FAWSL 2020/2021: Aston Villa Women v Manchester City Women – tactical analysis
The WSL roared back to life this weekend, following the curtailing of last season back in March. The 2020/2021 season will also see plenty of new names make their mark in England. It also saw a club make their debut: Aston Villa Women, who replaced relegated Liverpool Women. This tactical analysis looks at Aston Villa’s first game in the league, where they entertained Manchester City Women at Villa Park. We will examine Aston Villa’s attacking and defensive tactics, as well as seeing how Manchester City’s attack has been set up under their new head coach, Gareth Taylor.
Aston Villa Women started with a 4-3-3 formation, naming several of their new signings in the starting XI, with German left-back Caroline Siems and midfielder Ramona Petzelberger, Scotland and former Birmingham City Women midfielder Chloe Arthur, Portugal forward Diana Silva, and Denmark striker Stine Larsen all making their debuts. One of their most important players last season, Emma Follis, who has been handed the number seven shirt this season, joined Larsen and Silva in a front three setup, whilst another German, midfielder Marisa Ewers, took over the captaincy, following the release of previous captain Kerri Welsh over the summer.
Manchester City Women also began with a 4-3-3, but only had two debutants, with USA midfielder Sam Mewis and former Everton Women forward Chloe Kelly handed starts. 19-year-old right-back Esme Morgan, who spent last season on loan at Everton, also started after impressing in the Community Shield loss to Chelsea Women last weekend. Canada forward Janine Beckie, who spent last season playing at right-back, started in a more attacking role. England’s Georgia Stanway continued in the centre forward role that she played in last weekend at Wembley Stadium.
Manchester City Women’s attack
This analysis will begin by looking at Manchester City Women’s attacking tactics. Last weekend, they struggled to create many opportunities, with Georgia Stanway still getting used to her new role in attack. However, Gareth Taylor saw enough to start her there again against Aston Villa Women, and this week she was much better at it.
The main reason for this is because she had support from her teammates. With Esme Morgan and Demi Stokes encouraged to get up the field and be attacking full-backs, that meant that Janine Beckie and Chloe Kelly could come inside and play more centrally, meaning Manchester City carried more of a threat in those areas. In this image, you can see how this caused Aston Villa problems. Villa have left gaps open, which two attackers are now looking to move into, as the blue arrows illustrate. This helps them to unlock the space behind the Villa defensive line, and, as there are two of them, it makes it harder for Villa to block their runs. Sam Mewis is in possession and is looking to pass the ball through another gap into the path of her teammates, as the yellow arrow shows. This is another thing that Aston Villa have to think about.
This teamwork comes from the lessons they learnt against Chelsea Women when they played in a front three, but only Stanway made the move forward – this meant Chelsea could then shut off the space easily. Here, they pushed others through, and it worked for them.
If we look at another example, we can see how Aston Villa again have two attackers ahead of the ball, and Mewis is looking to pass the ball towards one of them. The blue arrow shows her pass to Kelly; however, this time, Aston Villa close down the pass (shown by the red arrow), and Manchester City can’t get it behind them. This came after Villa had settled into the game and begun to defend better, but you can still see how Manchester City’s teamwork in attack opens up passing options for them in key areas. The yellow lines complete the triangular structure that has been formed, showing this tactic.
There has been a constant theme to these examples: Sam Mewis is creating these attacking opportunities. This is something we will explore more in the next two images.
In both of these examples, you can see how Mewis has the ball and is looking to play it through gaps and into the space behind Aston Villa Women’s defence. This made her an important player for Manchester City in this game. Last weekend, she came on in the second half and played in front of the defence, playing long balls forward to the attack; here, she was given a forward role and was able to make more ground passes forwards. She has impressed in both roles, but this is the one she looked more comfortable in.
In both images, Aston Villa have left gaps in their defence, but what this meant for Mewis was that, whenever she got the ball, she could always move it forwards and send a teammate through to attack with it. If we add this to the earlier images, we can see why she proved to be a difficult opponent for the newly-promoted side.
This section has shown us that Manchester City Women had worked on their attack, ensuring that Georgia Stanway had support in the final third, and that was what enabled them to win the game. However, whilst they did score two goals from Villa errors, they could have scored more, and Stanway in particular spurned a lot of chances. Therefore, there are still things that they need to tidy up in attack, but this was much better and more fluid from them.
Aston Villa Women’s attack
Aston Villa Women began their first WSL game in an understandably nervous fashion. They did grow into the game, as we will see, but there will be plenty of things they will need to work on ahead of next weekend.
If we first look at the positives of their attack, then we can see that their two new strikers, Stine Larsen and Diana Silva, have begun to form an attacking partnership.
Larsen looks to be the player Villa head coach Gemma Davies has chosen for the central position, with Silva playing more as a winger. However, it does seem that the intention is that Larsen and Silva play together, rather than each being the direct competition for the other’s place in the team. If we look at the above image, we can see how they set up their attacks using both players.
The red line shows how both are in line with each other, implying that they are working together. Silva has the ball on the near side of the pitch, and Larsen is running through the middle of Manchester City Women’s defence to offer a passing option in the box. However, more importantly, you can see how Manchester City’s defenders have been caught between Larsen and Silva, who are deliberately playing apart from each other to stretch the opposing defence apart.
This is what we can see in the second half too. In this image, Aston Villa Women are again in possession on the near side of the pitch, and you can see from the red lines just how much they have spread across it. This means that Manchester City Women have to spread apart to cover their attack, and, as the blue lines show, this creates gaps between them, giving Aston Villa routes through to the space behind them. This is a tactic that Aston Villa can use, but they next need to work on pushing players through to take advantage of these gaps, offering passing options for their wide players to cross into. We saw in the last image how Larsen was looking to make this run through, so we know that it’s doable.
If we now look at where Aston Villa Women’s attack went wrong against Manchester City Women, we can see where they can make improvements.
In this image, Aston Villa are in a good attacking situation, with the ball in Diana Silva’s possession on the near side of the pitch, in the red circle. Emma Follis is on the far side, in the other red circle. However, Stine Larsen has drifted out to the other wing, leaving the space between Silva and Follis empty. This creates problems for Aston Villa, because, whilst they can get the ball behind Manchester City’s defence, there is no-one available to receive it and shoot at goal.
Follis eventually moves into the centre, but what they really needed here was for a teammate to be in the space indicated by the yellow square, as that would have given them a central passing option who could get through the gap shown by the blue line. This gap has been created by Aston Villa playing in wide positions, so again, it shows why Aston Villa need to take advantage of situations where they are in control.
Here, Stine Larsen is in a central position and has chosen to shoot, as indicated by the red arrow. However, here, Emma Follis is in a better position on Larsen’s right-hand side, and the better option here would have been to slide the ball to Follis, as the yellow arrow illustrates, allowing her to take it on and shoot. Therefore, the improvement to make here is simply better decision making in the final third. This will come as Aston Villa and their new players become more familiar with the WSL, but it is still an area where they can definitely improve. The result of this will be an increase in the attacking threat they carry.
The final attacking improvement to make is ensuring they don’t leave spaces on the wings open. Whilst their intention is clearly to play wide and stretch the opposition across the pitch, looking to create gaps in their back line, they tended to play too narrowly in the early stages of the game. This has been shown in the image above, and you can see how this makes defending against them very simple for Manchester City Women. Both of Villa’s attacking and midfield lines are narrowly structured, which means that to stop Villa gaining possession, Manchester City can just pass the ball across the pitch with time and space. However, as we have seen, when Villa played much wider, that was when they could take control of attacking situations.
This narrow structure was likely to have been down to their early match nerves, because, as we have seen, they played much better in the second half, controlling the width and ensuring that Manchester City had to watch the space they were leaving between the defenders. However, this is still something that Villa need to watch when it comes to future matches.
Aston Villa Women’s defence
If we now turn our attention to Aston Villa Women’s defence, we can see how they started slowly but improved as the game went on.
The first thing to point out is that, like in attack, they didn’t control the width when defending. This was likely because they wanted to stop Georgia Stanway getting behind them. However, Aston Villa right-back Ella Franklin-Fraiture is inside her team’s box, which has given Chloe Kelly space to move up and down the wing as she wishes. Therefore, what Aston Villa needed to do was to use their full-backs to get out to Manchester City’s wide forwards, ensuring they had little to no space to operate in. This would have helped to starve Stanway of balls in the middle, thereby stopping Manchester City Women attacking so freely.
Another example of their defensive fragility is shown here. Aston Villa have a goal kick, and have set up with defenders in wide areas, making the pitch as big as possible. However, goalkeeper Sian Rogers plays the ball straight to Sam Mewis, in the blue circle, as the red arrow shows. This instantly puts Aston Villa under pressure, because their defence is so spread out from the goal kick that the space is open for Manchester City to attack into. The yellow arrow shows Stanway’s run forward, and she gets on the end of Mewis’ pass, only to then put the ball high over the bar.
Therefore, whilst it was a let-off for Villa, this came after two goals for Stanway from errors by Rogers, and shows just how much they struggled in the first part of the game. Manager Gemma Rogers has brought in experienced former Chelsea Women defender Anita Asante to her squad this summer, and the aim is clearly to give the defensive side of her team’s play more strength and, given these errors, it’s clear that this has been a good move.
However, they did get better, and this is an example of their improvement. We can see how Aston Villa have come forward to meet Manchester City’s attack, rather than waiting for it to reach them. This takes time away from Caroline Weir, who is in possession, and you can see in the red square how she ends up passing the ball forwards, but makes a mistake and overhits it. This mistake proved that Aston Villa could close down their opponents, and it was one of the main reasons why Manchester City couldn’t score in the second half: they no longer had the time or space in attack that they had been afforded previously. This is definitely a positive that Aston Villa Women can take from this game as something to build on.
In conclusion, we can see how Manchester City Women were the more fluid side, but this was expected, given that they played last week, whereas Aston Villa Women didn’t. However, Manchester City looked a much-improved version of the side that played last weekend, although they need to work on converting chances in the final third. Whilst Aston Villa will be disappointed not to have taken a point, given that without the two goalkeeping errors, the game would have ended 0-0, they will be pleased with the way the team improved as the game went on. Their overall performance will give Gemma Davies hope that her team can compete in the league going forward.