There are centre backs and there is Leah Williamson.
While the modern game is developing, positional profiles and specifications are shifting. A classic centre back is best at their defensive and aerial play, while Williamson has notable strength in these areas, she is also capable of operating as a play maker with the intelligence of a midfielder.
Williamson is usually on the right side of the pitch with a deep starting point to the side of the penalty box, allowing Arsenal's full-backs to push higher up the pitch.
Below is her average heat map in the FA Women's Super League:
All graphics and stats via WyScout
With Joe Montemurro's style of play, both centre backs start inside the penalty box when playing out from a goal kick. This allows high pressing opponents to pin back Williamson deep on the pitch, making her ineffective in Arsenal's attacking play and forcing Arsenal's full-backs and midfielders to drop.
Granted, playing out the back and short passes was effective in Montemurro's league title in the 2018/2019 season, but there came the significant shift when opponents realised the most effective way to stop Arsenal was a high and aggressive press.
In Chelsea's 3-0 win over Arsenal at the beginning of February, Williamson was in her team's defensive third for most of the match.
When we compare this to a heat map from a comfortable Arsenal win and performance against an opponent who doesn't high press, you can see the centre back granted more freedom to venture forward.
Here is Williamson's heat map in Arsenal's 3-0 win against Birmingham City:
Attacking threat from the back
Williamson has one goal and two assists this WSL season with an xA (expected assist) of 0.9 in 13 matches. Her fellow Arsenal centre backs (Jennifer Beattie, Viktoria Schnaderbeck and Lotte Wubben-Moy) average an xA of 0.2 and on the other side of London, Chelsea centre back pairing Millie Bright and Magdalena Eriksson both have an xA of 0.5.
The 23-year-old's first assist of the season came in Arsenal's 6-1 win over Reading. You can see the defender's starting position high up the pitch during a deep Arsenal throw in.
Confidence oozed out of Williamson in her first assist of the season featuring a brilliantly executed first touch assist to Kim Little at the top of the box.
That pass from Leah. That finish from Kim. 🤤— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) September 6, 2020
We could watch this goal over and over again 🔁 pic.twitter.com/tVhTSQHc4V
Williamson's second assist was a significant display of her specialty: long passes. The assist comes from Arsenal's own half with a long ball into space for Caitlin Foord to run onto.
But these assists don't tell the whole story.
Williamson gets herself in optimal positions to start an attacking play by carrying the ball forward from Arsenal's defensive third into the midfield. Her progressive carrying distance is 3195 yards so far this season, second in the entire WSL just behind Eriksson.
With brilliant footwork, technical ability, vision and positioning, Williamson's ability to exploit space and start a counter attack is pivotal to getting Arsenal out of trouble.
In Arsenal's match against Chelsea at the beginning of February, Pernille Harder attempted a first time the ball over to Fran Kirby who was set for a break away (ball movement can be traced by blue arrows).
The defender managed to intercept the pass, and with her first touch, started to drive forward into the space highlighted in white:
Williamson then found herself leading the Arsenal counter-attack in prime position to give her side a chance on goal:
The defender has the confidence to dribble through high press, dribble past two or three players, exploit space and execute those daring long passes even against, or rather, especially against her toughest rivals.
How Williamson's drive and attacking mindset from the back compliments Arsenal's attacking brilliance is pivotal to Montemurro's side.
Often, it takes too long for the Gunners to move the ball forward efficiently. When Williamson has the freedom to move, players like Vivianne Miedema, Beth Mead, Jordan Nobbs, Danielle Van de Donk and Caitlin Foord are able to stay high. This opens up a more versatile, compelling and efficient attack.
This next display will highlight Williamson exploiting space and executing a long pass to put Arsenal in a goal scoring position against Manchester City.
She receives the ball from Lia Wälti and with her first touch drives into the space highlighted in white.
She spots Foord's run at the top of the box and looks to send that ball into space behind the defensive line, bypassing City's entire midfield in the process.
With an 82.9% pass completion rate, Williamson's ability to switch play from the back is necessary to Arsenal's evasion to high press.
Here we can see the Gunners' defender carry the ball forward and after a few touches into space, she bypasses five City players (highlighted in yellow).
Katie McCabe brings down the ball and starts Arsenal's attack down the left wing away from City's press piled up on the right side of the pitch (ball travel represented by white dotted line).
Williamson highlights what works best for Joe Montemurro's side: fast ball movement, switching of play, beating high press with passing and exploiting space.