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Houston Dash 2022: Their tactics under Juan Carlos Amorós - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

“He believed in us”: Why Juan Carlos Amoros has given Houston Dash new life in their bid for a first NWSL playoff place – tactical analysis

Last season, Houston Dash finished the regular NWSL campaign with three successive defeats, missing out on the playoffs by one point and failing to end their long wait for a chance to lift the Championship trophy. Fast forward to now though, and their luck finally seems to be in, with the club currently second in the table, above San Diego Wave on goal difference and trailing leaders Portland Thorns by three points.

This is even more impressive considering the year that the club has had, with head coach James Clarkson suspended at the end of April after alleged misconduct, meaning that assistant coach Sarah Lowdon led the team into the new season and took them on a six-game unbeaten run at one stage. She then went back to become an assistant when Juan Carlos Amorós was appointed as interim head coach and the third person to lead the team in a matter of months, with the Spaniard formerly taking over in the middle of July.

Since then, the Dash have been in outstanding form, picking up three wins and one draw from their first four matches under the former Tottenham Hotspur Women co-manager. They are also playing with an attacking brand of football that has made them difficult to live with, and this tactical analysis will look at exactly what has changed since Amorós, who left Real Betis Féminas in May, arrived in Texas.

The scout report will identify specific areas of their attacking and defensive play and show what has been improved under their new interim head coach, as well as why they are on course for a first playoff campaign in their history.

Playing forwards

The first area of Houston Dash’s play to focus on is their bravery when in possession, which is mostly demonstrated by the way that every player continually looks to move the ball forwards whenever it comes to them. As a result, they have been able to create plenty of chances in the final third and offer a permanent attacking threat, which is one thing that their opponents have struggled to deal with.

Houston Dash 2022: Their tactics under Juan Carlos Amorós - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash use their forward line to create gaps in the final third.

Structurally, Houston under Juan Carlos Amorós have tended to play with a front three, giving them a good balance and width in the final third. It has also enabled them to constantly stretch opposing defensive lines out and create gaps in the middle, using the two wingers, normally Mexico international María Sánchez and Canada forward Nichelle Prince, to tease the defenders away from each other and create spaces for Ebony Salmon, who has predominantly been their main centre forward, to operate in.

This is the key point to take here because it is the first example in this analysis that shows how Amorós wants his team to play. In this situation, Racing Louisville have been successfully manipulated and the gaps are now there for not only Salmon but others to use to their advantage. As a result, the Dash have options on the ball, with Ryan Gareis, in possession here, now able to either send an early cross into the middle or run into the gap ahead of her and have a go at goal herself. She opts for the latter on this occasion, and it is this unpredictability that has made Houston such a difficult team to keep out of late, with 10 goals netted by the Dash in Amorós’ four matches in charge (although none of those came in this match, which ended 0-0). Therefore, this is one way in which they have played forwards and become a better attacking side.

Houston Dash 2022: Their tactics under Juan Carlos Amorós - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash have played directly and looked to send balls towards Ebony Salmon as often as possible.

However, it is not only the forwards who are encouraged to play this way, because the whole team is urged to look for opportunities in the final third and transfer the ball up the field whenever spaces open up. As a result, their passing has been more direct and their transitions have been quicker, with Katie Naughton preparing to send the ball in Salmon’s direction here after seeing a space that she can target in the NJ/NY Gotham third. Again, the confidence that the Dash have to make these potentially riskier passes highlights how they have been much braver in possession recently, not settling for taking the easy options.

The reason for them changing to this way of building attacks is due to Salmon now leading their line, following long-serving England international Rachel Daly’s recent move to Aston Villa Women. Salmon is at her best when long aerial passes are sent in her direction from around the pitch, as they allow her to break through opposing lines at speed and cause defenders problems. Bristol City Women’s tactics when the one-time Lioness was at the club revolved around moving the ball up the field as quickly as possible in order to give her chances to score goals, and this is something that Amorós would have been aware of, given that he was coaching in the WSL at the same time.

Salmon’s six goals since her arrival in Texas (including a hat-trick against Chicago Red Stars) have shown that her switch to Houston from Louisville at the end of June was a masterstroke, providing the Dash with a natural replacement for Daly in front of goal, and playing to her strengths has so far helped the Texan side to net 26 times in 15 regular league games, compared to 31 in 24 last year. That averages out at 1.57 per game this year, whilst last year they only managed 1.42, so the benefits of setting the side up based on her qualities are clear.

Houston Dash 2022: Their tactics under Juan Carlos Amorós - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash can adapt and play differently if direct passes are not an option.

However, what is notable about their play under Amorós is that, even when long aerial passes are not an option due to spaces being unavailable, the players still look to play forwards and create opportunities. Here, Canada midfielder Sophie Schmidt is in a similar position to Naughton and is looking to start an attack, but the fact that the aerial pass is not available means that Houston have to think again. As a result, fellow midfielders Shea Groom and Marisa Viggiano have both dropped back to offer her passing options, but neither is taken by Schmidt as she instead passes through a gap and towards Prince (who is out of shot).

By making this pass, Houston have again shown the bravery that has become so prominent in their play, constantly searching for ways to build attacks and gain territory, but also demonstrating an ability to adapt when their initial options can’t be used. Once Prince has the ball, she finds Salmon from a better angle, but Schmidt again deserves credit for not taking the easy option and instead trying to move the ball up the pitch.

The fact that they are attempting these riskier passes is one reason for their passing accuracy slightly decreasing this season, from 75.8% in 2021 to 74.5% in this campaign, but this won’t be an issue for Amorós in the post-season debrief as long as his players continue to be brave in possession and always look to move the ball up the field.

Midfield roles

However, whilst having an attacking mindset has been essential to Houston Dash’s increased offensive threat, they would not be able to control the flow of the game without their midfielders. As well as protecting the defence and offering creativity in the final third, the three central players have also been tasked with applying pressure on opponents and capitalising on mistakes, meaning that they have so far been a vital component in Juan Carlos Amorós’ wider game plan.

Houston Dash 2022: Their tactics under Juan Carlos Amorós - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash have a good balance in midfield.

More often than not, it is Schmidt, Viggiano and Groom who have been selected in the middle, with Groom acting as the attacking player and Schmidt generally asked to protect the defence. That leaves Viggiano to operate in a box-to-box role, switching between the two and helping each of the others out as needed, and it is common to see her moving around the pitch when possession is either gained or lost.

In this case, she is further forward, with Houston looking for a way to transfer the ball behind Chicago’s back line, into the area marked by the white square. However, because the Red Stars have stayed narrow and prevented an easy passing route from opening up, Groom and Viggiano have to remain patient and pass the ball between them in order to try and force a mistake from their opponents, and this is where having a supporting player is beneficial.

It is not imperative for the Dash to have two players in this area of the field though, because, if Groom was on her own, she would simply move the ball out towards the wings instead, looking for either Sánchez or Prince and build up the attack in another way. This demonstrates again how they are adaptable and have options structurally and tactically, which is why they are now in a good position to seal a playoff place at the end of the regular season.

Houston Dash 2022: Their tactics under Juan Carlos Amorós - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash have looked to press from the front when out of possession.

Another key aspect of the Dash’s play since Amorós came in has been their pressing, which starts from the front once they lose possession as they look to regain the ball as high up the pitch as possible. In this case, OL Reign are in their own goal area and are looking to play out from the back, but have been closed down well by Salmon and Prince, meaning that the former PSG Féminine defender Alana Cook is now under pressure.

However, whilst the two forwards have done the hard work in getting tight to Cook, the key roles here are played by the three behind, as they need to be constantly awake to what is happening in front of them and be ready to pounce once the ball is dislodged or goes loose. Generally, this support line is made up of any combination of midfielders and wingers, and, by positioning themselves in order to pin OL back inside their own box, they are once again controlling the flow of the game and limiting what their opponents can do.

It is not a rarity for situations like this to happen, and it is important to note that pressing doesn’t only happen in groups of two or three, as individual players have also been seen closing opponents down and trying to win the ball. However, it is having a positive impact on their play, as their percentage of shots on target has increased to 39% this season, up from 35.4% in 2021. Therefore, this is another reason for the team becoming hard to contain at the moment, as well as showing the improvements that Amorós has been making.

Houston Dash 2022: Their tactics under Juan Carlos Amorós - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash players are encouraged to shoot at goal if they have a chance to do so.

It has also been evident that the former Tottenham coach has encouraged all of his players to shoot at goal if they find themselves in good positions, with Schmidt’s effort in this situation ending up in the top corner from outside the goal area. Again, this comes back to Amorós wanting his players to get on the front foot and create chances, but also how he wants them to have the freedom to move around the pitch and make things happen. As a result, Houston have the ability to score goals from different distances, again highlighting the threat they pose in different areas of the pitch.

The fact that Schmidt took the shot with her first touch also highlights again the bravery and confidence that the team are now playing with, bringing the analysis back to the culture that Amorós has introduced in the last few weeks whereby everyone is encouraged to get involved and be confident on the ball.

Defensive structure

Whilst the attacking side of things has been largely positive under Juan Carlos Amorós, he has needed to be more patient with Houston Dash’s defending, as this is where his players have needed more time to adapt to his ideas. In the match against Chicago, they looked uneasy with some of his game plan, but have grown into it and developed as the weeks have gone on, and their clean sheet at the weekend against Louisville (the first in four games) shows that they are working to improve this side of their performances.

Houston Dash 2022: Their tactics under Juan Carlos Amorós - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash started off defensively suspect under Juan Carlos Amorós, leaving spaces open for their opponents to exploit.

This situation highlights that initial discomfort, with the back four looking initially well-organised but with too much space being left open between each of the players, whilst the five midfielders, who have all dropped back to form one line in the middle, lack organisation and have left significant gaps open between them. As a result, it is easy for Chicago to play through them, knowing that there is little chance of Houston making an interception due to players not being in a position to react in time.

With this in mind, Danielle Colaprico doesn’t hesitate before passing to Yūki Nagasato in the middle of the two ranks, taking out all five of the central players, before the Japan international turns and passes through the defensive line, allowing winger Sarah Luebbert, in the yellow circle, to run onto the ball in the spaces behind. Although her eventual effort on goal was not converted, the fact that two passes took out nine players would have been a concern for Amorós at this stage, but he would also have known that it was a work in progress and his team needed time to get used to his way of playing.

Houston Dash 2022: Their tactics under Juan Carlos Amorós - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash have become more structured over the last four matches.

That patience has been largely rewarded, as mentioned, with obvious signs of improvement as his time in charge has progressed. What has become really noticeable is the way that they either stretch out or become compact as a team, all moving at the same time, and that shows a good level of communication and teamwork which wasn’t there in the previous example.

Structurally, this is an important point, because they change their shape depending on where the ball is, ensuring that they protect the wings when the ball is further away and then become more compact once the ball travels closer to them and the need to protect the through routes to goal becomes necessary. Therefore, when Louisville midfielder Savannah DeMelo wins possession here, her options are not as open as she would have hoped, as the wings are open but the central areas are not due to it being easier to defend balls from the wide channels than from the central areas.

It is worth noting that both Houston and Louisville had a poor game overall, with both looking blunt when moving forwards, but there were still tactical points that can be taken from the match, and the improved defensive setup of the Dash was one of them.

Houston Dash 2022: Their tactics under Juan Carlos Amorós - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Houston Dash can adapt defensively when there is a need to.

The adaptability that has been referenced so often in this scout report is once again a factor in their defensive play too though, most notably in their trip to Lumen Field to face OL. In the first half, OL’s attack was built on staying wide and switching play towards the wide channels as often as possible, trying to draw Houston out of line and create gaps in the middle, and it was a tactic that proved very successful for the Reign in the first half.

However, after the break, Amorós changed his own defensive tactics and went for a player-to-player system, encouraging his team to close down individual OL players and make it harder for them to control the game. In this case, Megan Rapinoe, who had been arguably the Reign’s most dangerous player before the break, has the ball on the far side of the field but no obvious passing options inside her, because both Arsenal Women captain Kim Little (who has been on loan at OL throughout the WSL’s summer break) and Wales star Jess Fishlock have players marking them, whilst Canada’s former PSG forward Jordyn Huitema has two players surrounding her. Therefore, Rapinoe is forced to send the ball on a path that takes it closer to USA goalkeeper Jane Campbell and which takes it too far from Fishlock, who is prevented from reaching it due to Sánchez working hard to stay tight to her.

When considering that Houston came back to win this game 2-1, having been 1-0 down at the break, this defensive switch becomes even more important to consider. However, in the context of their wider performances under Amorós, what it demonstrates is that the Dash again have an ability to adapt when needed, which is what has made them such a difficult team to play against recently.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at Houston Dash under Juan Carlos Amorós, identifying the key tactics that the former Tottenham co-manager has implemented since his arrival in mid-July and the effect that they have had on his new side’s performances.

There are still areas that undoubtedly need improving, with defensive mistakes still creeping into their play and costing them at times, as shown by the 1.43 goals they have conceded on average per game this season, compared to 1.23 in the previous one, so they are far from the finished article. However, the improvements shown after just four games should be evidence enough to suggest that the Dash are moving in the right direction under his leadership and are now playing like serious title contenders.

Should James Clarkson be formally let go at the end of the season, pending the results of an ongoing club investigation, Amorós would have to be a frontrunner for the permanent job, given that he has breathed new life into a side that had, until now, been a “nearly team”, always missing out on a title fight.

It looks increasingly likely that that poor run will end this year though, with the Spaniard believing in his players and the squad so far buying into what he wants to do on the pitch, therefore providing the perfect combination. If they keep playing with this newfound confidence and picking up results, then a first-ever playoff campaign in the club’s history is very much on the cards.