Naomi Girma – A Rock for the Wave

Stephanie Insixiengmay looks at the overall first-round draft pick and shows why she’s been such an asset for the San Diego Wave

When Naomi Girma was drafted first in the NWSL draft, it elicited a few mixed reactions, not least why the San Diego Wave chose to draft another defender when they already had a plethora of them on their roster. Casey Stoney has a good eye for talent and must have seen something special in Girma to make her the first, overall draft pick. So far, the rookie has not only justified Stoney’s faith in her but has also surpassed expectations. This analysis will show why she was chosen as the first pick and what she contributes to the San Diego Wave FC.

Hitting the Ground Running

It didn’t take long for Girma to adjust to life in the NWSL. Though the defender got off to a shaky start in the team’s first game against Angel City in the Challenge Cup, she made sure not to make the same mistake again. Since the regular season began, Girma has remained a steady force at the back. As per Statsbomb, at the time of writing Girma has played 16 full matches. She also has made 29 tackles, 48 interceptions, 18 blocked passes, and blocked 11 shots.

Paolo Maldini once said that “If I have to make a tackle, then I have made a mistake.” Though Girma has made 29 tackles, she can hardly be accused of making any mistakes. As this graph from TransferLab shows us, Girma excels at making quality interceptions and tackles, while also performing very well at 1v1 defending. This means that she knows when to make interventions and times her tackles just right.

Naomi Girma in the last 12 months, ranked against other NWSL centre backs

A shown above, the centre-back is very good at 1v1 defending and tends to win a majority of her duels. Here she is badgering her old Stanford teammate, Sophia Smith, off the ball using her upper body strength. Girma then pushes her into a trap where she then finds Kristen McNabb, who aids her in shutting down the prolific forward. While Smith is a fast player, Girma herself is also quite fast and is able to keep in step with her. The entire sequence shows that Girma is both strong and smart too.

Girma has an active style of defending, getting into challenges and pressing opponents. She has a good sense of spatial awareness and positioning. She also uses her body to push away her opponents and rarely gets outplayed. Witness how she uses her strength to shift an opponent off the ball during a game between Stanford and UC Berkeley.

The centre-back also excels at preventing opponents from creating scoring opportunities. An example of this comes from the Wave’s match against the OL Reign. Girma sees Jess Fishlock barreling towards the Wave’s goal and times her intervention just right to stop her. It’s a testament to her finely honed instincts that she was able to read the play and to snuff out the danger before it hurts her team.

As Gwendolyn Oxenham wrote in an article about Girma, “[…] Like all great players, she seems a touch clairvoyant, solving the play ahead of time. One prescient shift left or right and the forward has nothing, no opening, no space, no ball […] and watching her read space, you sense she’s gleaned a superior understanding of both angles and human impulse.”

Perhaps that’s why she’s good at anticipating her opponent’s movements and is always one step ahead of them. 

While the defender is good at putting other players under pressure, she is also composed and calm while being pressured herself. Here’s an example of Girma using her vision to spot her Wave teammate on the left and passing the ball to them while under pressure from Gotham FC. By doing so, she is simultaneously able to retain possession and break out of the press initiated by Gotham. 

Similarly, Vlatko Andanovski, the coach of the USWNT, stated that Girma tends to take  “[…] just the right amount of risk” while not jeopardizing her team’s defense and leading to any dangerous attacks from the opponent. It takes a very smart and calculated person to find this balance and Naomi has perhaps found that equilibrium. The fact that she’s willing to make a short pass to her teammate in transition is a testament to this.

Her ability to build up play is precisely why Stoney took her first in the draft. The San Diego Wave are a team that builds out the back and Girma is essential to this system. The defender is a ball-playing centre-back with the ability to both anticipate the direction of play and to direct it. Watching her play brings back resurrected memories of the great liberos of yesteryear. The old-school libero would bring the ball under control, stepping past the other defenders while bringing it forward and dropping into the midfield. From there, they would initiate the play by spreading the ball out to the flanks, or playing it forward into midfield or attack. Considering that San Diego doesn’t really have any creative playmakers, it would make sense for a player like Girma to help fill this void. 

And while the libero has been phased out of modern football, thanks to the invention of the deep-lying playmaker, defenders like Girma share key aspects with the predecessors of the past. Like AC Milan’s famous defender, Franco Baresi, Girma’s forward passing is incisive and useful for setting up attacking moves.

Here she is sending a ball into the box and finding the top of her teammate’s head. The defender is therefore able to start an attacking sequence through her pinpoint pass. Girma has the added benefit of being a dead ball specialist who can be quite useful on set-pieces. All of this combined makes her vital to the Wave’s defense but it also makes her an asset in the team’s offense.

The rookie defender has a skillset that makes her stand out among the other centre-backs in the NWSL. As this chart shows us, there are clearly some things she does better than her peers. In a comparison with three other centre-backs in the league (Vanessa Gilles, Alana Cook, and Tatumn Milazzo) Girma is the most balanced across the board. For example, though Vanessa Gilles is better at progressive short passing and receiving forward passes, Girma is better than her at winning 1v1 duels. Gilles is the only other defender here with five metrics at 70% or higher, while Girma is only worst in one category, progressive short passing.

Girma vs Gilles, Cook, and Milazzo over the last twelve months, relative to all NWSL centre backs

The defender has good numbers and a combination of skills that makes her unique, especially for someone relatively inexperienced in the top flight.

However, as is the case with all players, there is room for improvement. If the defender does have any weaknesses, one of them would be in terms of her passing. Though Girma stepped up in place of Abby Dahlkemper, the Wave centre-back who was initially their marquee signing, one area of Dahlkemper’s game that she has yet to replicate would be her ability to spray long passes to her teammates. Girma has yet to perfect this skill, while her short progressive passing also needs work.

Another area where the defender could improve would be her ability to win duels in the air. TransferLab shows a weakness in the quality of her open-play defensive headers, although her duel win % is still good. It is something that Casey Stoney herself has noted as being an area that can work with her to improve upon. The gaffer has also said that Girma is “a very mature player” and that her understanding of the game is “excellent”. She’s also a hard worker who is quite coachable and it is through these traits that Girma will improve to become a better all-around player.

Stoney has also noted that she and Girma have had “a lot of conversations” as the coach is a former centre-back herself. In her words, Naomi has that “skillset in her armor” and is working on “being able to use it at the right times”. Perfecting the art of really penetrative long passing will come over time, especially as Girma grows in confidence. The fact that she’s given the freedom to make these types of decisions at the Wave will further aid her development as a player.

Girma is one of the driving forces behind the Wave FC’s success and why they occupy a top two spot in the standings, on course to make the postseason as an expansion team. They are also very much in the fight to win the NWSL’s Shield in their first season. The Wave FC have broken several records in their first year of existence, including the NWSL’s attendance record for a regular season game.

Girma in action for USWNT

There is no doubt that Girma has played a large part in all this and that should make her a strong candidate for both Rookie of The Year and Defender of The Year as well. But alas, defenders hardly win awards like ROTY, so she’ll have to overcome insurmountable odds to win this year’s prize, chiefly in the form of the North Carolina Courage’s Diana Ordóñez. Voters tend to favour goal-scorers and Ordóñez has scored 11 goals this season.

Even if Girma doesn’t win any seasonal prizes, she’s likely to handle it with maturity and grace. There’s another word to describe Girma that hasn’t been used yet and that word is ‘elegant’. Girma embodies elegance with her style of play and the fact that she’s only committed six fouls this season is a testament to this. The scary part is, she’s just getting started. The young defender has a huge upside and both the Wave and the USA will benefit from her just getting better over time.

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