Centre-Backs, Playing Out From The Back and The Left Side
England’s playing out from the back is immediately obvious when looking at some numbers in the tournament. England had the 2nd most passes per game coming in their own half, with only Australia making more, while also having the most passes per possession.
It is questionable just how good England were at progressing the ball from the back though. The Lionesses had the 10th lowest numbers for the percentage of passes in their own half going into the opposition half. However the significance of this is debatable and it’s something I’m never quite sure on. It’s a fine line between it being a stylistic feature and building from the back, or passing it between defenders and struggling to move it forward.
For instance, Manchester City’s men’s team usually take a lot of passes before moving out of their own half but you wouldn’t say they struggle to progress the ball.
The defenders score well when looking at progressive passing, but I still think there’s room for improvement for England, particularly with the progression on the left side of the team.
Millie Bright received some criticism during the World Cup but, while she had some lapses in concentration defensively, her numbers on the ball weren’t too bad. She didn’t have huge numbers for progression but did have England’s best pass completion for passes that move the possession at least 20% closer to goal.
Despite this, I do think England would be better suited with a more progressive ball player on that side as well, to try and mirror the threat they pose on the right. Looking at who the centre-backs passed to to help show the difference in their passing styles.
Bright passed mostly to Steph Houghton, Keira Walsh, Demi Stokes/Alex Greenwood, Karen Bardsley and Ellen White. Except for Keira Walsh, most of her passes were to the side or back to the ‘keeper, except for a few long balls each game to Ellen White.
Houghton’s numbers don’t jump out as incredibly different, with her most common pass being to Lucy Bronze and then to her centre-back partner Millie Bright or Abby McManus, but after that, she goes to Jill Scott and Nikita Parris most before Keira Walsh rounds off the top five.
This ability to find players like Jill Scott and Nikita Parris in more advanced areas was a huge part of England’s progression from the back, but that progression only seemed to come from the right side.
I have a couple of gripes about the shape of England in build-up anyway and the clip against Japan below highlights a couple of them.
With Neville talking about pushing the centre-backs and full-backs forward and wide, I feel as though it makes it easier to stop England progressing and move the ball in a ‘U’ shape between the back four, particularly if a midfielder doesn’t drop in.
An extreme version of this can also be seen in the game against Japan. Walsh receives the ball with her back to goal and a Japanese player closing her down, but the gap between Walsh and the rest of the midfield is huge.
While England will be in a good position to attack the Japan back line if the ball is progressed, Walsh is in a 3v1 in the middle of the pitch, making it no real surprise she sends the ball back to Stokes and England get trapped in the corner.
Jill Scott tends to drop in a bit more and help create overloads out wide, but the midfielder on the left (Georgia Stanway in the above clip) rarely does. I’m not sure whether it’s a feature of the play, with the left sided centre midfielder being more advanced, or whether it is a weakness but, personally, I’d rather England look to mirror the set-up from the right on the left.
It’d not only make England more effective at progressing the ball, it may help get the other central midfielder involved in play more often, with the left sided central midfielder being a part of the side that hasn’t felt quite right.
Fran Kirby has the ability to be effective there and has some good numbers, but just doesn’t seem to be involved enough and it was the same when Stanway played there. Against Japan, Stanway had the least touches of the ball, while Kirby had the least against Norway. Both of these players are more than capable of dropping into pockets and helping with build-up, while still offering a threat in the final third.
The lack of rotation and dropping in for the left sided midfielder can be seen when looking at who they receive the ball from compared to Jill Scott. Scott received most of her passes from the right quartet of Bronze, Houghton, Parris and Walsh.
Not only are Kirby’s numbers for passes received lower, the leading names were Greenwood, Mead, Bronze and Parris. Greenwood and Mead mirror the right side, but the midfield link with Walsh wasn’t there in the same way as it was with Walsh and Scott, while the link with Bright also isn’t there.
What Could Be Changed?
I suppose the question is: What’s the solution for England? How can England better their build-up play on the left to try and mirror the right?
One option could be to bring 22-year-old Leah Williamson in for Millie Bright. Based on their numbers in the FAWSL and Neville’s emphasis on building from the back, it’s hard to see why Williamson isn’t starting for England already. The below graph shows how Williamson is almost in a league of her own when it comes to progression.
Bright offers more of a physical presence, having much better aerial duel numbers than Williamson (being lazy and using WyScout numbers here), but it’s not as though a centre-back pairing of Houghton and Williamson is lightweight.
To the side of Bright, a problem on the left is that the left-backs in the squad aren’t as strong as Bronze on the ball, with Alex Greenwood having slightly better progression numbers than Demi Stokes but not being quite as good defensively – with Stokes chosen against the three toughest sides England faced.
It’s questionable whether the lack of progression from the left-backs comes as a result of England being so biased towards the right, or whether England are so biased towards the right because of the lack of progression from the left-backs. Looking at the numbers, around 50% of Bronze’s passes move possession towards goal, while ~45% of Greenwood’s and ~35% of Stokes do, so they’re not as progressive as Bronze, but they’re not incapable of progression either.
England could opt for Stokes on the left, having more defensive solidity, knowing that Williamson is more than capable of progressing the ball on that flank. Alternatively, England could continue to pick the left-back based on the opposition like they did this summer.
Moving forward, Williamson for Bright is the only big personnel change I’d look to make in defence following this tournament, to try and help England progress the ball from the back more effectively and with less bias towards the right. I think there’ll also need to be more movement in front of her, with the ball side midfielder dropping in, in order for England to further improve.
This brings us on to Fran Kirby. There are question marks about Fran Kirby in the midfield role, although I’m not sure whether the questions concern her or the system. As previously mentioned, Kirby is a good candidate for the role and has some strong numbers, but didn’t feel involved enough, not creating the same kind of link with the deeper players as Jill Scott did on the other side.
If it is a personnel issue, one player who could be tried there is Jordan Nobbs. Nobbs had huge numbers for Arsenal before she suffered her injury. For players with more than 450 minutes in the FAWSL, she had the 3rd highest numbers for both xG + xA per 90 and pass progression received per 90.
It’s worth pointing out that Kirby isn’t far behind her in both metrics, but Nobbs could be better suited to the midfield role if England stay with the 4-3-3 shape, which Neville seems set to do based on the video I linked earlier.
It’ll be interesting to see what England do in midfield after the World Cup. A 4-3-3 with a ‘1-2’ midfield feels as though it’s more beneficial for Walsh, Scott and the build-up in general, while Kirby feels as though she’d be better suited to playing as a more traditional #10 in a 4-2-3-1.
With Arsenal having strong progression numbers in the FAWSL, having an Arsenal triangle of Williamson, Nobbs and Mead on the left certainly seems like it could help England progress the ball on that side.
For what it’s worth, I still think Kirby can be effective in the role, but I would like to see the trio of Williamson, Nobbs and Mead given a chance together over on that side.
The way I like to think about how England create overloads out wide is a diamond with the base being the ball side centre-back, the middle two being the full-back and Keira Walsh and the tip being the ball side midfielder. If England do progress the ball they can have a 2v1 against the full-back or draw a defender wide from the centre and create space there.
A good example of this can be seen against Japan. You can see the diamond shape I mentioned as Bronze recieves the ball, while Scott’s movement pulls the central midfielder with her and opens up space for Walsh to go into White’s feet, dragging the centre-back out of position and allowing England to get at the Japanese defence.
Having a left side capable of progressing the ball like the right side does should help make England a lot more effective, while also giving them some variety in their build-up – rather than being so reliant on Lucy Bronze.