FAWSL 2020/2021: Birmingham City Women v Chelsea Women – tactical analysis
The WSL’s defending champions Chelsea Women have had a mixed start to the season, drawing 1-1 at Manchester United Women, before emphatically defeating Bristol City Women 9-0. This game, against Birmingham City Women and their new head coach Carla Ward, would prove to be a very difficult for them. In this tactical analysis, we will look at how Birmingham set up defensively to frustrate Chelsea, and how Chelsea changed their formation and tactics in the second half to try and play around Birmingham’s well-organised defence.
Birmingham City Women made two changes from the side that lost 5-2 at home to Manchester United Women. Midfielder Mollie Green and forward Emma Kelly dropped to the bench, with Jamie-Lee Napier, on loan from Chelsea, starting against her parent club, whilst Connie Scofield also came in. Claudia Walker continued to play as the central striker, looking to score for the second game running.
Chelsea Women made three changes of their own from the victory over Bristol City Women. Hannah Blundell, South Korea forward Ji So-yun and Australia striker Sam Kerr all dropped to the bench, with Wales defensive midfielder Sophie Ingle and Norway forward Guro Reiten coming in to give them more balance in midfield. Left-back Jonna Andersson also returned to the starting 11, having missed the game last weekend.
Birmingham City Women’s defensive tactics
Given it was the most notable thing about Birmingham City Women’s game, this analysis will begin by analysing how they set up to stifle Chelsea Women’s attack.
The first thing to mention is that Birmingham looked to surround any Chelsea players who were in possession, which is what can be seen in both of these images. Once in these situations, they then all moved inwards, closing down the space and forcing Chelsea to move the ball more quickly, which often led to errors.
The first image shows this tactic in practice, but the second is perhaps the more important one to analyse here. Birmingham’s defensive organisation meant that Chelsea needed to play the ball over the defence, using high balls, and whilst they often met their targets, they also gave Birmingham time to surround the player that the ball was heading towards. Here, Beth England is on the ball, with five Birmingham defenders around her, showing how Birmingham used these tactics to make it very difficult for Chelsea to pose a threat in the first half. England in particular was very quiet, simply because Chelsea couldn’t get the ball to her in enough space for her to play in her normal fashion.
The main tactic in Birmingham’s overall defending was simply closing down the ball, but they did this in different ways.
In this image, you can see how Chelsea have moved the ball out to the far side of the pitch, where Sweden left-back Jonna Andersson is looking to cross it into the box. However, because Birmingham have players in these areas already, they were able to get tight to the Chelsea players, meaning that the away side struggled to create too many clear opportunities in the first half. You can see how there are no Chelsea players in the box, because Birmingham were so strong at the back. Whilst Jonna Andersson’s crossing was at times inaccurate, Chelsea’s overall quiet showing in the first half was mainly down to Birmingham’s defensive tactics.
However, this is not to say that Birmingham didn’t look to attack at all. In fact, their aim was to allow Chelsea to have the ball, make an interception, and then launch a counter-attack.
This image shows us the front part of Birmingham’s 4-1-4-1 formation. You can see how the midfield four are lined up together, but a long way away from Claudia Walker, in the blue circle, who was tasked with putting pressure on Chelsea’s players, forcing them to move the ball around quickly. With one striker, this is difficult to do, especially against Chelsea, who just stretch across the pitch, making it as big as possible.
However, as mentioned, Birmingham’s intention was not to win the ball in these areas, but to force Chelsea to make quick passes and play sideways, not forwards.
Scotland midfielder Christie Murray, who joined Birmingham this summer on a free transfer from Liverpool Women, was deployed in front of the defence, and with her pace, we know she likes to close players down, take the ball off them and then move it forwards. By putting her in front of the defence, Birmingham ensured that they could get the ball to her quickly, meaning she could launch counter-attacks sooner.
This is how Birmingham’s counter-attacking tactics worked throughout the game; let Chelsea come forward, win the ball, get it to Murray, and look to get the ball forward as quick as possible. It was effective, as Chelsea’s only goal came from a free kick which wasn’t defended at all well, but, aside from that, Emma Hayes’ side weren’t able to make too much impact in the final third.
Chelsea’s first half issues
Birmingham City Women defended well in the first half, but this was not the only reason that Chelsea Women failed to score from open play. If we now switch our focus, we will look at some of the errors that Chelsea made in attack that led to good opportunities being wasted.
We have already analysed how Birmingham stopped crosses coming into the box, but this image shows one example of when Jonna Andersson was given enough space to get one in. However, she ends up playing the ball across the box here, and into the waiting Birmingham defenders.
There are two things we need to say about this. Firstly, Andersson’s crossing is usually accurate, and, having missed the game last weekend, it is possible that she was a little rusty. Secondly, Chelsea’s central attackers didn’t give Andersson many options to get the ball to. This was perhaps because of Birmingham’s defending, which forced Chelsea to play the ball around them, but never into the box, where they knew that, in the first half, Birmingham were more dominant. This was something that Chelsea needed to address in the second half, as one goal didn’t look like it would be enough for them.
However, when they did attempt to get the ball into the box, they sometimes overhit the pass. The image below shows one example of this.
Beth England, who has tracked back here from her usual centre forward position, in search of the ball, has made the pass forwards. As the arrow shows, it is too hard for her teammate to reach, and ends up going out for a goal kick to Birmingham. This showed how much pressure Chelsea were feeling against the home defence’s tactics, because they were unable to play their normal free-flowing football. This was what Birmingham wanted to stop, and were succeeding in doing. This pressure and subsequent errors in good positions was therefore another reason that the defending champions didn’t create too many good opportunities in the first half.
This image shows a situation in the first half when Chelsea perhaps made the wrong decision with the ball.
Here, Scotland midfielder Erin Cuthbert, who has just been named Scotland’s Player of the Year, is in possession, and Birmingham have set up to force her to go around them. As the pink arrow shows, this is what Cuthbert did, but there was a way she could have moved the ball into the middle and created a good shooting opportunity here, had she seen it in time.
To explain, whilst Cuthbert has taken the ball around the Birmingham defender nearest to her, her teammate just inside her has moved forwards to offer a passing option behind, taking the Birmingham defender with her, as the yellow arrow shows. This means that there is now a gap in the home side’s defence, even if only small, and with Chelsea having players in the middle, this meant that there was now a small opportunity for Chelsea to transfer the ball into the middle, from where they may have been able to get a shot away. The red arrow shows this possible option for Cuthbert.
It is a risky option, with a lot of ifs and maybes, but Chelsea played right into Birmingham’s hands by not trying things like this, and simply keeping the ball moving around them, like here. Going around the outside makes it easier for defenders to block crosses, with only one way that the ball can go, whereas running inside is more difficult to defend, because there are lots of ways the ball can go, meaning that it becomes harder to close it down.
Chelsea Women’s second half tactical changes
In the second half, Chelsea Women made some tactical changes that enabled them to take control in Birmingham City Women’s half of the pitch.
The first thing that Chelsea did, right from the start of the second half, was that they pressed Birmingham’s defence. You can see that in this image, with Birmingham in possession, and Chelsea getting tight to them, instead of giving them the space to move the ball out of defence. Harriett Scott, in the blue circle, has to play the ball backwards as a result of Guro Reiten getting up towards her, but, as Scott does this, two more Chelsea defenders run forwards and apply pressure inside Birmingham’s box. Birmingham had spent the first half pressing Chelsea in these areas, but Chelsea were now counter-pressing, and that took time away from Birmingham in front of their own goal, meaning that the likelihood was that they would begin to make errors there.
Chelsea’s pressing was not just in front of the goal, but on the wings too. In this image, Fran Kirby, who has arguably been Chelsea’s best player so far this season, has moved to close down Birmingham in possession again, along with Guro Reiten. Two players working together means that, again, Birmingham have no time to think, and have to play the ball backwards. More Chelsea players have come up to support the press, meaning that Birmingham were unable to launch counter-attacks through the likes of Christie Murray, as they had in the first half. Therefore, this problem from the first half had been addressed.
Another issue we saw was that they occasionally made the wrong decision in possession, and weren’t risky enough at times with their movements. In the image below, we can see how they were braver in the second half.
Here, Chelsea are attacking, but, in the first half, the ball would have gone to the first player, and Birmingham would have closed it down and forced it backwards. However, this time, the first attacker moves away from the path of the ball, as the red arrow shows. This takes the defender away from the ball, as indicated by the blue arrow, and all of this means that the ball goes past both players into the space behind. Fran Kirby, in the white circle, makes the run to meet it, and you can see how, from that position, she can then find one of her teammates in the middle of the box.
Therefore, Chelsea’s newfound creativity in attack meant that Birmingham could no longer get tight to their opponents as they had done in the first half, because Chelsea would just make runs to create the space behind. However, the main change that Chelsea made was in their formation, as we shall see in the next two images.
In the first half, Chelsea set up with only one striker, Beth England, which meant that it was easy for Birmingham to surround her, and was the reason that England had a quiet first half and Chelsea barely posed a threat. However, over the course of the second half, Niamh Charles, who signed from relegated Liverpool Women over the summer, Sam Kerr, Ji So-yun and UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Pernille Harder all came on for Chelsea. All are attacking players, with Chelsea seeing that they needed more in the final third.
If we look at the first image, we can see that Chelsea now had a front three structure, making the matchup with Birmingham’s defence more even. Ji So-yun, in the yellow circle, is a player who can unlock defences, and she floated around behind the main attacking line, feeding balls through to the attackers. This meant that Birmingham weren’t able to surround any one player, and so their first half tactic which we analysed earlier no longer worked.
The second image shows us another way that Chelsea changed their formation and tactics. Again, with Beth England isolated during the first half, Chelsea needed to get players up in support of her, and you can see how they did that. Sam Kerr and Niamh Charles came on and took control of the wings, leaving Harder and England to operate in the central areas. Birmingham’s defensive line, whilst still organised and working together, is too narrow, and Chelsea, by getting players around them, were now able to move balls towards the wings, before crossing into the middle; something they weren’t able to do in the first half.
Therefore, Chelsea had gone from a first half where they struggled to create much and penetrate the Birmingham defence to a second half where their tactical alterations ensured they controlled the wings, giving them a constant source of balls into the box.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has shown a tactical battle between two teams who have different aspirations for the season ahead. Chelsea Women will be happy to have the win, especially when their opponents were determined to stop them scoring, and will be happy with how their second half change in tactics helped them play more freely. Birmingham City Women, meanwhile, will take positives from this performance, in that they stopped Chelsea scoring from open play, but will be disappointed that they conceded easily from a free kick in the early stages of the game. Carla Ward will be pleased with how her team played overall though, and there will be plenty that she can take into their next game, away at Reading Women.