“A great team spirit”: Why “ambitious” Brighton are defying the odds in the WSL this season – tactical analysis
Whilst the majority of WSL fans expected Chelsea Women and Arsenal Women to be challenging for a place in next season’s Champions League, not many predicted that Brighton and Hove Albion Women would also be near the league’s summit. However, a combination of good tactics and intelligent recruitment has led to that being the case. Coached by former England manager Hope Powell, Brighton play attractive football with a good team spirit and cause problems for opponents (as demonstrated by their 2-1 win against Chelsea at Kingsmeadow last season, which ended the eventual champions’ 33-game unbeaten run).
This tactical analysis will look in more detail at Brighton’s style of play, focusing on their attack and defence, as well as how they press their opponents around the pitch, all whilst finding the reasons why they have been defying the odds so far this season.
We will begin the scout report by focusing on Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s attacking play. This is where they have excelled so far, scoring 12 goals in their seven league games (the same amount as Manchester United Women), at an average rate of 1.4 goals per game. Last season, they only scored 1.19 per match, and their shooting accuracy has also increased, going from 36.3% to 40.6%, so it is clear that their final third productivity has improved, and there are several reasons for that.
Brighton generally like to keep the ball on the ground and play through the thirds, ensuring that they don’t risk interceptions by their opponents. However, when needed, they can also play longer passes up the field, using their attacking full-backs or wing-backs to give them options and exploit the spaces behind opposing defences. Both Maya Le Tissier and Finland international Emma Koivisto get up the pitch well to support the team’s attacks, stretching the play out and making the pitch as big as possible, and this image shows Le Tissier receiving the ball before attempting to transfer it into the middle.
The other thing that comes from this is that the full-backs can control the wide channels, enabling the forwards to work more closely together, and the yellow lines indicate the narrow structure that the attackers now have. By setting up with three players here, rather than just one, Brighton have given Le Tissier three different passing options, increasing the chance of them breaking Leicester City Women down.
The midfielders also play a key role in Brighton’s play, with their role being to provide a link between the defence and the attack. Aileen Whelan has operated mainly as an attacking midfielder in recent seasons, but has transformed into more of a box-to-box player in this campaign, partnering Republic of Ireland international Megan Connolly and helping to create chances for those ahead of them. This is not to say that she has been any less involved in the final third, as she still runs into the box and gets on the end of crosses. However, her altered positioning has given Brighton more balance and control during games, and this is reflected in their increase in average possession per game, which has risen from 44.13% during last season to 50.33% in the current one.
If we look at this image, Whelan has picked up the ball and played it into striker Danielle Carter. The most noticeable thing about Brighton’s transitional play in these situations is their calmness with the ball, as they never rush when in possession. Their ability to pick their passes and play with precision is shown in their passing accuracy, which has slightly increased to 75.8% from 73.5% last season. It may not seem like much, but football is a game of small details, and this shows how Brighton are concentrating hard on being tidy with the ball.
The final thing to mention is the structure of Brighton’s attack. Hope Powell has favoured a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation over this and the last campaign, with the 4-4-2 used 34% of the time and the 4-2-3-1 used 32% of the time in 2020/2021. This season, there has been slightly more reliance on the 4-4-2, which has been used in 37% of their games, whilst the 4-2-3-1 has been used just 26% of the time.
The reasons for this were the players that Powell had available to her. South Korea international Lee Geum-min, who spent last season on loan at the club from Manchester City Women, played in the centre forward role during the last campaign, but Carter has taken that role now, as it is where she is strongest. This has allowed Lee, who joined permanently over the summer, to have a more flexible role alongside Carter, whilst Ellie Brazil, Netherlands international Inessa Kaagman and on-loan Liverpool Women forward Rinsola Babajide have also been given more freedom to drift around the final third, helping Brighton to be more unpredictable and harder to defend against.
Ellie Brazil, the daughter of Nottingham Forest academy director Gary Brazil, has particularly benefitted from this structural change. Last season, she tended to play on the wings, and sometimes struggled to have an impact on games, but she has played more centrally in this campaign, working with Carter to create chances, both through passing and her runs behind defences, like here. Therefore, the increased confidence that individual players have is one reason for Brighton’s more potent nature in the final third.
When it comes to defending, Brighton and Hove Albion Women are a well-drilled side who know their roles and are adaptable, and these are important qualities to have in the WSL.
This image shows three Brighton defenders organised compactly between the Leicester attackers and goalkeeper Megan Walsh. This is the base of their defensive setup, but where it gets interesting is when another player drops into this structure, as that allows one of these three to move out and close down an opponent. Once the ball is passed to another area of the pitch by the attacking side, the player who originally went to close it down falls back in and another runs out.
However, in this particular situation, when Leicester striker Natasha Flint puts the ball into the box, defender Felicity Gibbons instead takes a step backwards, instead of moving out to win it, and this puts her in the right position to stop Sam Tierney scoring. This was one of only two chances that Leicester had in this game, and it was the slight adjustment from Gibbons that prevented this one finding the net. Whether planned or just instinct from Gibbons, this demonstrates their aforementioned defensive adaptability, and this is another reason why they are preventing teams from scoring many goals against them this season (they have only let in five so far, the joint second-best record in the WSL with Chelsea, and their average goal concessions per game have dropped from 1.81 last season to 0.8 in this one).
Brighton’s defensive success comes through their organisation and communication, both of which have been notable features of their performances so far. Hope Powell has labelled her squad a “team” in interviews, stating that they all get on and work together, and this defensive setup is one way that their matchday performances demonstrate why this is the truth.
When they do need to move their defensive line around, they again communicate with each other and ensure that attackers find it hard to break them down. Here, Birmingham City Women striker Sarah Ewens, who signed for the West Midlands club from Celtic Women over the summer, is looking to pass into the middle for Greece striker Veatriki Sarri to shoot at goal. However, Brighton have dropped back as one, maintaining their flat back line and preventing this pass from being made. We know that Hope Powell likes to play with a high back line, but the defenders’ work rate to get back when attackers look to get behind them is another reason for their success in the league so far, with more defensive duels won this season than last (67.5%, compared to 63.3%).
We have already mentioned how Brighton build attacks from the back, looking to dominate possession throughout matches. However, that sometimes gets them into trouble, with this image showing how Aston Villa Women closed down defender Victoria Williams, in the blue circle, forcing her into making an error with the ball. Australia striker Emily Gielnik, who is wearing number nine here, ends up having an effort on goal from this mistake, although she misses and Brighton are let off on this occasion. This is where Brighton need to be mindful, especially as the season goes on and more teams work out how to play against them.
We have mentioned several aspects of Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s game style under Hope Powell, all of which have been key reasons for them currently occupying a Champions League place in the WSL. However, one area that we need to expand on is their pressing, as this is something that they do in attack and defence, and which has made them a trickier team to play against.
Again, they work together when pressing, with numbers something that Hope Powell wants to see in every situation. Here, Tottenham Hotspur Women striker Rachel Williams has the ball, with three Brighton players forcing her towards the sideline. Williams as a result needs to pass the ball earlier than she perhaps would have liked to, increasing the chance of a mistake being made, and her pass lacks accuracy and allows Brighton to easily win possession.
We can see how the pressing players were compact and set up behind Williams, and this is because she was facing her own goal. Therefore, by forcing her into passing the way she was facing, Brighton have allowed themselves to win the ball in Tottenham’s half, resulting in an attack being launched with little opposition. Therefore, Brighton are clever when pressing, and ensure that, when balls are lost by opponents, they have an instant advantage.
This image indicates another occasion when Brighton pressed Tottenham and forced them into making an error. This time, when Tottenham released the ball, Danielle Carter was in the perfect place to make an interception and shoot at goal. As mentioned, Carter likes to have the ball and give her team passing options in the final third, and was signed to give Brighton an out-and-out striker at the top of the pitch. The aforementioned freedom that the likes of Brazil, Babajide, Lee and Kaagman have around her means that more mistakes are being made by opponents, leading to more chances being created by Brighton and more shots on goal. Therefore, again, their pressing is aiding their progression in the league.
It is not just in attacking situations that Brighton press their opponents. Here, Chelsea’s Denmark star Pernille Harder, who has threatened much more this season now that she operates in the half-spaces, has made her way into the Brighton goal area. However, she has been immediately surrounded by three defenders, and is forced to play the ball into England star Fran Kirby, who has made a run towards her to provide a shorter passing option.
A longer pass into Melanie Leupolz inside the box might have been Harder’s original intention here, as the Germany midfielder, wearing number eight in the middle of the pitch, would have been in a perfect position to control the pass and shoot at goal. However, when she does eventually receive it, she is outside the box, and ends up shooting over the bar. Therefore, Brighton’s pressing not only leads to goals for them, but prevents opponents scoring them as well.
In conclusion, it has been clear from this analysis that Brighton and Hove Albion Women have been a strong team in attack and defence so far this season. We have looked at different ways that they cause problems in the final third, as well as their defensive structure and how it gives them a base to play off. In Hope Powell’s five seasons in charge, the club finished second in the WSL 2, as the second division was known at the time, before securing top flight finishes of ninth, ninth, sixth, and, at the time of writing, third, so their progression under Hope Powell is evident.