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Sunderland Women v Durham Cestria Ladies - Adobe Women’s FA Cup Third Round

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Talking Tactics: The role of the sixes at Sunderland Women

The importance of the ‘number six’ is often overlooked but sensational performances by summer signings Jenna Dear and Natasha Fenton have illustrated just how integral they are to the Lasses’ style of play

Photo by Nigel Roddis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Arguably one of the most crucial areas of a football pitch is the middle.

This is where many tactical plans are established and where battles are won or lost. Midfielders will dictate the game’s flow, both with and without the ball, regardless of whether their side prefers to counter attack or to retain possession.

The last decade has seen a clear change in this field, with a shift from ‘purebreds’ and specialists to a variety of hybrids. Because of today’s tactical intricacy, a flexible midfield is important and duties in several positions have evolved significantly.

For this analysis, the defensive midfielder is my choice.

A defensive midfielder was traditionally thought of as a disciplined and hard hitting ball-winner who was anchored to the base of midfield and whose main job was to provide space for the more creative players to flourish. A player such as Daniele De Rossi comes to mind here.

Due to the focus on build up via the thirds, most managers now prefer to deploy a playmaker as the first line of defence, with the midfield playing a crucial role in this process.

You may try out other build up patterns if you have a player closer to the defensive line who’s more press-resistant and talented at distribution, particularly if you don’t have a central defender who can play the ball into attacking channels.

Lewes v Sunderland - Barclays Women’s Championship Photo by Steve Bardens - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

One could argue that the most crucial pieces of the jigsaw are the central defensive midfielders, as the two deeper midfielders are given greater responsibilities than merely covering for the back four and supporting the attack.

These players are the driving force behind Sunderland’s array of exceptional offensive skills, whether they’re switching up defensive positions or delivering the game-winning ball in attack.

They participate in build ups by substituting for the full backs and taking up more attacking positions to overload the midfield and aid in ball advancement. They also provide the most creative players with greater leeway to attack without having to worry as much about their defensive responsibilities.

One of them will support the move to add more players and therefore they’ll also have a say in the final third.

Since they act as a counterbalance to a potentially top-heavy side, it’s critical that their connection is healthy and characterised by open communication.

When one rises, the other descends slightly, and this kind of mutual understanding is crucial for these two players and the team as a whole.

The offensive midfielders, wingers and strikers will all chip in to advance the ball and find opportunities to score through crosses and cutbacks in the final third. Almost all of the players will be involved in this method of moving the ball from back to front, which raises the issue of player movements and positional adjustments.

The defensive midfielder, or ‘number six’, plays a crucial role.

Not only do they contribute to the build up, but they also have an impact on Sunderland’s attacking strategy. Many smart players have occupied this position over the years and their names alone speak volumes about the calibre of player required to fill it.

Sunderland v Durham - FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Since joining Sunderland, Natasha Fenton has taken ownership of the position and redefined it by combining defensive acumen with football knowledge.

Fenton is also capable of playing as a centre back because she possesses the awareness and understanding of how the role should be performed.

In addition to performing the standard screening duties in order to safeguard the back four, Sunderland’s ‘number six’ must open lanes for forward players such as the full backs, and the defensive midfielder dropping between the two centre backs is what enables both full backs to advance.

By doing this, Fenton strengthens the defence and maintains a three-player advantage which ignites the middle and final third.

This implies that both full backs are able to surge forward and pose an attacking threat, and the wingers will enter the half-spaces as part of the ripple effect, giving the full backs space to push up as counter-pressing or circulation outlets.

As previously indicated, if Fenton remains in midfield, the full back will come inside and take on the role of a third central defender, forcing the other full back to move into an attacking position.

To allow the two players to create width, the second central midfielder will remain in a more central position and in the end, this produces a configuration that’s almost a 3-5-2, and thereby opening up a wide range of offensive possibilities.

One of the five will immediately move in to assist the other two in midfield if they’re countered.

The five front players are there to overwhelm the opposition, while the ‘core players’ will be present to thwart any counter attacks. This generates balance when you have two capable central midfield players who stay close to one another.

Durham v Sunderland - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Stu Forster - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

The other defensive midfield player tends to serve as the team’s facilitator or ‘connector’.

This involves playing a more supportive role at both ends, with a slightly greater influence in the attacking half, and is typically played in a box-to-box capacity.

Since arriving at Sunderland, Jenna Dear has fulfilled this role incredibly successfully and has emerged as one of the finest players in her position.

The side can have a balance of ball carriers and off-the-ball runners because of her box-to-box tactics and since Dear is capable of both, different attacking scenarios can be handled in different ways.

For instance, it’s much simpler for Mary McAteer- a winger who loves to carry the ball in attacking areas- when Dear is available to link the play and position McAteer more offensively.

In addition, the player must counter-press and serve as the infield passing option when the ball is first brought into midfield by the full backs.

All things considered, it’s evident that Sunderland’s defensive midfielders are having a significant impact on the way in which they’ve played the game.

Fenton and Dear have already run amok in midfield, displaying their complimentary styles and giving their all in just half a season’s worth of football.

The roles have an impact on all phases of play and necessitate spatial awareness, athleticism and most crucially, game intelligence.


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