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Best of Three: Why are Aston Villa struggling so much defensively?
Plus are Leicester City the best out of possession team in the WSL?
Despite going 1-0 up for the third time this season, Aston Villa once again wound up losing, this time being beaten 4-2 by Tottenham. They have now conceded ten goals this season - only Bristol City have conceded more - and a week on from their close to heroic defensive performance against Arsenal, they looked like a different team.
Having gone 1-0 up thanks to a Rachel Daly penalty, Villa had managed to keep Tottenham at arms length for the first half an hour, allowing just one shot in that time. But an error from Rachel Corsie gave Martha Thomas a shooting opportunity which she took spectacularly, lobbing Daphne van Domselaar who went neither one way or the other when Thomas made the interception. Van Domselaar had been justifiably hyped up as a big coup for Villa to bring in but she is struggling so far, conceding ten goals from an expected 5.4, as well as looking nervous when it comes to commanding her penalty area.
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But Villa have also been inviting pressure on themselves. This zones of control graphic from Opta shows where Aston Villa have the majority of touches (in blue) and where opposition teams do (in red). Clearly Villa are struggling to assert control in key areas of the pitch, particularly down their right hand side.
Both their passes per sequence (3.05) and sequence time (8.56s) rank them seventh in the WSL. They are just not holding onto the ball in a way that would be expected from a team that was going to be pushing higher up the table. Of their four losses this season, only Liverpool are worse than them in these metrics. They have allowed the joint most shots in the league (61).
The goals conceded against Tottenham on Saturday were evidence of a team low in confidence defensively coming up against a player (in Martha Thomas) who was high on it. There will be no let up for Villa with Chelsea visiting after the international break but they need to find a way to bring back some more control to their side. Otherwise they will continue to get overrun.
Are Leicester City the best out of possession team in the WSL?
Fresh from a 1-1 draw with Manchester United, Leicester City gave Manchester City some nervous moments in their 1-0 loss on Saturday. It was Leicester’s first of the season, and testament to how far the club has come that they walked away from their two games against the Manchester clubs with a 2-1 aggregate scoreline. What was noticeable in this match was how Willie Kirk had been able to totally reshape the team to focus on how Manchester City wanted to play.
Kirk switched Leicester to a back three and used defensive minded players in his midfield to match City’s box midfield, created by Laia Aleixandri inverting. The risk was clear to see. Several times early on City played through the press, creating the kind of transitional moments that Gareth Taylor’s team thrive on. Bunny Shaw’s movement dragged Sophie Howard out of position with Julie Thibaud unsure whether to cover space or player. But as the game went on, Leicester were able to win the ball higher up the pitch and use their press to tire City out. They might not have got anything from the match in the end, but it was one of the most tactically fascinating matches that have been played so far this season.
Where does Sjoeke Nüsken play?
When Chelsea signed Sjoeke Nüsken over the summer, the assumption was that they had found the defensive midfielder that they had looked in need of for a while now. Nüsken had been playing as a centre-back in the previous season at Eintracht Frankfurt, as well as being used there by Germany, but Emma Hayes was insistent on her signing that she would play in midfield for Chelsea.
Few anticipated exactly where in midfield she would be playing though. Against Brighton, Nüsken began the game alongside Sophie Ingle in a double pivot but changes in the second half saw her move into the number 10 role. The result was a perfect hat-trick and an assist in Chelsea’s 4-2 win. Nüsken was used as a 10 for parts of Chelsea’s pre-season game against Roma so it was not a total shock to see her pushed further up, but given the number of players Chelsea have who can play in that area it was interesting to her given the nod, when options like Jessie Fleming was used out wide.
Interestingly Jelena Cankovic has been used in Chelsea’s double pivot a number of times this season, having last year predominantly played as a 10. After the match, Hayes spoke about the importance of Nüsken still settling in. “She has to work at the moments when to counter-press immediately or when to come alongside Sophie [Ingle].” Is it possible that we are seeing Nüsken play a chunk of minutes higher up the pitch because Hayes is reluctant to trust her entirely in the midfield when she’s only been at the club for a handful of months? Chelsea are notably slow at integrating signings into the first team, with priority often placed on them fully learning the system. Long term it might be the case that Nüsken does settle into a more reserved midfield role, but right now it looks like she can do it all.