FAWSL 2020/2021: Aston Villa Women v Birmingham City Women – tactical preview
The international break in the men’s game means that the women’s game takes centre stage this weekend. One clash taking place for the very first time in the WSL is the Birmingham derby. In this tactical analysis, we will preview how Aston Villa Women and Birmingham City Women could play, analysing both sides’ attacking and defensive strengths and weaknesses, as well as their key statistics, setting us up nicely for what could be a very interesting game.
Aston Villa Women’s attack
Here, against Reading Women, Aston Villa are attacking centrally, but have two runners either side. In this way, they always have passing options available, making it harder to stop them, not only because there are two possible passes that could be made, but also because Aston Villa stretch their wide attackers as far apart as they can, using the space on the wings. Reading’s defence is narrow here, so Aston Villa don’t need to move too far apart, but, if the defence had a wider structure, then Aston Villa would still play on the outside of it, ensuring that they constantly control the width against their opponents. This gives them a key advantage in getting the ball into the space behind, which is something Birmingham City Women will need to watch out for.
However, despite making two high profile attacking signings over the summer, in Denmark striker Stine Larsen and Portugal forward Diana Silva, Aston Villa still lack a goal threat at times. Sometimes, this is down to their opponents defending well, but this image shows how they have space to create a goalscoring chance in. However, Larsen, in the red circle, doesn’t make the final pass accurate enough, meaning that Brighton and Hove Albion Women can clear the ball. This is one example, but not the only one, of Aston Villa getting into a good position and then wasting the opportunity by not getting the final pass right. Against Birmingham, who have shown themselves this season to be a difficult side to break down, they will need to make these chances count, because they may not come too often.
Aston Villa Women’s defence
Defence is where Aston Villa Women have had the most problems this season, with the image below showing how they set up well, but then make a mistake and give the ball away.
Here, Everton Women have one striker, Valerie Gauvin, positioned in between the two Aston Villa defenders. They have split, isolating Gauvin, and this gives them a good chance of clearing the ball and getting themselves on the attack at the other end of the pitch.
However, in this situation, as the arrow shows, they decide to pass it back into the box, where it is intercepted easily and turns into a goalscoring chance for Everton. This is only one example, but, in their opening game against Manchester City Women, Aston Villa made two bad mistakes that led to both of Manchester City’s goals. It all comes down to a lack of communication between the players at times, and it is this that has cost them valuable points.
The other thing that Aston Villa do is to defend high up the pitch, which is fine, but they don’t then get back quick enough to close off the space behind. Here, Everton Women have worked the ball into winger Claire Emslie, who has a good chance to pass across goal, as the yellow arrow shows, or to shoot at goal. If she passes, then she has a teammate available to receive the ball, on the other side of Aston Villa’s narrow defence. Therefore, Aston Villa’s occasional sluggishness in getting back can cost them.
The other thing that comes from Aston Villa’s high defending is that balls can be passed through the defensive gaps, as is shown in this image. Everton here play the ball through to Emslie, wearing number 11, who has positioned herself in between the Aston Villa defenders, ready to run onto the ball when it has gone through. The red lines show us how big a gap there is between the defenders, with Aston Villa giving Everton a lot of access to the space behind.
What we have looked to analyse in this section are the reasons why Aston Villa are struggling to stop teams scoring against them, but all they need to do is to ensure they close off the space behind much more and to cut out the passing errors that give their opponents easy chances in dangerous areas. They have conceded 11 goals in just four games, having seen two games called off for coronavirus reasons, and Birmingham City Women will have seen how much space there is behind, and will no doubt look to exploit it.
Birmingham City Women’s attack
If we now turn our attention to Birmingham City Women, analysing first their attack, then we can see what tactics they could use against Aston Villa Women this weekend.
The first thing we notice is that they like to play long balls over the top of opponents, going from defensive to offensive areas directly, rather than transitioning the ball through the midfield. However, whilst this is an effective tactic in itself, what it does is to catch out opponents, as we can see happening here. This came from West Ham captain Gilly Flaherty losing the ball in Birmingham’s half of the pitch, before Mollie Green played the ball long to forward Claudia Walker, who is in the blue circle here. You can see how West Ham are not organised at the back, and there is plenty of space available for Walker to operate in. This has all come from the long ball, which has caught West Ham out. Given that we have already seen how Aston Villa Women defend high up the pitch, it is likely that we will see a lot of long balls being played over the top by Birmingham in order to have the same effect as this.
Another key aspect of Birmingham’s attack is the use of the full-backs almost as wingers, which we can see in both of these images; the first shows Sarah Mayling in an advanced position, whilst the second shows Rebecca Holloway supporting the attack.
This gives Birmingham more threat in the middle, because they can get more players into central areas to support Claudia Walker, as she as mostly been deployed alone at the top of the pitch this season. They also use their attacking full-backs to support the wingers, sometimes creating 2-v-1 situations on the wings. Mayling, who can play in midfield or further forward, often works with Harriett Scott to work around opposing defences, whilst Holloway works with Lucy Whipp on the left side of the pitch to do the same. This gives them an advantage in attack, as they have double the chance of crossing the ball into the box, especially if one of them is closed down by an opponent. We know that Mayling and Holloway are both excellent ball-crossers, and constantly create opportunities for their teammates, so Aston Villa will need to ensure they stop Birmingham from dominating the wings.
As well as the wider areas, Birmingham also pose a threat in the middle of the pitch too. This comes from their two new midfield recruits, Mollie Green, who joined from Manchester United Women, and Christie Murray, who signed from relegated Liverpool Women. We can see in this image how Green is more of an attack-minded midfielder, whilst Murray is the box-to-box player who stays back and makes key passes, helping to move the ball around the pitch and link up play. This gives Birmingham a balanced structure in midfield, allowing them to get the ball to each area of the pitch with more ease. Here, we can see how they often play apart from each other, and this example shows the goal scored by Green against Bristol City Women, with Murray playing a long pass up the pitch before it eventually reaches Green. Therefore, their understanding of each other’s position at each point of the game helps Birmingham to attack much more easily.
We have shown in this section Birmingham’s strengths in attack and the reasons why they are gaining a lot of attention from others for their playing style. Aston Villa will need to be wary of the threat they pose both from the midfield and wings and ensure they don’t give away any passes or leave any spaces too open, otherwise, Birmingham will likely punish them.
Birmingham City Women’s defence
In defence, new boss Carla Ward has made her team tougher to beat, as can be seen in this section.
Here, against Chelsea Women, they sat back for most of the game and only conceded one goal, which came from an early corner. Other than that, Chelsea couldn’t break them down, and you can see why when you look at Birmingham’s structure. Claudia Walker, in the blue circle, was often the only player left forward in this game, with every other player helping to form two lines of four and five.
Essentially, what we can see is that Birmingham can attack well, as has been demonstrated already, but also have the players to switch to defensive tactics when they need to. This flexibility will definitely give them an edge this season.
When opponents do manage to get into their third, Birmingham use other tactics, such as this one, to stop them getting too close to goal. Chelsea left-back Jonna Andersson here has advanced into a dangerous position, but Birmingham have surrounded her, closing down her options. The threat that the Sweden left-back posed has now been lessened.
As far as Aston Villa Women go, we know they like to use the width to attack around opposing defences, but they may find this difficult against Birmingham, especially if the visiting side get players back to close off the spaces like they did here against Chelsea. This will mean that Aston Villa will need to take advantage of every opportunity they get, as mentioned before, because they will not get many if Birmingham defend this well against them.
Birmingham’s defence has needed a lot of work doing to it, because, in the first game of the season, they were also playing too high, leaving spaces open at the back, as you can see in the image above.
Here, just like with Aston Villa, Birmingham have allowed Manchester United to get behind them, whilst also getting players through the gaps to offer passing options in the space behind. This situation led to a goal, so we can see how Birmingham could find themselves in difficulty if they leave these gaps open against Aston Villa, given that we know they like to get attackers around the outside of defences.
We can also see here how Birmingham can be caught in their own third by their opponents pressing them. Here, Manchester United have got up the pitch and closed them down, forcing them to play the ball sideways towards their goal. Again, this led to a goal, so whilst it is unlikely this will happen, given how Birmingham have become harder to beat since this game, it does give Aston Villa a glimmer of hope for how to put pressure on Birmingham in their own third.
We have looked at the strengths and weaknesses in both sides’ attack and defence. However, in order to see better who could win the game, we need to compare their key statistics.
The most interesting thing is that Aston Villa Women have a higher expected goals value (xG), but Birmingham have a higher goals value, both an average figure per game. Aston Villa do, however, have a higher value in passing and crossing accuracy, which reflects on how they look to stretch their wider attackers to the wings, before crossing into the box for their central attackers to get on the end of. However, whilst they will likely get more balls into the box, Birmingham have a higher percentage of defensive and aerial duels won, showing how they are good at clearing balls and stopping potential chances. Given the defensive structure we have seen them set up in this season, this is not surprising, but it means that Aston Villa will need to work very hard to break them down.
These statistics have shown us that Aston Villa will likely dominate the game in terms of creating chances, which is not unexpected, given their front three setup, compared to Birmingham’s single striker. However, Birmingham will be able to stop the majority of these attacks, and we have also seen how they can then play long balls up to Walker, meaning that Aston Villa will need to be vigilant at the back to stop Birmingham having too much space to play in.
Aston Villa will likely start with the same lineup that defeated Brighton and Hove Albion Women in their last game, with no injuries reported. Former Birmingham midfielder Chloe Arthur could start against her former side, whilst Stine Larsen is expected to once again lead the line. Emma Follis, Diana Silva and Shania Hayles are competing to start in the wide forward positions alongside the Denmark international.
Birmingham City Women are struggling to raise a team for this game, with Sarah Mayling injured against West Ham, and many others likely to miss this game. Manager Carla Ward has been forced to ask the FA for permission to use academy players for the game, so we could see a very different and inexperienced team line up against Aston Villa this weekend.
In conclusion, we have looked in this tactical analysis at how both Aston Villa Women and Birmingham City Women have strengths and weaknesses in attack and defence, as well as picking out how both sides can beat the other in this game. Birmingham have looked much harder to beat this season, following new manager Carla Ward’s arrival over the summer, whilst Aston Villa won their last two games, against Brighton and Hove Albion Women in the league and then against Coventry Women in the League Cup in midweek. This, and the fact that both sides have obvious strengths and weaknesses in their tactics, could mean that the game will be won by whoever plays better on the day. With Birmingham reportedly needing to field a team of academy players, that could put them at a disadvantage.