Tactical analysis: Jackie Groenen, why is she such an important player?
Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

We’re used to spotlighting strikers and midfielders with unbelievable strikes on goal, but what about those players who are vital to the creation of those goals that we idolise? Who are these players who are usually overlooked and underrated, the players who never get the recognition of being one of the most important players on the pitch.

From Alexia Putellas, Kim Little, Lia Walti, Amandine Henry, Dzsenifer Marozsan, Sherida Spitse to Melanie Leupolz. The list can go on to recognise brilliant players who don’t score as often as Vivianne Miedema, or like Jackie Groenen who hasn't scored a league goal for Manchester United since joining in May 2019.

Casey Stoney’s first international signing may not look the best buy on paper with 22 appearances for United and only three assists and no league goal as of yet. So why is Groenen such a valued player at the club and on the Dutch national team?

The 26-year-old’s style of play fits perfectly into Stoney’s tactics. The usual United set up we see is a 4-2-1-3 formation with one midfielder sitting in front of the defensive line, another sitting right behind the front three and another midfielder, usually Groenen, floating in between both, often interchanging positions with either of her teammates in the middle.

Here we have an image of the starting positions of players, with the back line outlined in orange (Amy Turner off screen), the front three highlighted in red and the middle three circled in black.

All images via the FA Player

We can clearly see Groenen floating in between Ella Toone, who is playing tight to the front line, and Hayley Ladd who is deeper in front of the defensive line.

Since the likes of Tobin Heath and Christen Press have joined, you see a lot smoother transition of positions between the two American internationals and Groenen, making our player in spotlight even more versatile than last season.

There isn't enough space to highlight every important move that Groenen does every week, but here are a few clear examples of her stealth to help United attack in ways that aren't scoring or assisting.

The first comes against Manchester City on November 14 for the FA Women's Super League and United are trailing 2-0 at half time.

It was just ten minutes into the first half when City were awarded a goal kick. United were pressing high, but Ellie Roebuck decided to pass the ball to Sam Mewis at the top of the box. As displayed below, Groenen immediately put pressure on Mewis' back forcing her to pass the ball wide to Lucy Bronze.

In this next image we'll see the sequence passes as well as Groenen's run to close down both Mewis and Bronze. In the white is the path of the ball from Roebuck to Mewis to Bronze. The orange outlines the bad pass that Bronze makes in which Heath rockets the ball past Roebuck to get one back for United. 

Here is another instance that shows the space where Groenen initially started and where she ended up to close down the ball. The red circle is usually where the Dutch is floating around on goal kicks, on the side of the kick waiting to fight for the ball in the air. 

Groenen (circled in black) then closed down Mewis (next to Heath circled in white) and then closed down Bronze. Now, the way she closed down both these players was also intelligent. She took advantage of both their body positions. Mewis had her back to goal and Bronze had her back to the line.

Closing down Mewis was easier but closing down Bronze was intelligent as Groenen didn't go directly to the player but instead focused on closing down Bronze's forward pass and forcing her to look back to Steph Houghton (City player in the box).

If it wasn't for a player like Groenen, who is capable of intelligently closing down two players, Heath would've had to move out of position to aid Groenen in closing play. Or even further, if Heath didn't have the trust in the midfielder, she would've moved positions to get the ball and not had been ready for the misplaced pass.

This is a mere simple illustration of how well Groenen's fight and intelligence shapes her into an important player on the pitch for both regaining possession and keeping it.

Here is another example of Groenen directly involved in a goal without an assist. On December 12 against Bristol City, United came out victorious 6-1. Leah Galton scored a rocket of a shot from the top of the box after dribbling inside from the wing. So how was Groenen involved?

Below we can see Galton circled in white with the ball. She currently has two defenders on her blocking her shot on goal. Just in front of her is Groenen (circled in black) who is making a run into the space on the wing being left behind my Galton.

Now, this run can either give her space to receive the ball from Galton, should she get stuck, but what is does is draw out a defender and makes space for Galton to shoot on target. As we see below:

Groenen (circled in black) draws out a defender from Galton out wide. Galton gets rid of her defender who slips from a change of direction and Galton now has an open path in front of her to have a clear shot on target. Yes, Galton created the position for herself with her dribbling, but if it wasn’t for Groenen’s run, that defender would still be double teaming Galton and preventing that shot.

The Dutch proves to be important with opening spaces for her teammates with her runs and interchanging positions. Being able to move fluidly in between spaces and positions are important for players like Tobin Heath, Christen Press, Ella Toone, Lauren James and Leah Galton to be at their most efficient. These are creative forwards who thrive on their freedom on the pitch, brought by intelligent players such as Groenen.

Here is another example of United’s attack benefitting from another Groenen run. In this case, Groenen finds herself in the front line leading the attack (on the penalty spot). The ball had come from the left side and with the midfielder slipping into the front line. This dragged out a defender into the box with her, leaving Ona Batlle (right back) unmarked with space and able to take a first time shot on goal.

Crucial to linking the United defence and attack, Groenen has an average of 78% pass accuracy in 12 matches. She proves important to moving the ball forward and efficiently, working as a wall for players who like to run into space. She finds a gap in between the opposition forward line and midfield and receives the ball right in front of the opposition defensive line.

She is a key player to any team that she is on simply with her efficiency at both attack and defence. Yes, she has yet to score for United in a year and a half, but what she offers might me even more valuable that netting goals.

(thank you to @NwslAnalitica for stats)