Data in Context: How has Ellen White Adapted her Game?

Dan Pritchard uses data to look at how the Lionesses forward has reshaped her approach to football under successive coaches

Data is a useful tool, an incredibly useful one in fact. Its increased use in football by the most successful teams and federations is testament to that; it removes biases allowing one to view the game through a more objective lens. Through data like expected goals we have come to a better understanding of the value of chance creation, and subsequently altered tactics thanks to that understanding; expected threat is likely to create a better understanding of build up play and do the same. Despite this, as a tool event data can only be used to determine what has already occurred. This is a valuable insight but interpreting data requires context. What system is a side playing? What role is a player performing? This context, when combined with data, is what leads to the most interesting insights into the sport – not just what, but why

To demonstrate this we can look to the timely example of Ellen White, until recently the England National Women’s Team’s undisputed starting centre forward. White was joint top scorer in the 2019 world cup with six goals, propelling her move to Manchester City and subsequent Ballon d’Or nomination in 2021 after 25 goals and four assist in all competitions. This year has been a different story, however. White scored just four goals in a league campaign that saw City drop to third. She is also facing increased competition for her Euro 2022 England spot from the all-round game of Alessia Russo, who has scored three goals in four substitute appearances, and assisted Ella Toone’s crucial equaliser against Spain in the quarter finals. Under pressure and producing less, White’s 2021/22 is easily characterised as a difficult season.

White is now 33-years-old and it is fair to ask whether she is coming to an end of her time at the top, and if a decline in her physical abilities is the cause of her struggles throughout the last year. To investigate this we can start by creating a radar chart comparing White’s three seasons for Manchester City, looking at several key metrics for centre forwards, and seeing how those performances have changed after her arrival there at 30. 

The radar chart paints a pretty clear picture of the last three seasons. White is a penalty box number nine, focused on scoring rather than creatively linking play. She has few shot-creating actions or key passes and does not regularly take the ball into the box across all her seasons at City. It would appear that she is increasingly focused on goal scoring too, with lower expected assists per 90 season upon season, meaning she is creating fewer or poorer quality chances for her teammates.

Defensively she has never been a particularly active ball winner with few tackles or interceptions, though she is effective and difficult to dribble past when challenging opponents. The large change in her defensive work as she’s aged, however, has been the volume of pressures she applies to opponents, from 30.4 pressures per 90 in 2019/20 to 17.6 in 2020/21, and lower still to 14.9 per 90 last season. This drop was most significant after her first season and not the ‘difficult’ 2021/22 season. The picture in front of goal supports a narrative of a striker increasingly focused on goal scoring as she ages, though again this begins in 2020/21. Both the number of aerial duels she enters and her success rate in them has risen from winning 30.8% of her 2.73 duels per 90 in 2019/20 to 50.8% of 4.63 duels per 90 in 2021/22. Her number of shots on target has experienced a small drop in volume, and she is less able to carve out quality chances, with her npxG dropping from 0.63 to 0.42 per 90 in real terms.

From this data it is easy to form a picture of a less mobile, but nonetheless still effective forward who is using her experience to position herself in the box for shots and aerial duels. However, this does not fully explain White’s lower tally of four WSL goals, or one goal every three matches last season, compared to her roughly one every other game in 2020/21 with a similar non-penalty expected goals tally. To better understand this, we can compare her xG per game to her actual goals during her time at City. 

Comparing Ellen White’s xG to goals somewhat conflicts with the difficult 2021/22 narrative by showing a drop in the quality of chances she has received after her first season for the Cityzens. Her six goals in 10 starts is almost exactly in line with her 0.63 xG per 90 during her first season. During her second season however, while the quality of chances reduced to 0.46 xG per 90, her goal scoring though remained at the six in 10 level of her first season. This over-performance of her xG largely stems from a hot streak of 6 goals in 7 matches around the Christmas and New Year fixtures. White’s ‘difficult’ third season then begins to look like her goal scoring is simply ‘regressing to the mean’ after this period. Her two goals in 13 starts (two of her goals have come from the bench) is an underperformance, but across her three seasons at Manchester City White’s 18 WSL goals from 42 starts aligns closely with her accumulated xG of 17.4. 

Looking at White’s other metrics, it is easy to build a narrative of an ageing striker from these data: Ellen White has increasingly focused on goal scoring at the expense of pressuring the opposition and creating opportunities for others to score. This is a common trait in older forwards like Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo, who use their experience to carve out opportunities for themselves but seem to contribute little else to the collective.

There are inconsistencies in this narrative though. First and foremost this change in her game actually occurred rapidly between the COVID-truncated 2019/20 season and 2020/21, rather than a slow decline across several seasons. Secondly, with regard to her defensive actions, her drop in pressing numbers also coincides with an increase in her pressure success, from 29.1% to 36.1% last season, the highest of any forward in the WSL. And, while her link-up numbers like xA and key passes are indeed lower, she has greatly increased her possession passing and dribbling. White plays an average of 5 more passes per 90 than when she joined City and with a 79.6% completion rate, the highest of any forward in the WSL. Similarly, she is better at keeping possession when carrying out her one dribble per 90, with her success rate going from 20% to 79.6%. It is clear something else is happening behind the data which will provide a better idea about how Ellen White’s game has developed. 

The context surrounding changes in Ellen White’s tactical profile and eventual downturn in form can be explained quite simply. Manchester City Women had a very different tactical approach under Nick Cushing and Alan Mahon in 2019/20 than under Gareth Taylor for the last two seasons. White has adjusted her game to this change in style, which has seen City create a greater number of high quality chances, but at some expense to her own goal scoring. She has, in fact, sacrificed aspects of her own game for a more productive system overall. This relatively simple, but conetxtual, explanation shows why data needs to be read alongside tactical shifts.

To start, we can look at City’s broad approach on the ball. 

When Ellen White joined City in 2019 the system looked on paper to be a 4-4-2, though in buildup it looked like a 3-5-2, and in attack could be described as a 3-2-1-4. The approach made particular use of Janine Beckie’s athleticism and White’s ability to capitalise on cut backs or low driven crosses into the box. Beckie, an attacking right winger, was deployed in the right full back position. She used the space afforded her to be the side’s primary method of progression, often receiving the ball at the halfway line and driving down the wing. The right winger of the midfield four was often Jill Scott, but the versatile midfielder would cut infield to assist build-up with Beckie and arrive late into the box. Her presence behind the front four also offered a possession passing option. Lauren Hemp found space and stretched opposition back lines from the opposite wing, while White’s role differed depending on her strike partner.

When lined up with a more creative option like Georgia Stanway or Tessa Wullaert, White would be a goalscoring 9 on the shoulder of the last defender. Her regular position on the left of the two forwards meant she was often in the lucrative central or left half-space to receive a cross or cut back from the heavily right sided buildup, and found plenty of high quality opportunities to shoot from the back post. When paired with another 9 like Pauline Bremer, White would drop off to act as a possession passing option interchangeably with her counterpart in buildup before taking the left half space in attack. In this approach it is clear why White’s personal on-ball attacking number are elevated compare to the following seasons: her higher key passes, carries into the box, and xA are indicative of a forward being asked to provide for a partner as well as herself. Of the England international’s three assists, two were to her strike partner while the other was to the similarly advanced Hemp. It is also clear that the right-sided buildup and emphasis on low crosses benefited White’s excellent ability to find space in the box and physically get the better of defenders to create high value scoring opportunities. 

Gareth Taylor’s tactics, though, are much more in line with Pep Guardiola’s approach to the game for the men’s side, and adopted to some extent throughout the City Group football teams. The side now line up in a 4-3-3, and look like a 3-2-5 in attack. The wingers Hemp and Jessica Park hold the width to allow the two ‘free 8s’, often Stanway and Vicky Losada, to fill the half spaces. A full back, usually Lucy Bronze, joins the midfield line with Keira Walsh to offer defensive security and two possession passing options. Though it naturally varies with the tenets of positional play, this is often the approach City take. White takes up the centre forward position and may offer people a chance to see how the men’s side will look with a more orthodox number 9 in Erling Haaland next season, as she rarely rotates out of the central space.

The side as a whole are more possession focused, going from an average of pre-Taylor average 55% to 65.4% under him, and have seen their xG per 90 rise from 1.99 to 2.12, peaking at 2.52 in 2020/21. This approach, however, demands less of White as the primary goalscorer, as chances will often fall to the wingers cutting inside or to the free 8. She is also not the creative force of the side, which has reduced her xA, though her overall possession play has improved as previously outlined, and she will drop to offer a passing option in buildup.

These tactical changes have been extended to the off-ball pressing structure as well, and here White plays a very different role. In 2019/20, the two forwards were incredibly busy in the press, and its basic structure can be seen in this match against Birmingham City.

The side pressed high, with one forward closing down the opposition ball carrier, backed by the wingers and the other forward dropping to make a 3-1, with the three tasked with marking passing lanes. White’s physicality meant that she was often the one pressuring opponents, with the aim being to directly win back the ball. Her role in Gareth Taylor’s pressing system is quite different however, and largely explains the subsequent drop in pressing volume, but increased success rate. 

White’s role still requires pressing, particularly against opponents that will play out from the back like these examples against Arsenal in 2021 and Tottenham in 2022. White’s role is not necessarily to win the ball herself but apply pressure to the ball carrier to play a risky pass into a crowded midfield area, where City can win the ball and recycle possession. To do this, she curves her run to block a simple passing option to the another centre back in her cover shadow, like in the examples above, although the triggers of when she does this differ with opposition. Her pressing role is more situational than the constant load of her role in in 2019/20. Additionally, rather than applying pressure in a counter-press when the opposition win the ball back, as she did in her first season, this role is taken up by an advanced 8 while White takes up a ‘rest attack’ position on the shoulder of the last defender. Here’s an example against Bristol City in 2020. 

Her goal here is probably to be in a position to capitalise on a scoring opportunity should the ball break her way, although City prefer the recycle possession to the centre back after winning the ball ideally. 

This very different approach has resulted in a decrease in City’s xGA. It was 0.87 in 2019/20, 0.60 in 2020/21 (when Gareth Taylor became coach), then went back up to 0.72 in 2021/22. Again, this shift takes responsibility from Ellen White and places it on the collective. The lower load has the additional benefit of aiding the 33-year-old as she ages; 24-year-old Bunny Shaw’s similar role in the press and resulting statistics demonstrate this is a tactical choice rather than one forced by declining physicality of the forward. 

Ellen White’s ‘difficult’ 2021/2022 season, and hard time making an impact at this summer’s Euros, appears to have little to do with a declining physicality. Her energy and desire to win the ball can still be seen whenever she is on the field. She is tactically intelligent and has adapted to a different role from a strike partnership to single number 9 well. White and her club face increasing competition, for Manchester City in the form of increasing investment from other sides into the women’s game, and for White herself in the form of a younger type of forward, one with a more complete game, as able to create chances as score them. Tournament football, though, is often about individual moments and single goals, and so it is understandable that Sarina Wiegman continues to pick the experienced specialist. 

The example of Ellen White’s changing role is one example of how data alone can lead to a misleading idea of what is happening. As a striker, it feels most appropriate to judge White on her attacking output and so a decline in absolute terms of goals and assists looks like a decline as a player. But this article has shown how the answer to any data vs traditional scouting debate is always some combination of the two. This provides the fullest picture of a team or player and, in White’s case, clearly contextualises a reduction of one type of output by balancing that against a longer term trend and a tactical transition. Data requires context and interpretation to be used appropriately, and teams who really understand their use do exactly this.

Header image credit: Shutterstock/Jose Breton/Pics Action

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