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The Modern Defender: Key to Ashley Lawrence’s Evolution in Canada’s Journey to the World Cup

The term “modern defender” is so widely used in the football world that it’s easy to lose sight of what it actually means.

The duties of a quarterback have changed as the sport has evolved. Full-backs used to be just full-backs who focused on holding back the opposition’s wingers and supporting their centre-backs while maintaining solid defensive form.

Defenders today are expected to do this, as well as contribute to attacking and building up the game, as well as probing the flanks.

There are few better examples of the “modern defender” in women’s football than Canada’s Ashley Lawrence, a key player on the team that won gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.

But Lawrence, who is a midfielder by profession, had a hard time. She had to undergo extensive on-the-job training while playing for her professional club Paris Saint-Germain and the Canadian national team.

“It took about a year to really learn the position as a whole. But the more and more I played it, the more I liked it, and I was able to bring my personality to [it]. Now I can’t imagine playing anywhere else,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence, a 27-year-old Toronto native, will be the center of Canada’s attention when she hosts South Korea at BMO Field in Toronto this Sunday. Canadians are using this international friendly to prepare for the CONCACAF-W in Mexico next month as a qualifier for the 2023 FIFA World Cup co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand.

The CONCACAF tournament is doubly important because the winner will also directly qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, while the second and third placed countries will compete in a play-off in September for another Olympic spot in the region.

Canada will compete in the first round group of the CONCACAF W Championship with Costa Rica, Panama and Trinidad. In addition, there is potential for tough knockout matches against Mexico and the United States. The Mexicans were undefeated by Canada in a two-match series last November, and the Canadians’ victory over the Americans in Tokyo was their first victory over their neighbors in 38 games, a winless streak that began in 2001.

If Canada wants to go through the entire tournament and automatically qualify for the Paris Olympics, Lawrence is one of the players who will need to show their best form for Canada.

“Ashley is very dangerous when she comes forward as a defender and she creates an offensive threat to what we do. But she also does the dirty work on defense. She can throw a world-class cross into the box, but she’s also known to win 1-on-1 battles and stop opposing wingers and defenders from making dangerous crosses into our box,” Canadian coach Bev Priestman told CBC Sports.

Lawrence, seen at the Arnold Clark Cup in February, has made 105 caps since her international debut in 2013, becoming a vital piston in the engine of the women’s national team. (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

Multifaceted and highly dependent

With 105 caps since her debut for the national team in 2013, Lawrence has become a vital piston in the engine of the Canadian women’s national team. She possesses both speed and technical skills and combines these qualities with a high football IQ that allows her to read the game effectively and play both defensively and offensively.

As a full-back, she doesn’t cover the same amount of space on the pitch as a central midfielder. But the pressure and workload is just as intense.

“When I was first asked to play in this position, I was very reluctant, especially in midfield. This is a completely different matter, only in terms of spaces. [As a fullback], I’m more on the side… but in midfield you have a freer role, you can run almost everywhere. It’s so different in terms of tactics and fitness,” Lawrence explained.

“We, as defenders, are really asked to add in attack, to go forward, to make crosses. We are even rated maybe not as much as strikers in terms of statistics like assists, assists and goals. ”

Lawrence was one of Canada’s most important players at last year’s Olympics, starting in all six games and scoring 591 minutes out of a possible 600 minutes of playing time. She also proved to be a versatile option as she was used as both a defender and midfielder in Tokyo.

Her outstanding performances in Japan have earned her international recognition, including being a finalist for the 2021 Ballon d’Or, a prestigious annual award given to the world’s best player.

Lawrence has also been a big contributor to the PSG squad, which won the French league for the first time last season (after finishing runners-up eight times) and reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League for the third year in a row in 2022.

Despite the fierce debate among Canadian fans and pundits to this day about Lawrence’s best position – linebacker or defender – Priestman leaves no doubt about how she approaches this issue.

“For me, she is a world-class defender. She doesn’t get the recognition she deserves, but when you’re on the sidelines and you see her intercept balls and stop attacks like crazy, moments like this happen in every game. from Ashley. And she still does not lose this attacking threat. It is a huge advantage for us,” said Priestman.

“Do I think she can play other positions? Yes. She can play in central midfield, but her cross ability, especially on the right, is world class, so you’re missing out on that. She’s outstanding and I think any player who plays in front of her or on the opposite side of the field, you’re just waiting for an Ashley Lawrence cross.”

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