‘There’s a lot to be said for turning your strengths into super strengths’ Arseblog Exclusive with Leah Williamson

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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.

“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 P90Clearances P90Pressures P90Aggressive actions P90
Williamson1.132.806.387.28
Beattie2.463.383.895.12

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.

“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.

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Peter Story Teller
Peter Story Teller
2 months ago

A top class player already at 23 and if she stays fit can become one of the world’s best.
Her greatest asset, and ours, is that she is an Arsenal girl through and through!

Cygan’sbaldspot
Cygan’sbaldspot
2 months ago

Please, if there’s no football to write about, just make something up 😭

Naked Cygan
Naked Cygan
2 months ago

There is a lot if news, just not on here. With ex Arsenal players having too much time on their hands, they have decided to talk crap about each other and complain. Fabregas is complaining him, nasri, and van Persie were the only players pulling their weight. Now Bakary is not happy and has a go at Cesc. Podolski is complaining that he should have had more game time based on his goals and assists. Arshavin thinks ozil is finished and we could do better. Two more weeks of isolation, and we will have Ian wright mud wrestling match with… Read more »

Onenil
Onenil
2 months ago
Reply to  Naked Cygan

Money on Martin for that one.

Christopher Humphrey
Christopher Humphrey
2 months ago
Reply to  Naked Cygan

The news here is that this chat is about
Arsenal WOMEN.

Ozenal
Ozenal
2 months ago

Passes that count, I like that idea. I think she could help Ozil a little as he plays passes into people, even if they are in really advanced positions, they aren’t always able to do anything with it.

You could say they weren’t expecting such as pass, but I think the same mantra can apply. If they don’t have the ability or awareness of your ability then it is a risk to play that pass.

Torterrier
Torterrier
2 months ago

It’s incredible Leah isn’t one of the first names on the England team sheet. Phil Neville is missing a trick there. Amazing talent.

Tim Stillman
Tim Stillman
2 months ago
Reply to  Torterrier

Phil Neville is missing many things…

Peter Story Teller
Peter Story Teller
2 months ago
Reply to  Tim Stillman

Yup! The Lionesses are slipping backwards while other national teams are catching up. Seems to be insistent on playing sky blue players from his own locality rather than who is actually in form. Brought on a couple of youngsters for the last few minutes of the final game in the She Believes who transformed the team IMHO. Lauren Hemp and “our own” Chloe Kelly are worth special mention but it was far too little too late. If that impetus had been in the team in the last World Cup we would have had a good chance of beating USA in… Read more »

Eeleen
Eeleen
2 months ago
Reply to  Torterrier

Besides Neville being the idiot I think that English media narrative around Leah is absurd. The same English media who overhypes every talent they have, are treating Leah, who is their biggest talent, like crap. There has been more media outrage that Chloe Kelly or Beth England hasn’t been playing than outrage that Leah isn’t starting. In my opinion they rate Leah, but by admiting that, they have to accept that she better than national darlings Steph and Keira. Nobody have balls to call for Steph to be dropped. And in England’s last game Leah played DM and suddenly Englad… Read more »

Peter Story Teller
Peter Story Teller
2 months ago
Reply to  Eeleen

Exactly! Kelly and England both on top form in WSL hardly get a sniff of the action because they are well under 30 we need to fill the team with senior Man City players. No doubt Steph Houghton has been a talis(wo)man in the past and defensively she still reads the game well. Problem is that the years are catching up with her and she is two yards off the pace now. The other irritating thing is that with this insistence on playing out from the back Houghton’s distribution is so slow and telegraphed you could send it on a… Read more »

Chris
Chris
1 month ago

This has been one my favorite pieces of content in some time. She is incredibly articulate beyond the stats that speak for her as well!