Alex Greenwood's Emergence as an Elite Ball Playing Center Back
The center back could help make sure that it's coming home for England in July
When Alex Greenwood signed for Manchester City in 2020, she joined the side as a left back. However, two years of injuries and squad turnover gave her the opportunity to play at left center back. Her fantastic and consistent performances will probably make it her permanent position.
Greenwood was nominated for WSL player of the year for the 2021/22 season, and rightfully so. Despite City’s tough start, she was a standout. In this post I’ll discuss her qualities in possession in detail and why her left footedness is important.
Over the last two seasons, Gemma Bonner, Abby Dahlkemper and Alex Greenwood have played significant minutes at left center back for City. Bonner and Dahlkemper are right footed, and Greenwood is left footed.
For a possession-based team like City, this distinction is important.
In the 2020/21 WSL season, City played each of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United twice. Greenwood played left center back three times, Dahlkemper played the position against United and Arsenal, and Bonner played it against Chelsea.
I compared their carry and pass maps in those six games.
Greenwood had more and longer carries in her maps. This would make sense for a left footed player playing on the left side.
Greenwood has more progressive passing, and she also looks for the long diagonal switch to right back Lucy Bronze.
The areas to where the three different players pass can be seen better in the heat map below.
Dahlkemper passed to the players nearest to her the most: fellow center back, left back, and left forward. Bonner looked to play her other center back, her nearest midfielder, and the goalkeeper.
It’s very noticeable is that Greenwood passed into the midfield the most. This will be further discussed in her ability to read the game later in the post.
The demand for left footed center backs and their effectiveness in possession has been highlighted in the men’s game, and Greenwood’s emergence shows they can be just as important for possession teams in the women’s game.
The two game situations that favor left footed players over right footed players are in the curvature of passes in wide areas and in carrying the ball into space.
Curvature of Passes
The perfect example of the benefit of left footed passes was shown by Chelsea center back Magdalena Eriksson against City.
Although the curvature of left footed passes is ideal during buildup play in wide areas, there are other game situations where the curvature is beneficial. This can be seen below with examples from Greenwood.
Carrying the ball into open space is important for center backs in possession-based sides. Being comfortable with the left foot allows center backs to have a more open body shape.
This lets them see carrying opportunities and have their body between the ball and opposition players.
When City played with right footed left center backs, they were less likely to take advantage of this.
Greenwood is good at carrying into space. She is also good at recognizing when it could be a source of progression into her team’s attacking half.
Greenwood is not a starting center back for City and England just because she is left footed. She has fantastic passing abilities and range. She is capable of delicate chips over the opposition’s defensive organization as well as long diagonal switches.
Her passes are vital to City’s offensive output. She led the WSL this season with 67 involvements in sequences that ended with a shot as shown by The Analyst.
Reading the Game
One of Greenwood’s most impressive aspects is her ability to read the game. Particularly, she is very patient in picking her passes. She does not rush her decision making if she doesn’t have to.
This allows her to consistently find forwards who make checking runs from opposing back lines and midfielders who have slipped away from their marks in between defensive lines.
Greenwood’s set piece deliveries are very good. They usually have the right amount of pace and curve. I wanted to see if her set pieces were as successful as the deliveries looked to be.
She performs right on level with the rest of the WSL on corners. She is slightly better than the rest on free kicks.
Interestingly, she often takes corners on both sides for City. This is probably because they want to take full advantage of her delivery. I looked at the effectiveness of her corners from both sides.
Corners that were inswingers were taken on the right side, and outswingers were taken on the left side. Straight corners were probably taken on the left side, and she struck the ball so that it would have a straight trajectory instead of swinging out too much.
It’s not surprising that her inswinging corners had the most xA.
Alex Greenwood has worked her way to becoming a world class center back. She and England have a lot of potential for the Euros. It will be exciting to see how they perform.