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Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics

“We executed the game plan perfectly”: Why Bristol City’s intensity was key to their Continental Cup win over Crystal Palace – tactical analysis

The WSL and Women’s Championship might have finished for a couple of weeks, but there was still time before the international break for the first round of Continental Cup group games to take place, with plenty of teams hoping to make their mark on this year’s tournament and get off to the perfect start.

Whilst a number of Championship teams were taking on WSL clubs in the first match week, there were a number of fixtures featuring two teams from the second tier, and one of those was Bristol City Women against Crystal Palace Women. Given that this meeting was between the current Championship leaders and a team that made huge investments in their squad this summer, many were expecting a closely fought match that would provide plenty of entertainment.

However, whilst it was certainly an interesting game, it was largely one-sided, with Bristol never looking like losing once they had taken control. This tactical analysis will examine why Bristol were so dominant, breaking down their attacking and defensive play and looking at the tactics that helped them to establish an early lead. The analysis will also look at Crystal Palace’s poor first-half performance and the signs of improvement that they showed after the break, as well as why individual mistakes cost them any chance of winning.

Lineups

Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics

Bristol City Women head coach Lauren Smith made four changes to her team’s starting lineup following last weekend’s draw at Ashton Gate with Championship newcomers Southampton Women. Goalkeeper Fran Bentley, who made last season’s loan from Manchester United Women permanent over the summer, midfielder Emily Syme and full-back Ella Powell all dropped to the bench, whilst centre-back Vicky Bruce, who was originally set to start, picked up an injury in the warmup. As a result, Chloe Mustaki, who had also initially been moved to the bench, started in the back three, whilst Wales’ former Coventry United goalkeeper Olivia Clark made her debut, Maddi Wilde and Jodie Hutton came in as the two wing-backs and Chloe Bull partnered captain Aimee Palmer in midfield.

Crystal Palace Women manager Dean Davenport also made alterations after his side’s away win against Blackburn Rovers Ladies last time out, with seven new names in total. Former Liverpool Women and Sheffield United Women stopper Fran Kitching, defenders Aimee Everett and Polly Doran, midfielders Coral-Jade Haines, Kirsten Reilly and Shauna Guyatt and forward Annabel Blanchard were all named on the bench, with Natalia Negri given a chance to shine between the posts, Annabel Johnson and Charley Clifford joining former Tottenham Hotspur Women player Anna Filbey in the back three, Hollie Olding, Scotland’s Chloe Arthur and on-loan Reading Women player Chloe Peplow starting in midfield and Molly-Mae Sharpe partnering ex-Everton Women striker Elise Hughes in the forward line. The other change saw Lizzie Waldie move to left wing-back, with Isabella Sibley switching to the right.

Bristol City Women’s attack

There is no denying that Bristol City Women were the better side during the first half, with slicker passing and more overall quality around the pitch, and the fact that they took early control of proceedings at the Robins High-Performance Centre was a testament to their hard work and the intensity of their overall play around the field.

Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics
Bristol City Women successfully manipulated the Crystal Palace Women players and forced spaces to open up.

What was clear early on was that their game plan revolved around drawing Crystal Palace Women players out of position and creating gaps in their defensive line, enabling key attackers to run into the spaces and cause their opponents problems.

However, as they were facing a back five, Bristol had to be clever about the way that they went about this, and it was common to see them teaming up and forming triangular structures such as this in order to prevent individual players from becoming isolated. In this case, ex-Aston Villa Women attacker Shania Hayles has possession, with Wales winger Ffion Morgan and former WSL teammate Jodie Hutton in close proximity to her, and this has forced Crystal Palace to come out and try to win the ball. However, this is exactly what Bristol want to happen, with the subsequent pass by Hayles to Morgan freeing up the former to make a run through the gap that has now emerged in the away side’s defensive line.

This gives Morgan space to run into inside the pitch, meaning that she can then send the ball through to Hayles and take both Isabella Sibley and Annabel Johnson out of the game, and the only reason that this didn’t turn into a goal was that the away side managed to get numbers back into the goal area in time and allow Natalia Negri to claim the ball on the ground. However, the speed at which Bristol executed their passing and created the chance was a clear indication of how dangerous they would be when allowed to get on the front foot.

Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics
Bristol City Women moved the ball around intelligently.

What made Bristol particularly threatening when in the final third was the fact that they weren’t sending the ball directly to each other, and were instead looking at where the spaces were and where they could give each other balls to run onto. Here, Aimee Palmer has spotted the gap ahead of her and played a well-weighted pass through the line without hesitation, knowing that Abi Harrison would have the pace to meet it, and this level of unpredictability and decisiveness in Bristol’s attacking play was another reason that Crystal Palace found it difficult to defend against them.

Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics
Bristol City Women focused on their transitions in the second half.

In the second half, it became trickier to maintain that same level of intensity, partly because Crystal Palace were better with the ball and controlled more of the game and partly because Bristol had been making substitutions, so they had understandably become less fluent as those coming into the game looked to find their feet.

However, this didn’t deter them and they instead adapted their tactics, focusing more on their transitions and counterattacking after the break and looking to move the ball up the field as quickly as possible once they won it. Here, substitute Jasmine Bull has driven high up the field and now needs passing options, and her teammates have yet again not let her down, with Chloe Bull ahead of her whilst forward Tianna Teisar, another second-half replacement and who is currently out of shot, is on the near side of the pitch. The ball ends up going towards the latter, although Charley Clifford initially blocks the pass, and this showed how Bristol could still keep their momentum going and get behind Crystal Palace’s defensive line even after making their tactical change.

The fact that Bristol’s two second-half goals came from set pieces shows how chances in open play were rarer after the break, but situations like this demonstrated that they did not give up and were still pushing to get the ball into dangerous areas, which was one reason that they went on to win by such a large margin.

Bristol City Women’s defence

In defence, they were tactically just as good, with players once again knowing their roles and working hard to make the game plan work, and Crystal Palace’s few chances to get forward in the first half rarely led to anything as a result.

Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics
Bristol City Women were organised at the back and limited Crystal Palace Women’s options in attack.

The away side’s tactics were clear from the first minutes, with them sending plenty of long balls into Bristol’s third and trying to give Elise Hughes and Molly-Mae Sharpe chances to get behind the defensive line. They were also focusing on second balls, with the midfielders constantly urged to get up the pitch and offer support to the forward line as well as to ensure that loose balls were secured before Bristol could clear their lines.

However, the home side were awake to these tactics and tended to sit back whenever the ball was near their goal area, forming a single line to prevent gaps from appearing that could be easily exploited. In this case, Maddi Wilde has dropped back to join the back three and play her part in keeping the visitors out, and the result is that, when Crystal Palace turned to play the ball either into the middle or back out to a teammate, they found that they never had any room to do so. Therefore, it was clear that Bristol had worked on their defensive organisation ahead of this match, knowing what they might face and stifling their opponents’ attacking play as often as possible.

Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics
Bristol City Women defended on the front foot when they could.

Bristol didn’t only sit back and defend though and were often seen trying to win the ball high up the pitch and keep it as far away from their goal as possible. However, the key point to note here is that they always kept Hughes and Sharpe in front of them, knowing that doing so would prevent Crystal Palace from exploiting the open spaces behind them, as they would not have anyone to target with long passes.

Both of the visiting forwards struggled to have much of an effect on the game in the first half, but Bristol deserve a lot of credit for the way that they limited their effectiveness by preventing them from playing in areas where they are most comfortable.

Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics
Bristol City Women pressed Crystal Palace Women in the second half when they didn’t have the ball.

As mentioned, Crystal Palace did get back into the game in the second half and controlled more of the ball, so Bristol’s defensive play turned towards pressing from the front and trying to isolate the ball in small pockets of space around the pitch. With the away side spending the first half and the start of the second half trying to play out from the back and often moving the ball sideways or backwards, this was not too difficult for them to do, with their players once again working together to close the ball down and try to force mistakes.

As Crystal Palace grew into the game and started to play with more confidence, it became harder for Bristol to defend from the front and that was when they reverted to their aforementioned counterattacking strategy, but the fact that they had different ways of playing and could adapt to what their opponents were doing is another sign of how well-balanced they are as a squad and why they have become such a tough team to play against.

Crystal Palace Women’s mixed performance

As has been mentioned throughout this analysis, Crystal Palace Women had a first half largely to forget, with poor passing and players not working hard enough out of possession making it easier for Bristol City Women to create chances in their third than it should have been. However, in the second half, they did show more quality and looked like a slightly more rejuvenated side, which is something that Dean Davenport and his staff would have been pleased about.

Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics
Crystal Palace Women played with a high back line and invited pressure from Bristol City Women.

One of the reasons that they struggled defensively was because they played with a high back line, just as Bristol did, but didn’t keep the attackers in front of them in the same way. As a result, they invited pressure from the home side and allowed them to be more inventive with their play, which was why these triangular structures came about.

The visitors’ back line was also not as organised as Bristol’s has been, with it indicated here and with spaces clearly open for Bristol to attack into. Again, Morgan and Hutton are involved here but have been joined by Chloe Mustaki, who has come up the pitch to add her support. This allows Hutton to get up the field and take advantage of the fact that Sibley, as the right wing-back, is too narrow and isn’t watching her, with Morgan then playing the ball through to her and giving Hutton the opportunity to look inside the goal area and assess her options.

Once she gets behind the defence, Scotland striker Harrison, whose position is indicated by the yellow circle, ensures that she can turn Hutton’s cross into the back of the net, and the ease of this move showed how Crystal Palace, by leaving so much space open, played directly into their opponents’ hands. The fact that Harrison was the Championship’s top scorer last season with 17 goals indicates just how much she thrives when allowed to get into these open areas with this amount of time, and the away side needed to be more aware of her movements.

Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics
Crystal Palace Women gave the ball away too easily and made simple mistakes in possession.

Those tactical mistakes were perhaps why they lacked confidence in their own third, with there being plenty of instances when they gave away possession too easily or didn’t have enough quality when trying to move the ball up the pitch. In this case, Clifford is facing her goal and doesn’t have too many options available to her, so just needs to pass back to her goalkeeper and allow her team to restart from the back. However, she instead plays the ball straight into Harrison’s feet and sets her up to score, and it was moments like this that will have made the Crystal Palace coaching staff put their head in their hands.

It is unfair to single Clifford out, because no visiting player had a great game, but the fact that this situation led to an easy goal for the home side showed not only how poor they were with the ball but also how low they were in confidence and self-belief at times, which would have been a worry for those watching from the sidelines.

Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics
Elise Hughes’ heatmap at Crystal Palace Women for the 2022/2023 Continental Cup.

In attack, their main issues were that their forwards tended to drift around the pitch too much and not stay in areas where they could offer a clear target for their teammates to find. Hughes was particularly bad at this, with her heatmap indicating the number of positions that she found herself in, and there were constant shouts from the sidelines for her to not wander around and to instead stay high up the pitch and give the Bristol defenders something to think about. However, because she didn’t, Crystal Palace never looked like getting themselves on the scoresheet.

Continental Cup 2021/22: Bristol City Women v Crystal Palace Women - tactical analysis tactics
Crystal Palace Women were more aggressive with their passing in the second half.

This was one of the main reasons that Crystal Palace rarely passed forwards, and instead looked to move the ball either sideways or backwards. However, in the second half, they looked more confident and didn’t always take the easy passing option, with Chloe Peplow, who had been given the deep-lying playmaker role in this game, playing through the gap and into substitute Ellie Noble rather than going across the pitch to Lizzie Waldie.

The knock-on effect of making these forward passes was that Crystal Palace could now turn and unlock their forward options, with Jamaica and former Leicester City Women forward Paige Bailey-Gayle, who had come on for Hughes, now in a position where she could receive the ball from Noble and drive forwards towards the Bristol goal, which was what the away side were not doing enough of in the first half. It was mentioned earlier in the analysis that Crystal Palace improved after the break and looked better with the ball, and this was one of the main reasons why that was, with Bristol now having to defend much more than they had previously been doing in order to prevent Bailey-Gayle and Sharpe from getting behind them.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at the Continental Cup match between Bristol City Women and Crystal Palace Women, finding the reasons for Bristol taking an early lead and dominating the first half and showing how Crystal Palace played with more quality after the break. As Bristol assistant head coach Jennifer Foster commented afterwards, Bristol carried out the game plan perfectly, identifying space and manipulating the opposition, and that will give them a lot of encouragement that they can compete at a high level and reach the latter stages of the tournament, having finished as runners-up back in 2020/2021.

Crystal Palace, meanwhile, will know that the season is still young and that they can play better than this, and that it will take time to get into a consistent rhythm having added a lot of players over the summer. However, the simple fact is that too many players didn’t play well enough at the weekend, so there is still a lot of work to do on the training ground to gel the new squad together, and that was reflected in some of the details of this performance.

Both teams now have a week off, with the women’s game going on an international break. Bristol’s next game sees them travel to Neil Redfearn’s Sheffield United Women on 16 October, whilst Crystal Palace will be at home to Sunderland Women earlier on the same day.