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Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

Olivia Moultrie: the 15-year-old “soccer phenom” who is the future of the USWNT – scout report

Many 15-year-olds would be worrying about their upcoming exams, or would be focusing on their social lives. However, one particular 15-year-old, Olivia Moultrie, has established herself as one of the hottest prospects in global women’s football. Although she turned professional at 13, she was unable to make her debut for NWSL giants Portland Thorns until July this year, due to legal issues surrounding her age. Now, though, she is an established senior squad member at Providence Park, and has become a key player for them. In this tactical analysis, we will look at how she fits into Portland’s tactics, and what on-pitch qualities have helped her to stand out on the field.

Before we get into that, it will first be useful to focus on the areas she frequents the most on the pitch, which will give us a good idea of where her best and most common roles are during games.

Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Heartmap of Olivia Moultrie for the 2021 season at Portland Thorns.

The fact that there are no major marks on this heatmap implies that Moultrie operates in a free role when on the pitch, which is something we will analyse in more detail as the scout report goes on. In fact, the majority of the marks that do appear are dotted around the whole field, demonstrating her versatility and ability to play on either side of the pitch or through the middle. At Portland, this is a very useful characteristic to have, as it means she can be asked to play wherever needed, depending on what is happening during the game.

Positioning

Olivia Moultrie’s ability to play in different positions and roles will be our first discussion point, as we begin to examine in more detail the key tactical aspects of her game.

Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Olivia Moultrie runs into the spaces between the forwards when they split apart.

Portland normally operate with two strikers at the top of the field, and this is the same regardless of the XI that head coach Mark Parsons selects. However, with opposing defences often difficult to break down in the NWSL, Parsons (who previously coached the Chelsea Women reserves, and who replaced Sarina Wiegman as Netherlands coach) prefers his strikers to stay away from each other, as is shown in this image.

As a result, they need a player to slot into the gap between them, and this is where Moultrie comes in. She is often found in the areas behind the forward line, but her movement here creates a front three, allowing the strikers, Simone Charley and Sophia Smith, to spread out and increase the width of Portland’s attack. This in turn forces Racing Louisville’s defence to spread out and cover as much ground as possible, leading to gaps forming between individual players. Therefore, Moultrie’s positioning between the forwards is key in helping her team to break their opponents down.

Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Olivia Moultrie helps her teammates in the final third by giving them space to play in.

Another example of Moultrie’s quality in the final third is shown here, in the recent Women’s International Champions Cup, as she has got ahead of the ball and forced the majority of the Houston Dash defenders to keep their distance from it. As a result, Smith has more space to dribble into, enabling her to get closer to goal before either shooting or passing. Moultrie’s positioning has also decreased the number of opponents that Smith needs to face before reaching the edge of the box, as they can’t leave the Portland midfielder in open space, given her ability to create problems for them in these areas of the field.

This puts pressure on the defenders, as they have now been forced into making a tackle later than they would have liked to. In this case, Smith’s natural pace makes it doubly hard for them to reclaim possession, and the foul is conceded. Therefore, again, Moultrie’s role in the final third for Portland is vital, as she does a lot of the unseen work that creates these opportunities for their other attackers.

Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Olivia Moultrie positions herself well when teammates need her to fill spaces.

Moultrie’s positioning is just as important when Portland are in transition, going from defence to attack. Again, there are two strikers here, playing either side of the defence, with Moultrie moving between them. Kansas City have ended Smith’s advance on the nearside wing, forcing her to cut inside in order to continue the attack. Moultrie’s positioning means she can now make a diagonal run into the area behind the Kansas defender, which both provides Smith with a way of keeping the ball progressing forwards, and opens up a route to her strike partner across the pitch.

In these situations, it is not uncommon to see Moultrie making these forward runs to ensure Portland’s attacks don’t end prematurely, and this again comes down to her positional awareness and ability to move into the right areas at the right times.

Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
In defensive situations, Olivia Moultrie has proven to be a useful player to have on the pitch.

We have now looked at Moultrie’s positioning in attacking situations, but she can play in deeper roles too, meaning she can get back and help out defensively. Here, she is closing the ball down in her own half, preventing it entering the box. This has forced Orlando Pride left-back Courtney Peterson, who has possession, to find a different way of transferring the ball into the middle.

However, there is more to it than that. Moultrie’s confidence in getting back to help out gives Portland an extra player at the back. This allows the defenders to focus entirely on the attackers waiting in the box, ensuring that there is as little space as possible for them to move around in, rather than one of them needing to come out and meet Peterson. Orlando, who were previously managed by new Manchester United Women head coach Marc Skinner, rely on crosses from the wide channels to create goalscoring opportunities, so having a player like Moultrie who can prevent this happening is really important. She has won 62.9% of her defensive duels this season, highlighting the defensive prowess shown in this image, and how she is useful at both ends of the pitch.

As a wide attacker

Whilst Olivia Moultrie can play in multiple roles, we have noticed on plenty of occasions that she often operates in the wider areas.

Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Olivia Moultrie plays ahead of the ball and gives her teammates forward passing options in attack.

The first thing to mention is that Moultrie likes to position herself ahead of the ball as much as possible, giving Portland passing options in forward areas which may not have previously been viable. This particular situation sees Orlando in a defensive structure that has left gaps open between individual players, so a pass through the middle of them and into the open space behind, indicated by the yellow arrow, would seem to be the logical option to make. However, without Moultrie being there to receive it in that space, Orlando would have simply won the ball back and cleared their lines under no pressure from Portland.

Therefore, the 15-year-old’s ability to see these spaces and make these runs allows her team to keep attacks alive, even when space is tight and defenders are closing them down. It is made better by the fact that Moultrie’s movement showed her teammate where she wanted the ball to be played, therefore allowing the pass to be made quicker and to reach her before the Orlando players could react to it.

Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Olivia Moultrie can combine with teammates to outnumber opposing defenders.

It is the same when she is on the other side of the pitch, which again highlights her versatility. However, this time, instead of running forwards to receive the ball, she holds her position and remains outside the Washington Spirit defenders. This allows Charley, in the yellow circle, to get forward on her inside, creating the passing option behind the defenders.

Whilst Moultrie had a different role here, her positioning was just as important, as her and Charley created a 2-v-1 against the outside Washington defender, making it more difficult for them to block the run forward; if Charley is closed down, then Moultrie becomes available for a pass, and vice versa. Therefore, whilst it may seem that Moultrie’s wide position was unimportant here, it is crucial in the wider scheme of this attack.

Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Olivia Moultrie stretches opposing defences out, creating gaps for her teammates to play through.

It is not only in the half-spaces where Moultrie is an effective player. Here, she is playing almost as a winger, forcing the Orlando players to spread out more and prevent her receiving the ball with time to pick out the right pass. However, in doing so, they have left gaps open between themselves, and we have already mentioned how Portland like to play through these. The red lines indicate how Moultrie’s wide positioning has helped to create space for Portland to play the ball into a dangerous area, and her crossing accuracy when the ball does get to her is 33.3% (exactly one in three). Whilst this doesn’t sound like a high amount, we need to remember that she has a long way to go in her career, and it gives her something to work on in her development as a player.

Moultrie’s aforementioned free role during games is what enables her to play in different areas of the pitch, with this section demonstrating how her movement and ability to adjust her positioning, particularly on the sides of the attack, allows Portland to create options and play through opponents. It is clear to see why she has been described as a “soccer phenom” by some, and she is certainly displaying characteristics and tactical knowledge that we would expect from a player twice her age.

Finding space

Having a good positional ability is important, especially in a competitive league like the NWSL, but it means nothing if players don’t use it to find spaces and make things happen for their team. Fortunately for Portland, this is something else that Olivia Moultrie excels at.

Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Olivia Moultrie makes runs through opposing defences and into the spaces behind to give her teammates options.

We have already looked at Moultrie in a central attacking role, and this image shows again how she has moved into the gap left open in the middle. However, what is especially notable here is how she instantly runs through the gap left open by the Washington defenders, taking advantage of their high defensive line. This gives her teammate, in the yellow circle, the option of playing an aerial pass into that space, which would create an attacking opportunity in an area where Washington would find it hard to defend against.

Whilst Moultrie doesn’t always receive the ball in these situations, her runs through opposing lines are essential in giving Portland options. They also put a doubt in the minds of the defenders, as they will be unsure of whether to advance up the pitch and close Portland down, or to stay back and prevent these runs in behind them. This type of indecision is what often leads to a lack of communication and the occurrence of defensive mistakes.

Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Olivia Moultrie drops into holes around the pitch to link up play for Portland Thorns.

However, Moultrie can also drop into spaces in front of the forward line, as has happened in this image. This time, Costa Rica midfielder Rocky Rodriguez is looking to move the ball into the forwards as quickly as possible, with Moultrie a pivot in Portland’s attack. From this space, she can receive a short pass and then turn to move the ball onwards, with the speed that this happens making it harder for Washington to intercept and clear the ball.

Moultrie’s positioning also allows the forwards to hold their positions, as they can stay higher up the pitch and offer passing options when Moultrie turns to look for them. This setup also gives Portland a link between the midfielders and the forwards, with the likes of Rodriguez and former PSG Feminines player Lindsey Horan able to play the ball into the strikers through Moultrie, with the short passes and the ball being kept on the ground both increasing Portland’s chances of maintaining possession.

Portland’s success is built on all players knowing what to do at each point of the match, and Moultrie’s ability to operate in these spaces is a key part of that. Her high passing accuracy of 72.1% demonstrates her reliability in possession, and her good range of passing is demonstrated by her accuracy of passes to the final third (58.8%), her forward passes accuracy (52%) and her back passes accuracy (90%), so, even at this stage of her career, she has the necessary skills to be a top midfielder in the NWSL.

Olivia Moultrie at Portland Thorns 2021 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Olivia Moultrie arrives late in the box and gets herself in spaces where she can receive the ball with time to shoot at goal.

The last aspect of this to look at is when the ball is in the final third.

It is not uncommon to see Moultrie making late runs into the box, and she is often the last attacker to arrive in it. Given what we have said previously about her playing between the forwards, this may sound strange, but it is clever play from her, as it means she is always in space to receive the ball. The defenders automatically focus on the first players to arrive in the box, forgetting about those who come in later, such as Moultrie.

In this particular instance, when the ball does come to her, Moultrie is unable to make the chance count against Houston, but she will score plenty of goals from these spaces as she becomes more and more confident. She has netted 0.24 goals per game this season, so far beating her expected goals (xG) value of 0.14, and she gets 25% of her shots on target. However, the fact that she got into the right area and found the space in the first place is the important thing here, and is another reason why she is such an effective player for her team.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we have seen in this analysis that 15-year-old Portland Thorns player Olivia Moultrie is undoubtedly one to watch, and a star in the making for the future of the US national team. We have looked at several aspects of her play, seeing how each benefits Portland Thorns during matches. There is no risk of her leaving the club any time soon, as she only made her debut in the last few months at Providence Park, but, should she maintain the level of play that she has so far demonstrated, then there is no doubt that suitors will come calling in the future.

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