“Written in the stars”: Why Liverpool took a deserved victory at “resilient” Bristol City to seal their WSL return – tactical analysis
The Women’s Championship is an unpredictable league at the best of times, and 2021/2022 has been no exception to that. The two newly promoted sides, Watford Women and Sunderland Women, looked to be the two sides competing to stay in the division at one stage, before a 10-point deduction for Coventry United at Christmas put them firmly into the relegation picture. Meanwhile, at the summit, Durham Women and London City Lionesses both had good starts but have since tailed off, allowing others like Bristol City Women to mount their own promotion campaigns.
However, one team who have been consistent all season is Liverpool Women, with Matt Beard’s side not losing in the league since the opening day (a 1-0 home loss against London City), and a draw at Bristol over the weekend was all they needed to win the title and end their two-year exile from the WSL. This tactical analysis will break down their tactics during the game, explaining how the tweaks that they made in the second half helped them to a well-deserved win. The analysis will also detail Bristol’s game plan, looking at how they tried to contain Liverpool in the early stages, with some success, whilst also identifying where they will feel that they could have done better.
Bristol City Women manager Lauren Smith made three changes from the 1-0 away defeat at Sheffield United Women in their last game, with full-back Ella Powell and midfielder Ava Kuyken dropping to the bench, whilst captain Aimee Palmer had picked up an injury during that game. Naomi Layzell switched to right-back from centre-back, with Brooke Aspin coming in to make up the back four, whilst Flo Allen was handed a start in Palmer’s place. The other alternation saw Chloe Bull come in to partner fellow Welsh midfielder Gwen Davies in the centre of the pitch, whilst on-loan Manchester United Women goalkeeper Fran Bentley and Chelsea Women forward Aggie Beever-Jones were once again included.
Liverpool Women boss Matt Beard opted for just one change after the comfortable 3-0 home win against Durham last time out. Left-back Taylor Hinds came in at right wing-back, taking the place of Belgium international Yana Daniëls, whilst former Manchester City Women player Megan Campbell was aiming to continue her recent good form after keeping her place on the other wing. Top scorer Leanne Kiernan continued in a wide right role, with former Houston Dash striker Katie Stengel once again leading the line.
Liverpool Women’s tactics
Liverpool Women were favourites to win this game, but Bristol City Women’s promising form and overall squad quality meant that not many expected it to be easy. However, it was clear from the outset that every away player knew their roles and wanted the win, with this being reflected in their performance.
It was common to see Leanne Kiernan and Melissa Lawley cutting inside and working alongside Katie Stengel in the early stages, with Liverpool using the wing-backs to maintain the width and bring their key attackers together to increase their threat. The benefits of this when in possession are obvious, but it was notable that the three players tended to stay close together even when Liverpool didn’t have the ball, such as here. In these situations, their aim was to keep constant pressure on their opponents, forcing them into giving up the ball either through a mistake or by passing into areas where the visitors could reclaim the ball. In this case, Brooke Aspin is making a pass towards the nearside wing, as there is no way through the middle of the field, but this leads to Liverpool regaining possession and launching another attack.
It was clear that Liverpool wanted to find their rhythm as quickly as possible, which was understandable, given the importance of the match, and staying on the front foot was one thing that helped them to settle any nerves they might have had.
When in possession, Liverpool tended not to play through the thirds and instead used the two wing-backs as decoys, looking to stretch Bristol’s defence out and force gaps to open up in the middle. Their game plan appeared to be playing long aerial passes into the strikers, as is happening here, and it was clearly something that they had worked on ahead of the game.
One possible reason for this style of play was that they wanted to bypass Bristol’s technically excellent midfielders, namely Chloe Bull and Gwen Davies, both of whom have been key to Bristol’s flowing attacks during the campaign. By starving them of possession, Liverpool knew that they could prevent their hosts from launching too many of their own attacks, and this again shows how Liverpool’s tactics were well-planned.
However, the downside of these tactics were that they didn’t appear to suit Kiernan and Stengel, both of whom were quiet by their own standards during the first half. One big reason for this was that Bristol weren’t stretching out as much as Liverpool had wanted them to, and instead were forcing Liverpool into shooting from distance and not using their two major goal threats as much.
In order to bring both into the game, Liverpool made a second half switch that saw the wing-backs used not as decoy runners but as pivots for the forwards to make runs off, with this image showing Campbell passing the ball into the attacker in front of her. This seemed to suit Liverpool as a team much more, with there being increased instances of link-up play and confident passing, whilst the forward line used the spaces behind Bristol’s defence with more purpose, and Bristol were unable to contain them in the same way. Therefore, when we consider why Liverpool ended up winning this match, this tactical tweak is one major factor that we have to consider.
Bristol City Women’s game plan
Whilst Liverpool Women’s game plan revolved initially around long balls and then changed to focus on shorter passes and more dangerous runs, Bristol City Women’s was based on their players working hard out of possession and trying to limit what Liverpool could do, with Lauren Smith evidently planning for the eventuality that her team would have less possession than their opponents.
What was particularly impressive was that Bristol seemed to work out early on how Liverpool wanted to play, meaning that they could control threats and stay in the game. One example of that is shown here, with Bristol having a relatively compact defensive line and pressing Liverpool’s passing options ahead of the ball. We already know that Liverpool wanted to play long balls into the box, but now they have no other choice, and that is the key point. As a result, the visitors were forced to play long balls when they weren’t the best option, meaning that attacks broke down more frequently, and that was another reason that their attacking play didn’t quite have the desired effect in the first half.
We have also mentioned that Liverpool tried to stretch out across the pitch and force gaps to open up in the Bristol ranks, meaning that they would be passing into the wide channels often, and this was something else that Bristol realised. As a result, it wasn’t only their defence which stayed narrow, as the midfielders and forwards also worked together to force Liverpool into passing out to the wings by forming a box shape in the middle, as illustrated here. With this structure in place, Bristol knew that the ball would be going towards the wings, and so could get out to close their opponents down. This wasn’t so successful for them, but it does demonstrate again how they were proving to be tough opponents for Liverpool when without the ball.
We know that Liverpool found more space in the second half, and that was because Bristol opted to get players into wider positions after the break and not persevere with these tactics, and Naomi Layzell and substitutes Jasmine Bull and Ella Powell were pushing noticeably higher up the pitch as the game progressed. As a result, more gaps opened up between individual players, which led to Liverpool being able to play through them with a greater success.
Bristol also knew that Liverpool would set up with a high back line, not only because their full-backs were pushing up the pitch, but also because this has been a common feature of Liverpool’s play for a good number of seasons now, and has led to plenty of problems for them.
In this case, they have left sizeable gaps open between the individual players, allowing Beever-Jones and Chloe Bull to make easy runs into the open space behind. This situation is actually the build-up to Bristol’s equalising goal, which came only a few minutes after Liverpool had taken the lead through captain Niamh Fahey. The fact that the home side exploited one of Liverpool’s better-known weaknesses to score here shows once again how their performance contained plenty of good things, and they deserve credit for keeping their concentration and making the win as difficult as possible for the away side.
Bristol City Women’s errors
However, whilst we have so far identified the positives in Bristol City Women’s play, we must also look at where they lacked individual quality, and there were a few situations where they will feel that they could have done better.
We know already that Bristol have players who are good with the ball, and their ability to pass and move has been a main feature of their attacking play during the current campaign. However, there were a few moments when they didn’t have their usual accuracy in transitional play, meaning that attacks broke down early and they failed to test Liverpool Women. In this case, both Flo Allen and Gwen Davies are in good positions to receive the ball, but the pass inside the pitch goes between them, leading to a slight moment of hesitation between the two.
The speed of this particular pass was also an issue, with it being too fast for Allen but not having enough pace to reach Davies, again leading to Bristol losing their momentum and allowing the visitors to push forwards and force Bristol back towards their own goal line. However, a better ball could have led to a shot on goal, and that is the key.
Bristol’s decision-making was also lacking at times, with this image a good example of when it let them down. Here, Chloe Bull has the ball in her own third and is looking to play out from the back, and it is important in these situations not to take too much time and risk being closed down. Bull has two teammates available on the far side of the pitch who are ready to receive the pass, preventing this happening, but takes too many touches and looked unsure of herself at the crucial moment, allowing Katie Stengel to drop back and tackle her, gaining possession in a dangerous area of the field.
These are both simple things to correct, but, given Bristol lost this game, it will be these moments where they will look back and feel that they could have done better.
However, those were not Bristol’s biggest problems in this game, because that was their inability to deal with Liverpool’s set pieces. The visitors played on Megan Campbell’s well-known long throw-in ability and all crowded inside the goal area whenever she was within range, and Bristol, for all their good defensive work when the ball was further out, could not work out how to deal with the left wing-back’s deliveries.
It is worth pointing out that Liverpool’s first three goals all came from defensive mistakes at set pieces, with Fahey taking advantage of Brooke Aspin’s missed header, Jasmine Matthews’ goal coming from more open space in the box, and the third goal is shown here, with Stengel in between two Bristol players and in a good position to receive Rachel Furness’ headed pass before volleying in from close range.
The fourth goal may not have been from a set piece, but it was the result of a good run into space behind Bristol’s defence before Missy Bo Kearns swept in from close range whilst on the ground. Therefore, the home side will undoubtedly feel that all four goals could have been prevented on another day.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has shown how Bristol City Women and Liverpool Women both had solid game plans during the first half, which led to a well-contested and entertaining first 45 minutes of football. Lauren Smith praised her side’s resilience during the game, and that was clear for all to see, but what undid them was their desire to push higher up the pitch in the second half, leaving space open for Liverpool to exploit, and their failure to deal with the visitors’ set pieces. Matt Beard, meanwhile, will be happy that his tactical switch in the second half had the desired effect, with his side undoubtedly more potent in the final third after the break, and their eventual victory was well-earned.
With next weekend being an international break, both teams will have time off to recover from this encounter. Bristol’s next game sees them host Coventry United on 17 April, whilst Liverpool will begin their reign as second tier champions with a home game against Sheffield United a week later, when they will likely lift the Championship trophy.