Updated: Jan 1, 2020
Houston and the Reign met this weekend for an enthralling and exciting game, which saw a lot of fast-paced play, some impressive performances on both sides, and more than a few mistakes. For a game that was a joy to watch, the key moments unfortunately often had more to do with errors than with execution. The key drama came at the end, with a penalty earned, and saved, in literally the final minute of the game. But for this article, I want to focus less on the goals and controversies and more on how the teams set themselves up. In each case, there are fascinating lessons to learn about how these two strong teams will play in 2019.
Houston set up very similar to their approach from 2018, in a 4-3-3, with three central midfielders trying to occupy the middle, two wingers trying to cover some significant defensive responsibilities while also getting forward to spread the opposition’s defensive line, and with play often going through Rachel Daly at the tip of the spear.
However, as the first half began to unfold, there was also some crucial differences. First, Houston pressed more aggressively here than they ever had the previous year. For a Reign team hoping to settle into the game by building out slowly, it was a nightmare, with orange shirts constantly interfering and disrupting play.
Second, new additions Sophie Schmidt and Christine Nairn provided precisely the kind of bite and positional awareness that Houston was desperately missing in their previous campaign. Schmidt in particular shined in this game, constantly clogging up passing channels, stepping forward to disrupt play and intercept passes, and making measured forward runs when the situation called for it. Her performance was a perfect example of how installing a solid gyroscope in the holding role can stabilize the entire team’s structure. And while Nairn was slightly less involved, her presence was also crucial. She had a knack for always seeming to be in the right place, receiving short passes and immediately turning to push the ball forward into space.
The result was a Houston team that still played much the same as in previous years–a direct style, focused on quick attacking passes, trying to create space for the wingers to move at speed–but which also managed to control possession, ending up well ahead of the Reign in both passing attempts and completions. For a team that regularly looked helpless trying to keep the ball last year, this is a significant change.
In the first half, this combination was lethal and the Dash were rampant. They closed down the Reign possession high up the pitch, forcing awkward passes, and generally making it impossible for them to play. This is precisely what led to the opening goal. Though the proximate cause was Theresa Nielsen dilly-dallying in her own box and getting stripped of possession by Nichelle Prince, the setup was a high press that forced the ball back into that position in the first place.
However, things did not go quite as well in the second half, which is a good indication of the risks of this new, more aggressive Houston approach. Whereas last year, after the Dash took a lead, they could rely on dropping deep and setting a low block to frustrate the opposition, this team didn’t seem as willing to commit to defending deep. But they also couldn’t maintain the same levels of high pressure. As a result, the Reign found their way back into the game, finding more room to work with, and probing for gaps in between the Houston lines.
That provides a clear indication of where the Dash will need to focus their attention going forward. Watching them use the whole pitch this weekend was a great sign that they see themselves as capable of taking the game to the opposition. The big question is whether they will be able to successfully adapt their tactics from game to game as opponents and conditions change. New head coach James Clarkson certainly defined this as a project going forward, saying “we have to be able to adapt our tactics, our formation, and the way we play. We’ll look at each opponent separately and develop a game plan.”
For a Houston team that played much the same last year no matter who or when they played, that will be a real change.
For the Reign, this was very much a game of two halves. But even more than that, it was a game of two halves in the first half alone. They came out in a 4-2-3-1, with Allie Long and Morgan Andrews in the double pivot, and with Shea Groom as the number 10. This is a setup with a lot of potential. Long is an excellent player in that #6 role, especially when she is paired with another holding player, since it gives her license to step forward when useful. It also puts Groom into her best role, giving her the ability to move in between the lines and to move with the ball at her feet.
However, the Reign struggled mightily to get ahold of the game, and before they really had a chance to even show how this approach would work, Jasmyne Spencer had to come off for a knee injury, forcing a reallocation of players. Elise Kellond-Knight entered, taking one of the holding roles, while Long moved forward and Groom moved out right. Unfortunately for the Reign, none seemed all that comfortable for the rest of the first half. Long has obviously played the #10 role many times before, but she is not really a playmaker. Groom, similarly, has played on the right wing for most of her career, but was isolated for this period, struggling to put herself into positions to receive the ball. Kellond-Knight simply did not look up to the pace of the game. She did very little in possession, nor was she able to exert a calming influence in defense.
To the extent that they found success in the opening half, it came almost entirely from the work of Darian Jenkins and Celia Jiménez Delgado down the left flank. Every attempt to build through the middle faltered, as Andrews and Kellond-Knight were harried in possession.
The Reign also faced real difficulties in defense. This was mostly not down to tactics, but more a matter of execution. In particular, Theresa Nielsen in the right back position seemed well off the pace, and was repeatedly beat by Nichelle Prince, most notably for the goal. It didn’t help that she was given relatively little support from the right wingers–with Spencer doing almost no tracking back, through Groom did put in more of a defensive shift. The center backs were also exposed several times. Rachel Daly is a lot to handle, but they let her wriggle free more than they would have liked. And the situation wasn’t helped when the Reign were forced into a second injury substitution in the 40th minute, with Megan Oyster coming off.
However, after the halftime break, they came out looking far more settled, and were able to exert far more influence on the game. There were no major structural changes, but there was one interesting wrinkle that seemed to make a difference. While Groom continued to play on the right, she regularly pinched in, and also pressed forward. In the deeper role, she added an additional body to the central midfield, giving the Reign extra numbers and helping them stabilize there. In the more advanced positions, she almost functioned like a second striker, allowing them to operate as a sort of lopsided 4-4-2, with Groom back in that playmaking space that the initial setup was supposed to grant her.
4-2-3-1 transitioning into a lopsided 4-4-2
With this change, the Reign found far more success with the ball, and were finally able to get Jodie Taylor regularly involved. It created a number of good chances, like this one here, which shows the potential of players who can move into these key central players with no clear markers to corral them. In those gaps, Groom began to play a more significant role, receiving the ball with space to dribble and playmake. And as Houston struggled to challenge her, it also created more room for Long to do what she does best: float away from her markers, receive the ball, and quickly push play forward. That potential is illustrated in this move:
Groom receiving the ball in a central position
Working with space to quickly progress the ball forward
Putting Taylor through on goal
Of course, there are also dangers to this approach. With Groom pinched in, the Reign often left huge exposed spaces on the right wing. To compensate, Long put in a good shift, often drifting wider to fill that space when needed, and Nielsen got more into the swing of the game. But the Reign were also lucky that Houston did little to capitalize on the opportunities.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether this was a mere one-off experiment, or whether the Reign decide to employ Groom in this sort of creative winger role more regularly. It’s certainly a role that the Reign have some familiarity with – as Megan Rapinoe has increasingly played in precisely this sort of creative winger role. At the moment, they seem to lack the personnel to make it truly effective. Having to use Long in the #10 left them with two holding players that looked overmatched for much of the game. But once Jess Fishlock returns, which would free Long to play her best position as a ball-controlling #6, this could be a potentially devastating setup.
With the World Cup coming, the Reign will be losing their key creative spark, Megan Rapinoe. This game went some way to demonstrating that they could well survive that absence. Groom on the right could play much the same creative role, and Jenkins showed clearly that she is more than capable of producing a dominant attacking performance as well. If Long – whose ability to dictate play and keep possession is absolutely critical – goes to France, that may be far more difficult to sustain. But if not, the Reign could be one of the few teams to survive those months relatively unscathed.