“The vision is very realistic”: Why clever recruitment could help Brighton realise their WSL top four dreams at last – scout report
To say that Brighton Women had a turbulent time of things during the 2022/23 campaign would be putting it very mildly, with four different coaches taking charge at different stages of the season (Hope Powell, her assistant Amy Merricks for two interim spells, former Bayern Munich Frauen boss Jens Scheuer and ex-London City Lionesses manager Melissa Phillips) and the resulting lack of coherency leading to them spending the majority of the season attempting to stave off the threat of relegation.
However, despite the odds not seemingly being in their favour, they did manage to avoid the drop, and attention will very quickly be turning to the future as they try to make sure that the same mistakes are avoided. They do have lofty ambitions to be a top-four side in years to come, and, with the financial backing and infrastructure investment that they have off the field, it is a vision that is very realistic.
For now, though, attention will be on next season and improving their on-field performances, and, having appointed a progressive coach in Phillips, they now need to provide her with players who will help to usher in a new era for the team. This is something that the former London City manager is reportedly relishing, with the departures of long-serving players Megan Walsh, Victoria Williams, Megan Connolly, Danielle Carter and Kayleigh Green allowing her to really make her mark on the squad and to bring in players that she feels will suit her tactics.
With Brighton unlikely to attract too many star names, they may need to look at lower leagues to find new faces, and Phillips’ extensive experience of the Women’s Championship would come in useful if they decided to go in that direction. With this in mind, this tactical analysis will look first at how Brighton have been performing under her guidance and will then suggest some potential targets in the second tier that the club could look at, showing how they would match Phillips’ brand of football and how they could help to prevent them from being drawn into another relegation scrap.
When Phillips was appointed as Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s new head coach, there were many who saw it as a really difficult ask for her to keep them up, with the club on the rocks and struggling to pick up the necessary points to help them move away from the drop zone.
However, this didn’t seem to faze her, and what she did was to strip everything back and ask her players to focus on getting the basics right, with her showing a desire to keep things simple on the field and to not introduce too many complicated ideas.
This led to a few positive performances early in her tenure, which restored the players’ confidence in what they were doing and gave them added belief that they could stay up, and what really helped with that was Phillips’ desire to give each of them just a few basic instructions and to play them in positions that suited their capabilities. That meant that situations like this were common, when they got into promising areas and were able to test their opponents’ resolve, as Phillips wanted them to do more of, and the goal that Green scored against West Ham United Women here by heading in the cross from Katie Robinson was not something that would have come as easily to them earlier on in the campaign.
The key word here is simplicity, and it comes down again to Phillips knowing what she wanted from her players and also knowing how to get results on the field, and, even though some of their play lacked glamour and excitement, it was just a case of them getting the simple things right and securing the points that they were in such desperate need of.
That theme continued when looking at other aspects of their play too, such as their transitions. Here, Connolly has received the ball and it would be easy for her to pass backwards, but she has instead looked forwards and spotted the run of Robinson (out of shot) behind Everton Women’s defensive line and has sent the ball in the England forward’s direction instead.
It wasn’t only a case of playing directly when they were progressing up the field though, as there were plenty of situations when Brighton put together sequences of shorter passes and played through the thirds too, and their 76.1% passing accuracy shows how that was just as effective at creating opportunities further up the pitch.
However, what became clear as the season went on was that the players could switch between the two and again had a greater belief in their individual decision-making, and the fact that 55.1% of their counterattacks ended in a shot on goal (this one led to a goal for Robinson) showed that, again, getting these basic elements right led to them being more productive in forward areas and sealing their place in the WSL next season.
It wasn’t only about simplifying everything though, because Phillips did also introduce a few new ideas to Brighton’s play as she started to put her own stamp on things. As mentioned earlier in the scout report, one of those was her desire to see them push forward and play more on the front foot, and there were certainly a lot more forward passes and runs into advanced spaces after her arrival than there had been prior to it.
However, this was not just something that the attackers were tasked with implementing because Phillips wanted it to be a team mentality and so encouraged others to join the attacks too. It was therefore common to see the centre-backs playing out from the back and the full-backs getting into the final third, and that really helped to increase Brighton’s overall offensive presence.
This was always likely to be something that Phillips would try to change at Brighton, with it being such a major feature of her tactics at London City, but what made it a fairly seamless alteration was the fact that Brighton already had attacking full-backs on their books, with both on-loan Chelsea Women defender Jorja Fox and former Everton player Poppy Pattinson both tending to push forward during matches.
However, there was another reason that Phillips wanted them to get up the wings as she also wanted to free up the wingers to make more inverted runs and to join those in the middle, again increasing the numbers inside the goal area and giving Brighton a better chance of converting their opportunities. Robinson had already been a key goal threat for most of the season, but that ability to move infield really helped Greece forward Veatriki Sarri to end the season in relatively good form, with her being able to utilise her speed and to offer the goal threat that she demonstrated on plenty of occasions for former clubs Birmingham City Women and Sheffield United Women.
Given that Brighton ended the season with an average of 1.59 goals scored per game, it was clear that changes like this had a really positive effect on the way that their season concluded.
However, whilst Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s attack only required a few tweaks, their defence will be a much longer project for Phillips, because the amount of things that let them down last season means that it will require a longer period of time on the training ground in order to make them more watertight and to improve on their league-high 63 goals shipped (an average of 2.41 per game) during 2022/23.
The key mantra when analysing their attacking play was to keep things simple, and that was something that the defence needed to heed as well, and yet didn’t. Here, against a Tottenham Hotspur Women side that had plenty of pace in their front line, they opted not to clear the ball from their half and instead try to play out from the back. However, they took fractionally too long and invited pressure from Tottenham’s Jessica Naz and Beth England, who got tight to New Zealand defender Rebekah Stott and Sweden’s Emma Kullberg here and forced the ball to be dislodged, allowing Kit Graham to shoot at goal.
Whilst the effort went wide of the goal on this occasion, it shouldn’t have come about and only did because of the way that Brighton’s desire to keep the ball on the ground and try to play through their opponents. Their bravery should be praised, but they do need to recognise when it is the right time to do so and when they simply need to relieve pressure and get the ball as far away from their goal area as possible because not doing so could lead to more easy goals being given away.
The reason that they can’t afford to concede possession in these circumstances is that it allows opponents to probe their defensive line, and that has often led to them crumbling far too easily. Here, Leicester City Women’s Wales forward Hannah Cain has taken the ball up to the goal line before delivering it into the middle, and, with three Brighton players in the vicinity of where it initially lands, it should be the case that the attack is brought to a swift end.
However, it actually evaded all three and bounced into the path of fellow Wales forward Carrie Jones, who was then in a point-blank position to shoot at goal. Again, Brighton were let off here by the effort not finding its way into the back of the net, but these are undoubtedly the scenarios that they need to do better in, and that is what they need to look at ahead of next season.
The most frustrating thing for those watching from the sidelines is that it comes down to a lack of organisation at times, and so finding a shape that is solid and prevents goals from being conceded so easily is definitely something that Phillips will have on her to-do list this summer.
In this case, Leicester are trying to score a late second goal and have again taken the ball up to the goal line, with Molly Pike this time in possession. The now-departed Williams has moved out to close her down, but she needs support from those behind her in order to prevent the ball from travelling into the middle.
However, the three players closest to the goal (Pattinson, Zoe Morse and Guro Bergsvand) don’t react quickly enough and instead, leave a vast amount of space open between them for Shannon O’Brien to run into. As with the previous effort, Brighton were let off due to O’Brien firing narrowly wide, but the fact that she was given the opportunity in the first place and was allowed to run into the area between them undeterred is the worrying thing.
So far, this analysis has largely been a reflection on Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s final games of the 2022/23 season, with the intention of providing a basic idea of their strengths and weaknesses and a look at how they could play under Phillips going forwards. However, in order to introduce her own ideas and make the necessary improvements, the former Angel City assistant coach will need to bring in the right players to fit her vision, so the scout report will now focus on some of those players who have departed and will suggest a potential replacement for each one.
The first player to look at is Carter, representing the strikers who are leaving (Green tended to move between positions which is why she was not used as a comparison point). During her two years at the club, it was clear that she was signed to provide a presence at the top of the field that had previously been missing, and that would allow others around her like the South Korean forward Lee Geum-min and Robinson to move around more and both drop deep and push wide, allowing them to play to their own strengths.
This is reflected in her percentile rankings in this graphic, as she is well above the average for every attacking aspect and so it is clear that that is where her strengths lie. However, as well as that, it is worth pointing out that she sits in the top band for the percentage of defensive duels won per game, and that is not something that a striker would necessarily be good at. However, with Brighton tending to press from the front and regain possession as soon as possible once it has been lost, it is likely that this is a reflection on Carter’s role in that aspect of their tactics.
However, with her being 30 years old, Phillips and Brighton perhaps feel that the time is right to add some younger blood to their attacking options, and one player that might be of interest to them is Durham Women’s Saoirse Noonan. The Republic of Ireland forward established herself as a key player for her side during the past season and attracted plenty of positive comments for her performance levels, with her ability to get shots on target and to score from different angles meaning that she offered a goal threat from multiple areas of the field.
Aside from that though, what would make Noonan a really good fit for Brighton is that she is used to working in a unit in the final third, with her playing alongside Rio Hardy and Beth Hepple in attack for Durham, and it is also worth noting that her arrival from Shelbourne Women last summer allowed Hepple to drop back into a deeper role and to create more than score. Therefore, at Brighton, she could work in close proximity to Lee, Robinson and Norway forward Elisabeth Terland without disrupting the rhythm that they have built up, and would also allow them to keep playing in their preferred roles.
In the midfield, Connolly will not be an easy player to replace, with her providing so much for the team, and it was shown in the first section of the analysis how she was instrumental in dictating play and in moving the ball into forward areas during transitions.
She didn’t really specialise in one particular area of the game and was an all-rounder in many respects, and that is why her statistics are all roughly the same in percentile term in this graphic. However, there are a couple of things worth pointing out, such as her percentage of aerial duels won, which shows how she tends to win first balls whenever it enters her vicinity in her direction, and her higher ranking for progressive passes when it comes to the possession-based statistics, again linking back to her importance during Brighton’s transitions.
Any replacement for her will therefore need to be good at manoeuvring the ball around the field and at continuously finding teammates in advanced spaces, and the name that immediately comes to mind is Amy Rodgers, who has been one of the best players in the second tier and who rarely has a poor game. She is well-known to Phillips, who signed her for London City back in 2021 following her departure from Liverpool Women, and she quickly established herself as a key cog in Phillips’ machine and someone that the team couldn’t function without. Therefore, any approach for her services would not be entirely unexpected.
As the graphic shows, progressive passes are her speciality, and a significant number of London City’s attacks started when she played the ball forwards and looked to connect with teammates ahead of her. The fact that a number of her passes originated from deeper areas is also important, as it shows that she could sit in a more defensive role at Brighton if needed and still have the same effect on their play, which would then open up the possibility of adding a creative attacking playmaker to stay ahead of her if Phillips felt that that was also required.
The area that will perhaps be targeted more than most is the central defensive positions, and even more so given Williams’ departure. She has been a key figure in Brighton’s back line for many seasons and has often been the player that has held them together when they have been under pressure from opponents, and the fact that she ranks highly for aerial duels attempted and around the median for those won shows that she is someone who can clear lines and end threats.
However, last season she was deployed in other areas of the field, such as in defensive midfield and at left-back, and it didn’t seem to help her or the team and it was one of the key reasons that they were so leaky at the back. Therefore, there is a need to bring in someone either with experience or who has the ability to lead, as that is what they have lost now that Williams has moved on.
The obvious candidate for that role is Louise Quinn, who has plied her trade at Birmingham for the last two years and opted to stay with them when they were relegated last summer. Since moving from Arsenal Women, she has quickly established herself as a rock at the back for the team, with her aerial presence helping at both ends of the pitch and her leadership meaning that she has the respect of those around her.
As the graphic indicates, she is not too different to Williams, with the only slight difference being that Quinn sits slightly deeper than the now-former Brighton player, but that might help Phillips’ team as they try to be harder to beat, and the fact that they won 63.2% of their defensive duels but only 36.3% of their aerial duels in 2022/23 shows that adding a player who thrives in the air could help them to remedy their defensive issues.
Signing Quinn would not be easy though, because she is a valued player at Birmingham, and the fact that they are expected to challenge for the Championship title next season may lead to her staying and aiding their bid for promotion back to the WSL. However, if Brighton did decide to pursue her signature, she would tick a lot of boxes for them and would be an important building block, even if just in the short term, as they try to prepare the squad for the coming campaign.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at Brighton and Hove Albion Women, with a deep dive into their attacking and defensive play to find some of the basic principles of their play under Phillips, and then switching to find potential transfer targets who could fit into their style and who could help them to finally start to realise their dream of challenging at the top of the league.
Phillips has stated that rebuilding the club will not be a quick process and that she expects it to take several years to complete, but what last season showed is that they need to make changes now in order to avoid another relegation scrap. Moving some of their more experienced operators on seems to be a key step in that direction, as they try to develop the squad and bring in fresh faces and new qualities, but it will be important for them to bring in the right players and to build those partnerships quickly in order to produce results.
All in all, though, this will be a very interesting summer for the club, and it will be interesting to see how they are shaping up in a few months’ time.