Pernille Harder 2019/20: Analysing Harder’s role at Wolfsburg – scout report
VfL Wolfsburg have a force in women’s football for several years now. The team have won two Champions League, five Frauen-Bundesliga, and six DFB Pokal titles since their inception in 2003. The German club most recently won the domestic double and have a date with Glasgow City in the quarter-final of the Champions League while also having their sights set on dethroning the mighty French juggernauts, Olympique Lyon. At the heart of their success and quest to win the European title is Wolfsburg’s attacker who has been an ever-present force for Wolfsburg this season. Pernille Harder has been central to their attacking success and is attracting interest from all over Europe including Manchester United Women.
This scout report will aim to understand the role Harder plays at Wolfsburg and how she’s become such an important first-team player. We will use tactical analysis to detail her strengths and qualities that make her such a talented young forward that keeps her team ticking.
Pernille Harder’s role at Wolfsburg
Pernille is a multi-faceted, versatile player who is capable of playing in multiple different positions. Harder is a creative and intelligent second striker who relies on great positioning, intricate passing and shooting to make her mark. For Wolfsburg, she mainly operates as a striker and second striker in a 4-4-2 and as attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation. From her heatmap, it’s easy to see that she prefers playing in zone 14 right behind the striker.
The role of the ‘Raumdeuter’ or ‘space interpreter’ is reserved for players who have an adept understanding of time and space. The role has been mostly attributed to Thomas Muller. The Bayern Munich attacker’s style of play created the role coming from his excellent understanding of space and it’s utilisation. While Pernille doesn’t fit the role exactly, some aspects of her play are reminiscent of the Munich striker. She is a hybrid of a false nine and ‘space interpreter’ whilst also showing traits of a competent playmaker. The Dane combines her positional intelligence and use of space, making her an important part of Wolfsburg’s attacking structure. This is solidified through her 1.45 goals per 90 minutes this season. This equates to her 21 goals in 14 Frauen-Bundesliga appearances. In all three of her roles, her main asset is her passing skill that makes up close to 40% of her actions per 90 minutes. Using this she looks to play in the central striker Ewa Pajor.
Out of possession, Harder plays another important role in Wolfsburg’s off the ball tactics. The strategy changes depending on the opposition in front of them. Against more possession dominant sides, Harder finds space and looks to help the midfield press to win back possession and counter-attack. When dominating possession, Wolfsburg press higher up the pitch where Harder assists in pressuring the central defenders. The Danish midfielder also fills in gaps to close easy passing lanes and press the closest player to her.
Now that we have a better understanding of Pernille’s role at Wolfsburg, the next few sections will elaborate on her strengths in more detail.
Part of Harder’s repertoire of skills is her ability to find and use space to attack. While Harder is an excellent ball-player, her off the ball intelligence is equally as impressive. Being a versatile player makes her an asset for the team and whether she plays as a number ‘9’ or ‘10’, Harder looks to drop into a deeper position to find space to affect play. Being able to play in different positions well gives Harder an advantage and an understanding of space and time.
Her positioning and movement between the lines seem effortless and the ability to find space and utilise it efficiently has been a direct result of that. Against more conservative teams Harder looks to aid the press and when Wolfsburg are in possession, the Dane finds space between the lines to attack. Often outsmarting the opposition by letting them make the first move and adjusting her body positioning and direction, the Danish attacker has an uncanny ability to make quick turns and movements away from defenders.
From a data standpoint, Harder has some decent statistics when it comes to winning back possession and working hard for the team. The forward has 1.67 interceptions and 4.12 recoveries per 90 minutes with 75.7% of those in the opposition half. While the recoveries show more of her ability to engage in duels, the 75% rate clearly shows her involvement in Wolfsburg’s off the ball work in the final third. To further solidify this statistic, we can analyse her offensive duels and see that she engages in 14.2 per 90 minutes with a win percentage of 43.5%. Not a bad effort for a striker/centre-forward who’s more proficient and effective on the ball.
Harder’s off the ball positional intelligence is illustrated in this sequence of images. Wolfsburg look to transition possession into the wide areas from central midfield to right-wing. We can see Harder stationed in between the opposition midfield and defence with enough space around her to move around.
The opposing team are defending in 4-4-2 shape and hold a numerical advantage of Wolfsburg’s attackers between this point and their penalty area.
The movement between the first image and this one involved Harder playing a one-two pass combination and moving further into the penalty area. This is where Harder’s positional and football intelligence comes into play. Instead of following her run through the central defenders to receive a return pass from the winger, she drops off and decides to drift into the centre.
The centre-back is running across to stop the winger from progressing further, giving Harder space and allowing her to gamble on the cross. If it’s successful then the Dane would have an easy goal-scoring opportunity. The next closest player would be the midfielder tracking back to cover the space.
Harder’s inclusion in the team is based around her attacking abilities. As I’ve mentioned earlier, her style of play is predicated around being the main link between midfield and attack even though her primary position is that of a striker. There are two aspects to her attacking play. The first being her capability to link-up play and the second is her technical striking ability. Playing similar to a false nine, Harder drops into midfield to collect possession from midfield and turn to pass through the defence to her teammates.
Off the ball, Harder will sometimes press low-block teams trying to catch them off guard. Alternatively, Harder will sit on the shoulder of defences to latch onto long passes from defence to get in behind teams with a high press. What’s most important to note, however, here is that she isn’t isolated to the central areas, rather she floats into different areas, between the opposition defenders to find space and keep them guessing. Harder can be found anywhere from left-wing to central midfield looking to find opportune moments to create a goal-scoring opportunity.
Even the statistics have propagated the idea of Harder’s ability to affect the final third through her intelligent and frequent passing. If we look at through passes, passes to final third, and passes to box per 90 minutes, then all three statistics have seen an increase from the 2018/19 season. Her through passes went from 1.26 to 1.67 per 90 minutes. Harder’s passes to final third went up from 3.43 to 4.57, even the accuracy rate shot up from 71.1% to 74.4%.
Lastly, her passes to box have jumped up significantly from 3.52 to 5.46. Each one of these data points tells us that Harder is getting more and more involved in Wolfsburg’s build-up play. Being able to collect possession and effectively conjoin midfield and attack together gives them a focal point. Playing with a quick and agile striker in Ewa Pajor, Harder is able to risk more passes and crosses into her path knowing the Polish striker is likely to get onto the end of the pass.
Analysing the above pass maps, it’s easy to see where Harder spends most of her time. She seems ever-present across the pitch but is more prevalent in front of the 18-yard box where she can assess her options in front of her and play in players moving into good positions. On the left, she played against Bayern Munich, whereas on the right the opposition was Bayer Leverkusen.
The difference between the two pass maps is her slightly lower positioning against Bayern, where Wolfsburg will attempt to press the opposition in midfield. Against sides they will most likely dominate, Die Wölfinnen will look to employ a high pressing strategy giving the centre-backs no time to settle hence Harder’s slightly higher positioning. In both pass maps, she stays close to her two central midfielders in order to both support and receives passes much more easily.
This example will illustrate her incredible vision and passing ability. Harder drops deep from her original position to give her centre-back into a more favourable position to collect possession. Even though she has a marker nearby, Harder is able to manoeuvre herself away from the player and allow herself the chance to play forward.
Harder quickly moves away and spots her winger making an inside run from a wide right position. The winger’s movement keeps a reasonable gap between herself and the full-back which Harder spots. This makes her release the through pass between the centre-back and full-back giving her teammate every chance of making her run and instantly putting her in an excellent crossing position.
Not only is Harder an effective link player but is she is an exceptional goal scorer. Her 21 goals from 14 league matches have given an expected goal (xG) rate of 1.28 goals per 90 minutes. Harder is as adept on the ball as she is off it. She combines both her skillsets to create havoc in the final third and as a result, utilises her shooting and dribbling abilities when she gets on the end of passes. From running off the shoulder of the last defender to playing quick passing combinations, Harder is proficient and versatile. She takes 6.07 shots per 90 minutes with a healthy 57.8% of them on target.
This is combined with her 7.85 dribbles per 90 minutes with a 53.9% success rate and means that more often than not, she’s in a position to shoot and work the goalkeeper. Theoretically, Harder can play through most systems but teams that man-mark her in numbers would stop Wolfsburg’s main attacking outlet. Her 12.48 losses reflect this but it’s still not stopped her scoring the number of goals she has this season.
As the opposition team try to play the ball out from the back, Wolfsburg are trying to apply pressure on them to cause a mistake. Harder is at the heart of the attacking press here as she closes down the isolated defensive midfielder. Catching her by surprise, the opposition player doesn’t react quick enough allowing Harder to dispossess her and drive into the box to fashion a shooting opportunity.
Here we get to see a bit more of Harder in the build-up to a goal. Harder begins the move deeper in midfield and moves forward after playing a pass out to the right-winger. The winger has occupied two Bayern Munich defenders giving Harder space to move into. The winger looks to pass into the incoming Harder.
Harder now receives a pass on the edge of the oppositions penalty area and has two options. One is to drive into the half-space or play another quick exchange with the player closest to her and receive a return pass. She chooses the latter option and is able to manoeuvre herself into a shooting position which results in a goal. The move started and ended with Harder and her ability to find space between the opposition lines is on display once again.
With Harder’s contract running out next summer, a host of clubs have been linked with the Wolfsburg attacker. Chelsea Women and Manchester United Women are the rumoured front runners and there is no doubt that the forward can add to either club. This analysis has shown Harder’s skillset is one of a kind and she has proven to be a malleable forward, able to fit into different systems and styles. Considered one of the best forwards in the world, whoever wins the race for her signature can be assured of one thing: goals.