‘We’re in a good spot’ – Why Angel City are dark horses for a 2023 NWSL play-off position – scout report
For fans of Angel City, the 2022 NWSL season was a slow but steady affair, with the Los Angeles-based side ending their maiden campaign with eight wins, five draws and nine losses and sitting four points off the play-off places.
Many hoped that their near miss would spur them on with fresh impetus to challenge for the top six this time around, but they actually started 2023 in a concerning manner, with them only picking up two wins by the mid-season point and really struggling to find their feet.
As a result, with the team 11th in the league (out of 12) and with the feeling that their investment in terms of squad additions was not being converted into results, the board replaced head coach Freya Coombe with her assistant Becki Tweed (on an interim basis), and it is a decision that has so far worked wonders.
Not only has Tweed helped to turn the club around and to take them to within three points of a play-off place, but she has done so whilst improving their style of play and refining what was previously letting them down, meaning that they are now a much more difficult team to face and one confident in what they are being asked to do each week.
This tactical analysis will look at that improvement, with analysis first of what Coombe instilled in attack and defence and then a breakdown of how Tweed has altered their tactics and why Angel City are the NWSL’s form team at the time of writing.
It has been evident when looking at how Angel City have tried to move the ball around the pitch that their tactics under Coombe revolved around being expansive and trying to stretch the opposing defensive line out, creating gaps in between for players in the middle to run through and exploit.
It was not a bad game plan to have, but what let it down was Coombe’s need for players to overload the wings, meaning that the ball was not being moved into the middle at the right time. As a result, situations like this were common to see from them in the early part of this season, with left-back M.A. Vignola available and ready to shoot at goal but being kept waiting by her teammates on the far side of the field.
Instead, Angel City tried to construct short passing sequences in the wide channels before moving the ball in, with the aim of dragging opponents towards the ball and creating additional space centrally. In practice, though, it only allowed opposing sides additional time to get back and set up in their desired shape, and that was clear here by the way that Washington Spirit centre-back Amber Brooks was able to close Vignola down as soon as the ball was sent towards her by playmaker Savannah McCaskill.
The Spirit have been much-improved this time around under former Portland Thorns and Netherlands head coach Mark Parsons. However, it is likely that they would not have been able to defend this opportunity as easily if Angel City had shown more urgency in sending the ball into the middle, and that is the critical point and was what was at the heart of Angel City’s offensive deficiencies under Coombe.
The fact that they were trying to create overloads in the wide areas also meant that there were plenty of occasions when those in the middle needed to move across and link up with those in the wide areas, just as Mexico striker Katie Johnson has done here.
However, this has forced Scotland winger Claire Emslie to move inside her and to take up the central role inside the NJ/NY Gotham goal area, leaving both players in positions that they are not as familiar with. This was another reason that Angel City lacked a cutting edge in the final third when they did get into promising positions, with Johnson’s cross travelling behind Emslie here and the former Everton Women forward unable to react in time, all of which led to the chance being squandered.
They were not the only two who were forced into alternative roles in the early stages of the season, with McCaskill another who was not utilised in her favoured areas of the field.
She is at her best when in the 10 role and working closely with the striker, and it is common to see her connecting the dots for her side and being at the heart of their attacking creativity. However, as this heatmap indicates, she has more often than not been positioned in the wider areas in 2023, with there being virtually no marks on the map to show her in the central channel, and that has severely limited what she can offer on the field.
Given that she was the club’s top scorer in all competitions last season, with seven goals to her name, this would always be detrimental to the team’s attacking play and would remove a significant goalscoring threat. It has felt like a mistake to see her restricted to these wider roles rather than letting her run free in the middle.
It is not all about tactical issues, though, as Angel City have also seen chances squandered through poor mistakes from individuals when in promising areas. This was perhaps one of the ones that proved to be most costly, with Alyssa Thompson leading a counterattack through the middle and seeing her route start to be cut off by Gotham, who are beginning to get numbers back to close her down.
With that in mind, it is time for Thompson to look around her and to shift the ball to one side or the other, with McCaskill and Japan star Jun Endō providing support and both capable of continuing the attack, but the USA winger instead opts to keep possession and to continue her run forward.
It proved to be a significant error of judgement by the up-and-coming star, as she quickly saw the ball dislodged by Gotham centre-back Kristen Edmonds and the chance come to an abrupt end and the fact that this happened when her side were 1-0 up; and they lost 2-1 meant that it was a mistake that cost Angel City the chance to start their season with points on the board.
Looking at the bigger picture, it was clear that Coombe had some excellent theoretical ideas but was let down by what happened in practice and teams not doing what she expected of them (as well as her own players making errors that she cannot be held accountable for).
It is much the same story in defence, in that a combination of tactical issues and individual mistakes led to Angel City underperforming and being, at times, far too easy to break down.
The first of the tactical points again came from Coombe’s preference for shorter passes and for her players to work together to play through their opponents, and that again sounds like a good idea to implement, but in practice, it only led to unwanted pressure and possession being given up in dangerous spaces.
Here, for example, it has arrived at the feet of Madison Hammond, and she has the opportunity to turn and move it up the wing towards Thompson, which would have relieved the pressure and taken the majority of the OL Reign attackers out of the game.
However, because of that aforementioned desire to make short passes, Hammond instead sends the ball back towards the middle of the field and into the path of midfielder Dani Weatherholt, which gives OL a chance to win it back and launch an attack from just outside the goal area. At this point, sirens should have sounded, but they were either ignored or not heeded by Weatherholt, who moved the ball out to Emslie and saw Reign captain Lauren Barnes press forward and make a dominant tackle.
Only a couple of phases later, and after some good combination work between Barnes and Megan Rapinoe, Veronica Latsko sent the ball into the back of the net from range and with a powerful strike, and, whilst it was a well-constructed move from Laura Harvey’s side, there is no doubt that Angel City played themselves into danger and could have easily avoided it coming about.
The other thing that Angel City insisted on doing was moving up the pitch and playing with a relatively high line. Again, in theory, it worked as it decreased the space and time that opposing sides had to move the ball in, but it let them down so many times in practice due to the gap behind them being exploited repeatedly.
In this case, Kansas City Current duo Debinha and Lo’eau LaBonta are working to create a goalscoring opportunity, and Angel City have stepped up to close them down but have not noticed the fact that Cece Kizer is positioned behind them and now has an accessible route to goal if the ball comes her way.
The critical detail to point out is that they are all facing the ball head-on, rather than being sideways, in order to give themselves a chance to react to any loose balls, and that proves to be their undoing as Kizer had more time to reach the rebound and to score after Debinha’s effort had come back off the post. Again, it comes down to tiny points here and there, but this was a goal that could have been avoided if Angel City had had a better setup or had not moved up the field to leave so much territory open behind them.
As with the attack, though, there have been things that Coombe has had no control over, such as the individual errors that have again made life a lot harder for Angel City than needed.
In this case, Jasmyne Spencer has done well to intercept a cross from Latsko to Rapinoe but can’t control the ball well enough and instead sidefoots it back across goal and into the path of OL forward Elyse Bennett.
As a result, a situation that looked like it was under control was immediately back in the Reign’s hands, and only a strong save by Bosnia goalkeeper DiDi Haračić spared Spencer’s blushes. Nevertheless, it was still another moment where Angel City showed themselves to be their own worst enemies at times, putting themselves under unnecessary pressure and again gifting their opponents chances to threaten their goal.
Improvements under Becki Tweed
To some, it was a surprise when Coombe was given her P45, with the team bringing in heavyweight names such as Julie Ertz and Amandine Henry partway through the campaign and the former still finding their feet whilst the latter has yet to appear.
However, given that half of the season had gone. There were no signs of Angel City’s form picking up and them challenging; others felt it was the right call and one that would allow the team to regain their confidence and finally show the progression that had been sought after both from the stands and the boardroom.
As mentioned, Tweed was Coombe’s assistant and had been at their previous club, Gotham, too, so wholescale changes were never going to be tactical, and the team would always follow the same basic blueprint.
However, Tweed has made her mark on the team, and what she has done well since taking interim charge is to simplify things. The expansive play is still there, but players no longer need to flock towards the wings to construct short passes. Nor are those who work best in the middle needing to play in unfamiliar roles.
Instead, there is a better dynamic to the squad, and it is showing when looking at some of their performances. In their most recent game, at home to OL, Tweed asked her wingers and full-backs to make runs up the pitch and for those in deeper areas to target them with direct passes, with the intention of pinning the Reign’s defenders as far back as possible and preventing them from applying the same pressure that they did when they visited the BMO Stadium.
It was a tactic that really worked on the day, and the reason for that was that there was a better speed to their passing, with players taking one or two touches at most and not allowing OL to settle as others had been before the managerial change. As a result, the spaces that Coombe had been hoping would be available suddenly were, and the fact that Hammond found Mexico winger Scarlett Camberos, who in turn set up French midfielder Clarisse Le Bihan to score the opening goal in the middle here, showed that speeding up the play made a massive difference to OL’s overall attacking threat.
This is not to say that they have entirely abandoned the idea of playing shorter passes, with Tweed still retaining it as a way of playing, but they now only use it in appropriate moments. The meeting with Portland Thorns was one of those; with Portland a tough team to break down, and patience required from any side who comes up against them.
However, the newfound speed of passing again helped, with players taking only a couple of touches each time the ball came to them and making quicker decisions about where each pass would go to prevent the Thorns from settling into their shape. In this case, centre-back Sarah Gorden has received McCaskill’s pass and has instantly sent the ball forward for Spencer to run onto, and this again results in a goal as McCaskill moves behind the Portland backline to connect with the cross.
Again, it comes down to keeping things simple, which is the big difference noticed in Angel City’s attacking play. In this situation, McCaskill was in the middle where she was at her best, whilst the full-backs were making runs up the field (something that Spencer, Vignola and New Zealand captain Ali Riley, who spent part of her career at Chelsea Women and Bayern Munich Frauen, all thrive at). Those in the middle were playing with precision and accuracy, not allowing Portland time to get into their rhythm.
The defensive side of things has also been through a process of refinement and improvement, and the backline has looked a lot more secure under Tweed, with measures in place to ensure that they can still play the same way as before but with more security and fewer easy goals being conceded.
In this case, North Carolina Courage have progressed into Angel City’s third and are now looking to move the ball into the middle, and Gorden is moving out to close the ball down as would typically be the case in this situation.
However, what has changed under Tweed is that she has tried to fill the gap between Gorden and the rest of the defensive line. This area would previously have been left open for the opposing side to run through, but Spencer has now dropped back to slot in as an emergency centre-back and to remove that possibility.
With her now in position, there is no longer a clear passage for the Courage to attack through, and the result is that Brianna Pinto is forced to pass backwards to Japan midfielder Narumi Miura, who ends up shooting from distance and seeing her effort easily gathered by Haračić.
The high backline has also not gone away, but there is now more awareness among those in the defensive rank of what is going on around them, meaning that moments like the Kizer goal highlighted previously in the scout report have not been as prevalent.
In this case, Paige Nielsen has recognised that Houston Dash are looking to cross from deep and that Nigeria utility player Michelle Alozie has run in behind to offer a passing option. Therefore, she starts to track back early and to make it harder for the Dash to find Alozie, and it has the desired effect as Nielsen connects with the ball first and brings the threat to an end, forcing Houston to regain possession and start again.
This would not have happened before, but it shows how Tweed has again made alterations to improve the team’s fortunes, and this is another clear indication of how she has turned them around and got them looking up the table once again as their dreams of reaching the play-off stages edge closer to reality.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at the before and after of Angel City’s season so far, highlighting the issues that were so prominent during the final months of Freya Coombe’s tenure and the changes that have been made by her interim replacement and former assistant, Becki Tweed.
As time has gone on, the decision to change the person at the top has proven to be a masterstroke by the board, with Tweed not making drastic changes that have left the players needing to adapt to a whole new style of play, but tweaking enough that they are now more watertight at the back and play with increased productivity once inside the final third.
There are still five matches to go in the regular season, so a long way for all teams to go. However, there are several sides in the fight for a place in the top six, and it will be a bitter scrap until the end to see who makes it and who misses out. Angel City are undoubtedly in the mix thanks to Tweed and her improvements, and it would take a brave person to count them out of anything at this point in time.