Out of all the ‘Target Women’ around, Bethany Balcer might be one of the very best in the modern game. Frequently used as an outlet for progressive passes, Balcer’s back-to-goal incisiveness remains a threatening endeavour for her team, and one that is frequently useful in advancing OL Reign up the pitch. But now, after the arrival of Jordyn Huitema, Balcer’s even upped her scoring game, ensuring Huitema has very little room to work with in stealing a spot in the squad at the start of her Reign career. Here is an analysis of Bethany Balcer’s exceptional hold-up play, and the vast array of traits that make her one of the best forwards in the NWSL.
IN POSSESSIONEmbed from Getty Images
As ‘Target Forwards’ often are, Bethany Balcer is frequently the team’s first look whenever they win possession. Traditionally, ‘Targets’ have been used to knock down long passes in the air, and command the eighteen in getting on the end of crosses into the box. Balcer excels in that regard, with 65% of her aerial duels won so far this season. Her 5’9 frame and excellent timing of the leap make her astutely aware in the air, and it’s not surprising that Reign have then attempted and completed the most crosses and long passes per game to suit her strengths.Embed from Getty Images
But the modern day ‘Target’ is one who can not only win aerial duels, but excel in playing off the grass. Balcer is exceptional in receiving all kinds of passes, particularly in playing with their back to goal and linking up with her teammates.
In fact, it’s an endeavour that she frequently makes a priority. As the ball shifts to the left, you’ll be sure to see Balcer attracting herself like a magnet, and coming across herself. As the ball shifts to the right, the American will do exactly the same – always making herself available to receive with her back to goal and play a one-two. Her heatmap illustrates just how far she will go to involve herself in attacking play, even if she hits the brightest of red spots in the eighteen yard-box, where she can be used as that ‘target’ for her team.
Of note, shifting to the side of the ball inevitably becomes a frequent occurrence from throw-ins, as she drops to overload the line and give her team an almost guaranteed successful first contact. Then as she bounces the ball back, the thrower can then receive with space to release a player in behind.
That’s essentially what any stellar ‘Target’ can do for their team, operating almost like a bruising variation of a ‘false nine‘. In engaging with this kind of back-to-goal unique playing style, she constantly allows others to run in behind. Jess Fishlock has formed a formidable combination with the 25-year-old through this approach, often excellently timing her runs forward into the gaps created by Balcer’s movement out wide. Simultaneously, she also facilitates “third-man” runs as she releases pressure and attracts attention herself – particularly since receiving with one’s back to goal is often a pressing trigger for opposition teams. But opposition teams would be foolish to press Balcer in this manner, as she is fully capable of bouncing back the pass on a one-touch as someone else immediately moves into space behind. But her exploits don’t stop there.Embed from Getty Images
As a typical penalty box poacher, Balcer thrives in the eighteen-yard box. As she drops deep, she frequently looks for progressive passes for others to run onto. Her vision and awareness both run high, and again, she’s nicely formed a connection with both Jess Fishlock and Rose Lavelle – Reign’s other two top scorers.
Her own movement into the penalty area is also incisive and dynamic, constantly looking for gaps to exploit in the opposition’s defensive structures. The 25-year-old repeatedly plays off the shoulder of the opposition’s defense, which allows her movement to become more unpredictable and harder to track.
Her incessant energy has helped her rise toward 3 goals and 2 assists in 10 matches thus far – holding the mantle as Reign’s top goal contributor. But it’s not just the goals and assists that make her such an important player.Embed from Getty Images
As she endeavours to drop deep, the opposition consistently have a difficult decision about whether to stay or follow. If they stay, Balcer’s free to receive and complete passes with ease. If the defenders follow, gaps can open for the likes of Lavelle and Fishlock to seek out and exploit. This makes her an incredibly useful player for Reign. She’s not just a target capable of scoring headers and getting on the end of crosses. Instead, she’s the complete package – capable of holding up the ball, linking with others, contributing to phases of possession, and even creating chances.
OUT OF POSSESSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Bethany Balcer has continuously earned herself a starting birth not only for her link-up, but for her ability to lead Laura Harvey’s pressing structures and out of possession intensity. The 25-year-old nicely balances the difficult line of pressing centre-backs and reducing their space to carry forward, and simultaneously screening passes up ahead into defensive midfielders. Her positioning is always impeccable, constantly scanning for the movement of her teammates, and the movement of the opposition’s central midfielders. She can then ramp up her pressing intensity when a centre-back decides to carry, or on back-passes to the keeper.
Reign have several pressing shapes, each of which have played a massive role in Laura Harvey’s team winning the most tackles in the NWSL thus far (15.6 per game). One of those shapes holds steady to their starting 4-2-3-1 formation, where they relentlessly pressure in a ball-oriented, diamond coordinated manner, until they win back possession. Another takes on more of a 4-2-4-esque shape, in which the front-four will limit central penetration together. Harvey’s goal in this shape is to ultimately force the opposition over to Reign’s left, where Lauren Barnes is prepared to step up. They will intentionally leave space on the other side in their attempts to narrow the width of the field, in almost a 3-3-4 shape.
They may even extend this shape higher up the pitch, where Balcer operates halfway between a ’10’ and a ‘9’ in screening central avenues and Fishlock drops back alongside the ‘number 8’ (commonly Arsenal’s Kim Little these days). The defensive midfielder, whether that be Olivia van der Jagt or Rebecca Quinn, will then mop up messes in behind, on the very few occasions the opposition find a way out.
Bethany Balcer holds an integral role to all of these shapes, as the one often responsible for leading the pressing intensity and angling. Similarly to in-possession phases, if she gets drawn out wide to press or counter-press, another player will cover the gap. This ensures that Laura Harvey’s side always have a natural outlet upon regains.Embed from Getty Images
Either way, Balcer’s efforts remain incredibly impressive, winning 1.2 tackles per game for her team. She even becomes key to defending from set-pieces, again with her height and aerial strength coming into effect.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Bethany Balcer is a remarkable centre-forward, capable of so much more than just scoring goals. She fantastically leads her side’s pressing desires, whilst remaining a constant option to bring others in the game. Her hold-up play and ability to operate as a ‘Target’ for her team remain one of the best in the business, and will help to ensure that Jordyn Huitema has an uphill battle to climb in stealing a starting birth. If she can continue to up her goal tally and incisiveness in the final third, Bethany Balcer will continue her rise as one of the most complete centre-forwards in the league, and potentially stake a claim for the US Women’s National Team.
So there it is! An analysis of OL Reign’s fantastic forward Bethany Balcer. Be sure to check out more of our tactical analyses, NWSL pieces, and don’t forget to follow on social media via the links below @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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