Isabella Echeverri: 'You're the conductor of the team and you have to have the communication skills to do it'
Pressing Questions #5: Isabella Echeverri
When Sevilla lined up against Atlético de Madrid on 13th February, they knew the task to climb the summit and beat one of Spain’s best was a hard one, but the 5-0 humbling that followed was a bitter pill to swallow. Though the Seville side haven’t had a favourable run of results of late, there have still been a few standout performances in the team – none more so than their captain and central defender, Isabella Echeverri.
While Real Sociedad, Atlético de Madrid, and Real Madrid are top teams with incredible talent be known to fans and professionals alike, there are a few players that remain in the shadows but are on the cusp of greatness.
Despite her team’s recent performances, the Colombian central defender has illustrated a sound level of technicality, physicality, and most importantly, a high level of cognitive skills that make up the steep requirements for playing in such an important position. Her tactical story is both detailed yet provocative for managers and analysts to ponder further.
Who is she, and what is her game all about?
This is the tactical story of a Sevilla’s captain and leader.
Let's take it back. So how would you kind of explain your role and kind of your best position in your own words? And then the second part of this question would be, is there a way that you think people perceive you to be in terms of the way you play, but then you think you're actually something else? So you can kind of break that up into two different questions.
Okay. Well, first of all, I've played in multiple positions in my life. I started out as a forward and I played as one from very young till I was 14-16 years old … I was pretty old, “old”. So the first time I was moved to a more central midfielder role was when I was first called to the U20 national team [Colombian national team]. There, my coach was like “no, no, you have a pretty good vision of the field. So you have to move back a little bit”. He taught me how to play in a 4-4-2 in that middle where you'd have to just run. There's a lot of running in a 4-4-2 for a midfielder. I learned how to play there and I actually was called for the [senior] women's national team as a midfielder for the first time in 2014. I played the South American Championship and Copa America as a central defensive midfielder. Why? Because I am one of the tallest players in Colombia – Colombia usually has short players. I run a lot too, but my height and physicality was something that the team needed in that position.
Before the 2016 Olympics, I was like in and out of the roster (only 18 players) – I was young, I lost my spot and then I knew that the only way I was going for the Olympics was as a centre-back. The only way – I knew I wasn’t getting there as a midfielder. It's been, now, only five years that I played a centre-back.
Going back to your question is that as a centre-back, first, you have to have personality and character. For me, that's the number one thing [a] centre-back has to have. Yes, you have to be strong, you have to be tall – not always – but you have to be told you have to have a certain physicality. But you have to have personality and character to be able to lead your team from behind, you are the one seeing the entire field and you are the one helping out your teammates moving around and [watching] every single thing they're doing. It's on you because you have to help. That communication piece, I think, for me, is crucial.
I think it's the main characteristic [trait] that exploded for me when I went to play centre-back because as a forward or as a midfielder, you run so much you cannot talk much, it's hard to be managing people. But at the back you don't run that much, you are the one constantly talking, like a conductor? Yes. Well, you're the conductor of the team and you have to have the communication skills to do it.
Other than that, for me, the position is being smart about where you position yourself. You don't have to be, or at least not right now, you don't have to be the fastest or the most explosive player as a centre-back. But you do have to be smart, and you do have to know where to stand at each moment so you can get to the ball easier.
Is all of this in alignment with what you've just said, or do you think there's something different that people should understand about you? Like no, I'm not X type of player, I'm actually Y type of player?
Well, I think people perceive me as, you know, these centre-backs that nobody likes because they're like, they look back at you, they think they're better than everybody. I think I guess I get perceived as that [sometimes]. And I don't think I’m that type of a person or that kind of player. I do have my moments. But I do think I'm a very clean centre-back, I don't [want to go in] with bad intentions. I want to get the ball clean for you. Because I know I'm good enough to do that. Not just because I talk trash, that's fine. Talking trash is fine, getting to everybody's heads and then just, you know, getting them riled up and then getting them [irritated]. So that's good. Sometimes you have to be like that. Like, exactly, I do it. But I just don't do it all the time. [She laughs]
Okay, so obviously with Sevilla, they've used two different formations, majorly a 4-2-3-1 but there's been the odd 4-3-3, but it's kind of just between these two formations. How would you describe your team's playing style overall and how do you see your role fitting in relation to that playstyle?
Ah, we change a lot of formations depending on where the game is. So people are pressing, then we use a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-3-2 to press the other team, but when we go back when the other team has the ball then we usually have we usually do a 4-1-4-1 because the central midfielder in that two (double-pivot) has two different roles when she's pressing and when she's back. There's one that Natalia Gaitan always stays as that central defensive midfielder. But usually the girl playing alongside her has to be more of an 8.
So the No 8 has to do a different role in that position and has to be on that No 4 when we're coming back. As a centre-back, you don't change a lot, but you do have to be aware if you're outside-back is attacking, then how are you positioned defensively? Like I was saying before you are the head of the orchestra. And if they go up you have to make sure the other outside-back doesn't go, or if the No 6 goes more than she should, then you have to be like, ‘hey, come back here’.
For my coach, [it] is very important to have the equilibrium in the middle. So it's a lot on me as the captain and I have to be aware of where players are at all time[s]. Also very important for me is keeping the right amount of distance between the lines and between the players. For a centre-back, I've always said this, I think as defenders – and I've played in all the positions in the middle – but I think as defenders sometimes you become lazy.
You become a little lazy because you know your team is attacking and you have X amount of time to go out, you know, and it's a lot of fun to go out. So you're like, okay, and you just look in the game. But it's very hard to not be looking at what's going on and actually be looking around to see how your team is positioned. So I think that's the main role for me and one of the most important things that I try to accomplish when I play.
Interesting. So from what I gather in the last, like 10 minutes, it's just been there's a lot about communication. It's a lot about positioning, and it's a lot about kind of understanding what's going on around you in relation to that you can kind of, you know, make sure that everybody's in their position but at the same time, you're playing your role. Now, I kind of noticed that I was watching some clips of you and I think you play very aggressively and I think that makes a lot more sense now that you’ve said you played in centre-mid and you played as a forward – you do like to step up and kind of aggressively press attackers, and especially when aerial balls coming in, you like really getting in close.
Is that something you like doing or is that kind of just your role which is to always press the first ball that comes in over the top, whether that be aerially or along the ground? I'm assuming you are the stopper [of the centre-back pairing], the one that steps forward, and then your partner covers.
So is that a deliberate move or an instruction or is that something you do because you identify the situation, ‘Okay, the ball’s coming over the top, if I don't step up now that might go somewhere else and that might create a bad situation’ … again it comes back to the whole reading of the game and kind of understanding what's happening.
I think it's both an instruction and something that comes with me. I think I am one of the best defenders of South America in that particular thing, going into those aerial balls. I think I'm one of the best at that. So anytime I see a ball coming up, I know I'm going to win it. So I know I have to be there and I have to be aggressive on that part of the game to win it.
So yes, I do believe that in my team, especially I am that centre-back that has to make the decision whether or of jumping or not jumping. Because as a centre-back, it's very hard. If you jump, you have to win. If you jump and you don’t win that first ball, then your entire team is disorganised, and you don't want to hear my coach. [She grins]
So it's very quick decisions, split-second decisions, that you have to be like, okay, do I jump or do I not jump? Sometimes it's better not to jump because your team is organised and you're able to watch the ball coming, and you're able to make a better decision with more time, you know. But for me, when that ball is coming up high, I know I have to go and I know I'm going to win it. So it's more of a confidence thing.
I think it's very important when you make those decisions you have to know what you're good at and what you're not good at. For me, that's one of the best things I have in being organised because I'm not that fast. That's why I talk a lot about where you are positioned and how you're positioned. Because, of course, if you're fast, then you don't have to be in the right place at the right time. Because your speed is going to get you there. But if you're not that fast, you have to be aware of where you are at. How is your body position as a centre-back, you always have to be [with the right body orientation]? Yes, your body orientation has to be like this, if you're positioned wrongly then you're screwed every single time. So it's a lot of being smart on the field.
I agree, I think for you, it makes a lot more sense because I think I'd rather be someone who has better positioning than speed, because the older you get, you can still develop that part of the game and you have a longer career as a centre-back. I mean, you look at players like you, look at Irene Paredes, not the quickest centre-back in the world, but her positioning is fantastic. Mapi Leon is the same. Even from the men's side, you look at Thiago Silva, he's 37 now and he's still playing at a world-class level. He's not quick, but he just knows how to read and position himself right.
So I can totally get why you really want to focus on that. And it's great to see that that's where your mind is focused on positioning – to focus on where you are in the pitch, not to let space in behind you. I think playing in the Spanish league, you obviously come up against Barcelona and that's obviously one of two games you play where you're always going to be on the back foot for most of the games but, and I'm kind of maybe drifting on to another question here that I just thought of, but obviously if you keep Barcelona out, but in how many percentages of games do you think you're on the front foot compared to when you're on the back foot for the rest of the league?
I think other than Barcelona, Real Sociedad. They’re a team that plays very good football like this year. Usually, if you watch a game, they are able to manage the ball so well that you just have to be back there defending with Barca. It's crazy. It's like playing the US in 2015. You know that they won the World Cup, I remember playing against them. And you were just watching the ball and running and being like, I don't know where to go. Like I remember, I'm going elsewhere now, but I remember her against the US and I had to go up into jump for a ball with Carli Lloyd. Here, she was like a head above of me when she joined. And I'm like, ‘I'm never, I'm never going to win this battle, like this girl is crazy good’.
We feel right now playing against Barca because they've managed to become physically better than any other team in the world. I think it's physically because they had the technicality, but they weren’t that different from other teams. Now physically, they're on another level. So that is where you see like, there's no way I'm getting the ball from these players because they run, they want the ball, they always manage to find the free spaces. And that's something that we're seeing with La Real [Sociedad] to a smaller degree. But they do have a team that you have to just wait and see if you can win it on a counter-attack. Other than that, I don't think there are a lot of teams that actually just control the game completely. It's more … it's a lot more equally balanced.
You have teams like Atlético de Madrid and Real Madrid that whose squads are amazing, the type of players they have are very good, but you actually can compete and you actually can have the ball. They don't manage to have the ball the entire time as these two teams do.
[Real Sociedad] movement’s and the way they managed to get the ball from behind is, is very well-taught – nice. And they have a new team like every day, they change their team completely and the way they're meant to play. It's crazy. They play very good football.
That new Norwegian winger they bought, Synne Jensen, is someone who I've been watching, I think she's going to be fantastic.
As I said, for me, your playstyle seems to be very front-foot oriented. You're very aggressive. I thought you could transition to becoming a defensive midfielder and obviously, at the beginning of this chat, you said that you've already played there.
I mean it’s a position that I can play. In my first year in Sevilla, I played as a central midfielder. Natalia Gaitan, she used to be a centre-back when I used to be a central midfielder and in the 2016 Olympics, we switched positions.
But I can play as a centre midfielder and I've heard a lot of people ask me that question too because technically, I'm good for it and I used to play as a No 10 in college with Paul Smith.
But, yes, it is a position that I like, a lot. But I think that the higher [level] I go, like, for example, I couldn't play there at a World Cup.
I don't have the mental quickness to play as a centre-mid in a World Cup. I can play as one here [Primera División] or in a Copa America. The levels of mental quickness to make a decision quicker, you have to have that.
So what if you played – I'm throwing a hypothetical out here – what if you played as just as an anchor, a defensive midfielder that your job is basically similar to what you do with centre-back but your goal, let's say, at the base of a 4-3-3 as at number six, and your job is just to defend and patrol the back four, would you be able to do that at a high level like a World Cup?
I think yes if it's only defensive. I can I mean, if it was more defensive focused yes. But yes, I think I could I could play that if it's me playing in that central defensive role.
So the next question I wanted to ask you, and I think I think I've got the answer to this already from the previous answer, but what would you consider as a key tactical or technical aspect to succeed in your position?
You know, because obviously as a centre-back, everything runs through you, you're the first line from the back. What do you think is the biggest characteristics needed for a player from the centre-back position?
Well, I think I answered those but If I have to say a couple, then body position, for sure – being where you need to be. Also, the first touch has to be good. Because if your first touch is like if you just stopped the ball, and you have to look up on the forward is coming at you, and you have to make a quick decision, it's a hard one to go 1 v 1 against the forward having the goal right behind you. It’s one thing going into a 1 v 1 as a forward, and it’s another thing to go 1 v 1 as a defender.
When you have the ball, you know, you have to win it. Because if not, it's going to be a goal against you. So that first touch is crucial to being a centre-back, being able to open your body, being able to watch where the [passing] option, the better option is, before you get the ball. So you can position yourself and you can control the ball accordingly to where you're going. It's very important.
I mean, it's, it's one of the most important things as a centre-back. But for me, the top one and two is being smart and being able to communicate – yes, these aren’t technical abilities but sometimes people don't see those things as important as being good with your feet. But for me, those aspects outside of soccer, being able to lead being able to communicate, being able to help your team is more important than being able to control a good ball.
How do you feel like you compliment you and your centre-back partner’s games when you're playing?
For me is it's my centre-back partner and my keeper. The keeper is, it's a big part of your success as well. You have to create some kind of sisterhood. Because it's like, I'm going to kill someone for you in the abstract sense. But it's you and me against the better players in the other team.
I think you have to find that bond between your centre-back and your keeper, knowing each other's movements, being aware of the distance between you. I don't know how many times I speak [with] my centre-back during a game.
I'm like ‘watch out, she's coming right, she's coming on your left. I have her, you have her go up, go down, your very move’. Call your line like it's talk, talk, talk, talk. You have to be able to do that when you're watching the ball, when you're watching the player, and your keeper has to be also telling you where to go and what to do.
But I think with the centre-back I'm playing right now with Lucia I think I am the one going aggressively. I am the one putting my body on the line and she is the one covering my back. She's the one getting the ball when I have to go for the player, you know? Yeah. And with my keeper, we (for me), it's very important to celebrate each other's small victories on the field. You know how [Giorgio] Chiellini and Buffon celebrate? Well, me and my keeper especially, it's like that whenever [she] saves, I'm yelling like it's a goal and that as a defensive player you have to be able to celebrate those small moments because people always celebrate the 1 v 1 or nutmegs, but you usually don't celebrate a good tackle.
That's something I learned in the States which is something I learned in college. I remember when I got there, they would celebrate a tackle like it was a goal. I've been able to manage it and bring it here and actually celebrate with my keeper every time we do something great and I think that's something that defenders should do more often.
Yeah, it's like, it's amazing. I love when it's a clean tackle, like on the edge of the box or something, then it's like ‘wow’, like is it as good as a good cross or something like that? So I totally get it.
Alright, so now we're gonna go into some fantasy questions. This is gonna be the fun part of the whole thing. Pick your ideal system that you would want to play in and what kind of football would you want to play? So: system, formation, and what type of football would it be?
I love the 4-2-3-1 formation, for me is the best one. You have a lot of attacking players, you have your balance in the middle. For me, it will be a team that is able to play from the back there is able to be comfortable and confident with the ball at their feet but that can also switch it up and counter-attack. I think it's it's boring but I remember [Pep] Guardiola’s Barca and when they just play and touch-and-pass, I always felt like it was so boring. So I would like a mix between being confident with the ball, but not over-passing and trying to attack faster. So yeah, for 4-2-3-1. A good big forward that can hold the ball and that gives my team time to go up and is an amazing leader on the back. I think goalkeeper, centre-back, that central line is where every strong person on the field has to be.
Right. So now we take this team, you are the centre-back and captain of this team. Who would you pick to make up your back four and goalkeeper?
Nice question. Um, I think I will play alongside Mapi Leon. I really love her style of playing. I'm picking Lucy Bronze on one side at right-back. As for my goalkeeper, has to be Christiane Endler. Finally, she got the award, I was so happy. She was waiting for the last three years for that, but she definitely deserved that for sure.
I'm gonna say a Colombian that actually plays as a centre-back but can play as an outside-back who plays for Real Sociedad. I think she will be the next captain of Colombia. She is an absolutely amazing player in Manuela Vanegas on the left (left-back).
And there's your balance, right? You got Lucy Bronze going down the right with Vanegas more defensive on the left.
Yes, yes, I have to go with a Colombian here in the backline.
So it’s Lucy Bronze, Manuela Vanegas, Mapi Leon and yourself. Quite the defence!
The last question is, so I'm going to show you two clips of you in game situations. I just want to know what you were thinking in those situations. What's the idea behind the decision-making?
Alright, so here you're playing against Levante and you're at the back over here, coming up against where the ball is going to come in. So what is it you’re trying to do in a situation like this? What is it you're thinking when the ball’s coming over to you? You're going into the press but are you trying to win the ball, or are you trying to delay the attack?
No, I'm trying to delay the attack. I know that it's not a comfortable ball for her to control, but it's also a ball where she already has her body in front of me. So I'm not going to be able to win the ball. What I want to do is make her play it back. The main thing here is making her play back and not turn on you. And just straight to the delay the attack. So we can organise. And then win the ball back.
In this clip here, you're playing against Valencia. And obviously, the ball doesn't go all the way back. But this is that we talked about those tackles
Exactly! Those are the type of ones we just celebrate! [She laughs]
So obviously this happened, they intercepted the ball, you're going back. So for you was and you talked about the pace and obviously, you can see there's a little bit of a pace advantage for the attacker there. What is the idea here, are you thinking ‘I need to go in for the tackle’, or ‘do I need to again, try and play this player down the line’? Here, you've got the tackle in but usually in a position like this in a 1 v 1 against an attacker, what is the idea?
That time I was playing on the left, and my left side is not very good. I wanted to kick it long, but I think she intercepted that ball from me because I tried to hit it with my right and it was an easy opportunity for her to get the ball.
So there when she takes that long touch, I am all for going in for the tackle because if she would have kept it on her feet, like small touches on her feet, then I would try and delay her and just go to that 1 v 1. But when that player makes a long touch, then you have to go for the tackle because you know, you're going to win it.
Fantastic and the last clip, which is probably my favourite one, you're playing against Atlético de Madrid, and you're right in the middle of when you clear the ball. So I mean here, you are pretty mad. I don't know if you were mad, or you were celebrating.
I think I was mad. That was crazy. I almost caused an own-goal. In that situation, it's very tough to know what to do. If you go down for that ball, you know you're risking to put that ball in your own net. First thing. But you know, the ball goes [through], then the forward that's behind me is going to score. So you just have to make it. To what I was saying earlier, it’s a split-second decision and you just have to pray that ball doesn't go in, you know.
But yeah, in that situation I was mad because they got in very easily into the attacking third and yeah, it's just my way of playing is very passionate. I'm screaming the whole game, it is crazy.
You know, last week, I used to play on the left, and last week they put me on the right. So outside-back, I was like, ‘hey, will you please talk to me’. She's like ‘I'm talking’. I'm like, ‘you have to talk a lot higher, louder because I scream all the time and I'm not hearing you’.
She was just laughing like, ‘okay, okay I'll scream at you’.
Very quickly, I noticed that you play on the left and then this one game last week you played on the right. How does that change your game?
It's very tough to play on the left, not being able to make a long ball with your stronger foot. Like, I think that's one of the worst scenarios for a defender. For me, I usually play on the left, just because I'm usually more technical than the other centre-back so I've managed to get out of those situations when you don't have your stronger foot to [play] it out better than the usual centre-back because I'm more technical. It's easier to play on the right. It is a lot harder to play on the left, and I was coming back from three months with an injury.
So I talked to my centre-back and I was like, I need to play this first one I'm on the right, get good sensations, and then we'll switch. But being honest, it was because I was coming back. The rhythm of our training is not the same rhythm of a game. So I was like, I would rather play on the right in these first couple of games to get used to the rhythm of the game and then we'll switch back. So that's the reason, but it's hard for a centre-back to play on the left being a right-footed player.
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