Shapeshifters in WoSo (Guest Post)
Yash Thakur discusses women's players with ever altering positional roles
Hi, Grace here. It’s a guest post from Yash this week, looking at some women’s players this season taking up new positions and the impacts of such changes. Enjoy!
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We are at the midway point of the football season and things are starting to take shape on the table across leagues. Every season is different from the one before and no two sides are exactly the same across seasons for a multitude of reasons.
Squad composition, injuries and tactics all present opportunities to try something new every year. A change in manager, a big arrival or injury absentees push clubs to adapt in order to continue winning or be outdated. We see a change in formation or style of execution on the regular in football these days. While positions on the football pitch are a social construct, a change in role/instructions can bring to the forefront an entirely new side of any player.
It’s in these situations when we uncover the “shapeshifters” in football.
Shapeshifters are players who seamlessly slot into a different role across seasons/teams and showcase a different dimension to their overall ability. While some of these are obvious given a player’s strengths, some come as a left-field pick but all of them harness an overlooked trait of the player’s ability.
One of the clearest such examples is Yui Hasegawa at Man City since last season. The nimble footed attacking midfielder was deployed in a deep lying playmaker role by manager Gareth Taylor. Despite the obvious shortcomings in physical aspects, Hasegawa balled as the deepest midfielder and was arguably the best midfielder in the league.
Her close control and vision received a firmware update and enabled her to pull strings from a deeper position. She wasn’t the advanced vertical option anymore but rather a first ball out from defence. This positional change added a layer of spatial awareness to her out-of-possession play and improved her as a well rounded midfielder.
She could still break lines but now has more to her defensively than being a presser. She can use her nimble footedness to release pressure in buildup while retaining her vision to be creative.
A quick glance at the possession value added via passing combinations in the Women’s Super League this season again confirms her ability to find players in advanced positions from her deeper role. Her passing combos with Khadija Shaw, Chloe Kelly and Jill Roord (all attacking third operators) is indicative of her ability as a deep playmaker.
It was an unexpected change, given the player’s strength and usage since her early days, but it morphed Hasegawa into a completely different player. She wasn’t just a nimble footed incisive passer anymore but a shapeshifter who can adapt and thrive.
Let’s take a look at some similar cases in women’s football from this season.
Manuela Giugliano (AS Roma)
AS Roma’s Manuela Giugliano is one of the clearest examples of how a new signing can impact the roles in a side. Le Giallorosse are on an upward trajectory in the last couple of seasons, having shaken the stronghold of Juventus in Italy. Alessandro Spugna’s side are supplementing their exciting young crop with the wisdom of experience.
The Italian champions welcomed veteran Saki Kumagai in the summer. The 2011 World Cup winner with Japan, Kumagai is a defensive midfielder and center-back with tons of experience and, while losing a yard of pace, she is still handy at her craft. Her arrival quickly saw a change in dynamic in Roma’s midfield.
After playing for four clubs in the last seven years, Giugliano has been a mainstay at Roma since 2019 as one of the captains of the side. This saw her establish herself as a deep lying playmaker for La Lupa but, with a more defensive minded player in midfield, things have changed.
Kumagai’s arrival means Giugliano can push up freely and be involved in the final phase of play. The former Milan midfielder is seen supporting play more often in the attacking phase and crashing the box more often. The goal against Bayern is the perfect example of this.
Giugliano starts off in an advanced position as the move develops, identifies and seizes her moment to attack the box, and puts in a finish from close range. The idea here is that before this season, the Italian international would be seen in a much deeper position, akin to Kumagai in the move. This change in dynamic has been a resounding success so far.
This is going back in time for Giugliano, when the redhead midfielder with an oversized jersey pulled the strings in an advanced role for Italy at the 2014 U17 Women’s World Cup. There are nuances to it now, however, as she is more focused on box crashing than breaking lines with her passes.
The numbers paint a much clearer picture than words here. The 26-year-old has eight goal contributions this season (four goals and four assists), just one less than her highest tally of nine in a season. Famed for her long range shooting prowess, none of her four goals have come from outside the 18-yard-box this season. In fact, her average shot distance has gone down.
The underlying metrics back this change too. Her non-penalty expected goals per 90 has doubled from 0.23 in 2022-23 to 0.46 this season. While she is attempting fewer passes this season, her crossing volume has gone up significantly, hinting at her supporting role in final phases of the game.
The Italian midfielder is consistently receiving the vertical outball, with her progressive passes received metric also seeing a rise. Her heatmap shows this change from an anchor to a player involved in the final phase very well. Her involvement in her own half has gone down but there is more activity in the final third this season.
All this indicates a much more influential role in the final third compared to the buildup and progression phase. Kumagai has taken up that role in the early phases of possession and out of possession, enabling us to see a throwback look at Giugliano this season.
Alexia Putellas (FC Barcelona)
Barcelona Femeni are a winning machine, a side littered with world class talent all across the pitch. Their replacements off the bench or in backup positions are world class too in many instances.
Alexia Putellas is one of the most recognisable women's footballers around. The former Ballon d’Or winner and UEFA Best winner is arguably one of the best midfielders in the world. However, 89% of her minutes this season have come at the striker position.
Putellas’ change stems as a result of squad composition and a tactical need. The reigning and defending European champions Barcelona’s midfield consists of two Ballon d’Or winners, one European Champion and arguably one of the most complete midfielders in football.
The need to accommodate all the talent in a starting lineup is big and requires reconfiguration. Solution? Cue a midfielder as the striker or pseudo striker. We have seen examples of this in the past where attacking midfielders are deployed on the wings to create central overloads in the progression and creation phase of the game.
Putellas’ skillset allow her to perform as the pseudo striker and her spatial awareness makes her effective in an out-and-out striker as well. We have seen renditions of both in the season against different oppositions so far. Her off-ball gravity allows her to play both these roles perfectly. Playing as false nine, she is able to drag defenders out of position while as an out and out striker she can pin the defenders, manifesting space in front of the backline for her teammates.
Her physical traits made her the obvious option for this role. She can withstand challenges while receiving with her back to goal and on the half-turn. As the number nine, her presence in the box is palpable.
While Barcelona usually suffocate opponents in their own third, it’s unlike Putellas to be getting a very high volume of touches inside the 18-yard-box. However, this season no player is averaging more touches per 90 inside the opposition penalty box in Liga F than the Barca captain (13.7), exactly three more touches than the next best in the list Caroline Graham Hansen (10.7).
One of the best examples of the Spaniard as an out-and-out striker was against Atletico Madrid this season. In Barcelona’s only goal that day, everything Putellas did mimics the movements of a classic number nine. She starts up high between the CBs, pinning them and then makes a well timed run in behind to slot the ball across into goal.
It’s a tap-in goal by a midfielder with the striker's movements.
Being an already spatially clever player, Putellas has also shown signs of picking up other typical striker movements. She is seen attacking the far post for a cross and making channel runs on the outside of the CBs quite consistently as the season has gone on (as can be seen in the screenshots above).
While Barcelona might recruit another world class striker in the coming years, the in-house solution to their problems is definitely proving to be a fruitful decision so far.
Sjoeke Nusken (Chelsea)
Sjoeke Nusken is an example of what a change of teams across seasons can do for a player. New manager, new ideas and a new squad equals a new me.
Nusken moved to Chelsea in the summer from Eintracht Frankfurt in a bid to address their midfield issues. However, the German international was coming on the back of playing as the center-back in the Frauen Bundesliga.
As a defender, Nusken excelled at recovering possession and relaying it forwards quickly to spring an attack. She was masterful in engaging in a duel and winning possession back for her side. The most transferable of her traits in her move to London seemed to be her long passing ability, but we were in for a surprise by Emma Hayes.
This change is a marginally left field pick if you only look at last season’s context. A center-back turning into a box-crashing midfielder? That’s astounding. However, this was a box-to-box midfielder playing makeshift center-back last season out of necessity The goalscoring exploits, though, are a fresh touch.
Nusken’s game was based around progression and recovery, even as a box to box midfielder. She could win you the ball back and relay it to the next phase. At Chelsea, she is involved in that next phase.
Her performance against Brighton is the biggest indicator of this change at Chelsea. She is consistently offering verticality by serving as an outlet in the final third. Her advanced position to offer support and her presence inside the box is evident. She got off multiple touches inside the box in a single game, something that wasn’t the norm even in her midfield playing days.
With multiple threats in that Chelsea attack, Nusken gets to ghost at the far post and attack deliveries from wide areas. Some of these have resulted in very high value shots for the Blues this season. This allows a greater variance in goalscoring repertoire for Hayes’ side.
In the goal against Brighton, she can be seen as the player making a run from the midfield supporting play on transition and while this is a situational thing, the high volume of activity in the final third, especially the right half-space suggests this was by design.
While she doesn’t get enough opportunities to showcase her long range passing anymore, this has allowed Nusken to develop another facet of her game, adding value to her stock. She might not be a goalscoring midfielder by trade but her chipping in with vital goals from midfield helps Chelsea spread the goalscoring load across the board.
This is how much of a difference playing in a new squad can make to a player’s reputation. It presents the players in a new light.
While these three picks have been a resounding success, there are some more intriguing role changes across teams in Europe this season, albeit a little hit and miss at times.
Clare Wheeler at Everton in a left wingback role has been one such example. Primarily a ball winning midfielder at the base of midfield, Wheeler has been seen playing as a wingback frequently this season, largely due to injuries to the squad and, while this is a left-field option, it has been an interesting one nonetheless.
From a wider starting position, the Aussie is able to invert into midfield and recover possession in the defensive third. She hasn’t embraced the life of a fullback completely, falling short in the offensive phase sometimes. The nuances of supporting runs and the final delivery as a fullback are vital traits and take time to adopt.
There are some other examples of shapeshifters across the leagues, all to a varying degree of application and success. Sara Ortega at Athletic Club in a midfield role this season or Karólína Lea Vilhjálmsdóttir at Bayer Leverkusen as a second striker in a 3-5-2 helping with on and off ball actions alike.
They say change is the only constant and calculated change helps uncover these anomalies in football aka the shapeshifters. If you want to survive, sometimes you need to adapt to your environment.