Maria Thorisdóttir: "Centre-back is the hardest position on the pitch because you have to control everyone"
Pressing Questions #3: Maria Thorisdóttir
The Scandinavian nations have been known to produce some of the most technical and creative players in the game so it is little wonder why we see so many of them scattered across the top teams and leagues in Europe and the USA. These include the likes of Guro Reiten and Magdalena Eriksson at Chelsea to Lina Hurtig and Linda Sembrant at Juventus, as well as Fridolina Rolfö at Barcelona.
Even their defenders are extremely technical and creative, being able to play efficiently and effectively out from the back. You see this with both Eriksson at Chelsea and Amanda Ilestedt at Paris-Saint Germain. However, you also have Maria Thorisdóttir of Manchester United, who has revitalised herself after the move from Chelsea.
Sport has been ever-present in her life, having played handball before fully focusing on football and her father being the coach of Norway’s handball team. She started out at the Norwegian First division team Klepp IL before retiring with an unfortunate, persistent injury.
However, in 2014 she returned to train with Klepp and progressed to have a star-studded career with Chelsea and now Manchester United. With a winner’s mentality, the defender has since won the WSL twice, the FA Cup, and the FA Women’s League Cup, which is a huge advantage for the Red Devils to have in their camp someone with ambitions and crucially, the experience of climbing to the summit.
Thorisdóttir has been a nomad for much of her career, playing across different positions and roles depending on where she was needed. An ever-dependable presence, the Norwegian defender has performed at a high level, consistently playing at centre-back, full-back, and defensive midfield. Emma Hayes described her as a winner and that is clear to see for everyone around her.
Sitting in her living room, Maria sat with me over Zoom to discuss how her career has panned out on the pitch and reflected back on her performances in different positions.
How would you explain your role and best position, in your own words, and the type of player you are compared to what might possibly be perceived of you?
I think people think I’m a centre-back, but what people don’t know is that I have almost not played centre-back for the last 4 or 5 years. So for me, I would say I love to play holding midfield, that is my dream role but I do like centre-back as well because it's quite similar. I like to centre on the pitch to control and be involved in switching play. I mean, I don’t know what people really think because it’s been difficult; as we said I’ve played a lot of different positions, I’m a versatile player but I do think people see me as a centre-back more than I do.
So looking at the two positions you talked about in centre-back and defensive midfield, how much of your skillset do you feel translates across these positions?
First of all, they’re quite similar as they’re both central on the pitch, but as a holding mid, you can be a bit riskier because you have the backline behind you, but at the same time you’re more involved in switching the play and playing between the lines and be able to join more attacking moves even though you’re a defensive midfielder. As a centre-back, you play the ball to the full-back or the midfield and you’re done. I would say centre-back is a bit more boring than a central midfielder.
So would you say you’re a ball-playing centre-back? Would that be an accurate description of your role right now?
Yeah, I would say I’m really calm on the ball and I have confidence on the ball. I love to have the ball and play through the lines and see all the options that are there, not just the typical ‘safe’ centre-back options.
I can see that, when I’ve watched you play, you seem to want to play the ball out to the wingers in the wide area, which to me seems to be your first option. You rank 18th and 21st in the WSL for long passes and progressive passes per 90, which is quite high compared to the rest of the league. Even accuracy-wise, you have a 75% success rate with progressive passes.
When you look at the way you guys (Manchester United) play, there are games where you sit back and others where you control games more, and having this sort of accuracy is a good number. Compared to Manchester City or Chelsea, they obviously have a lot more of the ball in 95% of games so it’s a lot more impressive for you because I don’t see too many mistakes when it comes to that.
Yeah, well I feel like people think of me as the player that always makes mistakes or plays that risky pass. But, how often have we conceded a goal from that [sort of position]? Everyone makes mistakes, no one talks about the mistakes they do in midfield or up front that causes a counter-attack and we concede and we get the shit as a centre-back. I am a different centre-back compared to a lot of others.
As I said, I do like to play that risky pass and if it doesn’t work the first time, I’ll still try it next time. I’m not afraid of making mistakes because that’s where you learn from. If you don’t do them, you’re just going to be a boring centre-back who just does simple passes and you don’t get anywhere.
I think you’re right because there are times in counter-attacks where your midfield and defensive line can be too far apart and if you’ve lost possession with your full-backs high up the pitch then there’s only so much you can do as a defensive pairing in a 3 v 2 or 2 v 1.
You’ve now played for 4 major coaches in Emma Hayes, Marc Skinner, Casey Stoney, and Martin Sjögren. Who has made you play your best football within their systems in terms of the role and position you’ve been given?
You know, since I moved to England that all the coaches are more focused on the opponent like the team we’re playing against so we always have to adapt to the team we’re playing, which I think Martin, our national team coach, I wouldn’t say exactly my favourite but I know exactly what my role is and where I’m going to pass the ball because he has his own style which he wants us to play. He doesn’t care about what the other team does.
Of course, we do some tactics of how they play but the main focus is us and our sessions are the same every camp, which sounds really boring but you can see in the long term it really helps us because everyone knows their roles. But I think compared to the English managers that I’ve had now, there’s so much focus on the other team that we never have like a [consistent] pattern, we always change how we’re going to play against different opposition. So I feel more comfortable in how we play in the national team because you know your style and you just stick to that.
It sounds awfully similar to when I spoke to another player and they mentioned something similar about their role in the national team being a lot more structured and set so there’s this continuity and momentum between games. It becomes almost second nature to you, then you can adapt and tweak the system.
What is the most unique trait you feel you need as a centre-back that most people don’t actively think of? So we see when we think of a ball-playing centre-back like yourself, you think of having good passing and intelligence, but is there something that people don’t see?
Yeah, if I talk about centre-back because that’s where I play the most. I think people think that centre-back is the easiest position, you just put a player that can just kick the ball out and clear it, that’s their job. But to be honest, I think centre-back is the hardest position on the pitch because you have to control everyone around you and at the same time, have control of yourself.
I think positioning is a thing people don’t think about because you have to make sure to position yourself in the right position all the time and you have to have control over the ball, players, and movements. There’s so much to think about and so much stuff to have control of, it’s so hard. I don’t think people think about that because for some people, it’s just about clearing the ball which is so easy, but it’s not.
It’s most definitely not, but who would you say is the leader of the back four? Are you the leader?
Well, I am one of them. I think that’s just our job. For me when I play, my biggest task is to communicate with the players – I mean I communicate the whole game, I might not be the loudest, but I’m really calm and I give information that people take.
I had a really good comment from Kirsty Smith the other day when she came back from injury and she played her first game and she came to me after the game and said “Maria thank you for making my first game so good because you were so calm, and you gave me calm information, that really helped me”.
For me, it’s not about being the one people see from the outside that she really speaks or she’s so loud in her communication. For me, it's just about the people around me that can hear me get the information in a calm way cause I’m really calm. I heard from players in front of me, they’re really happy about how I communicate and for me, that’s a big goal.
Where do you see the future of your position going in terms of playstyle? Is there a certain role that you see evolving or becoming much more prominent in the immediate/long term future?
As they say, for every year you get older, you go one step back [in position]! I started as a striker but now I’m a centre-back, so I’ve already gone all the steps back, so if they want me as a goalkeeper, then might have to be the next step, haha!
I think for me I’d like to play holding central midfield, but I’ve got to think about the national team and I’ve got a clear message from them that I am a centre-back in that team. To perform best there I need to play as a centre-back in the team [Manchester United] as well. Like I said, if they need me in other positions, then I’m happy to step in and help. So, as long as I play, it doesn’t really matter where. But for consistency for the national team as well, I prefer to play as a centre-back.
Speaking of playing as a central defensive midfielder, I remember you playing as one with Chelsea in the pandemic season and you scored that goal from outside the box, and that was such a good goal!
I live on that one! It’s one of my favourites!
Let us stick to this centre-back position, what kind of style does your partner need to have that will suit you and make you play well?
I’ve played alongside a lot of centre-backs through the years but I would say me and Maren Mjelde for the national team. I feel like we really suit each other. We’ve got a really good partnership. We both know each other – we played in the same team for 4 years now.
She’s different to me, she’s more like the ‘safe’ centre-back who does the simple things; she can do the more complex things, she’s really good, but then you have me who can do the risky passes. I’m tall and big, she’s small and smart. Just the way we know each other, the way we communicate and I know her strengths, she knows mine; I know her weaknesses, she knows mine.
An example from the World Cup: I had a few passes at the beginning of one game that were shit, and she just told me “Maria, don’t even lose energy on it, your next touch is going to be the best.” Just small information like that for me was like ‘OK, the next touch I am going to have is going to be the best touch I have.’ And then I’m in the game again. So we know what to say to each other like help each other if we are struggling so I would say me and her are really good.
If you could pick an ideal system to play in, what would it be and why?
Oh, that’s a tough one. So, this is funny but you know you have players that are really into tactics and up to date, I’m not there, I’m just out there and I’m just doing what we have to do like I never think about ‘Oh I’d like to play this or that’ – I’m just trying to do the best of the situation that we’re in, but as a holding mid, I like 4-3-3. Then I’m the anchor, and I have two in front of me, and the backline behind me. I actually don’t mind 3-at-the-back.
Oh, interesting, so would you play as part of the back-three or in the double pivot?
Well, both! If I’m in the back-three, I’d like to be one of the wide centre-backs, not the sweeper, that’s so boring haha.
If we have you in this 4-3-3, with you as one part of, say, the midfield, who would you pick that you have the best chemistry with?
That is so hard, oh wow, I don’t even know where everyone plays in! Do I have to say something? Lol. But I think I have a really good connection with Guro Reiten. I always find her in the pockets cause we play on the same side in the national team. But she isn’t exactly a central midfielder but it’s fine. I like Ji So-Yun too when she wants to be good [she grins]. She can go up and down but when she’s at her best, she’s amazing.
I’m going to show you a couple of clips of moments in games of yourself in a defensive and ball progression situation. I’d love to know your thought process behind these actions and what made you make certain decisions.
Here, you’re playing against Chelsea, you’re here coming up against Sam Kerr coming up in this 1 v 1 position, now when you’re here in this position as the ball reaches her, what is going through your head and how do you look to control this situation?
Oh yeah, I remember this, I thought I’d take a touch down the side and play it up to Ona [Batlle] but obviously, I had a bad touch on the ball and I don’t think I actually touched the ball properly, but this is me though. I will try and play it out instead of just kicking it straight out. I always want to keep the ball, and if I can I want to keep it. I would have taken a touch out to the side and played a long ball up the flank.
See, if I was alone, I would never have done that, but I did it because I knew I had players with me. I recover though and I get on the right side.
I think back to your earlier answer of people not seeing certain things and you did your job here by delaying the attack and recover the situation. Here is just one more clip from the 1-1 draw with Everton.
The ball comes out and you head it away, wherein this game you're playing a lot deeper and in this sort of situation and even this period of time in this game, Everton were really piling on the pressure. How do you approach this type of attack and what are you all talking about?
In that situation, my job is to clear the ball. There are a few players behind me but the next phase is for the midfield to win the second ball, so we need the people in front of us to do the next job, I headed it out and it went straight to the opposition but what else can I do?
We’re always trying to step up when we can as a defence. That’s what we’re always trying to do, as soon as the ball goes backwards or they do a bad touch. We have to just go up a few steps but what’s important is that we have to make sure that everyone is on the line with us, so if one is behind we can’t take a step so we have to make sure that the midfield steps up because if they don’t step we can’t step up.
So it’s all about the team and we have to work together. The midfield has to read when the touch is wrong or goes back, so they step up and we have to help them and we just have to build back but when they just kick the ball into the box like here, then we just have to clear them to someone in our team’s feet and then we can get out, then we can step up.
It’s a lot [she grins].
Lastly, who is the most difficult forward you’ve faced both this season and in your career?
In my career, I’d say when it comes to [strikers] in the box, I would say, Sam Kerr, 100%. Her movement is unbelievable, she’s so hard to take out and times her runs so perfectly, so in the box, I’d say Sam Kerr.
In general, Fran Kirby is also so difficult to play against – she’s tiny, quick, and she’s good with the ball. She’s got good players around her where she plays quick passes to them and runs.
I would also want to say that this season, Alessia Russo in my team. She’s going to be really good in the future if she stays fit. She’s improved a lot this season already. I keep having conversations with her in training, helping her and she’s helping me. I can just see now the last couple of sessions we’ve had, her movement has become so good. She’s big, strong, and fast – she has everything so I think I’ll say that this season, Alessia is the hardest cause she challenges me in training every day and in the future, she can be one of the best.
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