Unlocking success: Spain's central play at the Women's World Cup

Unlocking success: Spain's central play at the Women's World Cup

There are many different ways to win a game of football, from fast counter-attacking to set play specialists.  Another is to control possession of the ball. In this blog, Game Insights analyst Dan Simpson, shines a light on how dominating central areas with the ball can reap even more rewards than simply having more possession than your opponent.

When we talk about central areas, we are referencing the area of the pitch around the centre circle, and the video below shows some ways in which teams are getting the ball into this area and what they are doing with it when they get there.

If your game strategy is to dominate central areas with the ball then you’ll be pleased to know that over the last three seasons in the Premier League, winning teams had an average of 52% possession, and in the WSL, this was significantly higher at 57%. We are then seeing that this figure increases to 53% in the Premier League and 60% in the WSL when we look at how much possession winning teams had against their opponents within central areas.

Manchester City have had the highest average central area possession over the last three seasons with 73%, playing 67 passes per game into central areas, and have experienced a lot of success having won the last three Premier League seasons.  However, having high amounts of possession in this area alone won’t necessarily return points on the board as can be seen this season by West Ham’s 3-1 win against Brighton, despite Brighton having 91% of central possession. 

Facing a strong low block and a quick counter-attacking team can pose the biggest challenges, an approach that reaped huge rewards for Wolves when they became the first team to beat Manchester City this season despite only having only 17% of central possession.

Playing into central areas (Spain at the Women’s World Cup)

At the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, teams made an average of 38 passes per game into central areas, a figure far surpassed by tournament winners Spain (55) and a Germany side who failed to get past the group stages (72). 

Individual team playing styles and opposition factors will largely dictate where teams play and using Spain as a case study, we can see that 36% (20) of all passes into central zones came from centre backs.  This may come as no surprise as in recent years we have seen centre backs becoming much more technically proficient, displaying the skill set to step into midfield areas with the ball, enabling players ahead of the ball to take up more attacking positions.  Manchester City’s Ruben Dias (93 passes per 90 last season), and Arsenal Women’s Leah Williamson (77 passes per 90) are excellent examples of this.

Interestingly, throughout the Women’s World Cup it was clear that Spain had central midfielders who were comfortable leaving central zones to receive in half spaces from full backs or wingers to then play inside to keep possession or switch the play.  This accounted for 29% (16) of all passes into central areas.  This leaves a total of 35% of passes into central areas coming from other players and again will be largely dictated by individual capabilities or team playing style.  In Spain’s case 28% (16) came from wide players, either full backs or wingers, and just 4% (2) from their centre forwards.

Observing Spain, they would look to get their wingers into 1v1 situations with the opposition full back, particularly through Salma Paralluelo who attempted a whopping 8 1v1s per game across the tournament.  However, when she was unable to attack her direct opponent, she would retain possession by playing back through central areas to switch play out the other side. 

Coaching considerations

So, we are seeing that teams who dominate possession across the pitch win more games, and teams who dominate possession in central areas win even more games.  When observing how the ball is getting into the central areas, it’s clear that this is dependent on your team’s strategy with the ball.  However, we are seeing the ball coming in from a wide range of players, and from all angles and it’s important when creating game realism within practice design that we accommodate for this.

Keep your eyes peeled for the follow up to this blog where we explore some further insight and demonstrate how you might amend a simple central areas practice to create more game realistic sessions for preparing your players for what they might face on match day.  We will start with the practice below, and although it might not replicate the 11v11 game, it is an excellent way to provide your central midfield players with lots of repetition in and opportunities to practice some core skills like receiving, passing, intercepting, and tackling under pressure.