Every team has won a game in the WSL this season, but Bristol City Women only recently gained their first win, at home to Brighton and Hove Albion Women. However, they are still rooted to the bottom of the table, in serious danger of relegation from the top division of English women’s football. The question therefore is how they can get out of this danger and spend next season in the WSL, not the Women’s Championship.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at their strengths and weaknesses in defence and attack, pointing out the ways in which they can improve their performances and pick up more points. The scout report will also look at their key statistics last season and this season so far, pointing out what has changed for the better and for the worse.
The first thing we will look at in this analysis is how they leave gaps in defence, which allows other teams to exploit the space around and behind them.
Firstly, we will look at their basic structure. Last season, their main formation was 4-2-3-1, which they used 50% of the time, but this season they have morphed into a 5-4-1, aiming to overload the defence and be harder to beat. In this image, we can see how they have four players back, forming a line in front of the goal. By setting up in this way, they look to keep the ball in front of the defence, where its position can be monitored. We can see how Aston Villa Women, who are one place above Bristol in the table, have the ball on the halfway line, looking to find a way through them. However, because of Bristol’s defensive structure, it appears that they have to find a way around them instead.
However, what teams actually do against Bristol is to drive straight at them. This is because, despite their setup, Bristol leave spaces open between them, which we can see in this image. Now, Aston Villa midfielder Nadine Hanssen has the ball further forward, with Bristol having split apart centrally, as indicated by the red line; this gives Hanssen a clear pass through into the space behind. On the far side, another Aston Villa attacker, in the yellow square, is making a run forward, offering the passing option behind. Therefore, whilst Bristol have changed their structure this season to get more players back, they still leave too much space open, and that is one of the main reasons why teams have found them easy to score against this season.
This comes down to a lack of co-ordination and communication, with players not talking to each other as much as they need to. If they work on improving this, they will know which areas to cover and where opponents are running through, and will be in a better position to prevent them doing so in future games.
It also comes down to their wide structure. Whilst it covers a lot of ground, it is also too stretched to effectively stop attacks. In this image, we see how, against Brighton, they played more narrowly at the back, and that has limited the space that Brighton have to shoot in. Whereas Aston Villa had time to weight the pass through the defence perfectly, Brighton have to rush the shot, and it goes wide as a result, as shown by the yellow arrow. Therefore, changing their defensive structure to limit the space opponents have could aid their survival bid, as it was a key reason they won against Brighton.
However, they also need to be stronger at the back when competing in individual duels. Here, the ball is in Bristol’s goal area, with Aston Villa chasing it down. Bristol are not strong enough to hold them off, and Aston Villa end up scoring from a tight angle. This is not just when the ball is on the ground, but in the air too; when opponents cross the ball into the box, the attackers are always fancied to win the ball, because Bristol tend not to compete in the air. This lack of a physical presence at the back is another thing that could hurt them in their bid to survive relegation. When we consider that Bristol have conceded 49 goals in just 12 games this season, these are key areas for them to work on.
Lack of attacking quality
When it comes to their attack, Bristol City Women’s tactics revolve the use of the wings, which is how they look to get behind opposing defences.
This is what we can see in this image. Bristol forward Charlie Wellings has the ball on the nearside wing, in plenty of space. Manchester United Women and a number of other teams like to play with a high back line (which we will come back to) so getting players and the ball into these areas allows Bristol to cause problems for teams that play this way. By getting the ball there, Bristol now have a good opportunity to move the ball into the box, and Wellings has a teammate ready to receive the ball in that area.
However, this is not always the case. In this image, Bristol are again looking to cross the ball into the box, but, this time, there are no teammates available. Instead, three Bristol players, in the yellow circles, are outside the area. This means that, when it does go into the area, the ball will drift harmlessly across the box, where Everton Women can then pick it up and clear it. Therefore, one thing that we can take from this is that, if Bristol can get more players into dangerous positions, they will not only give themselves a better chance of scoring goals, but will also ask more questions of opposing defenders, and could force more mistakes to be made in the box.
It is not just the lack of central options that is a problem for Bristol in the final third. The quality of their crossing is also poor, with a lot of them either going behind the goal, on top of the goal, or being claimed too easily by defenders and cleared. Therefore, whilst we can say that the central attackers need to get into the box more often, the wider attackers also need to be more accurate when transferring the ball into them, otherwise they will continue to struggle with scoring goals.
When both of these things are done correctly, with an accurate cross and a player in the box, Bristol then have issues with the shot. Here, right-back Faye Bryson, in the red circle, has found a gap in Everton’s defence, but is unable to make her shot count. Instead, it rolls across the ground, and is easily picked up by Sandy MacIver in the Everton goal. Admittedly, Bryson is a defender, not a striker, but Bristol lack a regular goalscorer, aside from Ebony Salmon. Therefore, other players around the pitch need to chip in with a goal every now and again, and this is also missing. This is something that they need to address in the summer, whether they are in the WSL or not, because Liverpool Women lacked a player who could be relied on for goals this time last year, and they were relegated as a result.
The overriding points to take from this section are that, whilst Bristol have plenty of good players in the final third, they haven’t all clicked together this season. The crossing needs improving, becoming more accurate, and they also need to get forward more to offer a bigger attacking threat. When they do get into the box, they need to have more conviction with their shooting, otherwise all the hard work to set up that situation will come to nothing, as it has many times this season for them.
Role of Ebony Salmon
Getting more players forward would require a change of focus on the pitch for Bristol City Women, because they tend to stay back and defend, whilst Ebony Salmon, formerly of Manchester United Women, plays alone at the top of the pitch. In this image, we can see how this works for them.
Firstly, Bristol find space in their own third, and move the ball into that area. Here, we see how Manchester United have given them space on the nearside of the pitch, and spotting these areas is one of Bristol’s strengths. They also have players capable of making long passes, which helps when transferring the ball through the air, and means that they can reach Salmon before opposing defences can get back to cut off the opportunity.
Whilst the ball is in the air, Salmon makes the run behind the defenders. As mentioned previously, Manchester United play with a high back line, which is the same no matter who they are playing. Therefore, Salmon moves through the middle of them, as the red arrow shows, and her natural speed means she often beats her opponents to the ball.
When Salmon makes these runs behind defences, Bristol always pose a threat. As we can see here, she positions herself between the Brighton defenders, and this was a key reason why Bristol won that game. This tactic is something that Bristol have been using over the last few seasons, and it means that opposing teams can’t advance too far up the pitch against them, otherwise they risk Bristol getting behind them. In their bid for survival this season, this is definitely something they can use to increase their attacking presence.
However, there are still problems to address with this. Whilst Salmon has scored five goals this season, she could have more if she had converted more chances. We see in this image how she is in plenty of space behind the Manchester United defence, but fluffs her lines when she gets towards goal. Therefore, this is another thing Bristol as a team can look at improving, and, by doing so, their goal tally will improve, as they have only netted nine times so far this season, one less than Aston Villa.
Therefore, whilst the tactic of Ebony Salmon being a target player has proven to be effective, Bristol could do with varying it a little more, getting more players forward more often. This will definitely increase the number of goalscoring opportunities they create, and will help them in their fight to stay in the WSL this season.
However, where we can really pick out where Bristol City Women can improve in the second half of the season is by comparing their statistics from last season and this season. We need to remember that last season was cut short, due to the ongoing pandemic, but there are still some interesting observations we can make.
In most cases, Bristol’s values have increased, and it is notable that they are exceeding their expected goals (xG) of 1.31 this season, scoring 1.38 goals per game on average, whereas last season they fell below their xG. They also have a greater passing accuracy, meaning that they are being more precise when moving the ball around the pitch, and that has led to a slight increase in their possession percentage too. Their possession is still low, but this is expected, because they focus on defending and counter-attacking in their tactics, and so don’t look to have the ball more than is needed.
We have already analysed how their crossing is very inaccurate, and, whilst this has improved since last season, it still reads at just under one in three going where intended. Therefore, if they can increase this accuracy, they have a good chance of scoring more goals, asking more questions of defenders, and maybe picking up more points.
However, the values that have decreased are the number of shots on target and the aerial duels won. In both of these cases, they reflect what we have mentioned in this analysis already, with Bristol lacking the quality to put the ball in the net when they get a chance, whilst we have also mentioned how opposing attackers are stronger than the Bristol defenders in the air. As mentioned, this is where they can work on these areas, giving themselves a better chance of staying in the WSL next season.
In conclusion, this article has sought to point out the areas where Bristol City Women are weaker than their opponents, and suggest where they can improve in the second half of the season and stay in the WSL. We have looked at how they can improve in defence, altering their tactics to make themselves harder to beat, and how they have a general lack of quality in the final third, needing to increase their presence in the goal area at times and get more crosses on target. Bristol are only at the bottom of the table by two points, and, now that they have a first win on the board, they will feel better about their chances of escaping the relegation zone and staying in the WSL next season.