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Barclays Women’s Championship 2023/24: Five potentially vital players you must watch out for – scout report

It has been an incredible summer for women’s football, with a thrilling World Cup culminating in England narrowly losing out to Spain in the Final, with La Roja becoming world champions thanks to Olga Carmona’s goal.
 
With the World Cup now over, we must turn our attention back to the domestic leagues. Although it’s a few weeks until the Women’s Super League returns to action, English football’s second tier — the Barclays Women’s Championship 2023/24 campaign got underway at the weekend, and it already looks set to be a very competitive season ahead
We have already experienced a surprise result as Blackburn Rovers snatched an opening-day victory against Birmingham City. Meanwhile, Sheffield United returned home from a trip to the capital after a 1-1 draw with Charlton Athletic. Additionally, Crystal Palace salvaged a draw in the dying minutes against newly relegated Reading.
 
The end of the 2022/23 season saw Bristol City win the title and gain promotion to the top flight. However, Coventry United suffered relegation, unable to recreate the same miracle that saw them stay up the previous season. Additionally, Reading dropped down from the WSL, whilst Watford returned to the Championship after just one season in the third tier.
 
As the title suggests, in this tactical analysis and scout report, we will highlight five players you should watch out for in the Women’s Championship this season. We will look at how they fit into the tactics at their respective clubs and showcase what makes them exciting players to watch.

Tara Bourne – Sheffield United

To begin this analysis, we will examine 20-year-old central defender Tara Bourne. Having spent time at Manchester City and Liverpool during her youth career, Bourne moved to Manchester United, where she had a loan spell with the Blades in 2021 after signing her first senior contract. After six months in Sheffield, the Cheshire-born player then joined Blackburn Rovers on loan until the end of the 21/22 campaign.
 
In order to get some more first-team experience, Bourne spent last season out on loan at Birmingham City, who were incredibly unlucky not to win the title after finishing just one point behind champions Bristol City.
 
Bourne departed the Red Devils this summer and signed for Sheffield United as Jonathan Morgan continues to rebuild his team as the Blades chase promotion to the WSL.
 
At Birmingham City, Tara Bourne primarily played as a left-sided centre-back in their 3-4-1-2 formation. The former Manchester United player is an excellent ball-playing defender with an eye for a pass. We can see from the data visual below where on the pitch Bourne’s progressive passes occurred during the course of last season.

With Bourne being adept at progressive passing, it means that her team gains the advantage of quicker transitions from defence to offence. Instead of relying solely on midfielders to build attacks, Sheffield United will be able to turn to Bourne to launch incisive passes to forwards or midfielders positioned higher up the field. This element of surprise can break defensive lines, disrupt opponents’ formations, and create space for teammates to exploit.

Furthermore, having a defender capable of hitting long passes means the team can stretch the opposition’s defence, making it harder for them to press effectively. When under pressure, Bourne can find teammates in advanced positions with long passes, relieving pressure and allowing the team to transition smoothly to the attacking phase. For example, she averaged 9.35 long passes per 90 at Birmingham City last season, with an accuracy rating of 42.7%.

Here, we can see Bourne using her long passing to progress the play upfield and ensure that the opposition doesn’t have the opportunity to press her. 

Furthermore, in terms of her defensive abilities, the young central defender showcases a good reading of the play as she averaged 5.13 interceptions per 90 in the 22/23 campaign. Additionally, she won 7.84 defensive duels per 90 and made 2.19 clearances per 90. 

Given that Morgan has mostly used a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 formation during his time at Sheffield United so far, it is likely that Bourne will be used in a back-four system. Her on-the-ball abilities will allow the Blades to build out from defence and maintain a solid defensive structure.

Atlanta Primus – Southampton

Next up in this scout report is Southampton’s Atlanta Primus. The 26-year-old, who is a product of the Chelsea youth system, joined the London City Lionesses back in 2020 and was one of their standout players. 

The former England youth international has pledged her allegiance to Jamaica and was part of the 2023 World Cup squad as they made history. Ahead of the new Championship season, Primus has put pen to paper with Southampton, who will be looking to push on and challenge at the top of the league after last season’s mid-table finish.

Primus scored eight goals last season; as seen on the data visual above, they were all from inside the penalty area. The Jamaica international is incredibly versatile and is comfortable playing anywhere across the forward line. Last season, she was primarily utilised as a centre-forward or a left-winger as the London City Lionesses mostly lined up in a 3-4-3 formation. However, she did fill in a central midfield role on a couple of occasions.

Primus is able to link up with her teammates incredibly well. As we can see above, she receives the ball, plays it out wide to a colleague and continues her run forward. As she receives the ball, she drives into the space ahead and places a shot beyond the goalkeeper. Her pace and passing abilities mean she is a handy player during the transition from defence to attack.
 
The new Southampton signing has an ability to seamlessly connect with her teammates on the pitch, which is invaluable, especially in the attacking phase. This means she can facilitate the rapid transition from defence to attack, as shown above, resulting in a more cohesive and fluid approach to the game.
 
Secondly, she can create intricate passing sequences that unlock tight defensive setups. Primus frequently shows her understanding of her teammates’ positions and movements in relation to her. She can deliver precise passes at the right moments, exploiting gaps in the opposition’s defence.

Primus also possesses excellent close control, allowing her to easily evade tackles from opponents, as we can see above. Her ability to skip past opponents meant she could often bypass two or three players simultaneously and space elsewhere for teammates.

Under Marianne Spacey-Cale, Southampton lined up in a 4-4-2 or a 3-4-1-2 system last season, which means that Primus could play as a wing-back to get the best of her ball-carrying abilities, or she could play as a centre-forward to make the most of her natural goal-scoring threat. Wherever Atlanta Primus lines up, she represents a great piece of transfer business for Southampton, who have inherited a quality player with a great skill set.

Jade Pennock – Birmingham City

Now, let’s turn our attention to the third player of this scout report – Birmingham City’s Jade Pennock. The 30-year-old enjoyed an excellent campaign last season as she was named the Women’s Championship Player of the Year. 

The former Doncaster Belles player chipped in with 11 goals and four assists during Birmingham’s second-place finish last season. The talented forward will most likely be a key player for the Blues as they will target promotion back to the WSL.

Birmingham primarily lined up in a 3-4-1-2 or a 3-4-3 system during the 22/23 season, with Pennock occupying either a central attacking midfield role or a winger in a front three.
 
From the heatmap above, we can see that Pennock looks to operate in the wide right area quite often. As we can see below, she will make overlapping runs beyond the defenders, who are usually preoccupied with dealing with the two strikers, so Pennock is able to run into space.

The Birmingham City attacker averaged 4.12 dribblers per 90 last season; she is a player who likes to carry the ball and dribble beyond an opponent. We can see from the data visual below that she contributed 81 carries into the penalty area in all competitions last season, with the majority stemming from the right half-space, where she is such a threat in the attacking phase.

Pennock averaged 2.01 progressive runs per 90, which is part of why she is such a key figure in this Birmingham City attack. The attacking midfielder’s progressive runs contribute heavily to the team’s offensive tempo. 

Furthermore, these runs made by Pennock often draw defenders towards her, leaving spaces behind for other players to exploit. This can lead to intricate passing sequences, one-twos, or through balls that penetrate the defence and create goal-scoring chances for Darren Carter’s side.

Moreover, Pennock works hard defensively, as she averaged 4.48 defensive duels per 90 last season and 4.34 interceptions per 90, which goes a long way to demonstrating her excellent reading of the game. 

The Blues will be looking to win the Championship this season, and Jade Pennock’s performances will most likely be critical to that. If she can continue last season’s excellent form, Birmingham City will be among the favourites to clinch the title.

Ruesha Littlejohn – London City Lionesses

The next player to feature in this scout report is Republic of Ireland international Ruesha Littlejohn. After falling down the pecking order at Aston Villa, the 33-year-old has made the decision to drop down into the second tier by signing for London City Lionesses.
 
Littlejohn’s signing is a coup for new Head Coach Carolina Morace, as she will bring a wealth of experience that could prove invaluable as London City seeks to mount a title challenge.

Littlejohn is a central midfielder who can also play as a defensive midfielder should her team require. As mentioned previously, she found it difficult to get game time at Aston Villa last season, managing just ten appearances, all of which came from the bench. 

The heatmap above indicates that during her time on the pitch, Littlejohn mainly operated as a defensive midfielder, charged with shielding the defensive line. During her ten appearances for Villa during the 22/23 season, she averaged 5.04 interceptions per 90 and 9.07 defensive duels per 90. 

We can see in the images below a prime example of Littlejohn preventing the opposition from attacking by executing a perfectly timed tackle. Her tactical acumen and understanding of the game enable her to effectively read and anticipate opponents’ moves. This foresight allows Littlejohn to position herself strategically to intercept passes, break down opposing attacks, and provide a shield for the team’s defence. Bringing in a player with such experience can only be suitable for London City Lionesses.

Ruesha Littlejohn is not just about putting in the defensive blocks and tackles; she has a wonderful eye for a pass. During the 2021/22 campaign, where she featured more regularly for Villa, Littlejohn averaged 3.95 long passes per 90, a crucial part of Villa’s attacking play.

In the scenario depicted above, Villa are struggling to play through the Reading defensive block, so Littlejohn executes a perfect long pass to Kenza Dali, who has run behind the defence. 

The single pass evades the entire Reading defence and forces them to chase back towards their own goal to try and prevent a goal. Littlejohn’s long-range passing could prove incredibly useful for London City Lionesses as they look to transition from defence to attack; she will be able to hit passes in behind the defensive line for their pacy forwards to latch on to. 

Her excellent positioning will ensure London City Lionesses can recycle possession and prevent opponents from launching a counterattack. 

Lia Cataldo – Crystal Palace

The final player we are going to highlight in this scout report is central defender Lia Cataldo. At just 22 years old, Cataldo is a two-time Championship winner, first with Leicester City in 2020/21 and again with Bristol City in 2022/23. This is a statement signing for Crystal Palace, who firmly stated their intentions to kick on from last year’s fifth-place finish.
 
During last season’s title-winning campaign with Bristol City, Cataldo mostly played as a right-sided centre-back in a 3-4-3 formation. She frequently displayed her excellent reading of the game and defensive positioning by making 6.15 interceptions per 90. Moreover, the 22-year-old is very adept at 1v1 defending, which is beneficial as it means her teammates can trust her to make intelligent decisions when faced with an opposition player.
 
We can see in the images below that Cataldo is in a 1v1 situation with an opponent running at her, looking to cut inside to create a goal-scoring opportunity. The young defender shows her intelligence firstly by forcing her opponent down the line rather than allowing her to carry the ball infield and secondly by ensuring she can place herself between the player and the ball, enabling her to pass to a teammate calmly and Bristol can play out.

The data below shows that Lia Cataldo blocked 14 shots during the 2022/23 season, worth an xG of 1.54. She is willing to put in the necessary blocks as a defender, but Cataldo is sensible and makes intelligent decisions on the pitch. Cataldo averaged 6.4 aerial duels per 90 for Bristol City and 8.03 defensive duels, where she showcased good physical strength to win 63.8% of them.

Much like Tara Bourne, Cataldo is a ball-playing defender who averaged 50.81 passes per 90 and 4.27 long passes per 90. Furthermore, Cataldo is highly confident with the ball at her feet and can consistently look to progress the play up the pitch.
 
During the 22/23 season, she averaged 3.24 dribbles per 90 and made 4.01 progressive runs per 90, which infers she has a calmness and composure about her play when in possession. The data visuals above indicate where Cataldo’s progressive action occurred on the pitch.
 
Crystal Palace could utilise Cataldo’s ball progression this season, as her ability to embark on progressive runs disrupts the opponent’s defensive shape. It forces opposing players to decide whether to engage or track her, creating spaces for other teammates to exploit.
 
Furthermore, her ball-carrying skills could provide an alternative dimension to the team’s buildup play. It means that Palace can bypass the midfield lines should they need to, and then they can accelerate the transition from defence to attack, catching opponents unaware and increasing the speed of play.
This quick transition can lead to unexpected counterattacks and catching the opposition out of their defensive shape. Moreover, this can lead to speedier ball circulation and passing combinations, putting the opposing defence on the back foot and creating better opportunities to play into the opposition penalty area.
Whether Cataldo can command a starting place remains to be seen, but Crystal Palace have signed a very talented young player who can significantly impact the future.

Conclusion

Overall, this is shaping up to be the most unpredictable season yet for the Women’s Championship. Many teams have recruited well and have a shot at winning the title. In this scout report, we have highlighted five players we think could be very influential for their respective teams. 

Tara Bourne and Lia Cataldo are exciting young central defenders to look out for. In Sheffield United and Crystal Palace, the pair are playing for two teams looking to kick on and show that they are capable of challenging for promotion. These two players fight for their places, but we believe they will shine if given opportunities.

Meanwhile, Jade Pennock has already demonstrated how important she is to this Birmingham City team; her performances could be key to where they finish in the table this season. 

Additionally, the vastly experienced Ruesha Littlejohn will be a big signing for London City Lionesses, whilst their former player Atlanta Primus will provide an exciting element to Southampton’s attack this season. 

It’s shaping up to be a hugely competitive season in the Women’s Championship, with many teams having recruited incredibly well during the summer. It’s impossible to predict who will snatch the title this year, but it looks set to be an exciting season ahead.