It’s 31st July 2022, and Wembley is ready for the final of the Women’s Euros 2022. There are 62 minutes on the clock and deadlock exists between England and Germany. Keira Walsh picks the ball deep, weighs up her options, and spots Ella Toone making a run in behind. She plays a perfect lofted ball behind Germany’s backline. 1-0 England.
The final will be remembered for a lot of things, from its record breaking attendance to Chloe Kelly’s winner and the celebration. The real moment of the tournament, though, was the crowning of Keira Walsh as one of the best ball-playing defensive midfielders in the game among a wider audience. The player of the match award in the final has been in the making for a long time.
Fast forward a month.
It’s 7th September 2022, and Barcelona Femeni have broken the bank for Walsh, reportedly paying a record fee of 400,000 Euros.She joins back-to-back UWCL finalists to help them fulfil their ambitions of another treble.
Walsh’s reputation has never been higher and for all the right reasons. Her qualities in and out of possession enable her team to regain and control possession along with territory on the field.
In this article we will dissect Walsh’s playstyle and how she’ll impact things at Barcelona.
Distribution and Progression
Keira Walsh is an exquisite ball-playing defensive midfielder. She is the metronome in midfield and as such, everything flows through her. Having played in a possession-based side, Walsh likes to get on the ball as much as possible. She was in the 96th percentile for attempted passes per 90 among all midfielders in the Women’s Super League last season.
Her high volume of passes are executed with pin-point accuracy. Her passing accuracy consistently hovers around the 90% mark. She has a wide variety of passes in her locker, from safe laterals to outrageous switches of play, and she can execute them equally well.
If we look at her passing sonar at the Euros, to understand where and how frequently she is attempting her passes, we can notice the tendency to frequently move possession forwards and at the same time one can see the range in her passing. She adds verticality with her passing and constantly looking to advance possession up the field.
Passing is Walsh’s preferred mode of progression over ball carrying. She doesn’t carry the ball over long distances, using her passing to find players higher up the field.
The right footed midfielder from Rochdale is a savant when it comes to picking out passes from deep. She is able to hit either end of the width of the pitch with her long balls and the execution of these long diagonals is top notch. The weight and timing of her passes over medium and long ranges is perfect more often than not. She has the ability to play the ball to feet or to target spaces with her passes.
The former City midfielder has exceptional spatial awareness, which is down to the frequency at which she is able to scan her surroundings. She consistently grabs a screenshot of everything around her in relation to the ball. This allows her to adjust her body shape upon reception in order to shield the ball from incoming challenges while allowing her to quickly relay passes forwards. Walsh is able to solve in-game situations on the fly.
She’s a dynamic player, quickly moving into space to receive after playing the pass. She is always seen dictating possession, signaling where the next pass should go while providing support to the player in possession.
Walsh isn’t a goalscoring or a creative attacking midfielder, but is integral in facilitating the possession reaching the final third of the pitch. She doesn’t attack the box but has the ability to strike the ball from range to test the keeper. Her ball striking technique, like her passing, is clean.
La Pausa is a skill whereby players in possession of the ball slow down or pause momentarily, in order to draw defenders and then exploit the space vacated with their subsequent action. La Pausa doesn’t necessarily have to refer to slowing down, but can instead be used as a method of waiting for the right moment to pass (not to be confused with a lack of urgency, which is an undesirable trait).
This skill allows the player to dictate the tempo and exploit spaces in opposition shape. It enhances the decision-making among players by cultivating patience and disguise to maximize the threat of their actions.
The timing of a pass is a decisive factor and ‘La Pausa’ encourages better decision making among players on the field by demanding better in-game awareness. It’s a trait that’s usually associated with Spanish midfielders. Players like David Silva and Sergio Busquets had mastered this art form, allowing them control the speed of play while exploiting passing lanes that aren’t visible to the average player.
Walsh has this ability ingrained in her. She has been a long time admirer of David Silva and has tried to model her game around his playing style. She has the ability to hold the ball, weigh her options and then play at the right moment based on the circumstances. She is able to engineer openings by delaying a pass and drawing in players. The perfect example of this was her assist to Ella Toone in the Women’s Euros final.
In a recent talk with The Athletic reporter, Michael Cox, Keira Walsh explains the thought process behind delaying the pass for that assist in the Euros final.
“I kept looking but the timing just wasn’t there yet…I think the centre-half, maybe, might have stepped up and to the side and it just opened up,” she says, explaining the thought process behind that delightful lofted ball.
Another way in which players implement this skill is by disguising a pass. The idea is to open up the body in a way that shows the intention to play a certain pass, forcing the defender to commit before exploiting the lane vacated by this movement. Using a disguise opens up passing lanes that can break the opposition shape. Sergio Busquets regularly used this to get out of pressure situations and be able to break lines at the same time.
Keira Walsh is frequently able to sell a pass to the opponent before breaking their shape. In the sequence of play above, she is able to hold off a challenge and disguises a pass towards the outside with her open body shape, forcing the defender to take a step in that direction before playing an incisive ball that bypasses their midfield line and finds a teammate with space to carry the ball.
La Pausa is a novel concept but being able to execute these actions requires a great blend of vision and patience, of which Walsh has plenty. She is able to disguise her next action and deceive the opponent by using a combination of body feints, shoulder drops and weighted first touch.
There is a rhyme and a reason to everything she does on the ball. A lateral pass is made with an intention of receiving a return pass ahead or in space. A pass is delayed to open up a more threatening channel. A disguised pass is used to open up holes in the opposition’s shape. It’s a game of time and space and Walsh is able to interpret both to her advantage.
Behaviour under pressure
Walsh is a high usage ball player: she likes to get on the ball as much as possible. This is reflected in her numbers, as she was ranked in the 94th percentile for live ball touches per 90 among midfielders in the WSL last season. She regularly shows up for the ball, presenting herself as a passing option, to help her side progress through the thirds of the pitch.
Her ability to throw scans gives her optimal body orientation while receiving, giving her a slight edge when it comes to retaining possession and spinning away from immediate pressure, using her first touch.
By the extension of the position she plays in, she receives the ball in deeper areas of the pitch and often under pressure from opposition. Her ability to cope with the opposition press becomes integral in phases that follow and the England international is a reassuring presence under pressure.
She is among the most accurate passers in world football. Beyond her majestic distribution, she also offers security on the ball as well. She is just as adept at finding targets under pressure as she is normally. Her distribution is key in breaking through opposition press, as she can switch the point of attack, allowing her team to exploit the space on the far side.
Looking at her passing map under pressure at the Euros, one can notice the switch of plays along with the lofted balls in behind, as she boasted a 96% passing accuracy while being able to offer progression.
In the WSL last season, Walsh recorded the 4th highest number of passes under pressure among all players with at least 900 minutes played and despite that had a very low possession turnover rate. She was averaging a measly ~8 turnovers per 100 touches of the ball, once again underlining the safety that she offers on the ball.
Walsh’s actions are geared towards creating favourable conditions for her teammates to thrive. While receiving under pressure, she’s able to find teammates in space with her subsequent actions (passes or ball carries), thus releasing pressure and facilitating progression by-proxy.
During the 2020-21 WSL season, only Caroline Weir recorded more pressure releasing actions (179) than Keira Walsh. These qualities make her team often look for her in possession, and she was ranked in 96th percentile for pass targets last season. She also moves and is positionally aware enough to ensure she receives them successfully, with 95% of those intended passes reaching Walsh.
It’s not just by receiving that she aids in beating a press. By virtue of her gravity, she’s able to disrupt opposition shape with her decoy movements. Teams often closely marshal her on the field and this allows her to drag opponents around and thus create openings for passes into the next phase of play.
Safety on the ball under pressure is good but what separates the good from the best is the ability to simultaneously break the press. The midfielder, with her great in-game awareness, disguised passes and exquisite range, is able to not just retain possession under pressure but actively break through it.
This makes her a great candidate to operate as the lone pivot during buildup and allows her to turn creator from deep midfield positions. Even though this might not necessarily be reflected in assist numbers, she is able to set the stage for attacking sequences.
While Walsh is a very able press-breaker with her passing from deeper areas, her slight lack of urgency on the ball can potentially be a small speck of bother in a sea of overwhelming positives. This seeming lack of urgency also stems from the lack of movement around her and thus a dearth of optimal passing options. This might resolve itself in a team as fluid as Barcelona, where the system allows for multiple passing options at any given point of time.
Beyond her world-class ability on the ball, Keira Walsh offers stability out-of-possession as well. She is able to use her positioning and in-game awareness to maintain access to immediate threats and is able to provide security in transition situations.
Using TransferLab’s tool, we can look at Keira Walsh’s profile under the ‘Defensive Midfielder – Holding’ template rated against all central midfielders in WSL, and she is still a very high performer in terms of quality of her actions. While the volume is low, in part due to a lack of opportunity to engage, she is able to hold her own in defensive situations.
With her game-reading ability, she is able to anticipate passes and position herself in the right spots to intercept play. In the sequence of play above, she is able to read the passage of play before jumping to intercept the pass and recover possession. She is often the anchor in midfield providing the screening presence and optimal cover for her teammates to push up the pitch. She isn’t an all action-high volume defensive player but is incredibly effective.
Her astute defensive awareness allows her to quickly react to loose ball situations, helping her recover possession. She recorded the third highest number of ball recoveries at the Euros, the location of which helps us understand how she provides cover for her teammates. The high volume of recoveries towards the left facilitates the fullback to push forwards while having the necessary defensive support.
Walsh isn’t the most athletic midfielder out there and as such doesn’t have the best recovery pace. At 5’7″ she is not the tallest and as such doesn’t compete in many aerial duels, losing out on them often. Her stature doesn’t give her the largest zone of control but she is able to compensate for that with her positioning. In close 1v1 duels, against the ball, Walsh is able to use her body to tussle for the ball or direct possession from goal to buy her side time.
Potential fit in Barcelona
Barcelona will be missing back-to-back The Best winner, Alexia Putellas, due to a cruel ACL injury suffered at the start of the Euros. Without one of the best players in the world, Barcelona needed to reinvent themselves and that is exactly what they have sought to do with this signing.
Walsh’s arrival is gonna have an impact on the way Barcelona play not in a “completely changing the system” way but in a “finding the evolutionary stone” way. Her addition, besides all her aforementioned qualities, will allow other players to express themselves in new ways.
Barcelona play in a 4-3-3 formation on paper which morphs into a 2-3-5 in settled possession. At times Barcelona may even push as many as 6 bodies in the last line to create a structure that facilitates their counter-press while stretching the field laterally and providing bodies to attack.
Barcelona have had some personnel changes over the summer. The influx of different profiles will see tweaks in the way players are utilized in the scheme. Walsh would slot into that DM role, the butterfly effect of which will be seen on the roles of midfield partners, Patricia Guijarro and Aitana Bonmati.
Barcelona try to create central overloads during their buildup and progression phases, in order to move through the thirds. This dominance in the central corridor is established by having the left winger operate from the central areas by using a nominal winger like Mariona Caldentey in that role, creating an overload behind the opposition’s first line.
In settled possession, Barcelona often invert one of their fullbacks, mostly the right-back, with either the left center-back or the left forward or the left central-midfielder helping secure the central corridor in case of transitions. This dynamic bodes well with the arrivals of Walsh and Bronze.
In England and at Man City, Walsh was deployed as the lone pivot in build-up, which will be the case at Barcelona as well. With Walsh and Bronze, who has a proclivity to invert into the midfield, it’s very likely Barcelona will continue to build-up from a similar shape. The duo have operated in similar dynamics in settled possession previously at both club and international level, which will translate well in the new setting.
This brings us to the next point about Walsh’s impact on the way Patri operates. By having another true defensive midfielder beside her, Patri will have the license to venture forwards and directly influence the attacking end of things. She has a very large zone of control and covers the ground like no other. She is blessed with a thunderous right foot and a knack for making late arriving runs into the box. Patri will have a more pronounced two-way effect.
Barcelona’s ability to monopolize possession of the ball, shown by the highest average possession across Europe, and Patri’s box-to-box role, will in turn help provide Walsh with the platform to operate as a deep lying playmaker by providing the necessary support and cover.
Out of possession, Barcelona usually use an aggressive 4-4-2. This will further be solidified by the dual presence of Walsh and Patri in the two-player pivot. Both players are excellent readers of the game and should provide an excellent shield to protect the team in transition moments.
The 25 year-old will also aid in the attacking transition with her vertical passing and, with Barcelona’s structure and possession heavy style of play, the defensive workload on her will likely be shared, allowing her to further influence games with the ball from deeper areas.
Walsh, with her playstyle, is a descendant of the Spanish school of football. She has la pausa and the excellent distribution and vision to play all sorts of passes on a football field. Philosophically this move should fit Barcelona like a glove and will help them shape-shift while retaining their core principles.
It’s not only about her qualities on the field but also about the domino effect it has on the rest of the squad. It will help unlock the attacking potential for Patri while still providing a solid base to build from. Barcelona have been trying to add depth to that position, with Ingrid Engen unable to impose herself in the few opportunities she’s had. Beyond this season, Walsh will continue to add quality, along with the necessary depth required to share the workload throughout the hectic season for the aspiring European champions.
Walsh is a commanding presence on the field, dictating play in each third, despite her muted persona off the field. Her presence allows players around her to flourish and that might be the most valuable thing she adds to this Barcelona superteam.
Header image credit: Shutterstock/Romain Biard