Tactical trends at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament

1 Aug 2021
  • FIFA’s Technical Study Group have been analysing the Olympic action

  • Central defenders’ contribution to build-up play among the patterns noted

  • Defensive shape and crosses from the inside channel also under the microscope

With goals galore, stars shining and a few surprises thrown in for good measure, this has already been a Women’s Olympic Football to savour. But while football lovers everywhere will have enjoyed the fine play and spectacular goals served up by the world-leading teams at Tokyo 2020, what can be seen by scratching beneath the surface? That is just what the FIFA Technical Study Group’s team of Tokyo 2020 experts have been doing in Japan, and the evidence so far points to some intriguing tactical trends.

Centre-backs' ability to break lines

We observed that the centre-backs took on a lot of responsibility in their teams’ build-up play. Whereas in the past, central midfielders often had to drop in between or to the side of their defensive colleagues to receive the ball, the centre-backs in the Olympics - so far at least - have been good with the ball at their feet, patient and confident in breaking lines with their vertical passing. Their reading of the game in front of them, and appreciation of the right moment to play the ball forward, has also been an impressive element in their successful distribution from the back. This trend has provided teams with more options to make forward progress. The central midfielders have been able to find more advanced positions in the pockets of space behind the opposition’s pressing line, offering to receive and creating passing options. Although the centre-backs have impressed with their distribution, we have not observed a high number of ‘step ins’, especially when space has opened for them to drive into with the ball. If well executed, this could be an effective way to disrupt compact mid-blocks and draw opponents out of position, freeing up more space behind.

Analysis: Netherlands – Brazil

Nouwen (4) passes to Van der Gragt (3). Roord (6) movement to create a passing option in beind the opposition midfield line.

Nouwen (4) passes to Van der Gragt (3). Roord (6) movement to create a passing option in behind the opposition midfield line

Van der Gragt (3) plays a sharp progressive pass to Roord (6) who turns and dribbles forward.

Van der Gragt (3) plays a sharp progressive pass to Roord (6) who turns and dribbles forward

Crosses from the inside channel

After this vertical passing approach in build-up play, most teams tried to progress into the final third from the left or right channels. They used the full width of the pitch and constantly searched for overlapping runs, or runs in behind. In these wide channels, we observed many teams driving with the ball to the end line before playing backwards, where a team mate was well placed around the height of the penalty area to deliver a cross, typically under low pressure. The backwards pass forced the defensive line to step up which made it difficult for them to stay touch tight and also have the challenge to defend the space now created in behind for the in-coming cross. “Penetration behind an opponent's defensive line is always a dangerous space to exploit. To pass the ball back to a teammate at the top of the box, who then crosses the ball to the back or near post often catches out teams who were just trying to get out of the box as a result of the back-pass. In these scenarios, it is very difficult to keep an eye on all opponents and the ball for a defender”, says April Heinrich, a member of our team of experts observing the games.

Analysis: Sweden – New Zealand

Roddar (20) dribbles towards the byline, turns and passes to Bennison (5) in the right channel.

Roddar (20) dribbles towards the byline, turns and passes to Bennison (5) in the right channel

With the back pass, the defensive line pushes up. Bennison (5) crosses in the open space behind to Janogy (7) who scores with a header.

With the back pass, the defensive line pushes up. Bennison (5) crosses in the open space behind to Janogy (7) who scores with a header

Narrow and compact defending

When out of possession and in an organised defensive state, we observed teams staying compact in a mid-block, keeping good distances between the lines and attempt to force their opponents wide. When pressing was triggered this typically came from a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation out of the mid-block. We have not observed prolonged periods of team adopting a high press strategy more so sporadically thoughout the game. In the third round matches in the group stage we saw teams proactively defending the lead or result required and sitting deeper in a mid or low-block, with few attempts to press.

This naturally made it more difficult for teams to arrive into the final third and create good scoring opportunities. The team shape balanced well across the pitch and proactivly closed potential passing lanes to the attacking players in the centre and inside channels. This very compact defensive approach was especially effective, as we observed a lack of sharp and quick switches from teams in possession. This allowed teams to defend with a very ball-oriented focus and leave space in the wide channels.

Analysis: Canada – Great Britain

Great Britain defends in a very narrow low block. This compact structure does not allow their opponents any progression through the centre and forces them to play to the wing.

Great Britain defends in a very narrow low block. This compact structure does not allow their opponents any progression through the centre and forces them to play to the wing

More Olympic analysis from the TSG