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Best of Three: Are Leicester City right to stick with a high line?
Plus why do Manchester City continue to fluff their lines and how important is Niamh Charles?
2-0 up at half-time against Arsenal, Leicester City were in dreamland. Their plan had worked to perfection. Against a new look Arsenal midfield, they had harried them on the ball and got into good areas of the pitch, scoring twice in 54 seconds. With Katie McCabe inverting from the right fullback position, Hannah Cain was having the time of her life on the left hand side. Deanne Rose’s marauding runs on the ball were forcing Steph Catley back.
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Leicester’s strong start to the season has come off the back of their high-pressing style - they have the WSL’s fourth highest PPDA. They are also the most direct team in the league, moving the ball up the pitch at a speed of 1.54m/s. This has meant making sacrifices elsewhere though and in order to put pressure on teams, they play a very high line. After Courtney Nevin’s error allowed Cloe Lacasse to sneak in and get one back for Arsenal, the discipline fell apart. Arsenal went on to score five more goals, ripping Leicester apart on the break on multiple occasions.
Leicester’s game plan relies on players winning their duels and at points this season they have done that. In the first half against Arsenal, in the second half against Manchester City and across the game against Manchester United, they have shown they can go toe to toe with higher quality players. Yet the way that the second half went against Arsenal showed a kind of naivety. The best football teams are adaptable and Leicester revealed an inability to adjust a gameplan in the collapse that went on.
Why do Manchester City continue to fluff their lines?
Statistically Manchester City were the best attacking team in the WSL last year. Their expected goals of 48 was more than four higher than their closest statistical rival Chelsea. They actually performed about in line with it, scoring 50 but that was 16 behind Chelsea. An inability to take their chances was seen as a key reason that they did not finish in the top three - and the issue seems to be continuing into this season.
Having looked the better side going forward against Arsenal, but still losing, they then failed to make the most of their pressure against Brighton, eventually losing 1-0. Their back to back losses is reminiscent of the poor start they had to last season where they immediately found themselves behind the lead pack. Now their good start has been decimated, six points behind league leaders Chelsea who only dropped eight points last year.
Against Brighton, they were not without opportunity - the problem was precision. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why that is lacking. Anxiety certainly seems to be part of it, an awareness that they are not quite as clinical as the other teams at the top. Players like Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly, whilst being immensely talented, still seem to be missing the killer instinct that comes from being an elite winger. Hemp did not even start against Brighton and perhaps Fowler’s inclusion was evidence that manager Gareth Taylor is keen to find someone who can thread the needle as opposed to the battering ram. But Fowler’s non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists sits only at 1 having started six games this year. Right now, she is not creating within this City side.
The absence of Alex Greenwood in the past two games. She is essential to the way City create and defend, and her unavailability has clearly disrupted their whole build up. But the very best teams should be able to adapt and in all honesty, City’s attackers need to find more precision. No one is scared of a team who you know is more likely to miss than score.
Is Niamh Charles Chelsea’s most important player right now?
Only two players have played every minute available to them for Chelsea this season with Jess Carter and Niamh Charles being firmly locked in on the left hand side of their defence. Carter has for a while shown that she can be relied upon at domestic and international level but Charles’ step up this season has been particularly noticeable. Not only is she an energetic presence going forward who has become much sturdier defensively, she has become key to a huge amount of the way that Chelsea build-up in-possession.
Chelsea are using their right hand side of defence to build up with the ball, either by Carter coming forward before passing to a higher up the pitch Charles or by Charles dropping deeper to receive the ball before carrying it forward. In this build-up, the right back drops (who has been Eve Perisset for the past couple of games) in to form a back three with Millie Bright and Carter. Charles’ ability to move forward with the ball has been increased in recent weeks by the use of an inverted left winger. In Guro Reiten’s absence, Jessie Fleming and Lauren James have both been used as players who want to come more centrally. Meanwhile Johanna Ryting Kaneryd has been used as a traditional winger on the right, going up and down to cover the space evacuated by the right back tucking in.
In this role, Charles has made the most tackles and interceptions of any Chelsea player, as well as having the highest expected assists (2.8) and the most passes into the penalty area (16). Only Carter has made more progressive passes than her.
It was no surprise against Everton that Chelsea lost their rhythm after Charles picked up a knock. Whilst she could continue, it disrupted the way Chelsea wanted to build up, something that manager Emma Hayes noted after the match. “We got stuck a little playing out from the back, particularly towards the left-hand side, but sometimes that’s execution rather than positional problems.” It was testament in some ways to how much Chelsea have been relying on Charles to do that role that it destabilised the whole team when she got a bit thrown off her rhythm. It is also a reminder that she is still adjusting to her increased importance within the team. In the 3-0 win over Everton, Hayes rotated the midfield around at half-time to solve this, but it is clear that right now Charles is crucial.