Aniek Nouwen: Will she make the grade at Chelsea?
Chelsea have already bolstered their defensive ranks with the signing of the 22-year-old Dutch international, but what does she add to Emma Hayes' side?
Chelsea have now played their penultimate game of the season and probably their worst performance in terms of the result. They were humbled by Barcelona in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final, crashing to a 4-0 defeat. The team go back to London hurt but will have sufficient motivation to go and attack the competition again next season.
During the run-in, Emma Hayes faced several defensive issues which can be pinpointed to the injury to Maren Mjelde. The Nordic full-back’s injury had a knock-on effect, forcing Hayes to create makeshift solutions in both wide positions. So it’s not a surprise that Chelsea have been linked with potential arrivals and on evidence of the Champions League final, there might just be a case to bring in another defender.
However, it’s not just at full-back where they’ve suffered as injuries to Magdalena Eriksson has caused a host of defensive frailties and against the very best teams, it becomes a problem. Eriksson’s presence was felt when she returned against Bayern Munich in the second leg, making a crucial goal-line clearance but going forward, they cannot rely on makeshift options.
And so, before the season has even finished, they’ve already made a splash in the transfer market by announcing the signing of Aniek Nouwen from PSV Eindhoven for the upcoming 2021/22 season. The central defender becomes the first major transfer of Hayes’ side ahead of what could be a busy summer of ins and outs.
So, who is Nouwen and why did Hayes opt to sign the Dutch international?
Nouwen is a technically gifted yet physically powerful central defender at the infancy of her career. At 22, Nouwen is a vastly experienced defender having made over 100 appearances for PSV as well as 14 caps for the Netherlands. Her role as a centre-back is more of a sweeper than an aggressive stopper. She much prefers to ensure that any movement or passes behind the defensive line are swept away using a combination of pace, intelligence, and positional play.
From a defensive standpoint, Nouwen uses her physicality and intelligent tackling to win back possession and is especially good at 1 v 1 defending, which makes her positioning vitally important. A defender’s foundation is based on good positioning which can be leveraged in most situations especially on the counter-attack.
One of the issues we’ve seen in Chelsea’s backline in the season has been the odd positional issues from full-back and centre-back which has led to conceding goal-scoring opportunities. Having someone like Eriksson has proven that positioning alone can be a source of defending and preventing goals.
While her partner would often be a bit more of the progressive passer of the duo, Nouwen has the passing range to be a very efficient and tidy distributor. Her long passes have threatened defences and give a team an alternative option to play out from the back.
Positioning and defending is the core fundamental part of a central defender’s skillset and it’s no different for Nouwen. Her biggest asset is her body orientation and positioning to cover the space behind the defensive line and her partner. Her intelligence at such a young age is sublime, especially out of possession which is what’s made her a solid central defender.
Given the fluid movement and mobility of most forward lines in the modern game, being a sweeper is much more important than it ever was. Being able to anticipate, cover, and precisely dispossess the opposition is critical because the defender is often the last player before the goalkeeper.
Her heat map mirrors what’s been mentioned already which is high activity in her own 18-yard box. Her most active areas indicate a player in a side that doesn’t hold a very high line so she is used to defending slightly deeper and engages in more defensive duels. A trait that could be useful if Chelsea sustain a period of pressure just as they did in the draw against Manchester City.
The Dutch international has averaged 10.14 interceptions and 4.6 clearances per 90 minutes across the Eredivisie and UEFA Women’s Champions League this season which indicates her ability to anticipate rather than lunge into challenges. In 763 minutes, Nouwen has not received a single booking, which for a defender is mightily impressive and points towards her discipline and accuracy in defending.
Let’s take a closer look at an example. Here, PSV are being counter-attacked with Nouwen tracking the central striker. There’s a question of whether she marks the player or anticipates the cross’ trajectory and make the interception. There’s a chance her teammate in between her and the ball carrier misses the cross so Nouwen has to make the right decision quickly.
The defender manages to keep up and makes a perfectly timed sliding challenge to intercept the cross by moving in front of the striker. Nouwen may not be the quickest, but she certainly has enough pace to stop piercing counter-attacks. One of the issues in Chelsea’s loss to Barcelona was not just the positioning of the full-backs, but also the positioning of the centre-back.
At least one of the goals could have been prevented with better positioning and intercepting the cut-back. It’s easier said than done, but having the intelligence to watch out for late runners is as much the centre-back’s responsibility as the defensive midfielder’s. Though there wasn’t too much Chelsea could do individually in this game, it’s a point that a positionally proficient defender could identify quicker.
However, Nouwen is also a very capable pure defender with an ability to engage in 1 v 1 duels and dispossess opposition forwards. Though it isn’t fundamental to her specific role, she’s able to efficiently stop attackers from going past her or at the very least, deter them till she gets sufficient backup.
At 5.19 defensive duels per 90 minutes with a 66% success rate, there is reason to believe that Nouwen can flourish in a more aggressive role but the quality of attackers in the WSL should improve her skill set in this regard when playing deeper. Even in loose ball duels, she averages 2.12 per 90 but has an impressive 77.8% success rate. Putting all these figures into context shows Nouwen to be pretty efficient with the potential to become a world-class central defender, which is exemplified in this example.
Nouwen faces up against Hayley Raso and given how quick and agile she is, defending against her in a 1 v 1 is a tricky task. Nouwen needs to show Raso down the line and given her body orientation, she’s in a good position to do so.
Raso pushes the centre-back into the box and in this frame, attempts to cut inside but the Dutch centre-back is up to the task and manages to time an inch-perfect standing tackle to clear the danger. It’s a very delicate situation because any wrong foot placement or movement can give away a penalty. Aggression is a part of her game and if needed, she can bring it out which helps in aerial duels.
Nouwen’s ability on the ball isn’t short of quality either. As a defender, she is comfortable and assured in possession and is press-resistant. Given how most teams play a very intense high pressing strategy at the highest level, this trait makes her all the more desirable. Her main task on the ball is to provide a passing option when recycling possession in the defensive third, but also to provide long-ranged, line-breaking passes from deep.
PSV didn’t hold a very high line which is evident in this pass map, but what is noticeable is the number of passes that flow through the central defender. Nouwen is a source and outlet for passes and given that she plays slightly deeper than her partner, she is a trusted player in possession even against a heavy press. The example is from their game against Barcelona earlier in the season which makes this even more impressive.
PSV tend to play a mix of both direct and short passes when building out from the back, depending on the opposition. Sari Van Veenendaal has averaged 4.31 short goals kicks and 3.53 long goal kicks as well as 13.52 passes per 90 minutes. Putting this together, you get a sense that Nouwen has experience against high pressing teams.
Taking a passage of play from the aforementioned game, we see that Nouwen is in space but there are no obvious (or otherwise) passing options given how high Barcelona have pushed their backline. This gives the centre-back a chance to try and find an alternative solution to break down Barcelona’s defensive line.
The result is a wonderfully flighted ball over the top, with the PSV centre-forward making a run across the two centre-backs and chase a ball down the channels to progress the ball.
Chelsea will go into next season with the premise that they’re good enough to navigate both the UEFA Women’s Champions League and WSL, but will still need to strengthen in defensive areas. Nouwen brings a host of qualities that could suit Chelsea’s current defenders and it might be time to see a new defensive line next season. This won’t be the last of Hayes’ signings while at 22-years-old, Nouwen has the world at her feet.
Header Image: Photo by Laurens Lindhout/Soccrates/Getty Images