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All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics

“An impressive win”: Why Shamrock Rovers’ clever game plan helped them edge Glentoran in the All-Island Cup – tactical analysis

With the World Cup fast approaching, action in Northern Ireland’s Women’s Premiership and the Republic of Ireland’s Women’s Premier Division has been put on hold for a short while, with players in the latter temporarily departing their clubs to link up with the national squad ahead of the trip to Australia and New Zealand. However, that doesn’t mean that the football has stopped altogether, as a new All-Island Cup has been taking place during the last few weekends, which has seen clubs from all corners of Ireland face off against each other to crown the best team on the island.

It has also allowed for some of the strongest sides in the two countries to lock horns in mouthwatering encounters. One of the fixtures that attracted a great deal of attention was Shamrock Rovers Women’s trip to Belfast to face Glentoran Women (with the game held at Harland and Wolff Welders’ Branchflower Stadium), due to both having strong campaigns and being in with a chance of lifting their respective league trophies later this year.

As things turned out, it was Shamrock Rovers who took the win, with them managing to contain Glentoran for large parts of the game and then build on that with their own tactics, and, even though a win for Wexford Youths Women meant that the South Dublin side were unable to progress to the semi-finals despite the victory, they do still deserve credit for the way that they went about securing the three points. With that in mind, this tactical analysis will take a closer look at how they got their game plan right and why they managed to keep their opponents under wraps during the clash.


All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics

Glentoran Women made two changes from their 5-0 win at Peamount United Women last time out, with both enforced due to Northern Ireland winger Caragh Hamilton moving to Lewes Women in the week and midfielder Nadene Caldwell picking up a knock. Sam Kelly partnered with Joely Andrews in the inverted forward positions, whilst centre-back Jenna McKearney was drafted into the back three. Emily Wilson moved to the right wing-back role to replace Hamilton, whilst Emma McMaster switched to central midfield to accommodate the inclusion of McKearney.

Shamrock Rovers Women also made changes from their last outing, a 5-3 defeat at Wexford. Goalkeeper Summer Lawless, defender Chloe McCarthy, midfielder Jaime Thompson and forward Lauren Kelly all dropped to the bench, with head coach Collie O’Neill opting to rotate his squad. Savannah McCarthy switched to centre-back, and Lia O’Leary dropped back into her usual left-back role, whilst regular stopper Amanda Budden, midfielder Melissa O’Kane and forwards Alannah McEvoy and Stephanie Zambra all came in.

Glentoran Women’s game plan

Knowing that victory was necessary for them to have any chance of progressing to the knockout rounds, Glentoran Women came out of the traps quickly. They showed from the early stages why they are one of the best teams on the island, and there was little doubt to anyone watching that they had a clear game plan and knew what was required in each situation.

All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics
Glentoran Women looked to use the wings as much as possible.

One of the critical aspects of their tactics was to control the wings, which was one reason they continued with the wing-back system that they utilised against Peamount. However, it was slightly unusual to see Emily Wilson in the right wing-back role, given that the former Crusaders Strikers player is a goalscorer by trade (Hamilton is a winger and is more used to the demands of the position).

However, Glentoran manager Billy Clarke gave Wilson that role because of her imposing pace, and he knew that deploying her in that role would allow her to cover more territory and support both attacking and defensive play as needed.

When Glentoran were in attack, it was a decision that continually paid off, with Wilson being one of the Belfast side’s most effective players with the ball and continually getting behind the Shamrock Rovers Women line in the early stages. In this case, she manages to win a 1-v-1 battle with O’Leary and to send the ball into the middle, and the fact that she looked confident and believed in what was being asked of her was clear to see through her lack of hesitation whenever the ball was at her feet.

All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics
Glentoran Women used Chloe McCarron to move the ball around the field.

Another common feature of Glentoran’s play was positional rotations in the midfield and forward areas, with those in those areas continually switching roles in order to keep Rovers guessing as to who would receive the ball and where. This was particularly beneficial for Kelly and Andrews, both creative playmakers who like to drop back and influence the game in any way they can, so it allowed them to play to their strengths.

However, whilst the movement was essential for preventing Rovers from settling into one shape, Glentoran still needed to find a way of moving the ball around the field, and that was facilitated by Chloe McCarron not involving herself in the rotations and instead playing a deep-lying distributor role.

WSL fans will remember McCarron for her short spell with Birmingham City Women back in the 2020/21 season. Still, she has become vital to Glentoran’s tactics since rejoining them from the West Midlands side. This game highlighted that as her range of passing and ability to read the game allowed her to connect different areas of the team, meaning that Glentoran could always find a way to test their opponents’ resolve.

All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics
Glentoran Women pressed with intensity when they could.

The clarity in Glentoran’s play continued when they were out of possession, too, focusing on instigating presses from the front and trying to take as much time away from Rovers as possible.

This was almost always executed in numbers, with the front three standing out for their efforts off the ball and their ability to move forward in unison as they sought to remove as many options from the visitors as possible. However, it came down to whichever players were in the vicinity as to who was involved in the press, and, in this case, it is Kerry Beattie, Demi Vance and Kelly who have got tight to Jessica Hennessy, Jessica Gargan and Aoife Kelly, with all three taking one opponent each and waiting for the ball to travel around the field.

This is something that Glentoran are known for, with them possessing plenty of pace in their forward options and always looking to find ways to unlock it. It was clear that they had been practising this in training as they tried to find ways of forcing Rovers into making mistakes, which was especially common in the second half as they needed to find a way to get back into the game.

Suppressing Glentoran Women’s play

However, despite being dominant in significant periods of play, Glentoran Women ended up with a defeat. They missed out on a place in the semi-finals, so the analysis will now turn to Shamrock Rovers Women’s performance and how they managed to suppress Glentoran’s attacks as part of their game plan.

All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics
Shamrock Rovers Women’s centre-backs were crucial in and out of possession.

It started at the back for the visitors, with the two centre-backs playing essential roles both in and out of possession. With the ball, they continually split to create distinct passing lanes and make the pitch as big as possible, and without, they worked hard to intercept passes and win first balls, a common feature of Rovers’ defensive play.

Looking at the first of those points, it was vital because it prevented Glentoran from pressing in numbers, as the pitch was bigger, and they had to spread out to cover more territory. As a result, the aggressiveness of the press highlighted in the previous section was taken away as the game went on, with the South Dublin side growing into the encounter and implementing their own tactics in order to take control of phases and to give themselves a better chance of creating attacks higher up the pitch.

The wide setup of Hennessy and McCarthy also meant that the full-backs didn’t need to track back as much. So they were free to become the immediate passing options for their defensive teammates and to ensure that the Glentoran wing-backs were less able to move forward and assist the forward line. Both Gargan and O’Leary had really positive performances and showed their attacking instincts on plenty of occasions during the game due to that added freedom.

All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics
Shamrock Rovers Women worked together in numbers to keep the ball moving when they needed to.

However, there were times when Rovers needed to play closer together, and they did this just as well despite it not being something they looked as comfortable with.

They only tended to narrow up when Glentoran looked likely to make an interception, as it meant that they could continually change the direction of play and make it harder for the home side to win the ball. However, because it was not what they favoured doing, there were occasions when they gave possession away very cheaply through loose passes, and so at times, they lacked composure and almost played their way into trouble.

Nevertheless, the fact that they managed to navigate through those nervy moments and take the win again showed that they were prepared to do what was needed to limit the effectiveness of Glentoran’s play.

All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics
Shamrock Rovers Women tried to limit Glentoran Women’s ability to connect with each other.

Teamwork was just as important in their defensive play too, and their tactics in these situations were again kept very simple (something else that O’Neill has been very strict about) as the players were asked to put as much distance between the ball and the goal as possible and to prevent Glentoran from progressing the ball through their lines.

By doing so, they looked to again prevent the home side’s key attackers from linking up with each other in the same areas of the field, as that was where they were at their most dangerous. The fact that Vance needs to play a longer pass here than she would have otherwise liked to means that that threat has been significantly decreased, and it demonstrates again how everything that Rovers were doing in these moments was designed to prevent their opponents from playing to their strengths.

In this case, it paid off as the former Rangers Women full-back, who had a four-month spell with Leicester City Women in the WSL last season and who is known for her attacking play, overhit her pass and allowed Rovers to regain possession at the back.

All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics
Comparison between Demi Vance’s and Emily Wilson’s winger actions for Glentoran Women against Shamrock Rovers Women in the 2023 All-Island Cup.

As this graphic shows, both of Glentoran’s wing-backs were limited in what they could do once Rovers found their rhythm, with Vance struggling to convert her advanced positioning into anything meaningful. Wilson did have more success with her crosses than Vance. However, there were still a number that didn’t find their intended target, and, whilst the ability of Hennessy and McCarthy to marshal their goal area was vital to that being the case, it did show how Glentoran lacked quality at the top of the field and were unable to break the South Dubliners down as a result.

Shamrock Rovers Women’s tactics

It wasn’t only a case of Shamrock Rovers Women sitting back and containing Glentoran Women because O’Neill’s philosophy has always revolved around his team controlling possession and not leaving things to chance.

All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics
Shamrock Rovers Women looked to use Glentoran Women’s system against them.

As a result, it was common to see his players get on the front foot and take matters into their own hands, and one thing that helped them create opportunities and score their three goals was the way that Glentoran set their team up.

To explain, with Glentoran opting to continue with the back three structure used against Wexford, they left space open on either side of the defensive line, and there were plenty of situations when Vance and Wilson, for all of their attacking strengths, didn’t track back to carry out the other side of their roles.

Glentoran had planned for that eventuality in both games, though, and the fact that captain Jessica Foy, who is usually a left-back, was deployed as the left-sided centre-back meant that she would naturally gravitate towards the sidelines whenever Rovers had the ball on that side of the field. However, that created a problem in the middle, as Kerry Bailie tended to move over and join Foy, leaving McKearney alone and having to cover two positions at once. As a result, there is a sizeable gap in the defensive line and Rovers are able to send the ball through, with Zambra, who spent a brief time in the NWSL with Houston Dash in 2015, finding McEvoy here and giving her a shot on goal.

Glentoran did try to fix this as the game went on, with McMaster dropping back to fill the gap when she could, but this was still a problem for the home side and was something that the visitors pounced on, which shows good planning and players again identifying spaces and working out where they could exploit their opponents.

All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics
Shamrock Rovers Women were clever in the way that they got numbers up the field.

As has been a key theme throughout this analysis, Rovers also looked to play with numbers where they could. However, it wasn’t only about creating numerical overloads; instead, they looked to implement this aspect of their play very cleverly. As is shown here, Rovers have flooded the near side of the pitch and have given the impression that this is where the shot on goal will come from, and Glentoran have realised this and therefore pulled players over to reinforce this section of the field.

However, this is a trap, as what Rovers wanted to do was to leave space open in the middle for another player to run through without being noticed, and, in this case, that was the role given to O’Kane. She times her movement to perfection here, with her starting to move forward as soon as forward Shannon Coady controlled the ball, and this caught McMaster out and meant that the Glentoran player was immediately on the back foot.

That advantage proved essential, with O’Kane connecting with Coady’s pass into the middle and turning the ball into the back of the net for the second goal, and McMaster arrived just a fraction after her and was unable to make a tackle as a result. Therefore, whilst it is a tiny detail in the game, it shows how Rovers were clever in how they set about looking to control the match and keep their fate in their own hands.

All-Island Cup 2023: Glentoran Women v Shamrock Rovers Women - tactical analysis tactics
Shamrock Rovers Women counterattacked in different ways and continually adapted to different situations.

However, they don’t have one way of playing, which is another reason Rovers have been such a force this season in the Premier Division. When looking to counterattack, for example, they are just as capable of playing long passes as they are at keeping the ball on the ground, and their ability to adapt between the two again makes them less predictable to play against.

In this game, the long passes needed an attacking outlet, which was generally a role taken by Zambra or McEvoy. In this case, it is the latter who has dropped short, with her controlling the ball and having time to turn and pick out her next pass, and it can be seen how Glentoran are rushing back to try and get numbers between the ball and their goal as they realise what Rovers are looking to do.

For the home side, it is now about remaining composed and keeping the attack alive, and that is where the run of O’Leary comes in, with her moving forward here to offer McEvoy a forward passing option.

Once the ball is transferred into the path of the left-back, it becomes a straight 1-v-1 duel between her and Glentoran substitute Sarah Tweedie, who had come on to offer Glentoran a little more robustness at the back, and O’Leary had the momentum and won the battle very easily in the end. Even though her delivery failed to find a teammate, it demonstrates the threat that the South Dublin side pose during transitions, and also again how Glentoran’s back three structure left them constantly exposed.


In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at the All-Island Cup match between Glentoran Women and Shamrock Rovers Women, which ended in a 3-2 win for the visitors. Whilst both sides ended up disappointed at the end of it, with neither progressing from their group, there is little doubt that it was “an impressive win” for Rovers, as some in the media have labelled it.

On both sides of the pitch, there was clear evidence of planning and tactical thinking throughout the game, with each trying to find the right formula to enable them to emerge with a positive result. However, what helped Rovers to take the win was their ability to recognise what Glentoran were looking to do and to both contain them and then build on that with their tactical ideas. The fact that they managed to do what not many others have and make Glentoran look ordinary in parts will give them massive confidence as they continue to make their comeback at the highest level of the domestic game.