“A very challenging start”: Why stagnated performances have left Brighton in an early WSL relegation scrap – tactical analysis
The 2022/23 WSL season is now well underway, with all 12 teams having had a chance to show what they can do and with fans having had an opportunity to form opinions of different players. The title battle has understandably attracted a lot of attention, with three or even four teams vying to lift the trophy, but there is an equally interesting fight taking place at the foot of the league, with a few teams already in danger of slipping down to the Women’s Championship at the end of the campaign.
One of those involved in the early scrap for survival is Brighton and Hove Albion Women, which has surprised many as they have generally been a mid-table side since their promotion to the top flight back in 2018. However, after a poor start to the campaign which saw them win just one of their first five games, the feeling was that they had become stagnant under former England manager Hope Powell, and her resignation last week after five years in charge at Broadfield Stadium showed that she also felt that the team needed fresh ideas.
This tactical analysis will look in greater detail at what did go wrong for Brighton this season, identifying the different tactics that they have tried to play with and the reasons that they haven’t worked. The scout report will also look at some of the improvements that they showed in their last match, a 5-4 away win at West Ham United Women (with Powell’s former assistant Amy Merricks in charge for that game), picking out why that performance demonstrated that there is still a good chance that the Sussex club can pull themselves away from the drop zone.
Before going into the details of Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s play this season, it is worth taking an overall look at their season and picking out some of the key statistics that show what has gone wrong.
The attacking section of this graphic presents a very simple story, in that Brighton’s high percentile rank for expected goals scored (xG) means it was thought that with the options they have available to them, they would be able to create a vast number of chances in the final third. However, with them ranking below the league median for every other statistic in this area of the chart, it is clear that the reality is very different.
Defensively, they were expected to be fairly watertight, with them ranking among the lower sides for expected goals against (xGA), and yet the fact that they have one of the highest percentile rankings for opposition xG per shot this season suggests that, again, they have not met pre-season expectations and their tactics have instead made them a very easy team to create chances against.
Brighton’s possession statistics also make troublesome reading, with them not ranking especially high in any of those areas of the graphic, and it is evident that they don’t keep the ball for long and have lacked accuracy when they do look to move it around the field. Therefore, it is clear that there will be a lot of work for the next manager to do on the training pitch to turn their form around, with the WSL an unforgiving league where teams have to be at their best in every match.
With the statistics showing how easy Brighton and Hove Albion Women have been to beat at the back, their defensive play seems a good place to begin this analysis, and what becomes instantly clear when looking at why teams have found it so easy to create chances against them is the fact that their defensive setup and positioning when out of possession has lacked the same organisation as last season.
Under Hope Powell, they have tended to play with a high back line, which has enabled them to put pressure on their opponents and regain the ball in more advanced areas. However, the difference last season was that they knew when it was the right decision to drop back and when they needed to hold their positions, which hasn’t been the case this time around.
In this situation, Manchester United Women, who invested in their squad over the summer to add more pace in forward areas, have won the ball inside their own half and are now looking to start a counterattack. Brighton’s backline is positioned around the halfway line, which reflects their bravery and determination to contain their opponents.
In this game, that wasn’t the best idea though, with Marc Skinner’s team showing in almost all of their games this season the threat that they pose when moving forwards. The right thing to do here was to drop back and limit what winger Leah Galton, in the yellow circle, could do once she received the pass from midfielder Lucy Staniforth. However, because they didn’t, Brighton invited Manchester United to play through them, leading to Galton putting the ball into the back of the net, and this is not the only time that the Sussex side have been caught out by incisive attacking play such as this.
Another area that Brighton thrived in last season was communication between players, with the back four in particular constantly working together to ensure that no gaps were left open and that they were as robust as possible inside their own third. However, as this situation shows, that organisation has not been present this season, with former Everton Women left-back Poppy Pattinson moving out to the wing to try and close the ball down and the rest of the defensive line not adjusting their positions to cover the space she has left open.
As a result, Reading Women right-back Faye Bryson now has a vast gap open that she can play an accurate forward pass into, with Tia Primmer getting forwards and taking the ball into the goal area, and this would have led to a goal had striker Natasha Dowie not failed to turn home a rebounded effort from inside the six-yard area. Therefore, on this occasion, Brighton were let off by their opponents, but it was still a major warning sign for them and showed why they have such a high percentile ranking for opposition xG per shot.
Brighton needed to look at this and ensure that they prevented these gaps from opening up again, because, whilst Reading couldn’t score here, other teams would take full advantage of these defensive errors. However, as this situation shows, they didn’t and continued to make the same mistakes time and time again. On this occasion, they have moved players to the nearside of the pitch to help them play out from the back, but have left themselves too spread out in the middle and allowed Manchester United time to send the ball through their defensive line and into the spaces behind, with Galton getting on the end of the pass from England’s Ella Toone to score again.
The simple fact is that situations like this are where Manchester United, and Toone in particular, are at their best, with the playmaker showing throughout her club career that she loves to operate in these spaces and set up chances for her teammates. Therefore, in order to limit their opponents’ attacking threat, Brighton needed to keep numbers in the central areas and not give them time to move the ball into the goal area, so leaving themselves this open shows how this goal was once again the result of their poor defensive setup.
Whilst this was a collective error, there is one player who has really not helped her team here. Victoria Williams, who is in the blue circle, is a centre-back and therefore needs to be in the back line when her teammates are under pressure, and she would have been there last season. However, in this situation, she has moved away from the rest of the defenders, meaning that the gaps between players are larger and individual players have needed to cover more space, and that is why Manchester United found it so easy to move the ball forwards and score here.
As this graphic shows, Williams moving up the pitch has not been an uncommon feature of Brighton’s play this season, which suggests that it might have been a tactical decision by Powell as a way of keeping her side winning the ball as high up the pitch as possible. It should be pointed out that she has made a good number of interceptions in advanced areas through this, so there have been some positives that have come from this decision if indeed it was that.
However, the problem still stands that giving Williams this freedom has left Brighton too open at the back, and the fact that they have conceded 23 league goals this season (the most out of any of the teams in the division) is really not surprising when looking at how easy it has been for opponents to break them down.
Individual and team mistakes
Another reason that Brighton and Hove Albion Women have struggled at the back this season is because of individual and team mistakes in key areas, and the fact that some of these have been really basic errors reflects how a lot of their play has lacked quality so far and again helped opponents to put them under constant pressure.
Something that has become increasingly obvious as the weeks have gone by is how their players have tended to sit back when out of possession and haven’t looked to press the ball as much as they did last season, with Swedish midfielder Julia Zigiotti Olme backing away from West Ham’s Melisa Filis here and making no attempt to win possession.
On first glance, this looks like a good decision, as Zigiotti Olme’s aim is evidently to take her place in a low block. However, this is not a good way to defend against West Ham as, when they can’t move the ball forwards, Paul Konchesky’s team simply switch the ball from side to side and use their wide players to take it into the final third. Former Arsenal Women player Lisa Evans, in the yellow circle here, has proven to be instrumental to those tactics, and the fact that the Scotland international scored one goal and assisted two others in this game shows how her deliveries gave Brighton plenty of problems at the back.
Therefore, on this occasion, it would have been a better decision to press Filis here and not allow West Ham to have time to move the ball around the pitch, as that might have lessened Evans’ influence on the match.
Loose passes have also been a big problem area for Brighton this season, with them being another reason for their poor percentile rankings in defensive areas. In this case, Pattinson has tried to play out from the back, as has been another key characteristic of Powell’s tactics, but has been put under pressure by Arsenal on the far side of the pitch.
With her options now limited, she has looked to pass towards Zigiotti Olme in order to help her side retain possession, which was another good decision. However, the pass lacked pace and so stopped short of the Swedish player, which invited former Scotland captain Kim Little to make an easy interception, as the red arrow shows, and the ball was in the back of the net within less than a minute as Little fed it through to Vivianne Miedema, who then set up Beth Mead to score.
Pattinson is not the only player to have made an error like this, and it should be noted that she has made a pleasing start to her Brighton career after joining in the summer. However, this will not have been a moment that she will want to recall on many occasions.
Whilst those are little mistakes that can be easily rectified, what has also been present in their performances which will be harder to fix is a general lack of desire and signs that the players don’t seem to know what to do. In this case, another summer addition, Norway forward Elisabeth Terland, is leading the line and has teammates behind her for support, so has the ability to go forward and press Manchester United’s back line. However, rather than try to take time away from Manchester United, she instead holds her position and watches as Marc Skinner’s side play the ball around her, never once making an attempt to intercept the ball even when it travels right by her.
As a result, Manchester United were able to move the ball into space under no pressure at all, with Millie Turner now looking to create an opportunity higher up the field. Galton has dropped back to fill in at left-back here but looks to run up the field once Turner receives the ball in order to give her a passing option behind the Brighton line, with this run spotted by the centre-back.
Once the winger has possession, she then gets herself into a good position and sets up Canada forward Adriana Leon to score a goal, and the simple fact is that, from Brighton’s point of view, it was one mistake after another, with Terland being too passive and Galton having too much time to get forward and set up the goal as the rest of the Brighton players looked unsure of what to do. Therefore, the new manager will need to address this problem as a matter of urgency if their new team are to start putting some distance between them and the relegation zone.
The defence might be where a lot of their improvements need to take place, but Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s attacking play has been just as problematic. After their first five matches this season, they had scored the lowest number of goals in the league (this is no longer the case after the five netted at West Ham), and a lot of work needs to be done by the new manager in order to make them a more productive outfit when in the final third.
One of the main things that has been really noticeable about their play in possession is a lack of confidence from individual players. Here, Terland was in a good amount of space in Reading’s half and had a chance to make her way into their goal area, but she ended up hesitating at the last moment, turning back to find Pattinson behind her, who then moved the ball forwards to Greece striker Veatriki Sarri.
However, whilst this brought more Brighton players into the final third and created this triangle, it also gave Reading time to get back and close off the spaces that had been previously available, and that is the key thing here. As a result, Pattinson couldn’t send the ball into the middle and therefore needed to pass to Sarri, although her pass once again lacked accuracy and was intercepted and cleared by Terland’s fellow Norway forward Amalie Eikeland, in the red circle.
Therefore, Brighton need to have more confidence in themselves to take their chances, because they are moving the ball into dangerous areas and do have players who can punish opposing mistakes. At the moment though, they seem to doubt themselves at the last minute and are squandering their opportunities as a result.
Decision-making has also been a key problem for them this season, with players again getting into good positions and then not converting their chances. In this case, Brighton have put Reading under sustained pressure, but haven’t managed to find a way through their low block and have instead needed to be patient and to wait until a chance presents itself.
Here, the ball has come to on-loan Chelsea Women full-back Jorja Fox, with her having four players ahead of her and therefore a good chance to move the ball into Reading’s goal area. However, rather than using any of them, Fox instead kept the ball and invited Reading to close her down, with Primmer and Wales defender Gemma Evans combining to win the ball and clear their lines.
Therefore, when looking at other reasons for Brighton not making the most of their opportunities, moments like this also need to be taken into account, and it is something else that the new manager will need to look at once they arrive.
However, the fact that they managed to pick up a win against West Ham (their first victory since beating Reading at the end of September) and scored five times in the process suggests that there have already been some changes made on the field by Merricks.
One of the more noticeable alterations was that they looked to press their opponents from the front, with former Arsenal striker Danielle Carter central to this as her pace meant that she naturally led from the front. Here, she has seen how Grace Fisk is looking to pass back to goalkeeper Sophie Hillyerd and has kept moving forwards to put pressure on the West Ham stopper.
When the ball came to her, Hillyerd took an extra touch as she looked to move it out of her feet, which proved to be her undoing as it gave Carter the opportunity to win the ball and open the scoring for her side. Therefore, when in top form, the striker is a handful and is someone that her team can trust to create problems for their opponents, and Brighton will need to deploy her as often as possible in the final third if they are to keep improving their offensive play.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s poor start to the current WSL campaign, identifying the problems in their play and the reasons that they have found themselves in an early relegation scrap, as well as some of the positives that mean that all hope is not lost, no pun intended.
Despite what has happened at the start of the campaign, Hope Powell will not be deemed as a failure by any stretch at Brighton, having taken the team into the WSL back in 2018 before securing ninth, ninth, sixth and seventh places in the four seasons since. She has also overseen plenty of advances off the pitch too, with the club opening a new facility in 2021 specifically for their women’s and girls’ teams, situated on the same site where the men’s team train.
However, after what has been “a very challenging start” on the field, in Powell’s words, there is a feeling at the club that recent performances have not matched expectations. The squad that the former England boss leaves behind does contain plenty of talent, which will aid their next manager in their quest to move the team into a more respectable league position, but addressing the problems identified in this scout report will require a lot of work on the training ground in a short space of time because not picking up results quickly will leave Brighton continuing to face the possibility that their next campaign could be in the second tier.