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Breaking down OL Reign’s tough to beat 4-2-4 defensive system

Photo: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

In 2022, OL Reign topped the National Women’s Soccer League regular season standings. While they didn’t follow up that NWSL Shield win with a Championship, their campaign was a successful one, and it was built on defense. The Reign conceded just 19 goals, fewer than any other team in the league. Only the San Diego Wave, coached by Casey Stoney, got anywhere near that record.

This wasn’t a case of individual performances, of defenders making crucial interventions, or leaning on the goalkeeper to pull off constant saves. It was a collective effort — no team conceded fewer shots than the Reign. Laura Harvey, in her first year back in charge of the club, implemented the NWSL’s most organized defense. And she did it with a pretty unique system.

Harvey brought greater emphasis on the defensive side of things than had existed in seasons past. In 2021, the Reign were the most ‘possession-based’ team in the league. However, last year, their possession share dipped by four percent, according to FBref data. There was less fluidity and less commitment to playing short from the back, and instead, there was a greater focus on pressing.

The Reign regularly set up in a 4-2-4 defensive system, but what separated this from a classic 4-4-2 was the position of the wingers, who were more in line with the front two than the midfield. The presence of four players in the first line of defense increased their chances of getting pressure on opposing center-backs, while simultaneously increasing their ability to cover the opposing midfielders. By setting up like this, the Reign made it difficult for their opposition to control the game with the ball.

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