Defeating the parked bus: how Man City’s “togetherness” helped them win crucial WSL clash
Birmingham City Women against Manchester City Women may not have been the standout fixture in the latest round of WSL matches, but it provided us with an opportunity to really look at specific features of the game. Birmingham have this season become harder to beat under Carla Ward, so we expected that they would play a very defensive game, similar to when they faced Chelsea Women and Arsenal Women. However, whilst we will look at this, the main theme to explore in this tactical analysis is how Manchester City broke down their low block, going on to win the game fairly comfortably. To do this, we will pick out three different tactics that they used, analysing how each one helped them in this.
Birmingham City Women’s setup
We will first focus on Birmingham City Women. It was clear that they wanted to get the ball up to teenage striker Emily Murphy, who is on loan from Chelsea Women, at every opportunity. The image below shows us how they went about doing that.
Goalkeeper Hannah Hampton has the ball, with the centre-backs pushing high up the pitch, almost to the halfway line, and we can see the size of the gap that has been created between them and the ball as a result. This season, they have sometimes played out from the back, but this game saw them look to find Murphy as quickly as possible with long balls instead. The reason for this is that playing through the thirds would not work against Manchester City Women, as the away side were playing a 4-3-3 system, overloading each area, so Birmingham would have kept losing the ball if they had looked to move it through each section of the pitch.
When Birmingham were defending, they had a compact defensive shape. Here, we see how they have narrowed up, making it harder for Manchester City to get into that space and score. Instead, they have to shoot from areas either wider or further out, where it is easier for Birmingham to block them. We know how Manchester City also like to get players into the spaces in and around their opponents’ defensive line, so this also helped to stop that happening. Therefore, it was clear that Birmingham have a well-rehearsed shape that they can play in, and were looking to use that to keep Manchester City at bay.
The final notable aspect of Birmingham’s play was that they got tight to opponents. It is easier to block balls coming in from wide than from central areas, so, whilst they still narrowed directly in front of goal, they also got out to close down Manchester City’s wide attackers as much as they could. Birmingham started with regular right-back Sarah Mayling as a central defender, allowing Harriett Scott to come in and captain the side from right-back. Mayling is good at getting up and down the pitch when her team are in transition, but Scott is more able when it comes to closing down and engaging in defensive duels with opponents. Therefore, it felt like this was a tactical decision by manager Carla Ward, aiming to give her side the best opportunity of stopping Manchester City’s wide threat from causing too many problems.
These are some specific features of Birmingham’s play, but now we will turn our attention to how Manchester City broke them down and won the game.
Controlling the wings is a critical part of Manchester City Women’s tactics, and that was clear to see in this game. As mentioned, they set up in a 4-3-3, and rely on their full-backs to control those spaces.
Pushing the full-backs up the pitch allows the two wide attackers to drift inside and support the lone striker, increasing the team’s attacking options in the box, and that is shown in this image. Lucy Bronze is looking to get the ball into the box, and has three possible targets in the middle, indicated by the yellow circles. If the wide attacker, which was Chloe Kelly on that side of the pitch, had been crossing from the same area, then only one option would have likely been available; striker Ellen White. This would have made it easier for Birmingham City Women to surround her and end the threat. However, with three players in the middle, it is harder for them to do this, because they don’t know which player will receive it.
Therefore, having a greater presence in the box allowed Manchester City to put more pressure on Birmingham’s defence, and also meant they had a greater chance of winning the ball.
However, when the wide attacker was further out, the full-back was still supporting her in this way. To explain, this image shows how Bronze, in the yellow circle, has again advanced up the wing, freeing up Kelly to take on the Birmingham defender, working her way into the box. If Bronze wasn’t there, Kelly would have needed to cross the ball into the middle, but now she has options; she can either set up a chance for a teammate, or dribble in and shoot at goal herself. Therefore, this is another reason that Manchester City’s attack benefitted from getting the full-backs up the pitch to support the attack, and meant they could put more pressure on Birmingham’s defence, looking to create more opportunities to score.
The final thing to mention with this is that they created triangular structures either side of the Birmingham box, which was another positive of the full-backs getting up the pitch. The triangles were stretched out, meaning Birmingham couldn’t just close down the player with the ball, because Manchester City could then transfer the ball to either of the other two players in the area. We saw how Birmingham played with full-backs who can challenge for the ball, putting pressure on opposing attackers, and these structures were how Manchester City prevented that happening.
Playing amongst the defensive line
The second tactical point in Manchester City Women’s play is that they got their key attackers in the gaps between the opposing players. This again made it harder for Birmingham City Women to defend against them, because the play was not in front of them, where they would have been in a better position to prevent Manchester City getting into the space behind.
This image demonstrates how this tactic gave Manchester City control of the game. Ellen White, in the white circle, always gets into these gaps, regardless of who she is playing for or which opponents she is facing. Secondly, Manchester City’s 4-3-3 was set up so that the two outside midfielders, USA international Sam Mewis and Scotland’s Caroline Weir, played either side of White when the team were in possession, again increasing Manchester City’s attacking presence. If White was on her own here, then the defenders could have repositioned themselves to surround her, meaning Manchester City would have had to play a sideways or backwards pass. However, because there are three attackers players forward, Birmingham have to stay stretched out, increasing the likelihood of gaps between them.
From Manchester City’s point of view, we can see how this gives Alex Greenwood, in the red circle, three possible passing options to transfer the ball to. Greenwood is normally a left-back, but was played in central defence for this game. As well as Gemma Bonner being injured and Abby Dahlkemper only returning from international duty with the USA shortly before this game, this is because one of Greenwood’s key strengths is accurate delivery of the ball into teammates, and she would be more effective doing this from central areas rather than the wing in this game, because of how far Manchester City’s defenders advanced up the pitch. Therefore, we can see how getting plenty of players up the pitch helped them win the game.
When we earlier analysed Birmingham’s defence, we looked at how they defended very narrowly in the central areas, making it hard for Manchester City to play in that area. However, in the second half, Birmingham were forced to get up the pitch much more, and so left spaces like the one shown here in the yellow square open. Caroline Weir now moves into that area, as the white arrow shows, and scores Manchester City’s fourth goal. The fact that three of Manchester City’s goals were scored by Mewis and Weir further highlights how they were pushed into these areas and tasked with increasing the team’s attacking presence. Therefore, this is another way that Manchester City beat Birmingham’s low block tactics.
We have looked at how Manchester City moved the ball behind the Birmingham defence at every opportunity, but it’s important to mention that it didn’t all go their way. It took them 42 minutes to open the scoring, and this was because they took a while to work out how to play against their opponents’ defensive setup. This image shows how teenage full-back Esme Morgan is looking to make the pass through the defence, but it is too strong and goes out of play for a goal kick. Manchester City manager Gareth Taylor said afterwards that his team were too impatient in the first half, and this was one time where they needed a little more composure with the ball. However, they eventually adapted to the game, gaining more accuracy with their passing and going on to win as a result.
The defensive midfielder’s role
The third way that Manchester City Women looked to break down Birmingham City Women’s low block tactics was through the defensive midfielder’s positioning. We have mentioned how Manchester City like to play with the two outside midfielders getting further forward, but this works because the central player is more defensively-minded. With Keira Walsh unavailable at the moment, Laura Coombs has taken up this role.
Coombs, in the white circle here, constantly found these pockets of space throughout the game. By doing so, she was able to link up the play, acting as a pivot for her team to use in transferring the ball around the pitch. This is similar to the position that Alex Greenwood took up in the last section, and meant that Manchester City could create different passing options to help them find a way through Birmingham’s defence.
However, what makes Coombs particularly dangerous in these areas is that she can not only transfer the ball to a teammate, but also dribble forward and shoot at goal herself. This is because Coombs likes to draw opponents towards her, creating spaces behind to move the ball into. Here, we see how she has received the ball from Morgan, whilst Birmingham close her down, as the blue arrow shows. The one-two pass with Morgan allows the full-back to attack the space in front of her, with Manchester City already having plenty of options there to move the ball to. Therefore, we can see how Manchester City used Coombs to help force Birmingham’s players out of position, opening up routes for them to transfer the ball to their key players further up the pitch.
In defence, Coombs also played a vital role. Birmingham’s defensive structure meant that Manchester City could stretch across the pitch at the back, which also gave their full-backs the space to get forward and join the attack.
However, Coombs, in the white circle, protects the defence, making it difficult for Birmingham to break forward with ease. This also provides the platform for Manchester City to attack with numbers, because, as we have seen, Mewis and Weir constantly got up to support the front three, and the reason they could do this so often is because Coombs was staying back to occupy the midfield areas. We also mentioned how Birmingham looked to play long balls to Emily Murphy, but Coombs’ positioning allows her to intercept them, getting the ball back up to the Manchester City attack each time.
Coombs’ positioning also allows her to work with the centre-backs to cut Murphy off from the rest of the team. We have seen how Manchester City looked to create triangular team structures on the wings, giving themselves passing options in key attacking areas, and this shows how their team is built on everyone working together. Gareth Taylor said afterwards that his team’s “togetherness” was a key factor in their win, and this is the type of thing he is referring to.
As well as cutting Murphy off, ensuring she gets no support from her teammates, this also allows Manchester City to move the ball around the pitch when they have possession, as they are doing here. Therefore, the role of the defensive midfielder was key in helping Manchester City win this game, both in terms of their tactics in defence, midfield and attack.
In conclusion, the question we asked at the beginning of this analysis was how Manchester City Women defeated Birmingham City Women’s low block tactics. In answer to this, we have looked at three different ways that they got behind them, with four goals their reward. Manchester City are one of the form teams in the WSL right now, and it is this tactical adaptability that has been built into them that has helped them to win tough games like this, when others may have run out of ideas and fallen short. There is no doubting that, if they can defeat a team as well-organised as Birmingham, they can get past anyone this season if they play at their best.