WoSo Tactical Bites: Alexia Putellas Balón De Oro & OL Reign Mimicking Chelsea
On Alexia's genius vs. Valencia & how Le Sommer-Maroszán-Balcer's performance vs. the Orlando Pride reflected the dynamic of Kerr-Harder-Kirby.
It’s scary to think about what Alexia Putellas’ current reputation would be had FC Barcelona not won the 2021 Champions League title (and in the style that they did). The 4-0 thumping of Chelsea forced an English-centric media to take notice of a generational talent and propelled Alexia to ultimate UEFA honors.
Still, there was the glaring omission from EA Sport’s top 22 ranking in a comically poor list overall.
Alexia may have had a cheeky retort to her exclusion, but she’s generally done most of her talking on the pitch, making her case for the upcoming Ballon d’Or through glorious, dominant football.
She put on an exhibition vs. poor Valencia — who not only had to suffer against the usual suspects in attack and midfield, but Fridolina Rolfö at left back as well — netting a hat-trick in five minutes and orchestrating another goal mere seconds later.
What’s incredible about Putellas is her all-round impact. While the focus will always be on her silky touches, vision, and tricks, she defends with skill and intensity.
You get a whiff of her two-way influence on her first goal in the 26th minute. She simply positions herself in a sound location within the context of Barcelona’s offensive structure and nabs an interception. It’ll go unnoticed and, although I don’t want to exaggerate the level of difficulty on this action, had she dropped to the ball or wandered into the box, Valencia probably would’ve been able to find the outlet behind her and counter off of the scuffed clearance.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why everyone lasers in on the flashy stuff given what happens next; counterpressing numbers turn into the perfect forum to launch combination play and Alexia exploits space that doesn’t exist to set up a disgusting nutmeg and the finish.
And then, she did this shit:
What stands out to me is not necessarily the audaciousness, but the power and velocity of the strike. A lot of these types of goals are lofted way up in the air to preserve accuracy, allowing the keeper to scurry back and possibly get a hand to the shot.
Alexia does no such thing — she blasts the ball like she’s taking a free-kick. There is simply no chance for Enith Salón to recover to her line. The keeper has to make a stand where she is and do the impossible of trying to intercept the trajectory, literally making the strike unstoppable.
Alexia’s hat-trick goal minutes later shows off another side to her game that may be even more overlooked than the defensive stuff — her off-ball movement and runs against the last line.
It’s easy to stereotype Putellas as a more traditional #8 based on her technical profile. Indeed, she does live between the lines, helps dictate the tempo, and nurtures patterns that lead to end-product credit for others.
She also scored 18 goals in 25 starts in the league last season — near-unheard of production for someone so involved in traditional midfield duties. Sure, some of those may have come from the types of spectacular strikes and solo efforts that we discussed before, but a lot more came from sharp, striker-like runs into the penalty area.
Her movement on this is surreal. I expect these types of feints and directional changes from a veteran center forward who irritates purists with their goal poaching, not from a Cruyffian darling frequently compared to Iniesta.
Go back through the archives and you’ll witness similar goals to the one above, in addition to intelligent runs-off-the-shoulder and astute positioning for cut-backs.
Heck, you can even see it again a minute after her hat-trick if you’re not picky about who ends up scoring.
At about 5-6 seconds in the video, Alexia is level with Asisat Oshoala — the team’s lone striker — and ends up receiving right up against the center-back. For once, her finish comes up short. No worries! Mariona is there to clean up.
And, yeah, that’s why Barcelona are a horrifying opponent. If the best player in the world fails, someone who is only slightly less good can step right up.
To be clear: while this is very much a pro-Alexia Balón de Oro post, I think there are a few other valid contenders. Fran Kirby was exceptional for Chelsea last season — and would be my close #2 — as was Alexia’s teammate Caroline Graham Hansen. Vivianne Miedema can never be excluded from these discussions and Sam Kerr probably shouldn’t either.
However, it’s her elite impact in vastly different types of ways that sells me on Alexia’s case. Others might be able to occupy defenses and score and create at elite rates, but they often lack similarly impressive contributions in build-up and progression. Those who excel at the latter tend to do less of the former. And almost no one possesses those abilities at world-class heights paired with significant defensive impact.
I’ve been on a bit of an NWSL binge of late in preparation for some Sophia Smith pieces and, so, I decided to watch something other than a Thorn’s game and caught OL Reign vs. the Orlando Pride.
I’m glad I did.
It was a fun match and fascinating tactically.
It was rather hard to pin down a nominal offensive shape that accurately reflected what transpired on the pitch, but I settled for the above — an incredibly asymmetric and fluid 4-3-3. Dzsenifer Marozsán was basically a false nine or #10, dropping off and roaming between the lines, challenging someone to pick her up.
Everyone worked off of that. Bethany Balcer would come inside and occupy the defensive line while Eugénie Le Sommer floated around as a sort of left-winger and Rose Lavelle attacked the right halfspace like another #10. Meanwhile, Jessica Fishlock would traverse great vertical distances to both offer herself to defensive midfielder Quinn and burst into the channels.
Laura Harvey confirmed as much in her post-match presser, illuminating Maroszán’s free role and how her teammates reacted to it (thank you @SouthernSylvs for the quote):
Maro will play lower and, in some games, Maro will play higher. And, today, we asked her to basically go wherever she wanted. And I think then you've got the clever players like Jess and the clever players like Rose, who work off of Marsozán. And then that gives us this fluidity that's really hard to stop.
And I think you saw that in the first half that we're not pigeon-holing the players in positions necessarily. When we have the ball, we're really, really fluid.
The way all of this came together vs. the Pride was tantalizing and rather reminiscent of a certain blue team from Europe, but we’ll get to that.
In this sequence, you can see the types of problems the Reign’s style caused. Maroszán’s presence in midfield dissuades the normal defensive coverage that would occur when a CM like Fishlock charges forward. Ali Krieger, the ball-near center-back, should really take charge here, but she’s not prepared to handle this type of assignment and checks over her shoulder to figure out where the hell Maroszán is.
Meanwhile, Le Sommer’s presence as a true wide player in this instance drags right back Ali Riley out, creating a massive gap for Fishlock to exploit.
The confusion that follows is ugly and Orlando were hopelessly disorganized on the night, but the Reign took advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses expertly. As Riley tries to recover to Fishlock — an option already marked — Le Sommer turns inside to connect with Maroszán and attacks the area, leaving Lavelle as the free option.
Nothing comes of it in the end, but this was merely the beginning of the onslaught (indeed, the Reign were already 1-0 up by this point).
A minute later, you see a slightly different variation. This time, Fishlock drops off and initiates and Maroszán is the one who makes the run. But, once again, Riley has been pulled to the touchline and Krieger hasn’t figured out how to cover the runs from deep.
The result is a dangerous cross and an effort that ricochets off the bar.
Maroszán’s free role consistently allowed her to overload the Pride’s double pivot, which often led to Lavelle receiving in space. Orlando desperately needed their wingers to put in some work, tracking back and shuttling inside to deny numerical superiority and force longer switches. Instead, it was all too easy for OL to rotate and progress, forcing reactions from a back line that simply opened up room elsewhere.
I selected this sequence so we don’t forget about Balcer. She got a goal and threatened in the box on numerous occasions, but had a wider role to play in build-up.
As the Reign do their thing and find one of many outlets between the lines, Balcer has drifted in from the right to be the lone individual keeping the Pride’s defense in check.
The true benefits of this manifests later on, as her gravity causes a late rotation from the center-back. Had it been a better pass, Maroszán would’ve been flying into a 1v1 situation against an out-of-control defender.
Many of the elements from the prior sequences harmonized on OL Reign’s gorgeous third goal.
Le Sommer’s wide positioning opens the channel for Fishlock and Krieger is late. Just like in the first sequence, Le Sommer targets the space inside and capitalizes on Riley’s shifted focus, making what is essentially a “third player” run.
It’s remarkable to me that Fishlock doesn’t try to play Le Sommer in behind. Instead, she sees what everyone else didn’t (don’t lie, you didn’t see it) and fires a ball to the late-arriving Maroszán. And if that pass was good, god damn, Maro’s was fucking majestic (allowed by Balcer humbly pinning the one defender who could save the day): first time and with the perfect placement and weighting to reach Le Sommer before she drifts offside.
Yeah, so, all of this reminds me of the Chelsea that found their groove midway through last season. The asymmetric 4-3-3 with the central figure dropping off to link play (Harder-Maroszán); one wide player who acts like a striker on the diagonal (Kerr-Balcer); and another who is more of a hybrid inside forward (Kirby-Le Sommer) screams Kerr-Harder-Kirby.
There are some differences (at least based on what I saw from this game). Kirby is far more of an inverted presence than Le Sommer (Fishlock was frequently the one to take up Fran-esque positions) and will sometimes create dual-#10 looks with Kerr ahead of both her and Harder. It’s why I described their dynamic like this in my 2021 Champions League final preview:
The unorthodox use of a classic center forward in Kerr as a “left-winger” and a #10 in Harder as a “striker” led to stuff that looked more like a Christmas tree (two attacking midfielders behind a CF) or a diamond.
But I’m not trying to make a 1:1 comparison. It’s more about the general idea. Generating defensive occupation from nominal wide attackers that flank a false nine-type bends defenses in a way that is hard to handle and produces similar processes across different teams and ~somewhat varying personnel.
Take this goal vs. Everton a few weeks ago (Emma Hayes has moved to a back three instead of the 4-3-3 from 20/21, but the dynamic of the attacking trident remains almost untouched):
Harder drags a defender with her and is able to quickly flick a pass to Kerr, who spots the space that’s opened up and lays it off to Guro Reiten.
The aggressive central occupation demands that Everton’s fullback pushes inwards to help out, providing Ji with a runway down the left. As the fullback changes course, she gives up the space she initially worked so hard to protect and Kirby pounces.
The rest is sheer magic.
Although there was more direct interplay between the front three in this game (which is representative of Chelsea’s approach in the aggregate) in comparison to OL Reign against Orlando, the fundamentals were the same:
Generate superiority in the middle through unconventional occupation from wide attackers and at least one forward dropping off.
Stretch the width of the pitch to throw the defense into a quandary over whether to protect the center or the touchline.
Exploit this confusion by decisively attacking the channels.
It has worked for Chelsea time and time again and it worked for OL Reign on Sunday.
I’m excited to see more of it.