The WSL is the main league in English women’s football, featuring many of the star names and clubs that we all know. However, the Women’s Championship also has its big names, including former WSL champions Liverpool Women, who were relegated from the WSL after last season’s premature conclusion. Another team with a story is Leicester City Women, who were bought by their men’s counterparts last August, giving them more financial backing and allowing them to become fully professional. Based at Farley Way Stadium in Quorn, near Loughborough, they have just sealed promotion to the WSL for the first time in their history. In this tactical analysis, we will focus in detail on their in-game tactics, looking at their defence, midfield and attack. The analysis will also look at midfielder Remi Allen, who is their playmaker, and detail her role in the team.
Leicester City Women’s defensive structure tends to focus on being in possession, stretching out across the pitch to enable them to move the ball around as needed.
Here, the full-backs are virtually on the side lines, which allows the centre-backs to move further apart from each other as well, giving goalkeeper Kirstie Levell short and long options to move the ball too. However, it also means that Charlton Athletic Women, their opponents here, have less chance of taking the ball back from them, because if they try and press one of Leicester’s players, the ball can simply go along the line and into space, with Leicester continually hunting for spaces to move the ball through. They tend to average around 63.9% possession in each game, so definitely prefer to have the ball, instead of allowing the opposition to have it and shutting them out.
When opposing attackers do get the ball, Leicester have a clever way of stopping them from advancing too close to their goal. Here, against Crystal Palace Women, you can see how one defender, in the blue circle, holds her position, facing the attacker with her body, meaning she can track her opponent if she looks to go around her. Leicester win on average 52.8% of their sliding tackles, so they have options in these situations, choosing to either engage the attacker or hold their position.
By keeping the attacker and ball in this position, Leicester’s other players can then get back and form a line behind their teammate, as is happening in this image. Those defenders can then block any potential passing options the attacker has, ending the threat. This is a regular occurrence in Leicester’s defence, so is clearly something they practice as part of their tactics, and it is a key reason for them only losing once this season.
However, their defence is not perfect, as no team’s is, and they do make costly errors at times. Liverpool are attacking up the field here, with forward Rinsola Babajide in possession. Babajide is a quick player, and defenders need to get tight to her to stop her getting behind them. However, Leicester don’t get close enough here, allowing Babajide to get through and move the ball back into the box. This is an area that Leicester’s opponents can exploit, and is something they need to look at ahead of next season, because, whilst they will get away with it in the Championship, teams like Chelsea Women and Manchester City Women will punish them when in the same situations. Leicester do win 63.9% of their defensive duels, but it is these which will hurt them next season.
Another thing to work on is not giving the ball away easily in their third. Dutch former West Ham United Women left-back Esmee de Graaf, in the blue circle, has cut inside her teammate to intercept the ball when Blackburn Rovers Ladies play it back across goal; so far, this is good play. However, Leicester then give the ball away too easily at times when moving it out from these positions, and the two goals they conceded in this game both came from loose passes.
This season, whilst they have lost only one league game, Leicester have conceded 15 goals, which is the most in the top four (second-placed Durham Women have given away 12, whilst third-placed Sheffield United Women and fourth-placed Liverpool have let in 13 each), and the league champions have conceded on average 0.82 goals per game. Therefore, they do have some defensive issues to address before their first WSL game next season, but there is plenty of time to sort those out.
When it comes to moving the ball from the back to the front of the pitch, Leicester City Women play a mass-pressing game, forcing the opposition into playing in their own half.
This works by the Leicester defenders going beyond the halfway line, as Ashleigh Plumptre and Sam Tierney have done here. By taking up this position together, as the blue line indicates, they make it hard for opponents to break through them, playing a unique high backline style of play. In the WSL, they will need to be wary of this, as Manchester United Women also play with a high backline, and have been caught out at the back by other teams this season. However, we have already seen Leicester’s defensive tactics, which give them a way of getting players back and into line if a team does counter-attack against them.
Leicester mainly keep the ball on the ground, even when moving the ball from defence to attack. This is in contrast to their promotion rivals Sheffield United Women, who prefer long passes, making it easier to access space behind opposing defences. Given Leicester won the league, this would perhaps suggest that keeping the ball on the ground is the better option in the Championship. In this image, Leicester have the ball at the back, looking to make the forward pass. Coventry United Ladies have left the gap, with Leicester making the simple pass through them, but it does take good vision and accuracy to get the pass into the right player here; something Leicester have in abundance.
This is another positive of their possession-based game, as they can dictate play and control matches, and their average passing accuracy per game this season of 79.1% highlights how this is one of Leicester’s key strengths, enabling them to access spaces and catch opponents out.
When the long ground pass is not possible, Leicester adapt, with players coming short to provide a link between the defence and attack instead. However, it is striker Natasha Flint, in the blue circle, who has come short here to offer the passing option. This means that there is space at the front left unoccupied, and forward Annabel Blanchard, in the red circle, has moved to fill it. Now, Leicester have two stages to their attack, with the ball able to move into Flint, before she can then turn and pass into the space behind the Coventry United defence, where Blanchard can receive it and run at goal. Blanchard moved to Blackburn in January, so Leicester need other players to take this role next season, but they have plenty of options in the final third anyway, so this won’t be a problem.
When the ball reaches Leicester City Women’s attacking players, there are several ways that they look to create opportunities and score goals.
Here, Leicester’s defenders have moved up the pitch, squeezing Coventry United inside their own half, as we have already looked at. The full-backs are particularly important with this, as they tend to be the ones driving forward from the back and gaining the ground for Leicester to play in. The defence moving up pushes Leicester’s midfielders and attackers together, increasing their numbers ahead of the ball. This means that, wherever the ball goes, there will be at least two players there to meet it, and the interplay between attackers in different spaces is a prominent feature of Leicester’s game. This is another thing that opponents find difficult when defending against them.
However, the main thing here is that players can move around the pitch without needing to communicate beforehand. Leicester have played with a front three in 18% of their games this season, and a single striker supported by four players behind in 34% of them. Here, they have three players in a forward line, with one coming short to provide a link and help transfer the ball into the forward areas. As this player drops back, another on the far side of the pitch runs forward into space. The fact that this is done simultaneously highlights how Leicester have a well-planned attacking style, with all players knowing where to go in different situations, helping each other out and ensuring that each attack is a team effort. This is something that can help them in the WSL next season, as they will never leave spaces open, and that will mean opposing defences have to be continually awake when playing against them.
The other thing that Leicester have in attack is pace. Here, against Liverpool, the ball is on the nearside wing, with Leicester aiming to close it down. On the far side of the pitch, we see how another player is moving into space, as the yellow arrow indicates, running across the Liverpool defender in the process. At this point, Leicester haven’t yet gained possession, and yet the run into the central area is still made, because there is a good amount of trust and anticipation in the team, with players knowing that, in these situations, their teammates will win the ball. Therefore, by making the run, they ensure that there is a passing option ready in the middle for when that happens.
Leicester have plenty of quick players operating in the final third, including Paige Bailey-Gayle and Lachante Paul, who both play more as wingers, so these quick runs inside the pitch are not uncommon and are another reason Leicester have been so dangerous in front of goal this season.
However, like with their defence, there are some things they can still improve on. Here, we see against Charlton Athletic how Leicester have got into a good position, but end up tripping over each other’s toes in the attempt to shoot at goal. This comes down to a lack of communication at times, so is very simple to correct, but they need to ensure that chances are taken in the WSL, because they are unlikely to get too many in spaces like this. This season, they have scored 50 goals in the Women’s Championship, but only have an average shot on target value of 39.8% per game, so there is definite room for them to be more productive in the final third, and gives them something to work on. Next season, this will need to be higher, otherwise, they will struggle to pick up points against some of the league’s defensively stronger teams.
We have looked at Leicester City Women’s defence, defence-to-attack transitions, and attack, but the player who links everything together for them is experienced midfielder Remi Allen. She is the playmaker in the team, possessing an excellent passing ability and good vision, as well as spatial awareness in abundance.
Allen is a very mobile player, able to go where needed to help the team out. Here, the former Reading Women midfielder has dropped back into defence, giving her side another passing option and helping them keep possession. We saw in the first section how Leicester like to play with a wide defence, enabling them to keep possession and look for a gap through the opposing lines. However, as we have also seen, the full-backs like to advance up the pitch to help launch attacks, and this means that spaces can be left open at the back.
This is what Allen has spotted, and her passing range allows her to pick out a teammate higher up the field. Her average passing accuracy per game this season stands at 81.7%, highlighting the quality she brings when on the ball, and this is especially important in situations like this, because opponents won’t have easy passes to cut out. Liverpool have stretched out across the pitch in midfield, but have left gaps in between for Leicester to play through; this is what allows Leicester to make the passes up the field in defence-to-attack transitions, as we have seen already. Therefore, we can see how Allen plays a key role in this aspect of their tactics.
Allen generally plays in a box-to-box, free-roaming role, which means she can get forwards as well as dropping back. Here, she has moved into the middle of Liverpool’s defenders, before playing the ball behind the defence for her teammate to run onto. There are a couple of things to examine here.
Firstly, her ability to play in tight spaces is exceptional. As mentioned, she is between three players here, having dribbled the ball into this space willingly. This demonstrates her confidence on the ball, not afraid of being closed down by opponents, and her average dribbling accuracy per game of 61.9% shows why this makes her a key player for them.
Secondly, the pass she makes, shown by the blue arrow, is of the highest quality. Its path is along the ground, straight, and well-weighted, and splits the Liverpool defenders perfectly. As we have already mentioned, Leicester have a player available to meet the ball there, playing on the shoulder of the defenders, and this is another reason Allen makes the pass into that space. She knows that her teammate will control the ball in that area, because of the trust and teamwork ethic that all of Leicester’s players have built into them. Therefore, we again see how Allen plays a key role in Leicester’s tactics, this time in attacking situations.
In conclusion, Leicester City Women are a very interesting team to look at, because they have plenty of quality around the pitch, as well as some intriguing and unique tactics that this scout report has focused on. However, there are some errors in their game which have gone unpunished in the Women’s Championship, but would see them struggle to win games in the WSL next season, such as giving the ball away cheaply in defence and not communicating effectively enough in attack, but these are things that they can very easily work on. When they strengthen the squad with new signings over the summer, they must bring in players that fit into their tactics, because their style of play was a big reason for their promotion, and will ask questions of the other teams in the WSL next season, so is something they can build on.