Much of the talk about Scotland at the 2019 Women’s World Cup has been about their midfield. Before the match against Japan, Hope Solo talked about how she’d like to see Kim Little more involved higher up the field, while afterwards Solo criticized the tactics of manager Shelley Kerr and reiterated that Little should be closer to Erin Cuthbert.
From a more defensive point of view there were also questions against Kerr’s team selection vs Japan, with two attack minded midfielders making up the central pairing in Kim Little and Caroline Weir – although Cuthbert would often drop deep as well.
With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to see if the criticism of Scotland’s midfield was justified or not – particularly from a defensive point of view.
Pass Completion and Pressure
To get the ball rolling and see how Scotland’s midfield performed I decided to look at how often they pressure the opposition in the midfield area, while also looking at the pass completion of passes that originate in the midfield area.
I defined the midfield area as the middle third of the pitch and the width of the 18 yard box.
Looking at the percentage of opposition passes that were made under pressure in the midfield area, the result isn’t good for Scotland, but it’s also not terrible. Scotland may have had the 6th lowest percentage for these figures, but the fact that both France and United States had a lower percentage seems to indicate these numbers can be judged more as stylistic than performance based.
For instance, Scotland may not be applying much pressure to the passer in the defined area, but they may be cutting off options to force them wide and then look to pressure and win the ball.
This doesn’t seem to be the case though. Scotland have the 3rd lowest number for percentage of wide passes made under pressure (wide being full length of the pitch and wider than the 18 yard box). However, France have the lowest percentage so, given the hosts have a 100% record, you’d assume these numbers aren’t inherently bad.
I’m only comparing them because they have similar numbers here, but the difference between France and Scotland is that Scotland also have poor numbers when it comes to the completion rate of these passes.
Going back to the midfield area, only Thailand and Argentina have worse numbers for pass completion, while in the wide area Scotland have the 5th worst numbers.
A small caveat is that Scotland have conceded an average number of passes from midfield, unlike teams like Thailand and Argentina, but that doesn’t mean it’s good to allow the opposition to complete them at the rate they do.
It’s also worth noting that this doesn’t take into account the types of passes that are being conceded and completed. It’s possible that Scotland sit off and allow sides to move the ball side to side, before pouncing should the opposition look to push it forward. It’s worth looking into whether or not sides progress through Scotland’s midfield, rather than just keep the ball in there.
Progression Through Midfield
I messed with my method of progressive passing, opting to measure the distance a player moves the ball closer to goal compared to where it’s been in the possession rather than just flagging up if they move it by x amount.
To try and weight the numbers a bit I also decided to look at the distance they move it closer to goal compared to the distance to goal, to hopefully reward more passes in the opposition half and not have centre-backs dominating the numbers because they have the most space ahead of them.
Looking at passes originating in the midfield area again, Scotland fare quite well with the 9th lowest progression attempted. The problem, again, is the completion rate of these progressions, with only Thailand allowing a higher percentage of progressions from this area to be completed, giving Scotland the 10th worst numbers for completed progression from midfield.
The story is the same for wide areas, only Thailand allow a higher completion rate for these progressions, giving Scotland the 3rd worst numbers for progression through wide areas – behind just Thailand and South Africa.
I’m also only looking at the midfield because it’s been talked about, looking at all progression by opposition teams Scotland still have the 2nd worst numbers for the completion rate of progressions and have allowed the 6th highest progression overall.
Scotland have had some bad luck in their World Cup campaign, first getting drawn into a group with the 2nd and 3rd place teams from 2015, while also having questionable penalty decisions at both ends of the field, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve been too easy to play through in their opening games.
Whether it’s a personnel or tactical issue is interesting, but given both Kim Little and Caroline Weir averaged more pressures for their club sides last season than they did in their opening World Cup two games does lean towards it being tactical.
Scotland have average numbers when looking at the percentage of pressures in the opposition half, but have a significantly higher percentage than teams who have sat deep like Thailand and Argentina. This is echoed when seeing their players who have big numbers for pressures are all attackers.
Splitting pressures between the three thirds, Scotland have the 8th lowest proportion of their total pressures coming in their middle third. Like others number mentioned though, this isn’t inherently bad, U.S.A., Sweden and England all have a lower percentage, but these teams make up for it by being much more active in the final third.
Scotland face a different test in their final group game against Argentina, but if they do manage to go through as one of the best 3rd place teams they’ll need to find a way to make it harder for teams to play through them and their midfield in particular- whether it’s to to be more effective when they do press high up the pitch or to drop into more of a mid-block, allowing the opposition to have the ball in front of them, but make it difficult to move the ball through the midfield.