Leah Williamson has been a mainstay of the Arsenal team since she was 18 years old. Operating in a variety of positions in her formative years, Leah has settled into the centre-half role on a virtually full-time basis since Joe Montemurro’s appointment in December 2017. Watching Leah’s performances at centre-half it quickly becomes clear that she is far more than just the last line of defence, she is the first line of attack.
“I’ve always known that if I am going to get picked, that (passing) is going to be one of the main reasons,” Leah explains. “When you’re growing up, you are told to work on your weaknesses, but there’s a lot to be said for making your strengths into ‘super strengths’ so to speak. When I review my games, it’s one of the things I look for very closely.”
The data (provided by Statsbomb) speaks for itself in this respect. Williamson has an 87% passing success rate which, considering she averages 9.76 long passes per game (the highest in the Arsenal squad) is not too shabby. Crucially, for Leah, good pass completion stats are nice but they don’t and shouldn’t tell the whole story.
“It’s not just about getting the ball to a teammate, it’s making sure that they can do something with it when they receive it,” she says. Leah is in the 98th percentile in the WSL for XG build-up. XG build-up essentially measures how many of the moves you are involved with that end with shots on goal. In short, Leah makes passes that count. Williamson has played in midfield, at centre-half and at full-back during her Arsenal career and she thinks that versatility has improved her panorama.
“I’ve played in quite a lot of positions, not just centre half and central midfield and it’s given me good experience of getting the ball from A to B from different angles.” Nobody in the Arsenal squad has outperformed their XA (expected assists) more than her this season, she averages 0.20 assists per game from an expected rate of 0.06 per game.
Williamson’s prominence as a creator has been recognised by opposition coaches, she has often found herself man-marked in games during 2019-20. Spurs played a front two against the Gunners in November specifically to block the passing lanes from her and Jen Beattie. Manchester City detailed Canadian striker Janine Beckie to stay at close quarters to Leah during Arsenal’s 1-0 win over City in October
“The City game took me by surprise the most, because they’re such a good team you don’t always expect it,” Leah admits. “Jen Beattie played next to me in that game and she has played for City, so they know how good she is on the ball. It was almost redundant because it meant she had more time. But this (being marked) has happened to me more this season, for sure.”
The 23-year old insists she enjoys this sort of close attention from the opposition. “It creates a different mindset, because you get less time on the ball. So on one hand you’re trying to affect the game in a short space of time under pressure, but you’re also not trying to force it either. It changes my game quite a bit when I’m marked, but I quite like it, I like pressure.”
In January, Leah chalked up three assists in two games, two from inside her own half. To evade increased opposition pressure, she has had to make some alterations, something she has discussed in-depth with coach Joe Montemurro. “Joe likes for there to be as many lines as possible in the team. So it’s not just about sitting in a 442 with a defensive line, the midfield line and then the forwards. It’s about creating as many passing lanes as possible.
Can *anyone* pull out a long-range pass better than @leahcwilliamson?
— Barclays FA Women's Super League (@BarclaysFAWSL) January 13, 2020
“Something Joe and I talk about a lot is making the pass easier. If I can play a cross field pass from 40 yards, he tells me to imagine how much easier it is to make it from 20 yards because I’ve positioned myself a bit higher.” Leah says drifting to the right has become natural in her efforts to evade pressure from opposition attackers. “Sometimes if I move to the right, I can break a line and take the opposition strikers out of the equation and some of those progressions become assists because everyone is higher up the pitch.”
With opposition teams more clued into the importance of Lia Walti at the base of Arsenal’s midfield, Leah has dribbled the ball out of defence more regularly this season. She has a 90% dribble success rate, by far the highest in the Arsenal squad (Kim Little is second on 79% and Jill Roord third on 76%). She also has the longest average ‘carry length’ of all the centre halves- she averages 4.97m per dribble, compared to Jen Beattie’s 3.60m and Viki Schnaderbeck’s 4.67m.
“If there’s no pass on, I’m not going to stand on the ball I’m going to move and try to create the passing lane myself, that’s something Joe and I talk about too,” she reveals. Leah says that the approach is often worked out in-game, sometimes it’s a game for line-breaking passes and sometimes she needs to take the ball for a walk, depending on the approach of the other team. “When I see what the other team are doing, that will make the decision,” she says.
“The easiest way to break a line is by dribbling and creating one yourself. If the team have cut off your passing lanes, you create one yourself by dribbling out. It also makes the next pass easier and suddenly I am passing from midfield into the final third instead of from centre-half into the middle third. If they’re man-marking Lia, it gives me freedom and space to pick passes.
“Lia and I have a good understanding, so we both know when we need to provide security for one another in transitions and she’s great at filling in if I go forward.” It is not just Walti with whom Leah has enjoyed a fruitful partnership. She has formed good partnerships with Louise Quinn, Jen Beattie and Viki Schnaderbeck this season. Williamson and Beattie is Montemurro’s most regularly deployed duo and while both players use the ball well, there is a clear delineation of defensive responsibility.
|Aerial duels won P90||Clearances P90||Pressures P90||Aggressive actions P90|
Leah leaves her post to aggressively engage attackers, while Beattie stays in the defensive line, sweeping up and winning aerial duels. “I’ve always been a front-footed defender and maybe that does come from being a midfielder and at Arsenal I’ve always had someone different to me next to me in defence, so that we complement one another. I like engaging in a one v one early in a move, higher up the pitch. I’m not the tallest defender, whereas the likes of Jen and Louise are unbeatable in the air. In an aerial battle I might not come out on top, that’s just genetics!”
The data (and indeed the eye) shows that Williamson excels in duels. She has 71% dribbles stopped this season, by far the highest success rate in the Arsenal squad (Miedema is second with 64% dribbles stopped and Walti third on 56%). “People have always told me that I’m a good one v one defender, but I don’t have the biggest, strongest physique,” Leah reflects.
“I’ve never been too small or too weak, but the biggest players on the pitch tend to be centre-halves and strikers. So I am used to playing alongside and against people that are bigger than me or that have a stronger physique. I’ve had to learn to be clever.” Leah says that she has come to view one versus one defending as a game of psychological cat and mouse.
“I try to make the player make the decision by engaging them early and showing them a side, encouraging them to try to go past me. I’ve had to learn how to use my body and I back myself for speed when a player tries to take the ball around me too. My mum was a defender and she always told me to watch the ball and not the player, so I have been trying to master that since I was a kid.”
Williamson’s role has not just been confined to defence this season. With Lia Walti sporadically unavailable, she has been called upon to play in defensive midfield, a position she was very familiar with from her teenage years. However, the Gunners number 6 admits that playing slightly further forward takes some adjusting to. “The biggest difference is receiving the ball; you receive from a defender and have to turn on it and it’s something Lia does so well.
— Barclays FA Women's Super League (@BarclaysFAWSL) September 29, 2019
“In defence, the game is totally in front of you, the movement is ahead of you and you have time. As a 6, you receive with your back to goal and you’re often under pressure, so you have to turn out of that situation. It’s a much more 360 role. That’s the part that always takes me the longest to adjust to when I play there.” It’s a challenge the Arsenal academy product relishes, however. “I really love playing in midfield though because you’re always involved.
“At centre-half you have a great view of what’s going on, but it’s not always your time to get involved. In midfield, it’s always your time to affect the game. Once I settle into the games I really enjoy it, but I would be lying if I said it was an easy transition.” A final stat jumps out when assessing Leah’s data- one that I neglect to mention to her during our conversation- nobody has completed 90 minutes more often in the Arsenal squad this season. Few metrics emphasise her importance to this Arsenal team more emphatically than that.