In the 2019/2020 WSL season, Birmingham City Women really struggled to pick up points, placing second bottom when the league was ended prematurely due to the coronavirus pandemic, with manager Marta Tejedor leaving the club in March by mutual consent. Fast forward to now, and things look much better for the West Midlands club. Following the appointment of former Sheffield United Women manager Carla Ward in the summer, they have looked harder to beat and more of a problem for the other teams in the league. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the ways in which Ward has improved Birmingham, with analysis of her tactics in attack, midfield and defence.
Carla Ward’s philosophy is to play with a 4-1-4-1 formation, with no wingers in the team as such. Instead, the likes of on-loan Chelsea Women midfielder Jamie-Lee Napier tend to occupy those roles, but they then come inside to increase the central threat. The full-backs are then asked to run up and down the wing, meaning they need to be quick and able to cover plenty of metres.
In these images, we can see how left-back Rebecca Holloway in the first image and right-back Sarah Mayling in the second one have moved up the pitch to offer width for the team. By doing so, they provide a source of balls into the box, and more players can then move forward in the central channel, giving more options for the full-back to get the ball to. This is something that we saw from Birmingham at times last season, but they tended to play with wingers, in Claudia Walker and now-Tottenham Hotspur Women forward Rachel Williams. Therefore, it was more difficult for Mayling and Holloway to get up the pitch, so this is something that Carla Ward has changed to help her team carry more of a threat.
The other thing that comes from this is that Birmingham can cover more ground in attack, stretching across the pitch. This then forces their opponents to play with a wider defence, otherwise they will give Birmingham too much space on the wings to cross the ball in from. By moving wide, their opponents then leave gaps in between each of the players, which allows Birmingham to play in between them. Therefore, this is another key reason why pushing the full-backs this far up the pitch helps Birmingham’s overall attack.
Birmingham’s full-backs are also all capable of taking opponents on when in attack. Mayling and Holloway are right and left-backs respectively, but Harriet Scott, seen in this image, is more flexible, able to play on either side. She is good with the ball, and is a different type of player to the others; as we can see, she gets close to the Aston Villa Women defender, before taking the ball past her and moving it towards the goal. Holloway and Mayling tended to stay a little wider and cross into the box.
What this means is that Carla Ward has several different options available to her at full-back, meaning she can set her team up for any situation. Whilst none of these players was signed by her, she has moulded them into the attacking players they are this season, and that has been a crucial and noticeable change she has made.
Midfield and attacking tweaks
Carla Ward has also changed the midfield and attack around, bringing in players to fit her footballing philosophy. They now have a better balance in midfield, with former Liverpool Women player Christie Murray and ex-Manchester United midfielder Mollie Green joining this summer. Whilst Murray is more defensive-minded, Green likes to get forward and offer an attacking threat.
If we look at this image, we can see what Murray has brought to the team. As mentioned, she offers a defensive quality to the team, and operates in her own half for most of the game. This means that Birmingham City Women have options in situations like this; they can play a long ball forwards, or pass short to Murray, who is circled. The Scotland international has a good passing range, able to transfer the ball anywhere on the pitch.
Whilst this is not a major point to make, Murray’s role has an effect on the rest of the team.
Last season, Birmingham tended to play with four attacking players, in Abbi Grant, Lucy Whipp, Rachel Williams and Claudia Walker. However, Carla Ward’s tactics focus more on being harder to beat, and therefore she has only used one player upfront when she can; more often than not this season, that has been Walker. She has looked more comfortable in this role, and, as we can see in the image, she causes plenty of problems for opposing defences. She has scored five goals in eight games so far this season, after not scoring at all last season, and that shows how playing in this central role has helped both her individual game and Birmingham’s overall attack.
However, as we can also see, Birmingham need to get players forward to support Walker, ensuring that they take advantage of these good attacking chances. The thing about only having Walker upfront is that, although she makes it hard for the defenders to get the ball, they can surround her, as we can see them looking to do here. Therefore, this leads us into our next point.
We mentioned how Carla Ward brought in Christie Murray and Mollie Green last summer, and that Murray stays back to link up play between defence and midfield. That then allows other players, including Green, to get forward and play in attacking situations. Here, we can see how Green stays close to Walker when Birmingham are in attack. We have seen examples of this partnership in games this season, with Green following up to score chances that Walker hasn’t converted, so this is a key area of Carla Ward’s tactics, and is a big reason for their improved performances and results in 2020/2021.
We have seen in this section how Carla Ward has changed Birmingham’s midfield and attack, ensuring her team have a better balance in midfield, and are able to use this to get forward and increase their attacking threat. The effect of this can be seen in their improved goal tally, with them only scoring five goals in 13 games last season, whilst they have already got nine in their eight games so far this time around.
However, the main change in Birmingham City Women’s tactics this season has been in their overall style of play. They looked to throw more into the attack last season, but Carla Ward has instilled a counter-attacking approach to games, making it more difficult for teams to break them down.
As we can see here, sitting back means that Birmingham give their teams more space and time with the ball, and Arsenal Women here are able to stretch across the pitch, making it as big as possible. We can see how there is only one Birmingham player in Arsenal’s half, whilst all the others are sitting back, protecting their goal. Against the top teams, this is how Carla Ward has looked to win points, and it has worked in some ways. Chelsea Women only won by scoring an early set-piece goal in their clash earlier this season, but were frustrated by Birmingham in the remainder of the game. Therefore, whilst conceding more possession to their opponents, Birmingham have actually become more organised at the back, meaning that, when they do score a goal, they have a better chance of keeping the lead and winning games.
This image details the level of organisation that Ward has instilled into her team. Arsenal are looking to move into the box, but have to resort to a long ball sideways instead, because Birmingham’s structure has left them with no other choice. This is despite there being three Arsenal players between the lines, because Birmingham’s two lines have made that area very difficult to find. Therefore, having this defensive approach decreases the options that opponents have on the ball, and leads to more sideways passes as they look to find a way through. Unfortunately for Birmingham, Arsenal are excellent at playing quick passes, which is where they manage to break through these two lines; this is where this type of defending perhaps falls down. However, we can see how this has been an instant fix to Birmingham’s problems of conceding goals, with 23 let in last season, but they have only conceded 13 up to this point in 2020/2021; a big improvement.
The main reason why Birmingham have been able to set up this way has been the addition on loan from NWSL side Kansas City of Scotland captain Rachel Corsie. As we can see in this image, she takes control at the heart of their defence, and this then instils confidence throughout the rest of the team. This particular image shows Corsie clearing an attempt by Chelsea to get the ball behind, but she helps out in numerous other ways too, including making clearances on the goal line. She is only on loan until the end of January, so it remains to be seen how Birmingham will replace her for the second half of the season. However, there is no doubting that, by having her at the centre of their defensive efforts, Birmingham have looked more certain of themselves this season, and that confidence has been clear for all to see.
The final point to make about Birmingham City Women’s improvements this season under Carla Ward is their pressing at the back. To explain, when Birmingham are defending, they don’t just stay in their positions and allow opponents to play the ball around them; they go and close it down too.
Here, we can see how Arsenal are looking to move the ball into the box, but Birmingham move out one at a time to close the ball; one player presses, then, when the ball is passed, that players slots back in and another moves out to press. You can see how tight they get to the ball, and it goes backwards here, as you can see. Therefore, whilst they have a good structure that frustrates opponents, Birmingham also have the confidence to get out and close the ball down. That means that opponents can’t just wait in space to make the right pass; they have to watch the Birmingham players closest to them as well, as they come out to take time away from whichever player has possession. This then forces more mistakes from them, so we can see another way that Carla Ward has made her team harder to beat.
It’s not just when the ball is in front of them that they press either. Here, we can see how Chelsea have the ball in a good position, but Birmingham have rushed back to close the player down from behind, again taking time away from the attacker and lessening their options. Therefore, Birmingham’s opponents can’t just watch the players in front of them, but need to watch those behind as well, which doubles the threat and the chance of a mistake in possession. Again, from this, we can see why teams have found it harder to beat Birmingham this season.
The two examples we have looked at so far show Birmingham pressing one-on-one, but they can also use two players to close down the ball at the same time. This happens mainly when the ball is on the wing, as it is here, and therefore having two players pressing stops any inside pass being made. Pernille Harder, who has the ball here for Chelsea, now can only play the ball backwards, but there is the risk that Birmingham will intercept this pass and then clear it towards their attack.
We have looked in this section at how Birmingham look to press the ball when it is in a dangerous area, and the three examples all show how this works, and the effect it has on their opponents. This tactic is something that we have seen a lot of this season from them, and clearly plays a big part in Carla Ward’s philosophy. It is yet another change she has made that has improved her side.
We have looked in this analysis at the different tactics that Birmingham City Women have been using this season, but, in order to see how much they have improved, we need to make a direct comparison between their 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 seasons. In this table, we have looked at some key statistics.
Firstly, we can see that, across the board, the statistics per game have all gone in the right direction for Birmingham. They now have a higher expected goals (xG) value, as well as a higher percentage of shots on target. These both come from their increased goal threat, getting midfielders forward to support Claudia Walker, who herself has looked sharper in front of goal this season as well.
Defensively, the statistics show that they now concede less goals per game than last season, meaning that, again, they have become harder to beat. However, as mentioned already in this analysis, their defensive setup means that they have less possession, and a lower passing accuracy. They are happy for their opponents to have the ball, and then to take it off them and move it through the thirds into good attacking areas, and this is the basis of what Carla Ward has introduced tactically to the team.
We have already seen how much of an impact Rachel Corsie has made to the defence, and how she wins the ball in the air and stops it getting into the space behind her; Birmingham’s aerial duels won value has gone up as a result of her addition to the team. Therefore, it is clear from these statistics that a lot has been improved at Damson Park, and Birmingham are looking up the table this season as a result, rather than down it.
This tactical analysis has served to give us an idea of how much Carla Ward has reinvigorated a Birmingham City Women side that underperformed last season. The former midfielder has introduced several new ideas to the team, and we have seen how much of a difference it has made. We have looked at several different tactical aspects of their play in this analysis, and have backed up our findings with statistics, proving that, across most areas of the team, Birmingham have improved under Ward. There is no doubt that they will avoid a second consecutive relegation battle this season, but the question for them now is how far up the table they can get before the season ends, and that is a compliment in itself to them.