates, Walsh is usually stationed right in front of her two centre-backs and is usually the sole protector. Quick, technical attacking midfielders and wingers that isolate Walsh into a one versus one situation with no help nearby tend to find success.
As the ball is won back by Reading off Manchester City Women’s goal kick, Walsh is seen pressing the ball receiver. While pressuring the opposition player is a seemingly good move, she left space in behind for Reading to potentially exploit. The player circled in white could drag her marker away, creating an opening for the player circled in purple to run into. Similarly, the player circled in purple could receive the ball and turn quickly to get in behind City’s defence.
Through the analysis of her matches, Walsh’s biggest strength is her distribution from her defensive midfield position. She often takes up good positions and distributes possession quickly, identifying the right pass more often than not. Deep-lying playmakers are usually important components in teams that look to build out from the back or even recycle possession when put under pressure. Walsh would often battle for possession against opposing midfielders and look to assert her influence over proceedings.
Manchester City Women often control the lion’s share of possession, with the opposition usually trying to beat them on the counter-attack. Logically, these teams will look to set up with a mid to low block, and it comes down to the controlling team to find a solution. The creative midfielders are tasked to try and break these low blocks with their passing range in combination with intelligent off-the-ball runs from the attackers. Walsh has assumed the responsibility to break down teams and look to penetrate them with her intelligent passing range. Even against high pressing teams, Walsh can diligently take the ball from her feet and calmly play the ball out.
The statistics between last season and now are similar and show her influence over City. Walsh’s long passes (7.29 vs 6.46 per 90) and passes into the final third (12.46 v 15.08 per 90) have already improved. What is impressive is her accuracy rates have either improved or remained consistent. Both numbers are above 50% which means for every pass she delivers there is a high probability of it finding its intended target. Even the rate of her second assists (passes that lead to an assist) has increased over the first few games of the season, showing her growing maturity and influence.
A prime example would be this match against Reading last season. Walsh starts a move that gets Manchester City Women forward and immediately looks to station herself into space ahead. Possession eventually goes back to the defensive midfielder, who is in acres of space. Here, she is quickly able to exploit Reading Women’s narrow defensive line and play in Janine Beckie running in off the left unmarked. With quick thinking and exceptional passing, Walsh is able to dictate and link play between midfield and attack.
Composure in pressure situations
While we have seen her excellent distribution from her position, another point to note is her exceptional ball skills under pressure. Walsh is often seen composed when pressed by opposition players and can almost effortlessly take her team out of danger. Players with exceptional composure and ability on the ball in this position dictate the tempo of the game and are able to quickly transition from defence to attack. Xabi Alonso is a pertinent example of a player in this position. The Spanish defensive midfielder was Guardiola’s fulcrum at Bayern Munich just as he was under Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid.
As the graphic above illustrates, Walsh receives possession from Alex Greenwood in the midst of three Japanese players with one closing her down quickly. She imminently recognises the danger and manoeuvres the ball past her and move into acres of space in behind.
Here we can see the result of her excellent skill with the ball. Walsh releases an exquisite through ball towards her Beth Mead at right wing. With a compact Japanese defence, the long-ranged pass allowed Mead to exploit the spaces in the wide areas and use her pace to take advantage of the full-back’s narrow positioning.
Having the quality to bail herself out of tight situations and have the vision to see creative passing options such as the one shown above can put her team into excellent attacking situations in an instant. This will aid in breaking down tough, compact defences that are faced by England and Manchester City Women.
Walsh’s abilities are clear to see. As she continues to play against top-quality opposition in the Champions League and FAWSL, her attributes will improve and her overall play will develop. Playing at her first international tournament at this summer’s World Cup would have been an enlightening experience for Walsh. Cushing is a master tactician and will look to develop a serious talent in Walsh who can compete with the likes of Amandine Henry and Julie Ertz in the future.
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