Leah Williamson - The pioneering modern-day centre-back
Photo Credit: Edward Payne

A higher expected assist (XA) of 0.7 than Danielle van de Donk, Georgia Stanway and Lucy Bronze,  the same as Jill Roord and just 0.1 less than Kim Little. The stats of a dynamic and exciting winger, perhaps a creative and nimble 10 or maybe a 23-year old centre back playing for the club she grew up supporting.

These are the stats of Leah Williamson, a captain in waiting, a leader in the making and changing the way people want to play as a centre back, ultimately making it a more attractive position for kids playing at grassroots level.

Growing up, kids want to be attackers, you watch any Sunday league game and everyone wants to score and drifts towards the ball to get that feeling of scoring in front of your friends and parents. However, like Bronze, Williamson is changing the way people view defenders and modernising a once less glamourous position.

Playing in a side which dominates the majority of games and controls the tempo allows Williamson to advance further forward and enjoy a lot of possession in midfield. She currently ranks second for the most progressive yards which is the total distance a player carries the ball towards the opposition's goal. Williamson has racked up 1072 progressive yards, only behind Chelsea captain, Magdalena Eriksson with 1312. In terms of comparing her to other English centre backs, there is no competition Williamson is really in a league of her own as Steph Houghton is third with 937, Gemma Bonner fourth with 856 followed by Millie Bright with 808. What is surprising is that Bronze is so far behind (744)  given her attacking nature and Manchester City’s dominance on the ball.

There could be a highlight reel of Williamson driving forward with the ball to the halfway line or just before, getting her head up and picking out a pinpoint accurate pass for an onrushing midfielder like Jordan Nobbs or the ever deadly Viviane Miedema. A perfect example is that exquisite pass to Nobbs against Birmingham City last season. The midfielder didn’t have to break stride once as the ball fell into her path and allowed her to finish on one touch.

Photo Credit: (FA Player)

 

The vision and composure on the ball from Williamson is second to none and was highlighted during the Lionesses latest intra-squad friendly when she was deployed as a centre midfielder. Phil Neville knows Williamson’s ability on the ball which could allow a more solid defence with another defender on the pitch but also someone with a long ball in her locker to get the squad up the pitch.

As most defenders in the WSL will know, Williamson’s trademark long ball is a serious threat. One second she can seem idle on the ball just taking her time and the next she’s dropped a long ball over your head and Arsenal are in on goal in a matter of seconds.

Having attempted 31 more long balls than any other outfielder this season (135) Williamson knows she has the ability to drop a pass on a dime if the defence leaves just enough space. She’s completed 104 of her long passes which gives her a success rate of 77%, the fifth-highest of any outfielder in the WSL (of players to have attempted at least 20 long passes) and is only behind Malin Gut (85%), Jennifer Beattie (80.7%), Gemma Bonner (80.6%) and Sophie Ingle (79.2%).

Joe Montemurro wants Arsenal to play an attacking and organised chaos style of football which allows the Gunners to win the ball back efficiently and offer the player on the ball numerous options. This allows them to keep the ball moving constantly and progress up the pitch as quickly as possible and penetrate defences before they get organised once they lose the ball.

This style of play allows Williamson to dictate from deep when on the ball as well as seeing everything play out in front of her, enhancing her knowledge of the game and advising her teammates on their next move, both on and off the ball.

Arsenal do not dominate every game for 90 minutes and with the WSL being littered with world-class talent Williamson can’t rely on her forward-thinking mentality to get her through games. Capable of playing as a midfielder, she thrives as a centre back in her natural position. So far this season, she has attempted 12 tackles and successfully made eight, which on the face of it does not seem that impressive, but once compared to the rest of the league it highlights Williamson is the full package as a centre back.

She won’t get as many opportunities to make challenges with Arsenal enjoying the majority of possession in the oppositions final third, however, she has won the most tackles out of any other defender playing for a club in the top five. Demi Stokes is also the only defender within the top five to have attempted more tackles (14) and with Stokes playing as a full back she’s more likely to make challenges at both ends of the pitch.

Williamson is also very confident her own ability, which is something Arsenal are reaping the rewards of by exposing her to playing alongside legends of the game such as Alex Scott and Rachel Yankey who were also equally confident in themselves.

This allows Williamson to challenge herself in positions outside of a centre backs usual comfort zone, such as further up the pitch or out wide. She’s made the most tackles in the midfield third of any defender in the WSL with seven, which is actually three more than she’s made in her own defensive third.

The willingness to engage with attackers high up the pitch allows Arsenal to have a constant wave of attacking threat and pressure on the opposition's box. Williamson’s ability to make a challenge higher up the pitch in an area many defenders don’t like being dragged into, never mind voluntarily finding themselves in. She can act as a holding midfielder, allowing a traditional holding midfielder in Lia Walti to act as a conductor the way she can dictate the tempo and speed Arsenal move the ball in midfield, knowing in confidence that Williamson is behind her ready to launch forward. 

Williamson has the whole package. Composure and poise on the ball with the passing range of a traditional number eight playing in a quarterback role and the defensive capability to keep any attacker quiet on her day. A leader ready and waiting with her high standards, footballing ability and potential to grow into a world-class centre back, one that is changing the position with every passing game.

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