On Saturday April 9th in Townsville Australia in the fifteenth minute of a dramatic friendly between New Zealand and Australia women’s teams Ria Percival went down. There was no contact, it was no-one’s fault. But, unlike the innumerable times this season that we’ve seen Ria get fouled or watched as she’s gone in for a tackle, end up on the ground and then brush herself off and get up again with nothing worse than a muddy shirt, this time she didn’t get up. It was immediately obvious that what had occurred was serious. She was helped off the field grimacing.
The next day New Zealand Ferns coach Jitka Klimková confirmed that it was an anterior cruciate ligament injury: “Ria has gone back to her club, Tottenham. She is so important for us. It is a long-term injury, an ACL injury to her left knee. Depending on the assessment she will out for the rest of the year.” There has now been confirmed by Tottenham. She’s being treated by Spurs’ medical team and should have the best possible support.
Obviously, this is terrible for Ria, and we wish her a speedy recovery.
It’s also bad news for Ria’s national team the New Zealand Ferns, for whom she plays a key role (not to mention being the most capped New Zealand player ever).
And of course, it’s bad news for Spurs Women.
Ria’s role for Spurs Women
Ria has been a core part of Rehanne Skinner’s team (see our article on Ria from February). She has started every WSL game this season. Indeed, across the seventeen games to date, Ria has played all but 19 minutes so far (only Molly Bartrip been on the field for more minutes).
Ria’s statistics indicate some part of her role in the team. For instance, Ria is 6th in the league for Key Passes and she has scored two goals and has two assists (her xA, or expected goal assists, is actually 3.3, placing her 9th in the league, but given the team’s finishing problems goals have not always resulted where they were statistically likely!). Ria’s defensive figures are also strong. She has made 54 tackles of which she’s won 34 (a figure that puts her second only to Ashleigh Neville among Spurs Women players and fourth in the WSL). Most of her tackles (33) have been in the middle third of the pitch, where she has made more tackles this season than any other Spurs player. See FBRef for these and other stats.
The fact that these strengths span different areas of play are a huge part of Ria’s importance to Spurs Women: she is an enormously versatile and intelligent player. Over this term Ria has played at right-back, defensive midfield, at the wing and as a forward. In many games she starts in midfield but seems to have the leeway to roam forwards, getting into the box and pressing high, but also dropping back into defence where needed. Meanwhile Ria’s midfield tackling is a sign of her work-rate and the part she plays in chasing down players and reducing their time on the ball, something that has been essential in producing the defensive solidity that the 2021-2 Spurs Team has become known for.
What are Spurs’ options if Ria is unavailable?
The following are some quick thoughts about what options exist for Spurs with Ria out. If you have thoughts on this and suggestions about what might work, please comment below or let me know on @spurswomenblog.
At the back
Ria has provided an option at Right-back that has allowed Rehanne to move Ashleigh Neville higher up the field (e.g. at home against Manchester City, where it partially worked). Given our problems with scoring and Ash’s speed on the break unleashing her higher up the pitch may be critical if we’re going to create goal-scoring opportunities, especially against stronger teams where there is not a lot of space (and a reminder that we’re yet to play Arsenal or Chelsea (twice)). Moreover, with no Ria in midfield Ashleigh Neville’s tackling may become needed further forward.
For this to work we will need an alternative at right back. The most obvious answer is Asmita Ale. Ale has only started seven games (many of these coming before Kerys Harrop nailed down her position at left-back), but Ale recently played at right back away at Birmingham to excellent effect. The only other defensive player in the squad is Viktoria Schnaderbeck (who has so far been a relatively under-used loan-signing from Arsenal). From what I’ve seen Vikky is more of a central defender, meaning that her inclusion requires more rejigging – and risks disrupting the central partnership of Bartrip and Zadorsky.
Conversely, of course, if Neville stays at right-back we may stymie her attacking guile and midfield tackling, but would keep what has typically been the first choice back four (Neville, Bartrip, Zadorsky and Harrop).
This is where Ria has most often played, typically been in front of Maéva Clemaron, who occupies a defensive role in the engine room of midfield. And, over the last run of games, alongside Evelina Summanen. Summanen has become a regular starter since her January transfer and like Ria she plays as a flexible attack-minded hard-tackling midfielder, making 16 tackles and taking 8 shots in her four starts (five games) in the WSL. With Ria out, Evelina’s part in the team may become even more critical. That means, that with Summanen and Clemaron a lock in central midfield we could have Ashleigh Neville and Jessica Naz on the wing, and Rachel Williams and Kyah Simon in front.
There are a few other options in the squad, but finding options that retain our whole-team defensive energy while releasing players to go forward, are limited.
If Neville remains at right back, Rosella Ayane is a possibility on the wing. But she has been consistently – and frustratingly – ineffective this season, at times seeming to lose concentration. Angela Addison is another possibility. She has demonstrated her ability to find space in the box, but can find herself bullied off the ball and in her numerous substitute appearances has too often seemed peripheral (although this may just be a lack of game-time).
A different approach would be to bring Josie Green into midfield, allowing Evelina to move forward or out wide. Josie’s been reliable, but hasn’t regained the rhythm of a couple of years ago (and has remained down the pecking order from Clemaron, Summanen and Percvial). Cho So-Hyun also plays in central midfield and could be more of a replacement for Ria, but has only shown glimpses of what she can do since joining Spurs and does not always seem interested in the harrying/pressing aspects of how this team is set up to play.
The other options are less useful in terms of filling the Ria-size-hole: Tang Jiali is more of a pure striker, and yet to make a mark, while Chioma Ubogagu, who had occasional good games in the Autumn, is either injured or has been otherwise side-lined, not appearing in the squad since January.
If the main point is to replicate the pressing game (especially in the attacking and midfield thirds) that Ria is so good at, Green or Addison perhaps come closest, but there is no like-for-like replacement.
Moreover, and somewhat ironically perhaps, it is clear that Ria’s flexibility has previously provided the manager with options in making substitutions, insofar as Ria could be moved to accommodate the introduction of other, less flexible, players. Therefore, Ria’s absence is not just a hole, but also makes it harder to resolve the jigsaw puzzle of team selection and make best use of those players that remain.
All of which is to say that Ria will be hugely missed.
It will be Rehanne Skinner who now has the complicated task of deciding how to reconfigure the team to accommodate her absence. Of course Rehanne has already performed miracles this season, in getting this Spurs team to where it is challenging at the top half of the table. So, here’s hoping she’s got another miracle up her sleeve. She’s got a couple of weeks before our next game, to come up with it.
Till then we’re all sending lots of good wishes to Ria – and to her teammates and coaches, all of whom must be devasted by news of her injury.