Rachel Daly: Five left-back alternatives to the Aston Villa striker for England – scout report
When Sarina Wiegman led England to Euro 2022 success at the end of last summer, many Lionesses fans felt that it was the beginning of a trophy-laden period for the team, with the Dutch coach having found the right balance in her squad selections and having assembled a side capable of taking on anyone who stood in their path.
However, whilst it is true to say that the team now has a settled look to it, there is one player that many fans would like to see alter their role, with Rachel Daly’s goalscoring form for both former club Houston Dash and current side Aston Villa Women leading to calls for her to be deployed as a centre forward and not as a full-back. Daly is a striker by trade and does currently sit joint-top of the English top flight’s scoring charts, alongside Manchester City Women’s Khadija “Bunny” Shaw, with nine goals to her name, so there is plenty of justification for those demands.
The problem with changing her role though would be how to replace her in the back line, with it likely that a new face would be favourable due to Manchester City’s Demi Stokes not being a first-choice and club teammate Alex Greenwood now playing predominantly at centre-back. With that in mind, this tactical analysis will identify five potential candidates, focusing specifically on the left-back position, given that that was where Daly played during Euro 2022. The scout report will look at why each player would fit the requirements of the position and how their addition could benefit the rest of the England team.
However, before delving into each of the players’ qualities, it is important to first gain a better picture of Daly’s on-field strengths, as that will provide a better understanding of the profile that any replacement will need to match.
What is important to point out first about this radar is that it shows Daly’s statistics as a striker and not as a full-back. However, her qualities do help her to thrive in both roles, with passing accuracy, positioning, shots per game and goal contributions important qualities to have regardless of which position she is playing in, and the fact that she ranks highly in percentile terms for all of those areas of the game means that any player who comes into the left-back role for England will need to be just as good at moving the ball around, linking up with teammates and both creating and scoring goals in the final third.
Positionally, during Euro 2022, Daly tended to move up and down the wing as needed, helping to both protect the goal area and support attacks, and this heatmap indicates how much territory she covered during each of England’s matches at the tournament. She also didn’t stay too tight to the sideline and often moved infield to get into the half-spaces, allowing her to again work with teammates to pose as big a threat as possible.
In short, the profile that has been built is that any replacement will need to be strong at the back and quick in moving up the field, as well as being confident with the ball at their feet and having a good positional sense both in defence and attack.
Chelsea Women’s Niamh Charles has shown all of those characteristics this season, which is why she is perhaps the most obvious player to look at as a replacement for Daly. The former Liverpool Women player is no stranger to the international setup, having been part of a number of squads in the last years and having started England’s last two matches, and she would be a good player to have in the starting lineup if Daly were to play further forward.
Looking at her statistics this season, what is immediately clear is that she is equally strong when competing for the ball both on the ground and in the air, with her ranking highly in percentile terms in both of those areas on this chart. She also ranks highly for progressive passes, showing that she is composed and looks to play up the field whenever she has the ball, and all of that together indicates why she is rated so highly at both club and international level.
Charles’ defensive qualities are clear to see here, with her reading the game and positioning herself well, which enables her to get between Reading Women right-back Faye Bryson and forward Emma Harries and intercept the pass from the former to the latter, breaking up Reading’s attack. This is not a one-off and is a regularity during matches, with her making 49 interceptions so far, at an average of 5.03 per game, and she constantly looks to get into areas where she can be effective and stop opponents from building phases of play in the final third. Therefore, when considering the requirements of the England left-back role, this is one reason that she would be a good player to replace Daly.
However, because she started her career as a winger, Charles has always retained an attacker’s instinct and is often seen moving up the field to support attacks. In this case, Chelsea are looking to find a way through Reading’s lines, with England’s Fran Kirby, in the yellow circle, in possession.
The problem here is that Reading have got numbers into that area of the pitch, meaning that there is no obvious way for Chelsea to keep moving the ball forwards. Charles realises this early and once again looks to help her teammate out, with her making an underlapping run and getting into a position where she can offer a passing option, as the blue arrow shows, and having that intelligence to see where the spaces are and where she can support her team’s attack is why she would be a good player for England to have at left-back if Daly were to vacate the role.
If Charles does not match what Wiegman wants at left-back, then another option could be Everton Women’s Gabby George, who has had a positive season since transferring to a left wing-back role under Brian Sørensen at Walton Hall Park. Like Charles, she was included in the England squad in November, so is a player that those in the national camp are watching and feel has a future on the international stage.
What is most notable when analysing her statistics for this season is her high percentile ranking when it comes to passing accuracy (which currently stands at an impressive 84.1%). What that shows is that, when the ball is at her feet, she doesn’t often give it away in cheap circumstances, making her a good player to have available as a passing option when building phases of play and moving up the field.
In the Merseyside derby at Anfield in September, she was clearly enjoying the freedom that comes from being a wing-back, with her making plenty of offensive runs and trying to get behind Liverpool’s back line whenever possible. Her advanced positioning also meant that she was able to win balls back high up the pitch, with her getting underneath a Liverpool clearance here, and being able to regain possession in advanced areas is another reason that she would suit England’s tactics under Wiegman.
The most impressive thing here though is that she doesn’t just head the ball forwards and then hold her ground, with her instead thinking about the next phase and realising that, when Izzy Christiansen receives her headed pass, she will need an option ahead of her in order to keep the chance alive, and getting forward to allow that to happen shows her awareness and ability to read the game. Overall, when it comes to the attacking side of the left-back role, it is clear that she would fit the profile that England would be looking for.
However, what might let her down is when her team lose possession and are forced back into their own half, as those are the moments when she hasn’t looked as comfortable in her new position. It is worth mentioning that, in her chart, she had a high ranking for defensive and aerial duels competed in per game, but was well below the median mark in both cases for those that she wins. Therefore, whilst she does engage in duels, she doesn’t succeed in many, and the fact that she seemed to hesitate before moving out to Wales international Rhiannon Roberts here, giving her time to deliver an accurate cross into the area, highlights how that can be a problem.
Therefore, if she were to be given the left-back role in the England side, this is an area that she would need to improve on, and it might at the moment count her out of making the role her own.
With that in mind, another option might be needed, and an outside bet to take over from Daly at left-back could be Liverpool’s Taylor Hinds. Given that she has only ever featured for England’s U17 and U19 sides, her inclusion does seem unlikely, but she is a player who stood out in Liverpool’s Women’s Championship-winning campaign last season and who has the qualities needed to fit the profile set out at the start of the scout report.
Hinds’ overall statistics won’t be as impressive in percentile terms as others in her position, due to her playing for one of the WSL’s relegation candidates, but it is still worth pointing out that two of her best areas statistically, namely her shots per game and passing accuracy, rank around the median mark for those in her position in the league. Therefore, even though Liverpool are not one of the WSL’s strongest teams, there is little doubt that Hinds is a dangerous player to give any space to on the field.
Here, West Ham United Women have not heeded those warnings, with Hinds able to control the ball and pick her target in the middle, and even though France defender Hawa Cissoko is getting out at speed to close her down, her movement is still too late and the left-back is able to find American striker Katie Stengel to set up a shot on goal.
What helped Liverpool to win this match was the fact that link-ups between players led to the ball constantly moving into dangerous areas, with West Ham kept largely on the back foot as a result, and it was clear that playing with that mentality helped Hinds to be at her best. Therefore, with England’s tactics seeing them also look to move the ball around at pace and never let their opponents have a chance to regain possession, she would be able to get on the ball and deliver it into the middle in the same manner, which is one way that she would fit into the national setup.
Whereas Charles and George have both been turned into full-backs in recent years, Hinds has always played in that position and so has a natural instinct when it comes to the defensive side of it. In this case, Aston Villa forward Alisha Lehmann is looking to take the ball around the left-back, but Hinds doesn’t get drawn out of position and holds her ground, waiting for the right moment and then making a tackle to prevent the Switzerland international from sending the ball towards the goal.
Therefore, her understanding of what is required when out of possession in this role makes her a solid option to have on the table, and there is little doubt that, when considering her overall abilities in both areas of the pitch, she does match many of the qualities identified in the profile set out at the beginning of the analysis.
However, Wiegman might want to look for more experience in Daly’s replacement, and, if that is her preference, then she might consider calling up Manchester United Women’s Hannah Blundell, who is currently 28 and who has been one of her club’s most influential players over the last few seasons.
With Manchester United currently sitting at the summit of the WSL, it is little surprise that many of their players rank near the top of the charts in specific areas of the game. In Blundell’s case, her strengths lie in the fact that she is tough to beat at the back and is good at moving the ball around the pitch, meaning that she would be able to contribute at both ends and offer the same qualities as Daly has in the role.
Where Blundell really matches the profile is her ability and tendency to cut inside and operate as one of the forward line, which is not something that is overly common among the other left-backs in the division.
The reason that she does this is that she is constantly aware of what is going on around her and looking for where she can affect the game, and here she has realised that Manchester City only have three players in their own third and there is therefore a chance to break through them and create a shot on goal. However, rather than risk giving away possession through passing the ball into the middle, she takes control of the situation and runs inside the pitch, linking up with Ella Toone and Nikita Parris to create a three-player offensive line.
At that point, she waits for the right moment to move the ball between the Manchester City players, and, even though Parris doesn’t manage to convert her clever pass on this occasion, the fact that Blundell has a 79.5% accuracy specifically when sending balls into the final third indicates that she rarely misses her intended target when she does get into these areas of the field.
Therefore, if she were given a place in the England squad, not only would she be able to get into the central areas but she would then have the quality to turn promising offensive moves into potential goals, which might attract Wiegman’s glances as she tries to replace the goals that come from Daly when she is in a full-back role.
When defending, Blundell is often seen in a compact defensive line, but that doesn’t stop her from looking around and identifying potential threats in different areas of the field. In this case, she is looking behind her and monitoring the progress of Arsenal Women’s Beth Mead, and it is common to see her pay special attention to one player throughout matches and work hard to prevent them from having an effect on the game. In that sense, she is not dissimilar to Hinds, with her getting tight to opponents and preventing balls from being transferred into dangerous areas, and the fact that she has won 66.3% of her defensive duels so far indicates again how she is strong at the back and a tough opponent to beat.
In games where England will be under pressure and will need to counterattack, Blundell’s ability to stay strong in her own half and then take the initiative when possession is regained might appeal to Wiegman and her staff, and that is why she might be a good option to have if Daly were to transfer to an offensive role.
However, there will be occasions when England are up against more physical opponents, and it is in those situations when Tottenham Hotspur Women’s Ashleigh Neville might be the best option to have in the side. Neville is known for being aggressive on the field and never shying away from a challenge, and there is little doubt that she has been one of her side’s best players this season in what has been a disappointing campaign.
Where Neville is in her element is when she is looking to win the ball back for her side, with her ranking well above the median mark for defensive and aerial duels engaged in and those that she has won (specifically, she has succeeded in 67.6% of her aerial battles and 70.8% of her contests on the ground), and the fact that she is so successful when going in for challenges is one reason that her inclusion would benefit England when they are up against tougher opponents.
However, her game is about more than simply winning the ball back, because the chart also indicates that she ranks highly for shots, passes and goal contributions per game too. Therefore, she plays a key role in turning those possessional regains into counterattacks and shots at the opponents’ goal too, giving her an ability in both boxes that matches what England need from anyone who plays in their full-back areas.
When in the final third, Neville, like Hinds, is at her best when given time and space on the ball. However, where she differs from the Liverpool player is that she can also shoot at goal directly and find the back of the net, with her having confidence in her own abilities and taking matters into her own hands when she has the opportunity to do so, and the fact that she has scored four goals during the current campaign as well as contributing three assists demonstrates the variety that she brings when in the final third.
As mentioned, when her side lose possession, Neville plays on the front foot and looks to win possession back for her side as quickly as possible. Quite often, this does involve making slide tackles and riskier challenges, as she is doing here against Brighton’s Wales international Kayleigh Greeen, and this has led to her gaining a reputation for ill-discipline on the field. However, the fact that she has been successful in 60% of her slide tackle attempts this season shows that, more often than not, she does time her challenges well and succeeds in disrupting opponents’ play.
Therefore, if Wiegman did want a player who could offer the same attacking qualities as Daly, but who can also defend on the front foot and win the ball high up the field, then Neville might be the right player to come in and take the Aston Villa player’s place in the back four.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at five players who could replace Rachel Daly in England’s defensive line, should the Aston Villa forward be deployed in an attacking role in the future. As has been shown throughout the scout report, each would be able to match the requirements in the role, both in defence and attack, and that will help to make any transition as seamless as possible if there are positional alterations made in the future.
The fact that each has slightly different characteristics to the others is also important to note because it gives each something different to offer on the field. Deciding which player gets the nod when the time comes will ultimately be down to which of those qualities Wiegman prefers at the time, but what will encourage her to make the move to bring one in is that there are so many good options ready to take up the left-back role if Daly is moved further forward. Adding any to her starting lineup will not cause an enormous amount of disruption to the balance that she has worked so hard to build, given that they all fit into the same basic profile as Daly, and having that continuity will be vital as the Lionesses continue to build towards what they hope will be further successes in the future.