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Keira Walsh at England Women 2021/2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

“England’s unsung hero”: Why Keira Walsh has been irreplaceable for the Lionesses during EURO 2022 – scout report

There was a lot of hope for England in the months leading up to Euro 2022, but there was also a feeling of great apprehension and nervousness for Lionesses fans, as they waited to see if their team would be able to deliver under the pressures of being the home side and one of the favourites to lift the trophy. The last few weeks have given them their answer, with the hosts storming through to Sunday’s final and knocking out some heavyweight nations in the process.

There have been plenty who have contributed to their successful showing, including Arsenal Women forward Beth Mead and Manchester United Women striker Alessia Russo, but one who has been gaining a lot of attention is Keira Walsh. The Manchester City Women star has undoubtedly been one of the best holding midfielders at the tournament, quietly keeping things ticking over for her side, and this tactical analysis will look in closer detail at the qualities that she has brought to England’s attacking and defensive play and why she will be a pivotal player in Sunday’s showpiece event.

Positioning

A lot of what makes Keira Walsh such an intelligent player is her ability to locate areas where she can make things happen for her team. Her former Manchester City manager, Nick Cushing (now in charge of MLS side New York City FC) has previously commented that she has the “best football brain” of anyone he has coached, and that is demonstrated in her ability to position herself in spaces which allow England to function as a team.

Keira Walsh at England Women 2021/2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Keira Walsh gets into gaps between opponents and links up play for her team.

Her importance to the Lionesses’ tactics is demonstrated by the way that both Spain and Sweden focused their game plans on preventing her from getting on the ball, and it was clear in the first halves of both contests that England struggled when they couldn’t involve her in the game.

However, once both sides fell away, Walsh was able to revert back to type and get into wide open spaces where she could link up with different areas of the team. Sweden in particular left more and more space open as the game went on and simply couldn’t deal with her at times, with her in between four players here and forcing them to decide between closing her down and lessening what she could do on the ball. In the end, they opted to close her down once captain and Arsenal defender Leah Williamson had passed into her, but this then opened up other areas of the pitch and allowed Walsh to pass to Manchester United playmaker Ella Toone ahead of her.

When looking for reasons that the Lionesses have averaged 59.71% possession per game so far in the tournament, the ability of Walsh to get into these areas and link up different areas of the team definitely needs to be considered.

Keira Walsh at England Women 2021/2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Keira Walsh is patient and always plans ahead before receiving the ball.

Another key quality that Walsh demonstrates around the field is patience, as she doesn’t rush things and waits for the ball to come her way, as is the case here. However, whilst doing so, she is always looking around and assessing her surroundings, looking for where the spaces are and where she can create a goalscoring opportunity. Here, former Manchester City teammate Georgia Stanway (who joined Bayern Munich Frauen earlier this summer) is just ahead of her and has space that she can attack into, so Walsh is planning ahead and calculating how she can help her teammate to attack this space, and this is another reason that she is one of the best in her role.

This forward-thinking means that, when the ball does come to her, she can pass forwards with her first touch, taking Spanish players out of the game and giving Stanway less resistance when she nears their goal area, meaning that she finds a gap and scores the goal that takes England into the semi-finals. However, whilst the goal itself drew a lot of praise, it was Walsh’s ability to spot the opportunity in the first place that set it up, and she deserves a lot of credit for the role she played here.

Keira Walsh at England Women 2021/2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Keira Walsh positions herself well in defensive situations too.

As well as their involvement in the attacking side of the game, a holding midfielder also needs to be good at protecting their defence, and England have at times been hugely thankful that Walsh is the one playing in front of them. Austria arguably had the better second half in their meeting with England on the opening night of the tournament, with the Lionesses struggling to contain them at times as Austria fashioned several good chances and moved the ball around the pitch to exploit spaces. Here, one of their key attackers, Barbara Dunst, has positioned herself outside England right-back Lucy Bronze and forced the new Barcelona Femení player to stay wide and away from her defensive teammates.

This has left a sizeable gap in the England line which Dunst is now looking to exploit, and her speed makes it inevitable that she will. However, what Walsh does to help is clever, as she doesn’t just run to fill in the gap, but moves to help Bronze and prevent Dunst from getting any nearer to the goal. As Cushing mentioned, Walsh is one of the best thinkers out there on the football pitch, and this example proves that observation. Therefore, this is another reason that she has been such an important player for the Lionesses’ side this summer, defensively as well as when moving forwards.

In possession

As well as her ability to get into effective positions around the field, Keira Walsh has also been a vital player for England to get on the ball, with her vision meaning that she has been the source of plenty of their attacking opportunities through delivering balls into dangerous areas of the pitch.

Keira Walsh at England Women 2021/2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Keira Walsh tends to play in deeper areas and shows her vast passing range during matches.

That is most clearly demonstrated here, with Walsh appearing to be in isolation and without teammates coming back to help her out. However, this is a key element of England’s tactics in possession during the tournament, with the Manchester City midfielder sitting back and dictating play from deep areas whilst the other two central players, generally, Stanway and Chelsea Women’s Fran Kirby, get further forward and work with the forward line.

The key element that makes this possible is Walsh’s accuracy when passing across long distances, with her succeeding in 81.4% of her attempts to find the final third so far. As a result, Stanway and Kirby have no need to drop back and offer shorter options, so can play in higher areas and support attacks more closely, whilst the wingers can focus solely on making forward runs and ensuring that they get on the end of Walsh’s long-range passes when they come in.

Therefore, having this vast range of passing is another reason that Walsh has been a key player for England this summer, as it has allowed them to be more direct when they need to be and to vary their style of play when necessary to.

Keira Walsh at England Women 2021/2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Keira Walsh is brave on the ball and plays through tight spaces.

When she is further forward or there is less space for her to operate in, Walsh has shown bravery in possession and not always looked to take the easier option. In this case, Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly, who has been England’s first choice left-back at Euro 2022, is in a good position to receive the pass and then play the ball in either direction. However, sending the ball towards her would not give England any advantage, as it would only move across the pitch and no ground would be gained. Therefore, Walsh looks for an alternative option and sees the gap between Liverpool Women’s Rachel Furness and Glentoran Women winger Lauren Wade ahead of her, using it to pass to Kirby instead.

Taking this option means that England have gained a good amount of distance and got the ball into a position from where they can run at the Northern Irish defenders, and it is not a one-off that Walsh has started an attack through a clever pass like this. In fact, out of the 295 passes that she has made in total during the tournament, 90.5% have been successful, so her ability to exploit gaps in opposing lines, even when they are as tight as this, is another reason that England have really benefitted from her presence during their matches.

Keira Walsh at England Women 2021/2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
When in advanced areas, Keira Walsh is just as capable of shooting as she is passing.

However, Walsh is not only a player who passes and sets up opportunities for others, with her individual threat also extending to goalscoring on occasion. Admittedly, this is not her key strength and not something that her team rely on her for, with her having had just two shots throughout England’s five games so far, with one of them on target, but, as Manchester City fans will know, her efforts tend to be worth the wait due to the sheer power that she hits them with.

The advantage of her being able to shoot as well as pass is that she becomes a less predictable opponent to face because defenders don’t know if she will pass or shoot when she gets into these areas of the pitch. In the first half against Northern Ireland, England struggled to break their opponents down due to the organised approach from Kenny Shiels’ side, so chances had to be taken when they came rather than play being built up and players waiting for a gap to appear.

Here, Northern Ireland have not left much space open and it would be risky to send the ball through for either Russo or Manchester City teammate Lauren Hemp to get on the end of. Therefore, when Kirby lays the ball back to Walsh, she tries her luck and has a go at goal. Whilst the effort ends up going over the bar, this still highlights her confidence and ability to do things differently when the situation calls for it, and that is something else that the Lionesses have come to rely on her for.

Disrupting play

The third quality that a good holding midfielder needs to have in their repertoire is an ability to disrupt play, and this is an area that Keira Walsh’s opposite number in the final, Wolfsburg Frauen’s Lena Oberdorf, has shown herself to be particularly strong in. However, as this section will show, Walsh is just as capable of making it difficult for opponents to create chances, and her ability to prevent Germany from being able to build up phases of play will be very important on Sunday evening.

Keira Walsh at England Women 2021/2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Keira Walsh helps her team out wherever she is needed and always looks to get involved.

As already mentioned in the analysis, Sweden started better than the Lionesses in Tuesday’s semi-final match, pressing from the front and constantly looking to take advantage of every loose pass England made in their attempts to clear their lines. New AC Milan Femminile forward Kosovare Asllani has been one of Sweden’s key assets during the tournament, constantly getting into gaps between opponents and creating opportunities ahead of her, so it was crucial that England got hold of her quickly and limited what she could do.

The key thing to note here is that Walsh is not a player who sits back and waits for another teammate to close opponents down, and she always looks to involve herself in any way that she can. As a result, she was the one who tracked back and got tight to Asllani, forcing her to put the ball out of play, and this shows her determination and overall defensive qualities. Therefore, Sweden’s inability to take advantage of their early control can be put down to the defensive efforts of players like Walsh, who were consistently working hard for the team.

Keira Walsh at England Women 2021/2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Keira Walsh anticipates play well and reads what is going to happen.

A lot of Walsh’s defensive work comes down to anticipation and her ability to read the game, with her recognising here that Hoffenheim Frauen striker Nicole Billa is the only realistic passing option for Austria to use. Therefore, she angles her body and looks to close the forward down at the right time, taking time away from Billa and preventing her from turning and assessing her surroundings once the ball reaches her.

Walsh’s strength and good anticipation are highlighted by her 13 interceptions made during the tournament so far, as well as 74.2% of her defensive duels being won. Therefore, when it comes to tackling and dislodging balls from opponents, she is one of England’s best and someone that they rely on to help break up play and regain possession, and her determination not to be beaten in 1-v-1 duels has become a common theme of England’s performances throughout the tournament.

Keira Walsh at England Women 2021/2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Keira Walsh can disrupt play in multiple ways.

However, disrupting play does not only mean making tackles and getting tight to opponents, it can also mean preventing them from taking their preferred options and forcing them to settle for an alternative.

In this case, Sweden’s Barcelona forward Fridolina Rolfö is looking to create a goalscoring opportunity and the fact that she is left-footed means that she is unlikely to use the run of Asllani on her left. Her preferred option is to pass towards Manchester City midfielder Filippa Angeldahl, keeping the ball on the ground, which Walsh again sees and acts on, tracking Rolfö and cutting off this option. As a result, Rolfö is forced to play a longer cross in the direction of San Diego Wave forward Sofia Jakobsson, but, because this takes the ball closer to the England defenders, it is easy for Daly in this situation to head it clear from danger.

Therefore, again, Walsh has disrupted play by ensuring that Sweden move the ball in a way that favours England, and this is another clear example of how her footballing knowledge helps her to provide significant protection to those behind her and makes it difficult for the Lionesses to be beaten.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at England midfielder Keira Walsh, explaining why she has become such a prominent figure for the Lionesses and breaking down the role that she has played in their progression to the Euro 2022 final. It has been clear throughout the scout report that she contributes to the team in different ways and is always there when her teammates need her, whether that is in an offensive or a defensive situation, and it is this that has led to her being labelled as England’s unsung hero by many in the media.

If England are to win on Sunday evening, they will need Walsh to be at the top of her game, because Germany will likely press high up the pitch and force mistakes, just like Sweden set out to do on Tuesday evening, but without falling away in the same manner as Peter Gerhardsson’s side did.

A strong start will be critical for the Lionesses, and that is where Walsh’s ability to dictate the flow of the game will be key, as will her range of passing and spatial awareness. All in all, she is exactly the type of player that Martina Voss-Tecklenburg’s side will not relish coming up against, and that could make her a pivotal figure in deciding who lifts the trophy at Wembley Stadium.