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All Sun, No Reign: A Tactical Analysis of Gotham FC’s 1–0 Win

The two sides matching up at Red Bull Arena shared more DNA than just confounding (and banterable) brand identities. Despite being buoyed by a pair of US internationals, the offenses of NJ/NY Gotham and OL Reign ranked among the lowest in the NWSL for goals scored. Instead, their successes have been due to their defenses not conceding goals. Both wanted a decisive win to avoid heading into the international break not just with a two-game skid but also creeping doubts about their seasonal outlooks.

Gotham won out 1–0, but how did they get there? What did the game tell us about the club and how they might play moving forward?

Hot Day, Hotter Starts

The NYC metro area was hot, but the pace to start a game more NBA than NWSL was hotter. With both offenses desperate to break through, the frenetic start was no surprise.

OL Reign looked particularly potent. USWNT superstars Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe had their chances early to set the tone for the match. At 7', Lavelle springs a run off a throw-in and pulls in Gotham’s line just enough to give Rapinoe space on the left channel. Even as Caprice Dydasco tries to close the shot angle, Rapinoe slots in a world-class finish. Luckily for Gotham, DiDi Haricic gets enough hand on the ball to push it into the post instead of the net.

Lavelle then gets her turn to finish another quality chance for Reign, initiated by a well-placed, long diagonal cross by Rapinoe at the 11-minute mark. Lavelle, however, just can’t catch up to Sofia Huerta’s subsequent pass into the box, which is cleared to safety by Erica Skroski.

But Gotham did well to match Reign pound-for-pound in offensive opportunities. NJ/NY made it known their desire to put their goal-scoring futility in the rear-view mirror. Despite ending with a shot above the bar, their dazzling end-to-end transition play at 4' showed what Gotham could look like at their best. The offense displayed quick-witted and decisive passing, pace and strength on the ball, and progressive and fluid movement in the space between the lines and towards goal.

And at 13', NJ/NY were the ones to break through. Ify Onumonu connected with Dydasco’s inswinging corner and headed it just inside of the far post. With the goal, Gotham found the confidence to take the reins for most of the match.

Flores and Lee: Keys to Unlocking the Offense

The success of Gotham’s first half is owed to Head Coach Freya Coombe’s pre-game adjustments. After her third different lineup in four games, she might have found the formula to start building on.

One question the lineup settled was who should be the second fullback. Dydasco has been dynamite as an outside back for Gotham, from locking down her side of the box to pushing the ball into the attacking third. Her spectacular play earned her honors as part of NWSL’s Team of the Month for May.

Yet, Gotham has struggled to find as dynamic a fullback partner opposite her. For the minutes in her first start of 2021, Sabrina Flores looked to be the answer.

Like Dydasco, Flores contributed on both sides of the ball, demonstrating both a knack for interrupting and distributing. At the 24' mark, she anticipates and intercepts a Rapinoe cross, springs ahead a deftly-weighted ball forward to Midge Purce, and even wins the ball back after Purce cannot capitalize.

Gotham perhaps should have doubled their goal tally with a similarly constructed long ball. Flores’ first touch beauty was served on a platter, but Onumonu just couldn’t get the shot on target for the brace.

If Flores can continue to perform as well as she did against the Reign, the second fullback spot is her’s to lose. Flores stationed at the channel opposite of Dydasco would shore up Gotham’s already near impregnable backline. She could also continue to create the consistent offensive opportunities Gotham has needed, especially in transition.

To consistently create offense, Gotham also need their answer at the 10 spot. Part of Gotham’s inability to develop in the attacking half was seemingly a missing bridge between the midfield and the frontline.

For the match, Coombe started So-Dam Lee at center midfield. The inclusion of Lee was curious as her current form didn’t seem to pin her as a difference-maker.

But Lee’s play in the match certainly left a positive impact. Her high-energy, box-to-box play brought the spark in the midfield Gotham had been missing. She was all over the midfield disrupting opposing play and winning balls, like at the 16' mark.

Most importantly, Lee helped set the tone for the possession-style game Gotham has been trying to implement. She excelled as the midfield link between the front and back lines, utilizing her skill to maintain control of the ball and her craftiness to find the right passes to push the pace.

The contributions of Lee and Flores looked to be the key to opening up Gotham’s slumbering offense, as they complemented the strengths of their established attacking force.

With Flores paired with Dydasco as the outside backs, Onumonu and Purce have strong support no matter which wing they are on. With Lee running the attacking midfield, Lloyd isn’t forced to drop deep into the midfield, allowing her to play the false-9 and threaten Reign’s backline with her hold-up play.

It all seemed to culminate at around the 60-minute mark when Gotham showed the adaptability and adeptness of their offensive game in quick succession. On one side of the pitch, a couple of quick passes open up enough space to spring forward a dangerous run from the likes of Purce.

On the other side of the pitch, Gotham can maintain possession, patiently develop space with short passes and movement, and decisively make an attempt at goal when the opportunity arises.

Of course, eventually, Gotham needs to be able to get shots from their open play into the back of the net. But after their 2021 season so far, Gotham's ability to take hold of the game with consistent offensive creation is a welcome sight.

You Can Only Hope To Contain Her

While Gotham dominated the first 60 minutes of the match, they weren’t an absolute. The primary reason: Rose Lavelle.

In just her second game back in the NWSL from her time across the pond at Manchester City, Lavelle demonstrated what makes her a world-class player.

Reign looked the most dangerous whenever Lavelle was able to utilize her signature pace. As anyone should expect, her speed was devastating in the open field. At the 56' mark, Lavelle covers half the pitch to put a shot on target.

But even in slimmer channels, when Rose was allowed to turn on the burners like at 46', defenders could only hope to catch up. Factor in her precise distribution, pressuring her with multiple bodies becomes risky business.

There’s only so much you can do to contain a player like Lavelle. For Gotham’s part, they executed a sound plan for limiting the damage she could do.

Gotham needed to prevent opportunities for Lavelle to win the ball and launch Reign into a counterattack. To do so, NJ/NY bypassed center-midfield when developing possession. Flores and Lee were instrumental in this. The former mirrored Dydasco’s threat out wide, and the latter paired well with Lloyd at drifting to the sides of the box. The emphasis on wing play bears out starkly in Gotham’s pass network visualization via Arielle Dror.

This also meant taking Allie Long and Jennifer Cudjoe out of much of the offense. However, both made their contribution felt in the defensive presence and positioning isolating Lavelle from the rest of her attack. For example, look at the 61st minute with Reign on transition. Angelina has to play the ball wide instead of ahead to Lavelle, closed off by Long and Lee (who had rotated into Cudjoe’s usual spot).

If Lavelle ever got the ball, Gotham had to step up whenever possible and disrupt her touches before she could make an untouchable run, such as in Mandy Freeman’s tackle at 54 minutes.

Gotham could also contain Lavelle because the rest of Reign were not doing enough to alleviate the pressure. Rapinoe was Reign’s second most threatening piece. The interplay between the two USWNT mainstays was promising but only amounted to missed opportunities and offside calls.

To regain composure, Reign needed to make changes that offloaded pressure from Lavelle and Rapinoe.

And they did.

Old Habits Die Hard

Gotham has dared to play with the fire that is Expected Goals (xG) all season. Both on the field and in the stats, Gotham has seeming shrugged their destiny to give up goals with a confounding mix of spectacular defense and immense luck.

According to American Soccer Analysis, including this game, Gotham have conceded 5.89 fewer actual goals than expected goals in the 2021 regular season. For six out of the ten NWSL teams, that margin between xG and actual goals conceded is less than one goal.

But for most of the match, it looked as if Gotham was as ready to responsibly handle xG as they were handling possession.

In fact, going into half-time, Gotham was beating OL Reign in xG, as shown in another visualization from Arielle Dror. The keys were dominating possession and limiting the opposition’s quality chances, which Gotham hadn’t done in previous games.

But, around the 60-minute mark, the match started to look more like the Gotham matches we’ve been used to seeing: limited offense and a flurry of opposing attack that Gotham somehow stave off.

NJ/NY reverted to being unable to get out of their half or develop offense even when out. They went back to their defense bailing them out, no thanks to the heroics of Skroski and Haracic, both replacing the usual starters of Johnson and Sheridan, respectively.

Haracic brought her Challenge Cup magic into the regular season to keep the clean sheet in front of goal. And Skroski stood pat at center back, including plenty of critical stops in front of goal, to earn Player of the Match.

What changed? Fortuitous adjustments by Reign and inauspicious tactics by Gotham.

If it’s Broke, Fix it; If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Break it Again

Reign’s subs proved to be the sparks Reign’s offense needed. Finally, Reign could take advantage of the space provided by the gravity of Lavelle and Rapinoe.

Let’s break down the sequence at the 65' Minute where Reign threatens.

After Lavelle settles possession, she and Rapinoe initiate a lovely series of give-and-go’s, allowing them to put pressure on the left side of the pitch. With two players of this caliber, it draws the attention of 5 Gotham defenders, including the weak-side CDM and CB.

Rapinoe then can play the ball center to Danielle Weatherholt due to the space afforded by Cudjoe and Long collapsing so deep. With the defense compacting towards Lavelle and Rapinoe, the ball can be played into the wide-open opposite side of the pitch, forcing Purce to track the winger back toward the corner.

The play eventually develops into a Lavelle chip into the keeper box that threatened to be on target or headed in by a run from Huerta.

Concerned that the match is starting to slip away, Coombe opts for her own substitutions.

Flores and Lee, the two newcomers to the Starting XI who set the tone for Gotham’s possession offense in the first half and were competitive defensively, returned to the bench. Not exactly ideal, but as neither has played a full 90 yet this regular season, one could make an argument for fitness, especially with their pressing.

But their replacements were not strictly one-to-one. McCall Zerboni slots in at CM, but she is less Lee and more Long, known for her hard-nosed controlling play than creativity. She’s also playing her first minutes of the regular season due to a back injury. And it’s Purce who replaces Flores at fullback, with Paige Monaghan taking over as a winger.

So Gotham takes two offensive engines off the field outright and shifts a third into the backline. Does it pay off?

It doesn’t. In fact, it very well could have backfired.

Purce has proven she can excel at right-back, even able to shift into it midgame. However, Coombe perhaps was not putting her in a position to succeed matched up against fresh-legged forwards after her immense usage.

And it showed at the 73’ minute. Reign was threatening at the top of the box, and Purce was caught ball-watching and/or frozen by Angelina. Though Zerboni should have dropped to support her isolated fullback or forced the ball to Angelina’s right where Gotham’s defense was more stacked, Purce also lost her mark.

Balcer creates separation that Purce cannot close off after Angelina makes the pass, as Purce didn’t seem to anticipate it and reacted late. Balcer is then given ample time and space to make a dangerous pass into the inner box that incredibly isn't in the back of the net.

The shot was worth .38 xG according to GameFlow, by far the most of any play in the match.

Coombe then pulls Purce and replaces her with Elizabeth Eddy, who was largely unimpressive with her fouling and ease at giving the ball away. And thus began 20 plus minutes for Gotham to sweat out a 1–0 lead looking all the more fragile.

So what could Gotham have done differently?

They probably should have kept Purce in the attacking front when she was still on the pitch. Similar to Lavelle, Purce’s threat to push the ball in transition keeps defenses honest and opens up space for other players, particularly for someone like Lloyd, who became a non-factor in the second half.

Instead of making Purce drop-down or bringing on Eddy, Skroski could have been sent out to fullback. Although not as dynamic as Flores, she was already playing Reign’s attack well. There were also suitable CB options on the bench, like Lewandowski.

And it would have been nice to see Kawasumi come on sooner to replace Lee instead of Zerboni. Kawasumi’s high-energy, crafty box-to-box play lined up with what was made Lee’s play so successful against Reign in the first half.

Gotham got a lot right during the game but still showed room for improvement. As players return from international duty and injury and newly acquired players get brought into the fold, there should be no doubt that Gotham can build on the foundation of this match.

At the very least, they should stop testing the xG gods before they get burned.

What’s Next for Gotham

Due to the international break, Gotham’s next match won’t be until June 20th. NJ/NY will be away at 1st place Orlando Pride.

Until then, Midge Purce and Carli Lloyd will be fighting for two of the 18 roster spots representing the US at the Tokyo Olympics. They’re likely to feature in a series of USWNT friendlies against Portugal on the 10th, Jamaica on the 13th, and Nigeria on the 16th.

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Justin Pacquing

Justin Pacquing

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pah•KING / he•him / AAPI issues, politics, history, arts, and wherever else I find passion / contact: pacqqu@gmail.com for opportunities