2017 has been a good year for defenders moving into the midfield. First, was Julie Ertz with Chicago. And this weekend, we got another fascinating (and potentially transformative) example, with Christina Gibbons stepping out from her traditional left back role to patrol the central midfield for KCKC.
It’s impossible to discuss any part of KC’s season this year, without mentioning Amy Rodriguez, whose injury in the first game of the season threw everything into chaos. It’s hard to think of many players in the league that would have been more essential to the team’s plan going into the year. Without Rodriguez, they lack a true linking player in their attack. Despite immense talent (the KC frontline looked to be one of the most dangerous in the league at the start of the season), they’ve struggled mightily to find the creativity that can help unleash the full talents of Sydney Leroux and Shea Groom—who both work better as slashing attackers rather than as central strikers. Combined with the absence of Mandy Laddish, it’s been tough times down the middle for Kansas City this year.
Now, they are hardly without resources, and Vlatko has managed to put together a solid Plan B: a system with two holding midfielders at the base of a compact 4-2-3-1. The goal is to put a firm hand on the throttle, keep control of the game, and prevent the other side from getting the chance to come at you. But it’s hard to spend the whole year in a defensive crouch, and to his credit, he’s continued to tinker at the edges—looking for a way to get his talented attacking players better looks at goal.
A bit of serendipity brings Gibbons to central midfield
And this weekend, against Sky Blue, a small bit of serendipity seems to have helped that process along. With Lo’eau LaBonta suspended for the match, Andonovski asked Christina Gibbons, his rookie left back, to try her luck in the midfield.
On paper the move makes a lot of sense. Gibbons is very skilled on the ball, an excellent passer, with good field vision, and good pace. And while she still has work to do with her defensive positioning and tackling, she’s a good defender one-on-one. All of those skills suggests an able box-to-box midfielder, something KC has really been lacking this year.
Still, it was a gamble since, despite having moved around a lot—as young and talented players are often asked to do—central midfield is not one of the positions she’s spent much time in. And with only a few days to practice, there wasn’t much time for direction. As Gibbons described her training: “He gave me a few directions going into the weekend, but mostly just said ‘I want you to feel it out yourself and make adjustments as you go.’” She had a few days to try and get comfortable working with Desiree Scott to manage her new responsibilities covering arguably the most important area on the pitch.
So this was by no means a sure thing. But this sort of move—slightly outside the box, based on an expectation that his players all understand the team’s overall approach and setup, grounded in a deep sense of trust between player and coach—that’s been the hallmark of Vlatko’s tenure at Kansas City. After all, this is a coach who looked at Yael Averbuch and saw one of the league’s best center backs.
And once again, Andonovski’s vision paid off. It seemed to take Gibbons five or ten minutes to really get comfortable in the role, but before long, things started to click.
A fluid 4-4-2
One crucial advantage to playing Gibbons is the additional flexibility she brings to the role. Desiree Scott, Becca Moros, and even Lo’eau LaBonta (who has shown some flair this year) are all excellent players, but they’re generally best utilized as true holding players. They can get forward in the attack, but that’s not their primary role. With Gibbons, KC instantly becomes more expansive.
And in an effort to take advantage of that opportunity, the formation needed some tweaking as well, moving away from the 4-2-3-1 that looked to pack the midfield and seize control of the game and toward a 4-4-2 that played more expansively. And which played at a much higher tempo.
On defense, they generally worked with two banks of four in the defense and midfield, with Gibbons and Scott spread out to cover the midfield horizontally. On offense, however, Gibbons had a lot more freedom to move forward aggressively into an attacking midfield role. In fact, at times, the 4-4-2 actually split apart a bit, playing more like a 4-1-4-1, with Scott staying back as the only true holding player, and with Gibbons and Groom almost playing side to side as a pair of inside forwards.
And this raises another key point. This setup is notable for the flexibility it provides for the strikers. Groom, in particular, seemed to relish the opportunity. It gives her the chance to come back, pick the ball up high, and take people on going forward. There are few in the league who can match her at full flight with the ball at her feet, but playing out wide for most of the year, she’s had fewer chances to exploit defenses this way. In this 4-4-2, she had that freedom, and it made a huge difference.
For almost the first time since that opening match, Kansas City looked like the dominant attacking force a lot of us expected them to be. And while Gibbons is still a long way from being ‘the next Amy Rodriguez,’ it was still notable just how much this setup seemed to revolve around her creativity and passing acumen on the center stage. You can see clear evidence of this in the first KC goal, of course, but there are plenty of other examples. The thing that immediately strikes you when watching Gibbons is how quickly the ball moves. One-touch passes, quick touches to produce an angle, and then moving the ball along. I’d love to see the Opta stats on this one, because at least subjectively, it didn’t seem like she necessarily had all that many touches. But when she did get involved, things tended to happen.
A (much) more open game
For all the benefits of this approach, there are of course consequences as well. If their previous setup was focused on managing and limiting the other side, this more fluid attacking approach depends on sacrificing some defensive stability. When the game is more open, there are more chances for both sides to step into that space. And if the KC attack is generally going to play higher up the pitch, it requires the whole team to do more pressing in order to close down counterattacks before they can get going. This is an approach that emphasizes disruption over control.
But (at least in the first half), this gamble more than paid off. Sky Blue spent most of the half looking a bit overwhelmed, and were often at a loss to make much of their possessions—turning the ball over as soon as they won it on quite a few occasions. In particular, neither of their central duo, Killion and Rodriguez, seemed to be particularly crisp. Amidst the harrying from Kansas City, they lost the ball far more often than they would have liked.
All of which meant that, very quickly, Sky Blue seemed to settle back into a fairly deep defensive position. They looked to pack their defensive third with bodies, giving Kansas City quite a bit of room on the ball in the midfield and out wide. In general, this probably is the best way for Sky Blue to play. Their defenders are quite good at soaking up pressure and closing down attacks once they’re in the danger zone, but far less good at managing wide-open defensive space. And for the first half hour, it did mostly work, with KC settling for some tame shots from distance and some not particularly well-measured crosses.
But Kansas City was pressing hard, and eventually the dam burst, with Groom moving wide and sending in a cross that Sheridan could only punch away. A delightful bit of insight and creativity from Gibbons and a solid strike from Bowen and KC found the back of the net.
The pressure kept up for the rest of the half, with Gibbons growing into the game, and defensive harassment giving her plenty of chances to shine. Eventually, that’s what produced the second goal, with Killion losing the ball on a tough challenge from Scott. A quick KC counterattack unfolded, with the Sky Blue defenders dropping away to try and set up their bunker. But Gibbons found the ball at her feet, with space to run, and simply went for goal.
A game of two halves
As the cliché goes, this one was very much a game of two halves, with Kansas City rampant for the first half and Sky Blue even more dominant for the second. A huge part of that is Shea Groom’s red card. For the second week in a row, Kansas City found themselves down a player for the second half. But where Houston was content to settle deep and let KC have the ball, Sky Blue was chasing the game and were absolutely relentless in doing so.
And here is where the serendipity turned around a bit. LaBonta’s suspension came with a big silver lining—by inspiring Gibbons’ move to the midfield, it breathed some new life into their attack—but in the second half her absence was felt quite keenly. As set up, KC was depending on aggressive pressing to close down the Sky Blue attack—and to shut off the supply to Sam Kerr at the top. But down a player, this simply wasn’t a viable approach. And with LaBonta unavailable, they simply didn’t have the sort of solid defensive substitute that was desperately needed to shore up the backline.
Sky Blue, who had been so frustrated for the whole first half, were suddenly given space all across the field, and 45 minutes worth of chances to target Sam Kerr in the box. The Kansas City defense managed to hold out for a long time, but eventually, exhaustion seemed to set in and Kerr was able to score a dazzling hat trick to clinch the game.
All in all, that made for a bitter defeat, but one from which KC should be able to take a lot of solace. In a year of difficult results, they’re still only a couple of victories away from the playoff race and are now possessing some additional tactical options.
It will certainly be interesting to see how Gibbons is used going forward. In the short term, it’s hard to imagine Vlatko moving her immediately back to left back, but over the long term that may still be her best role. Especially once Laddish returns and can fill that crucial linking role.
And over the even longer term, this is a question that will be interesting to folks above and beyond just Kansas City fans, since Gibbons certainly is in the mix of young and talented players with a chance to break into the full national team. Left back is an extremely deep position right now, but if she has the flexibility to play elsewhere at a high level, that might make a difference in her chances of joining the squad.