Looking at England’s build-up in the SheBelieves Cup

Matchday Three: Spain

I missed the Spain vs Japan game, but after watching Spain against the USA, I wasn’t feeling too good about England’s chances going into the final game. They may have lost to a late Ertz header from a free-kick but they had some strong sequences in the possession and controlled the ball incredibly well. In their last two matches against the US, they haven’t conceded in open play. In the World Cup game the US created almost nothing after a flurry of shots in the aftermath of Spain’s equalizer, they needed two penalties to get past Jorge Vilda’s side.

England made a few changes going into the game. Leah Williamson started in midfield, after coming on as a sub there in the Japan game, while Abi McManus replaced Steph Houghton at centre-back. Toni Duggan was also given her first start in attack, after assisting the winner against Japan, while the shape seemed to resemble more of a 4-2-3-1 with Nobbs the #10 behind Ellen White.

Williamson and McManus were the big changes here for building from the back. Williamson has played in midfield for Arsenal a couple of times this season and has been mostly good. While it’s only three games – and three games against struggling sides – the numbers she’s put while playing in midfield for Arsenal have been hugely encouraging. The values aren’t too important, because of the small sample, it’s more the fact she’s doing things you want to your defensive midfielder to do, rather than looking like a centre-back just thrown into midfield.

In her few midfield games Williamson has completed 9.12 progressive passes per 90. Walsh is the best midfielder in the league for these passes and has completed 7.84 per 90. Looking at some of the defensive measures I was messing around with in the last piece, Williamson is 7th for STOPPs per 90 (it’s a dumb name but it looks at players who stop a progressive pass or win the ball back 10 seconds after one) while she’d be first (by quite a distance) for the way I tried to measure midfielders who put out fires. I defined this as players who win the ball back in the opponent’s half within 10 seconds of their team losing it in the final third.

Again, it’s a tiny sample and doesn’t hold much weight but it’s encouraging. The last figure shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given her aggressiveness when out of possession. It can sometimes be harmful because if she’s beaten there can be space left in behind, but England don’t really have another player who seems so proactive in wanting to win back the ball in midfield – despite wanting to play on the front foot.

Against Japan, she moved up from midfield to press in the move that resulted in a goal, while it’s often you’ll find her trying to step up, cut passing lanes and win the ball back. In the below GIF you can see her scan to see the Spain attacker (the clips not great quality but she glances over her left shoulder briefly), before charging the ball to close the passing lane and in the end, it falls back to Scott who can push it forward. She’s helped by a poor touch by the Spain player, but it’s still good from her.

While I’d like to see her given a chance as the right-sided centre-back for England, it doesn’t look like England are going to drop their captain any time soon. Williamson could bring a lot of quality into the midfield for England though.

A double pivot of Walsh and Williamson could be interesting. England would be doubling down on progression from midfield while having a more aggressive defender in there too. The two of them could sit in front of the centre-backs and allow the full-backs to push further up the pitch, similar to what Norway did in the 2019 World Cup. It also feels like they wouldn’t be too similar. As mentioned, Williamson tends to be more aggressive out of possession, while on the ball often looks to carry the ball and squeeze it between the lines, offering a different way of moving the ball compared to Walsh – who has a tendency to go slightly longer and towards the flanks.

Having a more aggressive defender to support Walsh could also help get the best out of her. At City, Caroline Weir has been putting up some big defensive numbers, meaning Walsh isn’t as exposed defensively. Williamson could do the same for England.

It also means the wide players could tuck in and get closer to the forward, while the #10 (which could be Nobbs like against Spain) can roam around, deciding when to drop and help in the build-up or move up and look to stretch the play.

Looking at the opposition

Rather than look at the Spain game like I did the others, I thought I’d have a small section looking at Spain and the US. Like I said before, I don’t really know much about ways to build from the back, so some of the suggestions I make or things I notice may be silly, but I thought I’d look at what Spain and the US did against England to see if they do anything better. There is a bit of a confirmation bias thing here though, where I could be drawn to clips that support what I’ve been saying, but hopefully that isn’t too bad.

USA

In the opening stages, England’s approach looked quite good. White and Stanway split so when the ball was on the left Stanway pressed it, while White marked Ertz, then the roles reversed when the ball was on the other side. These clips are longer so I have to use Streamable instead of putting them into a GIF, but you can see this below. At one point you can see White signal to Stanway to mark Ertz.

For the most part, it’s a mirror of England’s play from the back in the early stages. They play side to side and end up just going down the line. Horan drops a bit deeper to help but it doesn’t lead to anything substantial.

However, slightly later on a similar move results in the US moving upfield and getting a cross into the box.

This is a move I liked and is the kind of thing I’d like to see England do a bit more. It starts the same as the last move, but after Ertz goes wide and is followed by White space opens up in the middle. Horan drops into it and brings Scott with her, which opens up a passing lane to break the lines, which Press sees and drops deep for the ball. Williamson follows her which creates space down the flank for Dunn to move into. Then the US have turned the England midfield and can move in on the defence.

A lot of football feels about control and space, or controlling space. When you have the ball you want to control where the opposition goes so you can create space in other areas of the pitch. When the opposition has the ball you want to control where they move it so you can keep them out of dangerous areas of the pitch and funnel them towards areas where you can win the ball back. When England build from the back it feels more like they’re being controlled by the opposition rather than them moving the opposition, the above clip feels like the opposite. Each USA movement opens up space for another player to drop into and take advantage of. It’s particularly nice from the left triangle of Dunn, Horan and Press.

This instance is a bit different with them winning the ball and then looking to go again, but it shows some more nice movement from Horan.

When Becky Sauerbrunn gets the ball from Abby Dahlkemper you can see Horan drop to offer an option. After it goes out wide, Horan then makes a second run down the line which opens up space in the middle to play it inside to Carli Lloyd. While nothing comes of it, the US, with seemingly little effort, have moved the ball from the halfway line to the edge of England’s area within a couple of passes. There didn’t seem many instances where England did this. England don’t play with a striker like Lloyd who’ll drop like that, but the bulk of the work is done, again, thanks to the left triangle of Dunn, Horan and Press.

A shorter clip next, which leads to nothing due to a miscontrol by Rose Lavelle, shows why it can be beneficial to have full-backs not always push wide. To be honest, I think O’Hara was going wide but the ball comes across before she does. However, by being narrow and having Hemp press her, it opens up space on the right. Lavelle moves into this space and has plenty of space to collect the ball. Had she controlled it she could have carried the ball into the space ahead of her and/or tried to create a 2v1 with Heath against Alex Greenwood.

I really need to be less lazy and annotate/split these clips so I don’t have to type so much, but the below shows more nice movement from the US, even if it doesn’t lead to anything again.

They reclaim the ball after an England goal kick and once it’s with the centre-backs you can see Dunn push and supply the width, Horan drops into space and Press moves inside. On the right, Lavelle pushes to support Heath while O’Hara is more defensive/narrow. It creates a nice 3-2-5 shape, with O’Hara – Dahlkemper – Sauerbrunn the back three, Horan and Ertz in the middle and Dunn – Press – Lloyd – Lavelle – Heath filling the attacking channels.

When Heath brings the ball inside, Lavelle moves outwards and Ertz and Lloyd come over to create a diamond-ish type shape. In the end, Heath has to go back but then Sauerbrunn carries it a bit, before Press makes a nice movement into the channel to receive it between the lines – and drag Houghton out of position in doing so.

A lot of the build-up follows similar patterns so I don’t want to carry on posting lots of clips that all look the same, but it’s impressive from the USWNT. The movement seems to be in relation to each other and the shape of the team, whereas England feels much more individual. In the below clip you see a similar shape as the one before the last one but this time they get in behind.

You could argue it’s a good pass by Lloyd and it contradicts what I was saying about not relying on individual quality, but it feels different because space for the pass was created thanks to some nice movement and shape from the US.

First, on the left, you can see Horan drop and Dunn move forward, but the ball moves to the right instead. Lavelle’s come out to the wing again, with Heath moving narrow and pushing Greenwood back, but Lloyd drops and Bright charges after her just as Greenwood steps up to Lavelle, which creates a huge space for Lloyd to play the ball into for Heath. Houghton gets across but Heath still manages to get a shot off, albeit from a tight angle.

This seems like a decent place to leave it, with this being the last clip of the first half, but there’s a lot to like about how the USWNT build-up – and a lot England can learn from. The three on each wing – the full-back, central midfielder and winger – work as a unit a lot better than they do with England. If Horan drops, Dunn pushes up and Press pushes inside. If Horan goes forward, Dunn stays back or goes inside a bit and Press keeps the width.

On the other side, O’Hara tends to be less attacking than Dunn so most of the movement comes from Heath and Lavelle. If Heath pushes up and goes a bit more narrow, Lavelle can drift into space out wide, where she can receive the ball in a bit of space and carry it forwards. If Heath stays wide she can drop into that space and Lavelle can push into the half-space.

It means they’re constantly moving trying to create angles and no two players are occupying similar spaces, they’re all offering something different. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a different passing option or dragging a defender to open a passing lane to someone else. It’s also a good example of having a strong structure and good individuals. Because of the structure, they’re more likely to get pockets of space for Lavelle to receive the ball and use her ball-carrying ability, have situations with Heath isolated against the full-back and get Horan on the ball on the other side.

A lot of this comes with a lot of drilling and building relationships with nearby players, which can make it harder to implement at international level. The USWNT have done it, but they do play more games than England and are just coming off the back of their Olympic qualifying campaign. However, Neville has still had over a year to start implementing these kinds of movements and relationships between players, yet it doesn’t feel like much progress has been made.

Spain

Like the USA, Spain have a lot of movement from players ahead of the ball, but two standouts from their build-up play are centre-back pairing María León and Irene Paredes. The two of them are comfortable bringing the ball out of defence and regularly play line-breaking passes.

A lot of the movement ahead of the ball for Spain is similar to the US with the rotation of the full-backs, central midfielders and wingers, but also with the addition of Jennifer Hermoso roaming into pockets of space.

The centre-backs are happy to be patient on the ball and wait for the movement ahead of them. If nothing seems to happen, they’re then happy to carry the ball, looking to commit opposition players and open passing lanes.

Early on against England, they have a nice sequence where they congest the middle of the pitch, having all three central midfielders close to each other, which brings England’s midfield three close together in the middle. After the backwards pass is made, Toni Duggan comes in from the flank to press Andrea Pereira. Pereira dribbles past her, Spain have plenty of bodies in the middle, and having congested the middle have players free on the flanks. They’re then free to turn and progress the ball down the right side – with two players moving in on Alex Greenwood.

I’ve only watched María León in the SheBelieves Cup and World Cup, but this clip below seems to be one of her favourite passes. Moving wide with the ball, she angles like she’s going to up the line and then hits it inside in a Sergio Busquets-esque way. In the below clip she does it once, but after Scott comes out to press she doesn’t return to her previous position but closes the wider passing lane, letting María León play it inside again. In the end, nothing comes off it – in fact, England take it up the other end and Nikita Parris beats the full-back before putting it in the box – but it’s still a nice part of Spain’s build-up.

A bit later on, Pereira shows the value of carrying the ball from the back.

White doesn’t follow her, while Nobbs moves slightly to follow the midfielder (I’m not too familiar with a lot of Spain players and can’t tell who it is) and open up a bit of space. Nobbs then moves over while Williamson is caught in two minds between pressing the ball/closing the vertical passing lane or marking the player behind her. In the end, she goes back to mark the player, which opens up the gap to play the line-breaking pass.

There’s an almost identical situation not long after. Williamson initially goes to move to her right, as Pereira angles her body one way, but she takes another touch and hits it Williamson’s left, breaking England’s midfield line.

It’s not as though she’s doing anything crazy. She’s not slaloming around multiple players, but just by carrying the ball forward slightly she’s forcing England to make decisions. It’s rare for England players to do this. Williamson is good at it for her club (and had a couple of instances of it in midfield this tournament) and Bright seems comfortable carrying the ball with Chelsea, but it doesn’t follow into her international games as often. It may be because she’s on the opposite of the defence. She might feel less comfortable moving towards the left on her weaker foot, which makes her more likely to stop and move it over to Houghton.

Pereira isn’t even in Spain’s first-choice centre-back pairing, yet there’s another clip of her carrying the ball out of defence and moving the play forward from the game against England. This time she actually goes past White before moving it wide, where space opens up after Lucía García drags Daly inwards.

Spain also had plenty of nice possessions against the US. A fairly common tactic for possession-based sides is to bring lots of players into one area of the pitch and have the opposition commit, in order to create an advantage in another area of the pitch. For example, a team might overload the left-wing before quickly switching it to the right-wing and have their player 1v1 with the full-back. Spain don’t switch it all that quickly, but that kind of approach can be seen below.

Hermoso is a big part of this for Spain, dropping from her centre forward position. In the end five US players are over on this flank. When Spain move the ball to the other side, Cardona can run at Crystal Dunn.

Spain also played similar line-breaking passes against the US as they did against England. It’s such small things but below you can see Patricia Guijarro (#12) make a run towards the flank, which is enough to drag Julie Ertz slightly and allow Paredes to slide it through to Alexia Putellas.

A similar situation happens in the second half, again with Paredes playing the pass. Hermoso moves wide and Dunn shuffles over behind her (I’d imagine Dunn would move wide even if Hermoso wasn’t there, but she does seem to be tracking Hermoso too). Cardona drifts into space from the flank and Putellas goes to offer for the ball which is enough to make Ertz move forward slightly before Paredes plays the pass. In both instances, Ertz has moved slightly, which hasn’t necessarily created the space for the pass, but it does feel like it wrong-foots Ertz and stops her intercepting the ball. Had Putellas not moved Ertz could have likely just shuffled over and intercepted the ball, but that’s harder to do after she has that small burst forwards.

Spain aren’t perfect. A lot of times it can feel like Hermoso drops but no one runs in to fill the space, so when they move the ball into advanced areas there aren’t many players there and they can’t capitalise. It’s part of what contributes to their inability to turn the domination of the ball into clear shots.

With that being said, their build-up play and movement from players without the ball is incredibly strong. Their centre-backs are brave in possession, but the movement from the rest of the team to make their line-breaking passes possible deserves just as much credit. It’s something England are missing. Often it can feel like there aren’t many options for the centre-backs, but they also don’t look to make something to happen and force the opposition to make decisions in the same way Spain centre-backs do.