“It’s just pure instinct”: OL Reign’s remarkable aerial advantage in 2023 – scout report
There is little doubt among fans of the NWSL that the 2023 season has provided plenty of talking points, with the poor form of 2022 Championship runners-up Kansas City Current and North Carolina Courage topping the standings after 15 rounds of the campaign among those topics which have instigated a great deal of discussion.
Another story which has garnered an increasing amount of attention this year is OL Reign‘s goalscoring habits, with the Seattle side showing a propensity to score where they can with their heads. The fact that they have already found the net 10 times from the air (and have scored their last six goals in all competitions with their heads) shows that this is a key aspect of their game plan.
However, what many have been wondering is why they have been so threatening in these aerial battles, with many sides finding it almost impossible to defend against them. This tactical analysis will look to provide some answers to that by dissecting how their aerial attacks have been constructed, breaking down angles of delivery, the positioning of those in the middle and their role rotations, showing why each has been vital to them posing such a threat in this area of the game.
Angle of delivery
The first thing to look at is the angle of delivery because any goalscoring attempt always starts with a team sending the ball in at the right time and along the correct trajectory. It is not easy to execute the perfect cross, with so many things capable of going wrong, but OL Reign have clearly been working on this, and it shows when analysing how they find each other from different areas of the field.
What has become increasingly prominent is that they are capable of altering situations to give themselves the best possible opportunity of finding the perfect delivery, and that comes down to their ability to recognise when the angle that they have been given is too tight and how they can change it to give themselves a better chance of success.
This is a prime example of that, with OL winning a free kick in the central channel. Still, the angle not being favourable to them, due to the path to Elyse Bennett, in the red circle, who is the intended target, being too straight and the ball, therefore, having too narrow a corridor to travel along. Thus, rather than attempting that pass and risking it going astray, defender Shae Holmes sends the ball towards the far side of the pitch without hesitation, where she has fellow rookie Alyssa Malonson in support and waiting to receive it.
From the latter’s position, OL have a much better chance of applying the curl on the delivery that they need, and the fact that Malonson’s cross found Bennett and went into the net from the forward’s attempt at goal shows how taking their time and thinking carefully about what they want to do has produced results for them.
It is also worth noting that they caught Portland Thorns out with this sequence of passes, as the Oregon side didn’t expect the initial kick to be aimed across the pitch and instead were preparing themselves to defend against an immediate attempt to penetrate their goal area. The way that they were caught out was particularly evident in the movement of left-back Meghan Klingenberg, in the back circle here, who drifted towards the middle when Holmes connected with the ball and was then out of position when Malonson’s cross was sent in towards Bennett.
Therefore, as well as allowing them to create the angles that they need, making these initial short passes also gives OL more space in the central areas, which is another detail worth pointing out.
There has sometimes been a need to deliver balls in from central spaces, though, with opponents cottoning on to what OL are looking to do and setting up in a way that limits their ability to deliver crosses from the wide channels.
In this case, San Diego Wave have done just that, and OL; as a result, OL has been forced to move the ball infield to keep their chances of sending it into the goal area alive. However, this is never a problem for them, as they have some excellent distributors in the middle, such as Canada midfielder Quinn, who receives the pass from Sofia Huerta here. They are always one of the Reign’s key players during transitions and have always had an excellent passing range, and it was no surprise to see them in space here and looking to have an effect on proceedings at Snapdragon Stadium.
However, what was vital about their involvement here was the way that they adjusted their body to ensure that they could again send the ball in with the right amount of curl, with them not attempting a straight pass for the same reason that Holmes didn’t in the previous example.
To create the angle, they bent their run towards the ball slightly in order to get behind Huerta’s pass, and that allowed them to connect with the ball in a way that applied spin on it, ensuring that it twisted through the air and travelled into the path of Bethany Balcer, who was able to find the back of the net.
There have been times, though when the angle of delivery has not been dictated by where the target player is and has instead come down to specific areas of the pitch that OL have wanted to attack into. With Kansas being the team with the second-leakiest defence this season (having conceded 26 goals in their 15 league matches), the Reign’s aim was clearly to target the spaces behind their defensive line and to force them onto the back foot, and that is why Veronica Latsko’s cross was hit here before she had assessed where her teammates were, making this situation different to the previous ones.
Whilst her delivery did find the area behind the Current’s lines, it was gathered up well by Current goalkeeper Cassie Miller on this occasion, although not without her being under pressure whilst doing so, and that shows how, even when just sending crosses in with the aim of putting their opponents under pressure, OL have been a difficult side to defend against.
What is also worth pointing out is that the deliveries from Malonson and Latsko in this section of the scout report came from deeper areas of the field. This graphic shows the vast scope of OL’s crossing zones and how they don’t wait to get close to the goal line before looking at what is available in the middle.
They do have a better success rate when crossing from the right than the left, with 38.4% of those on the right and 25.5% of those on the left finding their intended target, but that can be explained by simply looking at the players that they deploy on each side of the field. On the right, the combination of Huerta and Latsko is usually featured. Both are known for sending balls in through the air, whilst the left side of the team is generally made up of captain Lauren Barnes and Tziarra King and, whilst Barnes has demonstrated on plenty of occasions her ability to cross through the air, King is much more inclined to keep the ball on the ground.
When Megan Rapinoe is deployed in place of King, this does change, with the USA winger better at crossing through the air. Still, the veteran, who will retire at the end of the season, has been used mainly as an impact player this year by former Arsenal Women boss Laura Harvey and so hasn’t played as much as she might have done in previous years.
Position of the target player
Getting the cross right is only half the story, though, because the positioning of the target player is just as important when considering why OL Reign are so dangerous in the air, and this is another aspect of this tactic that needs to be analysed in great detail.
What is a common sight to see in any team is one player on the wing and another in the middle, waiting to receive the ball, and that is the case here too, as Huerta is looking to get around San Diego midfielder Taylor Kornieck whilst Balcer is waiting in the middle for the ball to come her way.
However, Balcer’s ability to remain largely stationary here is vital because it allows Huerta to have a target to find regardless of which way she opts to take the ball around Kornieck (she, like Rapinoe, is capable of playing off either foot).
It also allows Balcer to pick the area of the goal that she wants to aim for, with her eventual effort here unlikely to have much pace generated on it and so precision will be key to beating the Wave’s Canada goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, and, as it turned out, she was able to send the ball back across goal and into the far corner, as the yellow arrow shows, with Sheridan unable to keep it out.
However, what has been more common to see in OL’s play is for them to meet the ball on the move, and this has come through them sitting in deeper positions and then running forward at the right time to get on the end of crosses from the wide areas.
This situation shows how they can be just as dangerous when mobile as they are when shooting with the feet on the ground, with Huerta this time recognising where Canada forward Jordyn Huitema is and sending the ball into where she thinks the former PSG Féminine player will be able to get her head on it.
At that point, it comes down to how well Huitema executes her role in this, and the fact that she was outside the goal area when Huerta made her initial contact on the ball and ended up meeting it on the six-yard line made this all the more impressive.
However, with her connecting with the ball whilst on the move, it was always going to be difficult for her to have the same directional ability here as Balcer did in the last example. Therefore, in contrast to her teammate, Huitema relied on power to ensure that she could send the ball towards the Kansas goal with as high a velocity as possible, and the fact that Miller was unable to prevent it travelling beyond her shows how this has been just as important in OL scoring headed goals as finding stationary targets has.
Making these delayed runs from deeper areas has been something that Harvey has really encouraged as the season has gone on, and she has tried to facilitate them through deploying both Balcer and Huitema, who are the team’s critical goalscoring threats, in midfield roles in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 (used on 78% and 9% of occasions respectively) system.
However, it is not only because of the ability to generate more pace with the efforts on goal that she has done this, as there has also been an element of her wanting to give them the best possible chance of reacting to what their opponents are doing when the ball does come into the middle. This situation shows that exactly, with Barnes crossing in but Balcer being behind San Diego full-back Kristen McNabb at the point that she makes contact with the ball.
At this stage, it doesn’t look like Balcer will be able to meet the cross. Still, she again bides her time and waits for the right moment to make her move, and the fact that she gets ahead of McNabb and reacts quicker than the former Portland player is down to the way that she was in the deeper position and could see what was occurring in front of her.
San Diego, who are coached by former England captain and Manchester United Women boss Casey Stoney, have not been at their best this season and have struggled to replicate their strong form of 2022, especially when it comes to defending. However, on this occasion, they were outthought by an OL side who knew what they needed to do at every stage of the move, and that again shows how the Reign have continually worked on this and integrated it into their tactics this season.
It is worth noting though that it is not always a full-back or winger who delivers the ball into the middle, nor always a striker who makes the connection in the goal area. Instead, there have been plenty of instances when other members of the team have needed to fulfil those roles, and that is where the variety in OL Reign’s play has come in.
On this occasion, neither Balcer nor Huitema were in a position to get on the end of Huerta’s cross, so Rapinoe needed to cut inside and act as the target player in their place. The veteran winger is known for her goalscoring abilities, but more with her feet than her head, and, in recent times for the Reign, she has predominantly been used to control long switches in play and to then lay the ball off for a teammate to control and shoot at goal.
As a result, being in this situation is not as familiar to her, and it showed as there wasn’t quite as much precision on her run as has been shown in previous examples in this analysis, and that allowed Portland’s Finland defender Natalia Kuikka to track back and reach the ball first to end the threat.
Nevertheless, what this demonstrates is that, even when the forwards are not available, OL don’t simply revert to a safer way of playing and instead improvise as they try to keep testing their opponents’ defensive resolve, and the fact that there is less predictability over which players will fill in when they don’t have their usual attackers in these positions means that they are often harder to defend against in these moments.
It has already been mentioned that Harvey has dropped Balcer and Huitema into deeper roles this season, and the reasons for that being the case. Still, another reason that hasn’t been highlighted yet is the emergence of Bennett as a critical central threat for the team.
Bennett showed at Kansas last season that she can be a consistent target player for her side, with her often leading the line and allowing the likes of Lo’eau LaBonta and Cece Kizer to drift around and connect play whilst with the Current. Since moving to Seattle, she has looked to offer the same threat, and that leads to situations like this where she is in the middle, and Balcer is the one sending the cross in from out wide.
On this occasion, Bennett fails to find the target with her effort. Angel City do just enough to prevent a goal from coming about. Still, the fact that, again, OL can offer this threat even when they don’t have their key wide threats available to make the crosses shows again how their rotations and the ability of the whole team to adapt and fill in where required is essential to them continually testing their opponents.
There are sometimes occasions when none of the forward line have been available for either role and yet OL have still not drifted away from this way of playing and have still looked to test their opponents in the same way.
This shows that the whole team has bought into their game plan because it would be easy for USA centre-back Alana Cook to pass along the line here and try to instigate a series of shorter passes through the lines. However, she doesn’t hesitate to play the ball forwards here and to give Wales playmaker Jess Fishlock the chance to shoot at goal, and that highlights again how the mentality is there, and that has helped OL to remain focused on this way of playing and to profit from it continually.
In this case, NJ/NY Gotham, who have been rejuvenated by former Houston Dash, Real Betis Féminas and Tottenham Hotspur Women coach Juan Carlos Amorós after a disappointing 2022, managed to clear the threat through Fishlock’s first touch not having the right level of control, but the fact that the midfielder was able to take the ball behind their defensive line for a few seconds before the attack was ended shows again how opponents have been caught out by OL staying true to this style of play, even when they haven’t had their usual weapons available to them.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at OL Reign’s remarkably high count for headed goals in 2023, with them already scoring 10 times from the air in both the NWSL and the NWSL Challenge Cup. What has become apparent during the scout report is that, whilst each cross and shot may look simple, there are so many tiny details that go into constructing each chance. It shows how OL practice these moments on the training ground to ensure they can confidently execute them during their matches.
It is worth noting that it is not a new approach for them this season, with Balcer scoring 11 times with her head since 2021, and so OL have been doing this for a long time. However, the fact that they have made it such an essential aspect of their tactics this year has sparked everyone’s interest in it. With them already winning 53.4% of their aerial duels this season, there is little doubt that any team who wants to stop Harvey’s side from winning games in 2023 will need to be spatially aware and aerially secure against them.