María Sánchez: Why Mexico star’s second coming will boost Houston Dash in 2022 – scout report
Houston Dash were one of the teams who missed out on the 2021 NWSL playoffs, after a tightly contested battle ended with them in seventh place, just one point away from extending their season. We can therefore expect a reaction from James Clarkson’s side in 2022, as they aim to go one step further and give themselves a chance of competing for the league title, and their close season squad changes have been made with this in mind.
One new arrival is Mexico international María Sánchez, who plays mainly as a winger but can operate in attacking midfield too. Sánchez’s NWSL rights have been held by the Dash since June last year, after she joined them as part of a trade with eventual 2021 runners-up Chicago Red Stars, but she switched to the Liga MX Femenil after one month in Texas, becoming a key player for Tigres UANL Femenil and helping them into the final of the Torneo Apertura (the first of two league tournaments that form the Mexican women’s domestic season).
This tactical analysis will look at what she could bring to the Dash in 2022, focusing specifically on how she finds spaces around the pitch, how she works with teammates and her versatility, all with the aim of seeing how she will fit into their tactics.
The first section of this scout report will focus on how María Sánchez creates space for her team, and this generally comes through her movement around the pitch, ensuring there are always passing options open.
The most obvious way that she does this, given her primary role as a winger, is to take up a position outside the opposing defenders, and we can see here how she is on the shoulder of the FC Juárez Femenil players. Juárez have left a sizeable gap in their defensive setup, as indicated by the blue line, which gives UANL a route into the space behind them. However, this would still not lead to anything unless there was a player in position and ready to receive the ball in that space, as it would just roll harmlessly towards the goalkeeper and Juárez can clear their lines.
Therefore, Sánchez is the one who ensures this opportunity can be taken, getting into position early and ensuring that the pass can be made as quickly as possible, and this awareness is something Houston will benefit from, as they are a team who pride themselves on setting up in an organised manner.
When the ball is inside the box, Sánchez doesn’t get drawn towards it, instead maintaining her distance and waiting for the ball to come to her. This makes it harder for the Puebla Femenil defenders to end the attack, because Sánchez’s position has increased the amount of ground they now need to cover.
The Mexican has been efficient with the ball when she does have possession in these areas of the pitch, as proven by the 11 goals she scored in the Apertura, so Houston are getting a player who has excellent awareness in attack, takes up positions that help her team expose the spaces available to them, and who is capable of scoring plenty of goals from a range of distances. If we put all of this together, we can begin to see why James Clarkson views her as someone who can give his team a boost in the final third.
However, she doesn’t only locate spaces around the goal area, and is just as capable of dropping into holes further back and playing a key role in building attacks. Here, she has received the ball between three Juárez players and is moving it towards another teammate inside her, as shown by the red arrow. Sánchez is a player who plays best when not constricted to one area of the pitch, and allowing her to regularly move into these spaces ensures that her team can play more low-risk passes, meaning that their opponents have less chance of making an interception.
What is critical in these situations is her composure, as she is comfortable in tight areas and is able to wait for the right moment before making a pass, timing them so that opponents can’t take the ball away from her. Her overall passing accuracy of 77.3% shows that she regularly finds her intended target too, and so she is a player that her new Houston teammates can rely on to move the ball around the pitch and create chances, which will be important for them as they look to improve on last season.
Working with teammates
Another area of María Sánchez’s game that will be critical for Houston Dash is her ability to work with teammates, and there are similarities that can be drawn between the points made in the previous section and in this one. However, whilst those images focused on how Sánchez affected her team’s play when she didn’t have the ball, this will look at how she affects the game when she does have it.
Here, she is in the half space inside the pitch, aiming to bring the Cruz Azul Femenil players towards her and leaving the far side of the pitch open and exposed. We know already that she is comfortable when being closed down, and her ability to draw opponents in allows a teammate to run outside her, providing a passing option in a forward area. UANL’s success in the Apertura was down to their ability to maximise their attacks, turning as many moments like this into shots on goal, and Sánchez’s abilities both to keep the ball and wait for the right moment to make passes, and to be aware of what was going on around her, were a key part of that.
Dominating possession is something that not all teams favour, but it is clear that Sánchez likes to have the ball and suits teams who want to control games. Houston only averaged 46.92% per game in 2021, compared to 53.08% for their opponents, so adding the Mexican is a possible sign that James Clarkson wants to improve this part of their game, and it will be interesting to see if they do have more possession with her on the pitch.
Another way in which she works with teammates is through her ability to combine with them, moving the ball behind individual defenders at speed. Here, she knows that it will be difficult to take on the Tijuana Femenil player ahead of her, as they are in a good position where they can challenge her and block any attempted pass into the space behind.
However, Sánchez has another way of getting into that area, using her teammate as a pivot and then running behind the defender to receive the return pass whilst her opponent is momentarily distracted. As a result, she can still get into a dangerous position and set up a shot at goal, and her seven assists in the Apertura in 2021 show that moves like this were a regular occurrence.
Houston already have a player with this speed of movement in England forward Rachel Daly, who was arguably their best attacker last season. However, Sánchez managed slightly more touches in the penalty area per game on average than Daly, with 4.66 compared to 4.41, so having her will give them a slight improvement on their attacking productivity as well as suitable cover if one of their other players is unavailable, and this is something else that James Clarkson has likely considered.
When the defenders are more tightly-packed together, as is the case here, it is harder to play the ball into the box in the same way. However, Sánchez again holds onto the ball and looks to create a route through in a different way, again working with teammates to ensure they can still get a shot away at goal. This time, instead of making the cross and allowing Tijuana to clear it, she looks to run towards the central channel, as indicated by the red arrow. This draws the two opponents closest to her towards the ball, meaning that they are now out of position and have opened up a gap that UANL can now exploit.
As the focus of the defenders is on Sánchez, they don’t see the run of her teammate into the goal area in time, and this gives Sánchez a target to aim for with her cross, making it less of a risk. Whilst the shot here isn’t converted, the way that Sánchez created it is the key point, as it means that she can open up teams who sit back, which will be essential in helping Houston to improve on their nine wins in 24 games last season.
We have so far looked at how María Sánchez is key to her team’s attacking play both with and without the ball, but the final thing that Houston Dash will benefit from in the 2022 NWSL season is her versatility. This is arguably the most important aspect of her game to analyse, as being able to play in different roles will make her someone that Houston can rely on, no matter what system they are using.
As mentioned already, the Mexico international is not just a winger, and can also play in the middle if necessary, acting as the playmaker and a focal point of their attack. Again, she is in between defenders here, looking for a way to move the ball into the space either side of her, setting up an attack. Monterrey Femenil have a narrow structure here, which invites UANL to play around them, and Sánchez is the perfect player to have on the ball in this situation, as she weights her pass and ensures that her team maximise their attacking potential (something that has been a running theme throughout this analysis).
These are all qualities that will help Houston, especially as they lost the services of Kristie Mewis (older sister of former Manchester City Women player Sam) in the close season, after the influential midfielder’s move to NJ/NY Gotham. Striker Katie Stengel, now with runaway Women’s Championship leaders Liverpool Women, was another to depart the PNC Stadium, this time in midseason.
As a result, Houston’s options in forward areas have become a little more limited, with Daly, Shea Groom, Canada forward Nichelle Prince and former West Ham United Women player Brianna Visalli making up the majority of them. However, none of those players have the same level of versatility that Sánchez has, and tend to play in roughly the same roles every game. Sánchez can therefore be the one to link them up and get everyone working together even more, again helping them to carry more of a threat going forwards.
It is also noticeable that Sánchez adapts to different situations, often making sharp changes in her movement. Here, she is looking to get on the end of the ball coming into the box, but there is a Juárez player blocking her immediate route towards it. This again doesn’t trouble the Mexican, as she waits for that player to commit to a position before running around her, as the red arrow illustrates. Whilst her natural pace means that she can get ahead of her opponent and reach the ball here, it is her ability to run inside and outside them that make her a difficult player to mark. This unpredictability will also help Houston, as opposing teams will find it harder to defend against them, again aiding them in their bid to finish in the playoffs of the upcoming campaign.
We saw in the first half that her patience in the final third helps to make the pitch as big as possible, but she is also capable of chasing back and playing a defensive role too. Here, Tijuana have launched a counter-attack, but the player in possession is being closely guarded by Sánchez, who has now got in between the ball and her goal. She is capable of making interceptions in these situations, with 55 to her name in the Apertura last year, whilst she also won 69.9% of her defensive duels. Therefore, whilst we have looked in great detail at her attacking capabilities, she is also an important player defensively too, and will do her bit when Houston lose the ball and need added protection at the back.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has highlighted the different reasons why Mexico’s María Sánchez could have a big impact at Houston Dash in 2022. Two key aspects of Houston’s tactics last season were that they liked to keep the ball when in the final third and not rush their attacks, and they also wanted their players to have composure on the ball. These are also both things that Sánchez has in abundance, as has been demonstrated in this scout report, so it is evident that she will suit them well, and it will be interesting to see how she is used when the 2022 season does get underway in March.