The FAWSL was enjoying a mouth-watering title race between Manchester City Women, Arsenal Women, and Chelsea Women with five points separating the top three. Chelsea have had a stellar season under Emma Hayes and the rebirth of a number of players under her tutelage this season has been phenomenal.
This is in no small part due to the tactical alterations made this season going from a predominantly 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2. Not only has this system change unleashed players but it’s made Chelsea a much more flexible, smoother, and fluid team. No player has improved more so than Bethany England. The striker has been in scintillating form this season with 21 goals in league and cup competitions. England registered 19 goals in the entirety of last season across the two competitions. 19 goals is an excellent return but a 21 goal season with a handful of games to go is nothing short of remarkable. Her form prompted Phil Neville to select England as part of the She Believes Cup squad, however, he failed to use her effectively preferring Ellen White in two of the three games from the start.
In this tactical analysis scout report, we will examine the reasons behind England’s rise in form and the attributes that make her a deadly, clinical striker and how she compares to White in the Lionesses setup. This will also entail the tactics employed by Hayes and how that translates into the England setup. As a result, we will determine whether or not England should be starting ahead of White for the Lionesses based on this analysis.
Role at Chelsea & the Kerr effect
Hayes has deployed a 4-4-2 formation for much of the current campaign with England partnering Kirby until her injury upfront. England is a dynamic centre-forward playing the role of a hybrid pressing and deep-lying forward. England is a combination of a striker that will break opposition lines but also help out in linking up play whilst pressuring the opposition defenders out of possession. She tends to press the opposition but aggressively allows others around her to apply more pressure and pounce on any mistakes. England’s participation in the forward areas is most apparent in and around the defensive line and box. Most of her playstyle is predicated on two aspects – her movement and positioning and anticipating on where the cross or pass will land.
Sam Kerr’s arrival prompted discussion on how the two can play together. For much of her Chelsea career, she played a floating role up front, often finding herself in the wide areas at times. Kerr’s move would see her play with another true number ‘9’. While they both usually take up a more advanced role, Kerr has the capacity to transform herself into a deep-lying link player. The Australian should have no problem in playing a more supporting role whilst retaining her natural goal-scoring instincts as she’s shown from her days with the Chicago Red Stars. England often played with Fran Kirby where she benefited from her repositioning next to her and was allowed room to manoeuvre and find space in the 18-yard box. Kirby’s movement and vision kept defenders guessing and moved them out of position to give her strike partner that extra bit of space to find goal scoring opportunities.
So how has England got along since Kerr’s arrival? The few outings we’ve seen of both players together have been promising. England has eight goals in six games with one of them being assisted by the Australian striker. Kerr meanwhile has one goal and one assist in her four games though she has been disrupted by international duty not giving her time to settle.
As we’ve mentioned earlier in this analysis, England is a very mobile striker and does her best work in and around the box. Her ability to utilise space in those areas is one of her strongest assets. You will often see England sitting on the shoulder of defences waiting for a through ball or long-ranged pass from deep to latch on to. As a result, she’s able to exploit any space in behind defensive lines and doesn’t need extra time to get a shot away. Often her ability to effectively utilise the space is predicated on the players around her garnering the attention of the other defenders leaving her in an isolated situation. While she isn’t the best at static take on’s, she has improved in her ability to take on defenders in 1v1 situations which has enabled her to become a much more effective striker able to work the channels.
Last season she spent more time in a wider position due to the way Chelsea played. The heat maps are a direct comparison of her average positions in the 2018/19 and 2019/20 season. It’s quite obvious to see where England spent her time on the pitch between the two seasons but it came due to the team’s structure. Chelsea primarily used a 4-2-3-1 (37%) and 4-3-3 (19%) formation. Kirby was tasked with leading the line often playing as the lone striker starting 20 games out of 22 matches in that position last season. Chelsea also lacked pace in the attacking areas. Teams would allow Chelsea to play out wide because it would give them time to reorganise themselves at the back. England brought pace and energy to the side and essentially developed her wide play and ability in 1v1 situations coming off the bench and making an impact. The example below is from a game in the Champions League where Chelsea are up against a low-block setup by SFK 2000 with England seen on the far side. She is against two opposition defenders and struggles to get past them. They employed a 4-3-3 system and even though they ended up 5-0 winners, it took some work for them to penetrate through. However, these obstacles have improved her ability to manoeuvre and utilise smaller spaces this season.
At first glance, her skill set indicates that she’s a deadly poacher with her pace and finishing ability but as we’ve seen England doesn’t always just sit on the shoulder of defenders to run in behind. The change to a 4-4-2 has given England a license to utilise her freedom to move across the final third to get into goal scoring positions for herself or teammates. The arrival of Kerr next to England has given her even more encouragement to find space because the Australian striker is lethal at both finding teammates and finishing. Being a complete striker she compliments England perfectly.
In this example from earlier in the season against Arsenal, England can be seen picking up possession in between Arsenal’s full-back and centre-back. While in previous seasons, she would have possibly lost possession when pulling the ball back to stand up the defender, this time she controls the duel and forces the defender to back-pedal and bait the tackle. A quick side shuffle sees the centre-forward get into an excellent position to shoot and score.
Movement & Link-up play
After analysing England’s build-up to the final third we will now examine the movement that gives her the freedom which compliments her lethal finishing. Having scored 21 goals this season so far, England has been clinical in the final third with her goal-scoring exploits down to her impeccable movement in the final third especially in the 18-yard box. Her combined ability of utilisation of space and being able to understand and predict movement in the final third has been key to England’s goals. England has shown a lot more of her link-up play this season than she has in previous ones involving herself with the midfield and her strike partner. This gives Chelsea different passing options and opportunities to open space against low-block opposition. One issue Chelsea face in the FAWSL is low-block systems because of how dominant the Blues are in possession. Pure poachers usually struggle against these types of opposition but England’s ability to link-up with players around her create dilemmas for the opposition defence.
The pass map above gives us an indication of her ability to move around the final third. We can see her playing passes from different areas of the pitch taking advantage of both her positioning and new strike partner. I cannot overstate how much the arrival of Kerr has been an extremely important addition for Chelsea and England’s play style. This seems to have had an effect on their Expected goals (xG) figures and when comparing the six games since Kerr’s arrival and the previous six, shows a difference. Chelsea’s xG in the first six games was an average of 2.28 xG whereas the final six games have an average xG of 3.04. Now it’s worth noting that Kerr did leave on international duty for two of those games, however, Chelsea’s xG in the games she was part of was 3.2 xG. While this may have not had a direct effect on the results, their style of play was affected and as a result, this would surely have had some impact on the mammoth results.
Looking at England from a personal perspective, her goals and assists average per 90 minutes between the 2018/19 and 2019/20 season has improved too. The centre-forward averaged 0.6 goals and 0.13 assists in the 2018/19 season whilst her averages this season have risen to 0.79 goals and 0.18 assists. The Lionesses’ striker has proven lethal in the final third this season. She was a predatory, clinical striker but being the main focal point of the team and receiving a constant supply from midfield has made sure her finishing skills have been put to full use.
Liverpool were tough opposition for Chelsea and a perfect example for us to see England’s movement to create space is in this game. As the above image illustrates, we can see England drop deep to open up space through the middle by moving one of the two centre-backs away from her original position. The pass from Hannah Blundell is a one-two pass exchange where she continues her run in behind. This also shows us an example of England’s movement to connect with her midfield teammates.
We see England smartly hold up the ball and play it towards Maren Mjelde out wide which now creates two gaps. One between the centre-back and full-back closest to Mjelde and second being the space in behind England. The central defender has to run back to cover Blundell’s run leaving England in enough free space to receive the cross and score from close range.
This sort of link-up play has elevated England’s game, making her a more malleable centre-forward to play effectively as both a sole striker or part of a two. The return of Kirby will only prompt more interchanges and intricate play across the final third. England has proven herself to be an asset this season.
Lionesses’ number 9 – Bethany England or Ellen White?
Now, England’s form has brought up the debate of bringing her into the Lionesses squad on a permanent basis and possibly starting ahead of White. The recent She Believes Cup was a chance for England to stake her claim in Neville’s plans and cement her place as the number one striker. We need to first understand the Lionesses’ style of play before we can compare the two players.
Neville tends to play three systems, typically a 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1, or 4-3-3 both of which England can adapt to. When England adopt a 4-4-2 system, it usually switches with the 4-1-4-1. In this formation, one central midfielder occupies a deeper role whilst the other midfielder moves into more advanced positions. Another common factor is in the forward line with one centre-forward staying higher whilst the other drops deeper to link play with midfield to create numerical superiority. Lastly, two wide players can be seen occupying both the wide and half-space channels giving them the flexibility to create overloads inside or out wide. In a 4-3-3 system, the central striker tends to remain high whilst the midfield and wingers tend to stay much narrower to create an almost diamond-like midfield. The striker needs to be able to play closer to the box to receive crosses and passes from the wide players in the half-spaces.
Against Japan in the She Believes Cup, the Lionesses played in a 4-1-4-1 system that converted into a 4-4-2 in possession with Georgia Stanway pushing up close to England. England played the role of a pressing forward in this game pressuring the Japanese defenders to cause a mistake. On several occasions, it caused the opposition to give up possession in the final third to allow England to pounce and position herself in 1v1 situations. Their build-up mainly came from long diagonal passes, mainly through centre-back and captain Steph Houghton, into the wide players who would win aerial duels to play in the near-sided full-back or onrushing midfielder. Once the second ball was won, England would anticipate the cross and move into position in the box. Her ability and strength here lies in her pace and ability to get into positions in the 18-yard box and take advantage of the space available to her. While she can link up play, her ability to find spaces in the box and channels is where she excels. The number of goals she’s scored in the past two FAWSL seasons is a testament to the fact. 12 goals in the 2018/19 season and currently 13 goals in 14 matches along with four assists.
White played a bit more of a deep-lying forward role against the United States Women’s National Team in the She Believes Cup. The Lionesses’ were pinned back for much of the game repelling the onslaught of attacks from the American forwards. White stayed forward for much of the first half and only got involved once possession reached midfield as she tried to act as a link player. White is excellent at getting into good positions once she lays off a pass in the 18-yard box. Her playstyle is reminiscent to that of Harry Kane but is usually marked once she moves into the box. She doesn’t possess the pace and agility to get away from her markers often enough which limits her movement which has ultimately affected her goal-scoring exploits against tougher sides. It’s been a feature of her play where she’s able to score a plethora of goals against weaker defences. Since 2017, White has scored eight goals against the sides not ranked amongst the top 10 in the world with her other five goals coming against the likes of the USWNT, France, and Germany.
In both systems, it is clear that the striker needs to be tactically flexible and have attributes that both bring others into play and be efficient in the box. Hold-up play is key due to the type of wide forwards Neville possesses. Nikita Parris, Chloe Kelly, and Lauren Hemp operate in the half-spaces and can drift out wide or come inside equally well which means that keeping the ball and allowing the wide players to run in behind is a key component. Equally, Parris and Kelly are capable of beating the full-back in a wide space to create a crossing opportunity for either type of striker to latch onto.
Does the data support Bethany England’s claim?
In this section of the analysis, we will compare England and White’s statistics from the current FAWSL season more extensively to get a better idea of their performances across different metrics. The first graph indicates that two strikers’ performance from a pure goal scoring capacity.
First, we’ve compared both England and White’s average xG and average goals scored this season. It’s interesting to see the numbers compared side-by-side after both players have had a decent number of games under their belt. The Chelsea striker averages 0.89 goals per 90 minutes with an xG of 0.80. England has outperformed her average xG by 0.13 meaning she scored more than the number of chances she’s faced with. On the other hand, White has is meeting her xG by scoring 0.55 goals per 90 minutes to go with her 0.55 xG. In total, White has scored six goals in 11 matches whilst England has 13 goals in 14 matches this season. This data tells us that England is a striker that is clinical in her finishing and lethal in the final third taking more than her fair share of chances presented to her. So it seems that England is a much more reliable goal scorer and one the Lionesses can use.
Now, we’ll compare several statistics of the two strikers and see how they fare across different variables including build-up. This should give us a better indication of how the two players do in different parts of the build-up and how they can translate and fit into the Lionesses setup.
At first glance, we can see England has better statistics than White this season. Starting from the number of goals scored, England has managed to score almost double of White’s goals this season taking more average shots (4.50 vs 3.09) and touches in the box (7.21 vs 5.73). What we can deduce from this data is England is able to get into more goal scoring positions in the box. Her ability to play quick exchanges and collect crosses is a possible reason behind her high number of touches in the box. The average number of touches in the box can be derived in two ways. White’s lower touches in the box can be attributed to her time spent outside of the box either holding up play and linking more with the midfield whereas England, while she has improved here, spends more time in the 18-yard box. The higher number of offensive duels (6.14) can be correlated to England’s ability to press more and be involved out of possession.
How should the Lionesses’ line-up?
Ultimately, it comes down to the type of opposition Neville and co. come up against. Teams that will sit back more will possibly require a more physical striker whilst teams that are more open against the England Women’s team will require a quicker one. Neville has two excellent choices at his disposal and can adjust at any point. Based on the earlier analysis of White and England’s play style, I believe playing both strikers in a 4-4-2 is redundant because the opportunity to play them both in the same line up would only make sense against the so-called ‘lesser’ sides. When only one can suffice alongside the versatile Stanway. Playing both of them takes away one of Stanway or Jill Scott from England’s midfield if a 4-4-2/4-1-4-1 system is used. Against the top sides, you would need the two wide players to be able to score goals and aid the central striker, in this case, White in creating space. England could be beneficial coming on in the second half to take advantage of tired legs or pressing from the front and using her incredible pace on the counter-attack.
My preferred line-up would be the following for matches against teams that will give England space to attack in behind:
England has been a revelation this season with Neville finally recognising her talents by picking her for the She Believes Cup. I believe she will only improve and if the Lionesses’ can find the right attacking combinations then they can start taking the games to the likes of the USWNT and France. Those two nations have a system that works for the players at their disposal whereas the Lionesses seem to still be chopping and changing. England’s future with the national team is bright, playing alongside Kerr will only improve her game and understanding in a striking partnership. White’s seemingly underwhelming season since moving to Manchester City Women from Birmingham City Women is a cause for concern, and it could be a matter of time before the Chelsea striker stakes her place as England’s first-choice number 9.