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Pernille Harder: The modern Number 10?
A deeper understanding of Pernille Harder's role at Chelsea.
One of the biggest storylines of the season was Pernille Harder and how she should be best utilised. This is a debate that has raged on for months and despite producing encouraging displays as the season wore on, you’d be hard-pressed to make a final judgement on whether she’s actually had a successful season or not.
Let’s look at the cold, hard facts. Harder has scored fewer goals than she has done across three seasons. Her final season at Wolfsburg yielded 32 goals and four assists while her first Chelsea season saw her contribute only 16 goals and five assists. That’s half the number of goals and just one more assist, but Harder’s game has been more than just the numbers and statistics. There’s been a different side to her game that I believe we haven’t seen yet, which only improves the legend of Pernille Harder.
The objective here isn’t to make a subjective statement on the Dane’s best position, rather it is to interpret the role she was tasked with undertaking this season and what that means in the grand scheme of things.
Harder’s role has seen her involved in more than just in the final third both on and off the ball. Harder is deployed as a number 10, centre-forward, or even a winger, but in each instance, the role stays relatively the same. To play between the lines and use these spaces to generate goal-scoring chances. She plays a sort of a free role where she is free to roam across the final third in attack, whether it be with or without the ball.
Her responsibilities include facilitating the build-up to connect the midfield and attack to create space for the forwards to operate. Harder becomes a reference point for the team to play through. In almost every attack the ball goes through the Danish midfielder, be it through a pass to feet or a string of interchangeable passes with the centre-forward. Here, her responsibility becomes that of creating space through her passing and movement which derives from her exceptional tactical ingenuity.
Harder’s movement is important because it is a way to create overloads and underloads. Wherever Harder positions herself has an effect on the other side of the pitch because teams will often try to double up to mark her. This is all a result of Harder’s three innate qualities that contribute to her game - positional intelligence, smart movement, and chance creation. These three attributes combined have been used to gain the needed results in this system. Hayes’s use of the number 10 comes from the fact that she wanted to unlock the powerful combination of Kerr and Kirby which meant that Harder would ‘suffer’ in a loose sense, at least slightly.
The first image is a comparison between Harder’s heat map from her last season at Wolfsburg (L) and first season at Chelsea (R), and it is clear to see that Harder is covering more areas than before. The deeper areas are much more ‘heated’ which leans towards her being more involved in the build-up. Though there is a more active presence in the middle third, she hasn’t sacrificed her attacking instincts and is still moving into dangerous positions to create goal-scoring actions for others around her. Part of the reason for her deeper positioning is her need to connect the midfield and attack because of how Ji So-Yun and Melanie Luepolz are used. The two central midfielders are very much connectors and progressors, but much of that work is done from the defensive third. As I’ve touched upon already, Harder is the first point of reference when it comes to taking the ball from the central midfielders and laying it off to the other attackers.
This allows the other players to move into better positions and depending on the formation used to create an overload. As she receives the ball deep, the player tasked with marking the number 10 usually follows her meaning space is created in behind. There are times when teams will double up and possibly have another player just behind. This shifts the balance of the opposition defensive line which starts creating small cracks for Chelsea to profit from.
This passage of play is taken from a Women’s Super League game against Tottenham Hotspur which highlights Harder’s link-up play. Here, she drops into a pocket of space just outside of the centre circle, being marked by two players. Millie Bright looks for a forward option and because of Spurs’ 4-4-2 mid-block setup, it becomes hard to find one of the central midfielders who are pinned by markers.
Harder drops and picks up possession between the lines and evades her immediate marker, but watch how she takes the attention of four players. She immediately sends a wide pass out to Erin Cuthbert and now Chelsea have space to operate. According to FBREF, Harder ranks in the 94th percentile of progressive passes received at 9.45 per 90 minutes amongst wingers and attacking midfielders. This in itself is a testament to her progressive abilities.
Chelsea are a good side in transition which means they’re able to move the ball into the final third effectively wherever they win back possession. Harder’s defensive work contributes to this and when ball possession is regained, she is often in one of these deeper positions. Instead of a short pass into the channels, she will opt to play a longer, more direct pass for one of the attackers to latch on to before she makes her way into an attacking position. Chelsea can revert to a more direct style of play if needed which mirrors what they did in their 2019/20 title-winning season. This is an effective way of breaking down a team that plays with a high defensive line because their full-backs will be positioned slightly further forward than their central defenders.
Here, a looping pass reaches a dropping Kerr who chests it down for Harder who is in an even deeper position. Notice how high and narrow Manchester City’s defensive line is which prompts Kirby to take a position just outside of Demi Stokes. From here, Harder manages to gather and release a quick, long pass down the right channel for Kirby to receive in space by using her speed to beat the City left-back. In both scenarios, Harder has moved into a deeper position to receive the ball, whether it be from the defenders or by a second-ball-win in transition.
While this is Harder’s role in build-up, there is still her influence that comes into play in the final third when she has possession. One of Harder’s key strengths is her ability to identify space, and combined with her positioning between the lines, this forces teams to be proactive in the way they mark the midfielder. Her movement with the ball is very direct which causes multiple defenders to suffocate the space she moves into. A lot of her movement is coming in off the half-space and drifting into a central channel, however, she isn’t afraid to stay wide and put in a cross or shift teams across. The desired effect is to almost shift focus onto Harder whilst still being a relative ‘ghost’.
This example is taken from a game against Bayern Munich where Chelsea are looking to build out quickly. Sophie Ingle plays a pass to Leupolz who quickly releases it to Harder who immediately drives into the channel. Her acceleration attracts two active markers across whilst moving the rest of the Bayern defence to the ball near side. The second she releases the ball to Jonna Andersson, she moves into the half-space and eventually is in space to play a give-and-go and finds space to shoot.
Harder is ranked in the 94th percentile for progressive carries per 90, averaging 7.28 along with 4.34 shot-creating actions per 90 that ranked her in the 90th percentile in the WSL. These numbers support the type of football Harder has been asked to play. By Hayes making her into this progressive ballplayer, she has been a success. She averaged an Expected Assists (xA) of 3.2 whilst delivering three assists in the WSL which is attributed to her being the player who plays the pass to the final assister.
However, when it comes down to it, Harder is still very much a goal-scorer at heart. Her goal-scoring exploits are still visible with 16 goals this season, which may not be comparable to her Wolfsburg days, but is still a significant contribution. A vital factor in her goal-scoring was down to her movement and positioning with and without the ball. Harder’s progressive numbers have been explained but it was also used to generate shots.
This is a graphic of Harder’s shot map based on her last 75 shots. The compelling point here is the number of goals scored from inside the box. Chelsea’s build-up is very direct but there are times they play in transition which allows Harder to make late runs into the box. Kerr, Kirby, or a full-back can be positioned out wide in which a cross or pull-back is made that Harder can get on the end of. An example of this sort of movement is from their tie against Bayern Munich.
Chelsea play between the lines and operate at lightning speed with Kerr, Harder, and Kirby interchanging positions and passes to penetrate the defensive line. Kerr’s initial pass to Harder is met with an equally fast pass to Kirby. Eventually, the overload on the left side creates an underload on the right flank for Ingle to send in an unchallenged cross. Meanwhile, Harder moves across the box to find space in front of the defender. Though it didn’t result in a goal, it showed good movement and understanding of space to create a shooting chance.
Arguably, the most contentious part of Harder’s game has been her off-the-ball work when Chelsea are defending. This is one where many believe this shouldn’t be a major part of her game. Hayes’s use of the number 10 position has increased off-the-ball work, which leads many to believe that it is limiting Harder’s natural game. But the manager has managed to adapt her so that she can fit into the system, making her fit for purpose.
Harder’s role off the ball is mainly down to her pressing. Chelsea use their forwards to create pressing traps and are key components when trying to win the ball back. Here’s a quick overview of Chelsea’s overall pressing strategy to understand how Harder fits in. Chelsea aims to isolate the full-backs by making cover shadow runs, forcing defenders to pass into wide pockets which then triggers the two strikers to intensify their press. In essence, this either causes an enforced error through a stray pass or they get close enough to win back possession. Chelsea uses two to three formations to press, which is dependent on the way the opposition are set up. This is based on certain triggers and within each, the number 10 will have a slightly different role.
The number 10 will look to block the passing lanes in behind so any passes that do go in behind becomes the attacking midfielder’s responsibility. The player will also press any ball-carriers that enter this zone, specifically ball playing central defenders. Although if there’s a dedicated defensive midfielder then the task becomes more focused to stop that player from receiving or carrying the ball. The system is ever-changing even off the ball which is attributed to the opposition’s formation, so for Harder, the goal is to block the passing lanes and ensure that there is no easy way to build out from the back.
This example comes from the UEFA Women’s Champions League tie against Wolfsburg, where a pass is made back to their defenders. Harder’s persistence and role to press ensures she wins the 50-50 duel and puts Chelsea in a counter-attacking situation high up the pitch.
The data is quite prevalent and clear to see that her defensive attributes have increased between her 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons. Her interceptions have increased to 2.18 from 1.61 which highlights her role in blocking passing lanes but more importantly, her recoveries have increased from 3.86 (76% in the opposition half) to 3.97 (61% in the opposition half). The lower ratio is down to Chelsea’s press being more about interceptions than physical duels. But the overarching fact is that Harder’s role has been given a bit more defensive emphasis, which is needed to make the system work. Of course, her attacking numbers dipped but she was key in unlocking the Kerr-Kirby partnership that yielded so much success.
At the end of the day, Harder was given a role to play and she carried it out brilliantly. It might be different to what she’s used to, but it only shows her class as a player who can adapt brilliantly to any given role. It’ll be interesting to see how Hayes uses Harder next season, given there is clearly much more that can be extracted from her in an attacking sense. 16 goals in a debut season is excellent for most forwards – let alone attacking midfielders – but for Harder, she will be aiming to come back and register a 20 goal season. A double-figure contribution of goals and assists is not out of the question given the system and her attributes, but Chelsea can only improve with a few tactical tweaks to empower Harder. While Kerr and Kirby took many of the plaudits, we might now witness the true power of Pernille Harder next season.
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images