FAWSL 2019/2020: Liverpool Women v Arsenal Women – tactical analysis
Arsenal Women have taken 36 points from a possible 45 so far this season, whilst Liverpool Women have taken just six so far. This was a match that in all honesty looked like it was heading for a big score line, but Liverpool Women haven’t been in bad form in recent matches, so this was not as one-sided as might have been expected. In fact, when the two teams met in November, the score was only 1-0 to Arsenal Women, so a close match was perhaps expected.
This tactical analysis will show how Liverpool seemed to have a slightly new way of playing that helped them initially, whilst Arsenal struggled to break down the Reds’ defence. The analysis will also show how Arsenal changed their tactics to create chances, and to score the goals that saw them come through as eventual winners in this FAWSL match.
Liverpool Women made just one change to this side from their last WSL match, which, due to weather postponements and FA Cup weekends, was all the way back on the 19 January – a 1-0 win away at relegation rivals Bristol City Women. Welsh midfielder Rhiannon Roberts was put on the bench, with Kirsty Linnett brought back into the starting 11 after a few games out. Rachel Furness moved into the holding midfield role vacated by Roberts, playing alongside Jade Bailey, whilst Linnett slotted into the no. 10 position behind Rinsola Babajide, who was again selected to play as the lone striker.
Arsenal Women made two changes of their own from their last WSL match, which was against Manchester City earlier this month. There was a switch in goal, with Pauline Peyraud-Magnin preferred to regular first choice Manuela Zinsberger, whilst Dutch midfielder Jill Roord was injured, so in came Louise Quinn in defence to replace her, with Leah Williamson moving into midfield for this one.
Liverpool’s change of style
Beginning with the “home” side, who weren’t actually at home due to pitch issues with Prenton Park (instead the match was held at the Deva Stadium, home of National League North side Chester FC), they made the better start to the match. They are known for setting up in their 4-2-3-1 formation, but usually they tend to play quite ordinarily, not really pushing too hard, but trying to move the ball around and find a way through on the ground rather than by playing long air passes. However, this was a very different setup to what we have become accustomed to from them.
They seemed to want to play in a counter-attacking style of play that had several elements to it; each of which shall now be explained.
Firstly, their defence was its usual organised self, and was working hard to stop Arsenal Women attacking too often. It was well-drilled, and everyone knew their roles in making it work. You can see in the image below how, when Arsenal found any kind of space in behind, Liverpool all pushed back to force them to put the cross towards the goalkeeper, and not to a teammate.
What this meant is that Arsenal couldn’t get the ball to their key players, such as Jordan Nobbs and Vivianne Miedema, and the two wingers, Lisa Evans and Beth Mead, both of whom found like quite frustrating at times. This wasn’t down to their poor delivery though – as has been shown, Liverpool made them play like this. It was a really good defensive strategy for Liverpool Women to use, and they did make it work well initially. I will come onto why it fell apart slightly afterwards, but this was only one part of why Liverpool were tough to break down in the first half.
The second element of Liverpool’s counter-attacking style was the teamwork between their defensive and midfield ranks. You can see below how the two groups worked together to stop Arsenal having any joy when attacking.
The image clearly shows how Arsenal may have had the better attacking unit on the pitch (when you combine the skills of Mead, Evans, Nobbs, and Miedema), but they couldn’t use it to its full capability, due to these tactics from Liverpool. The Gunners’ usual free-flowing style of football was being stifled. Further forward, you can see how Kirsty Linnett, who was being deployed as an attacking midfielder in this match, has a lot of space to play in when Liverpool are in these situations. To explain why that is, look at Arsenal’s attack, and the players they are getting forward to try and break down Liverpool’s defence. That means that fewer Arsenal players are available to prevent Linnett and the lone striker Rinsola Babajide (out of the picture in this image) from running down the field and scoring, and so that is why Linnett has all this space available to her.
Finally, this counter-attacking system works at the front too, as today’s quartet for Liverpool was Babajide, Melissa Lawley, Linnett, and Niamh Charles, and they worked as a group well, as shown below.
As mentioned before, Liverpool Women tend to play in front of their opponents’ defences, and not in behind, and that is often their downfall. They often can’t get on the end of crosses, and that is why they haven’t scored too many goals this season. However, here, they are playing right up in Arsenal’s defensive line and getting in their faces. This caused a certain amount of panic in the Arsenal defenders at times, and they seemed to be feeling the pressure of Liverpool’s threat.
Liverpool manager Vicky Jepson deserves great credit for this change in tactics, and it certainly was part of the reason why Liverpool played so well in the first half. The other part of the reason was Arsenal’s playing style, as they really didn’t help themselves much in the first 45 minutes.
Arsenal Women’s attack
Starting with their attack; it was simply too easy for Liverpool to defend against. We have already looked at how Liverpool’s defence helped them out, but now in the image below, you can see what Arsenal were doing themselves that stopped them playing their usual free-flowing attacking football.
If you can’t see it, then essentially Arsenal Women are not getting in behind the Liverpool defence. Over the course of the season so far, we have seen how Liverpool’s biggest strength has been their defence, but every so often they lose concentration and concede a goal, and that is why they are doing so badly in terms of league position. So what Arsenal needed to do was to get players in behind that line, even if nothing came of it because it would create a doubt in the minds of the Reds’ defence, and that would inevitably lead to a small lapse in concentration, and possibly a goal.
In fact, when Arsenal did do this, it paid dividends for them, because they got their two first-half goals from these situations. It was also once they did this that Liverpool Women’s previous strong defensive structure began to show some cracks. Jordan Nobbs was particularly good at this. Dutch midfielder Danielle Van De Donk was also very important in speeding Arsenal’s play up, with two-touch passes becoming one-touch passes, and that was what caught Liverpool out. This can all be seen in the image below.
From this moment, Arsenal Women’s attack had the upper hand, and they began to find space in behind the Liverpool Women defensive line and to create chances much more easily. The second goal shows this.
You can see how Arsenal have two attackers in either side of the defence, which is stretching them, and that Nobbs, who is circled, has begun her run towards the centre of the box, where she will eventually get her headed goal from.
Another thing to note is how Liverpool’s defence has changed from the previous instance when they had two organised lines and were shutting Arsenal Women out. Now, they are being forced back to their own goal, and can’t prevent Arsenal scoring. This is all because Arsenal sped up their play and began to get players in behind, to create the doubt in Liverpool’s defence.
As far as their own defence was concerned, Arsenal also started badly, before improving as the game went on.
They were not concentrating as well as they have done this season, and maybe complacency is a reason for that, maybe not, but Liverpool didn’t have to work too hard to cause problems for them in the first half. As has been shown, the Reds were playing in amongst the defenders, rather than in front of them, and that let the Reds through too many times in the first half to create opportunities to score from. This made life difficult for Arsenal, and they struggled to cope with it at times.
The other thing they did was to step out of line, mainly through a lack of organisation, and that was all the invitation Liverpool wanted to get in behind Arsenal and score from. You can see below how Rinsola Babajide, who was excellent in the first half, was able to take advantage of just such a movement, and this led to Liverpool Women’s opening goal.
This could have been prevented if Arsenal had just stayed together in a line, and stopped Babjide making the run. However, it shows that, if you have dangerous opponents like Babajide, then you need to be organised and ensure they have nowhere to go. The ball will run through to the keeper if this happens, and play can go on without a goal being scored. That’s why, here, this one movement forward is what led to Babajide’s opening goal to give Liverpool the early lead.
Liverpool also used their attacking quartet to close down Arsenal’s options when trying to pass the ball, to great effect. You can see below how they have formed a diamond to try and cut off Arsenal’s passing options. However, Arsenal have made it easy for them to do this by bunching together in this area of the pitch.
As well as the obvious point to make about the ball now not being able to go into this area of the pitch, it also can’t go across to the other half, as Niamh Charles is facing the right direction to run out and intercept it. This forces Arsenal to play it further upfield, and that’s where, as has been said in previous articles, Liverpool Women have a good record at plucking balls out of the air and taking back possession.
In the second half, two things changed. Liverpool made the surprise decision to bring Babajide back into a deeper role, and that meant they didn’t play as high up the pitch in the second half as they did in the first. It also meant it was easier for Arsenal to defend against, and they preferred life in the second half to be honest because of it.
You can see in the image above how Liverpool are now no longer playing amongst the Arsenal defence, and are in fact in front of it, which meant Arsenal had more time on the ball and were able to play with more confidence. This was the Reds back to how we have seen them play so many times this season and left them with little chance of getting players in behind to get on the end of crosses.
The other thing that changed was that Arsenal stretched their defence across the pitch, which also caught Liverpool out. By doing this, you can see how the Reds suddenly had more area to cover, and they couldn’t manage it.
Liverpool Women didn’t find this so easy to play against, and you can see how they got caught playing in their small area, whilst Arsenal had the width to move the ball to. Ultimately, this was a way of trying to stop the situations that we saw previously, where Arsenal were having to play the ball long and to end Liverpool’s clever diamond marking. Now, they could move the ball to players closer to the goal, and keep it on the ground where they had more chance of it not being intercepted by Liverpool’s players.
To conclude, Liverpool Women started the match well, scored two great goals, but then struggled as the match went on due to Arsenal Women’s switch in tactics. Arsenal, meanwhile, started quite poorly by their own standards but got better as the match went on after initially finding themselves being outthought by Liverpool’s playing style. In the context of the WSL season, it is a game Liverpool will be bitterly disappointed to have got nothing from, as they truly deserved a point from it, which would have been gold dust to them in their current situation.
Arsenal will be relieved to have claimed three points that sees their title fight go on, with their next game being at home to Reading, but they will know they need to play better and got away with it slightly against Liverpool. The Reds are next in action when they visit West Ham United Women, managed by their former boss Matt Beard.