Matchday 13 of the FAWSL brought us an interesting tactical matchup between Manchester City and Birmingham City. Manchester City Women sit at the top of the league and look to maintain their momentum with an FA Women’s Cup Manchester derby right around the corner. Birmingham City LFC are still trying to find a rhythm under manager Marta Tejedor. Tejedor has previously managed the national teams of Chile and Peru, as well as Atletico Madrid.
Through analysis, we see that Manchester City brought their typical aggressive tactics both in and out of possession. Birmingham City, also stuck to possession-based attacking tactics and never wavered from it, despite high pressure. This tactical analysis will look into exactly how it happened.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Hampton, Mayling, Scott, Holloway, Jordan, Arthur, Staniforth, Walker, Whipp, Grant, Williams.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Roebuck, Beckie, Bonner, Houghton, Stokes, Weir, Scott, Walsh, Bremer, White, Hemp.
Manchester City: attack through Beckie
Manchester City’s attack initially began around creating space for Janine Beckie on the right flank and quickly moving the ball to her in forward space. Beckie is a natural forward and City has begun to use her attacking qualities from the right-back position. Once the ball was moved to Beckie, Manchester City had multiple immediate attacking options that proved difficult to defend against.
Manchester City sought to create space for Beckie by playing the ball to the left flank and establishing a deep diamond. Once a diamond was created, the far side midfielder (Jill Scott), would drop into space in front of the Birmingham City line midfield to create a passing outlet to the right flank.
The Manchester City diamond would circulate the ball to draw in the Birmingham City block. Birmingham City was focused on retaining a compact structure that made it difficult for Manchester City to play through vertically. Once the Birmingham City block was drawn to the left side of the pitch, Manchester City would employ a direct pass to Beckie on the far flank or release the ball to Scott in the central channel, who then released the ball to Beckie.
Once Beckie received the ball in space she would dribble forward aggressively toward the Birmingham City goal. In this moment, Manchester City forwards, Ellen White and Pauline Bremer would move into blindside positions on their marking defenders.
This gave Manchester City the attacking options of A) Beckie, who had the ability to penetrate forward and potentially win a 1v1. And B) White and Bremer who were making attacking runs into the box in blindside positions of their closest defenders. Manchester City attacked in this fashion for a majority of the first half.
At the twenty-three-minute mark, we see an example of this tactic playing out. We see that centreback Gemma Bonner has aligned as the base of the diamond with Demi Stokes and Kiera Walsh as the left and right sides of the diamond respectively. Lauren Hemp has aligned as the top of the diamond.
In this moment, the point of reference for the diamond is to be positioned in front of the Birmingham City sliding midfield line. The diamond’s position indicates that Manchester City would like to draw the Birmingham block across and forward. This drags the block away from Beckie, who is waiting high on the far side of the pitch.
After some passing circulation, we see that Birmingham City’s left midfielder Abbi Grant has been drawn all the way to the centre of the pitch. Manchester City, as quickly as possible, pass the ball directly to the feet of Beckie who penetrates forward with pace. As Beckie drives forward, White and Bremer make central runs to the eighteen-yard box.
A similar situation plays out around fifteen minutes later, only this time Scott serves as the transitional passer to Beckie. After passing circulation within the diamond, Birmingham City’s defensive block has once again been drawn to the left side of the pitch and forward.
The ball is played to Scott, who now drives forward. By dribbling forward she progresses the ball down the pitch and momentarily pins the Birmingham City left midfielder and left-back in place. Scott eventually releases the ball to Beckie. Because of Scott’s attacking dribble, Beckie is now able to receive the ball much closer to the Birmingham City box.
Beckie crosses the ball into a streaking White, who has made an attacking blindside run. White takes a one-touch shot and narrowly misses.
Manchester City consistently created space for Beckie to attack from and created multiple quality chances on goal. It can be said that Manchester City could have been potentially been in the lead by two or three goals at halftime.
Birmingham City: building out of the back
Birmingham City entered the match intent on building out of the back. This proved to be very difficult to accomplish for some time, but Birmingham slowly adapted their positioning and timing of off the ball movements to be able to advance through the Manchester City press.
Initially, Birmingham City sought to use a 2-3 formation when building out of the back. The “2” being the two centrebacks lining up higher and wider than the centrally positioned goalkeeper. Higher up the pitch was the fullbacks lined up wide on the flanks and a singular pivot player. This left Birmingham City with six players in the defensive third of the pitch.
Manchester City aimed to halt Birmingham’s progress by aggressively pushing their midfield and forward lines high to mark Birmingham’s personnel player-to-player. This gave Birmingham City players little to no time and space on the ball, which led to very few progressions to the middle third of the pitch.
Although Manchester City’s press was initially quite successful, Birmingham City eventually found a weakness in the positioning of the pressing players. When executing a high press, a team’s forward and midfield lines must press together as a unit.
Due to the offside rule, the defending team’s defensive line would leave open and exploitable space behind if they advance beyond the pitch’s halfway line. This typically leaves the high pressing team with forward and midfielders high up the pitch and a massive amount of space between the midfield and defensive line.
Birmingham City, through trial and error, eventually began to move the ball to the space behind the pressing Manchester City midfield and forward lines. This allowed Birmingham City to advance to the attacking half of the pitch.
Birmingham City remained committed to playing out of the back throughout most of the match. Below, we see that Birmingham has set up in their 2-3 build-up formation. The centrebacks are wide and offer access for the ball-carrying goalkeeper up each side of the pitch. The pivot midfielder has dropped into the central area to offer herself as an option. Off-screen, each fullback is positioned on the same line as the pivot player, but wide on the touchlines.
Manchester City forward and midfield players have pushed upfield very aggressively and have marked each Birmingham player, including the goalkeeper. This means that all Birmingham defensive and pivot players that receive the ball will be under immediate and intense pressure.
For the opening of the match, Birmingham had difficulty progressing to the middle third of the pitch.
After trying to build out of the back in this manner five times, Birmingham finally achieved a breakthrough. As a Birmingham defender received the ball, the situational ball-far midfielder slipped into the gap between the Manchester City defensive and midfield lines.
By doing this on a majority Manchester City’s player’s blindside, the Birmingham midfielder was able to execute this movement to receive the ball unmarked.
Birmingham was quickly able to move the ball to the space in the central channel and progress into the middle third. Although the ball is in the middle third, this left Birmingham with only Manchester defenders in front of them and almost an entire half of the pitch to play into.
Birmingham was not able to create many chances in the opening minutes of the game. Although, after prodding and testing the Manchester City press, Birmingham was able to play the ball into space behind the press and advance upfield in a more consistent manner.
This kept the match close and highly contested up until Manchester City’s second goal in the sixty-fifth minute.
Manchester City: 2nd half attacking tactic
During halftime, Manchester City manager Nick Cushing made a significant change. Beckie, who had been a main driving point in the Manchester attack was subbed off for Georgia Stanway.
Stanway is also considered an attacking forward, so this substitution suggested that Manchester’s tactics would not be altered. This did not turn out to be true.
As we can see in the passing map below, in the first half, Beckie (11) had an average position that was almost in the attacking third. Stanway (10) finished the game with her average position in the defending half of the pitch. This illustrates that Manchester City’s attacking tactic was no longer based on moving the ball to the right back in forward attacking space on the right flank.
For the second half, Manchester City employed a more vertical approach of playing through the thirds. They sought to use a similar positional diamond when progressing to the middle third of the pitch, but would often continue forward. This is as opposed to the first half when play would immediately be switched to the far side of the pitch.
Manchester City’s second goal is a perfect illustration of the new attacking tactic. Below we can see a positional diamond on the right flank. Firstly, we see that the diamond is positioned much higher up the pitch. In the first half, the diamond was set in front of the Birmingham City midfield line. This diamond is now positioned in the space between the defensive and midfield lines. A much more aggressive approach.
Secondly, we see attacking off the ball movements to draw the Birmingham unit out of shape. The right side of the diamond is forward Bremer, who has dropped from the attacking line to receive. Her movement has drawn Birmingham City centre-back, Rebecca Holloway, all the way to the touchline. This is obviously not a good thing for Birmingham City.
Scott has moved forward into the space that Bremer was occupying. In doing so she has drawn Birmingham centre-midfielder, Chloe Arthur, out of the central area. In a few seconds, Manchester City has drawn Birmingham’s central midfielder and central defender far out of position while retaining their own attacking diamond shape.
City now recognize that Keira Walsh has ample attacking space in the right halfspace. The ball is played into the space behind the Birmingham line for Scott to run onto. Walsh moves up with the shifting Birmingham unit and remains in her pocket of space.
As soon as Scott gains possession of the ball she positions her body to do a cross into the box, cueing the defenders to push up and attempt to disrupt the cross. At the last second, Scott cuts the ball back to the feet of Walsh, who is patiently waiting in her pocket of space. Walsh chips the ball into the back post and puts away the game for Manchester City.
Manchester City showed that they can change tactics and adapt quickly within the game. By utilizing a more vertical approach with off the ball movements and strong positional structure, Manchester City was able to take full control of the match.
At the final whistle, the scoreboard displayed a 2-0 victory for Manchester City, but Birmingham City can walk away with much positivity. Although Birmingham gave up an easy goal in the opening seconds of the match, they fought hard and stuck to a possession-based attacking tactic.
Manchester City moves forward with three points and remain top of the league, but assuredly walk away knowing that there is always room to improve.