“An amazing journey”: Why recent performances can give New Zealand hope ahead of their home World Cup – tactical analysis
Just over a week ago, New Zealand faced Wales for a friendly encounter at the Pinatar Arena in Spain, which ended in a 0-0 draw. However, whilst the game itself didn’t leave us with much to discuss, one particular statistic that came out of it did. This was the first time in just over three years that the two teams have played each other, with Wales 1-0 winners in Cardiff the last time they met, and New Zealand have only won three matches in all competitions in the duration between the two.
Given that they are jointly hosting next year’s World Cup, alongside Australia, this is a big worry for fans of the Football Ferns, and it has been mentioned that they are fortunate to be guaranteed a place at the tournament because they would have struggled to qualify if they had needed to secure their place like everyone else.
However, as this tactical analysis will show, their recent performances have been more promising, giving fans hope that they might be on the road to better times. The scout report will begin by identifying situations from the last three years when they have struggled both in attack and defence, before looking at what has improved in the last few games.
New Zealand’s favoured formation has generally been a 4-4-2, regardless of the manager at the time, and this has given them a nice balance throughout the team with good width on either side. With this in mind, it would be expected that their tactics would revolve around using the wings as often as possible, stretching opposing defences out and creating gaps in the middle.
However, as shown here against the USA during this year’s SheBelieves Cup, that has not always been the case. The former Brighton and Hove Albion Women defender Rebekah Stott has not looked for the open space and has instead opted to shoot at goal here.
The problem with this is that the USA’s defensive line is narrowly structured and therefore was always going to be tough to score through, so Stott’s decision to shoot and not pass means that New Zealand have pulled the trigger when there was an easier option that would have kept possession and continued to build play. Had she looked up here, she would have seen her teammate’s run and the fact that they were in open space with time to control the ball, and this lack of awareness is exactly what it comes down to because poor decision-making has meant that chances like this have not been converted.
One counterargument to this is that it hasn’t worked for the Football Ferns when they have passed rather than had a shot at goal, and that is also true. Here, Olivia Chance, who now plays for SWPL side Celtic Women, has passed through Norway’s defensive line, between Ingrid Moe Wold (who retired in 2021) and Chelsea Women defender Maren Mjelde, with captain and Angel City full-back Ali Riley now having time to control the ball and pick out a teammate in the middle, and two players are already getting forward to give her options.
However, this is where their next problem comes to light, with a lack of quality when making the final pass or cross meaning that, again, promising situations have not been capitalised on. In this case, Riley’s cross misses both of her teammates and goes out of play, which is possibly why Stott didn’t make the pass in the previous image. Therefore, more composure in these situations is paramount to any hopes they have of winning games because some of their build-up play has been left unrewarded as opportunities are wasted.
Another problem that New Zealand have faced when attacking is that they haven’t read the game well enough, again leading to chances not being taken. Here, in the 2020 Algarve Cup, versatile Leicester City Women defender CJ Bott has found Melbourne City Women striker Hannah Wilkinson with her cross, but Norway have numbers back and are in a position to win the ball and clear their lines.
This is where New Zealand need to be more alive to second balls, because, despite seeing that Wilkinson was under pressure here, none of her teammates positioned themselves where they could support her. The player in the best position to run forward here is Betsy Hassett, who currently plays for Icelandic side Stjarnan, with the black arrow showing that there was an opportunity for the midfielder to win the ball if Wilkinson was unable to control it. However, because she stayed where she was, Norway were able to clear their lines once the ball went loose.
As mentioned, this comes down to being one step ahead of the opponents, which is something that top teams and players thrive at. Therefore, in order to improve their final third play, they need to be more willing to compete for the ball as a team, otherwise, they will continue to struggle in the final third and be easy to defend against.
When it comes to their defensive play, things haven’t been much better, with small mistakes and an occasional lack of urgency again meaning that opponents have at times found it too easy to break them down.
Earlier in 2022, the Football Ferns played two friendly matches against Australia, and there were some good signs in the first encounter. However, they looked much flatter in the second, with the Matildas finding ways to maintain the pressure on them and create goalscoring opportunities.
Here, new Manchester City Women striker Mary Fowler has moved the ball out to Arsenal Women’s Caitlin Foord, but Riley has stepped in and intercepted the pass. Whilst this is good and shows that Riley has seen what Australia are looking to do, she then makes a loose clearance that doesn’t travel far and fails to find a teammate, allowing their geographical rivals to regain possession inside their half and immediately build another attack.
Therefore, whilst it is true that New Zealand are winning balls in their own third, a lack of quality and a tendency to not clear their lines properly has made it harder to relieve pressure, and that is something that they have needed to address as a matter of urgency.
A lack of communication has also been to blame at times, with New Zealand’s defensive line being broken down too easily on occasion by players moving out of position and not working together. This situation from the 2021 friendly against Canada shows how it has made the Football Ferns their own worst enemies at times.
What Canada have done really well here is that they have manipulated the space, with Chelsea Women’s Jessie Fleming moving across and tempting New Zealand to follow her. However, New Zealand’s biggest issue is that Riley then comes forward and tries to close Portland Thorns forward Janine Beckie down, which is never easy because Beckie is quick on the spot and can change direction instantaneously. Therefore, if Riley was to make this work, she had to win the ball, but didn’t and was left stranded as the former Manchester City player took the ball inside her.
The knock-on effect of Riley moving out of line was that North Carolina Courage’s Katie Bowen, in the yellow circle, had moved across to cover the space left open by her captain, which means that she was also taken out of the game once Beckie brought the ball inside. That left Meikayla Moore, in the black circle, on her own in the middle and not in a position to stop Reading Women’s Deanne Rose from setting up Houston Dash forward Nichelle Prince, who ran behind her, from scoring.
Therefore, whilst Canada deserve praise for their slick passing and movement here, New Zealand could have done better if they had kept their discipline and focused on keeping the gaps closed off, as that would have forced their opponents to look for another way through. This is not the only time that the Football Ferns have been caught out at the back, so it is definitely something that they need to look at if they want to be more solid at the back.
The reason that New Zealand’s defending has been such a big concern is that they are a naturally defensive team and tend to sit back more as a default style of play. As stated at the beginning of this analysis, they have generally utilised a 4-4-2 formation during their games, but have also been known to play in a 4-5-1, giving them an extra player in the central third and allowing them to create two lines of defence when they don’t have the ball, forming a low block.
Whilst this works in theory, it has not often worked for them in practice, mainly because the two lines have not been close enough to each other and opponents have been able to exploit the gap between them. Here, Australia have positioned Racing Louisville’s Alex Chidiac in the open space, giving Pomigliano defender Aivi Luik a way of passing through New Zealand and taking all five midfielders out of the game. Once Chidiac has the ball, she can turn and pick out Chelsea star Sam Kerr ahead of her, and even though Kerr’s shot went wide on this occasion, it showed the danger that comes from New Zealand trying to defend and then giving their opponents space and time to open them up.
Reasons to be hopeful
Nevertheless, as mentioned in the introduction, there have been genuine improvements made in their more recent performances, with the first of their two matches against Australia and the games against Norway and Wales all seeing their opponents work hard for their goals.
The first major positive is the reintroduction of Annalie Longo, who last played for her country during last year’s Tokyo Olympics. With over 100 caps for the Football Ferns, the attacking midfielder has been essential in reinvigorating the team and getting them moving in the right direction again. Against Wales, she caused plenty of problems, putting pressure on the defenders in their own half and helping to counterattack at speed, with this situation showing her receiving the ball and instantly looking to find a teammate ahead of her.
By not holding onto the ball for so long, it becomes harder for opponents to isolate individual players, and the fact that New Zealand have averaged 2.95 passes per possession highlights how they move the ball across long distances when they are building play; a point that is highlighted by their 19.17m average pass length so far this year.
They have also demonstrated better spatial awareness, moving the ball around and using what is available to them. Here they have won the ball back from Norway through Chance and instantly looked to move the ball across the field, again using long passes to gain ground quickly. Once it reaches Longo, she opts not to shoot and instead spots the advancing run of Moore, out of shot, sending the ball in her direction. Moore, who left Liverpool Women this summer and has since joined Scottish giants Glasgow City, is a natural centre-back but has been used more at right-back for New Zealand, with her ability to accurately deliver crosses making her a perfect fit for the role.
However, this comes down to having players in the team who can show good awareness of their surroundings, with this making New Zealand a better team in possession and their passing accuracy of 73.2% for 2022 so far highlights how their flowing style of football has made it harder for opposing sides to keep them back.
The Football Ferns’ pressing has also been more effective, with the midfielders no longer in ineffective positions that allow their opponents to play through them at will. Here, Reading’s Amalie Eikeland has the ball on the far side of the pitch, but her options have been limited by Jacqui Hand and Emma Rolston closing her down, leaving a pass to Brann Kvinner midfielder Lisa Naalsund as the only available possibility here. However, because New Zealand know that that is where the ball is going, they can press Naalsund early and take time away from her, making it harder for Norway to create anything here.
This level of urgency and desire is what their fans have wanted to see more of from the team, and there is no doubt that, whilst they may not win games at the World Cup, they will convince more people of their abilities if they can keep playing with this pace and energy. It is hard and takes a lot of work on the training ground to get the whole team playing at the same level, but this situation highlights that they are capable of challenging some of the best teams around when they put their minds to it, so that should give them plenty of confidence going forward.
The defensive organisation has also improved, with players knowing their roles and working together much more. Norway have two of the biggest attacking threats in world football at the moment in their ranks in the shape of Lyon Féminin striker Ada Hegerberg and Barcelona Femení winger Caroline Graham Hansen, but both were limited at times in what they could do against New Zealand due to the Football Ferns working hard to close them down.
Here, they have split their numbers and ensured that neither Hegerberg nor Hansen have time to think, and Hansen can’t pass into her teammate as the latter has two defenders around her, ready to intercept or make a tackle once the ball comes their way. Denmark found out over the weekend just how difficult it is to limit Hansen’s influence on matches, so New Zealand did well to get tight to her when they could, with 64% of their defensive duels won so far in 2022 highlighting how they have become more robust in their own third.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in great detail at New Zealand’s performances over the last three years, breaking down why they have only picked up three wins between their two meetings with Wales in 2019 and 2022. Current manager Jitka Klimková said after her appointment last year that it was going to be “an amazing journey” for the whole team as they built towards their home World Cup, and the evidence presented in this analysis has indicated that she has already started to make a difference on the pitch, tidying up some of their previous weaknesses and introducing a style of football that gets the players onto the front foot.
This is not to say that they are faultless though, as they are still capable of making loose passes, not doing enough defensively, and failing to use what is available to them. However, what is important at this stage is that they look very much on the road to recovery, and next year’s tournament will be important in assessing just how much they have developed under Klimková. At the moment though, it all looks very positive, and fans can have faith in their team once again.