Bristol City Women: Why their fans can have hope of a future WSL return – tactical analysis
The Women’s Championship may have been a mostly one-sided contest this season, with Liverpool Women currently 10 points clear and without a loss since the opening day of the season, but there are plenty of other teams positioning themselves for a title challenge next season, and Bristol City Women are one of them. Following their relegation from the WSL last season, they appointed former Tottenham Hotspur Women assistant Lauren Smith as Tanya Oxtoby’s replacement, following the Australian’s decision to permanently step down after spending the second half of the season on maternity leave.
The changes made by Smith have been noticeable, especially in attack, where a new style of play has helped the team to cause more problems for their opponents. This tactical analysis will look in closer detail at their wing play, their ability to get numbers into attacking positions and how their players don’t have fixed roles during matches, all whilst highlighting the differences between this season and the previous one.
Increasing attacking numbers
The biggest difference in Bristol City Women’s play is that they have begun to move more players into advanced positions when in possession, and this increase in options has seen them become the second-highest scorers in the second tier. However, this has not come through a change in formation, as their preferred setup is still a 4-1-4-1.
Instead, they have manipulated that setup so that the four players behind the striker don’t sit behind and form a protective line; they move up the pitch, as this image shows, supporting the striker and offering plenty of passing options in front of the ball. This gives Bristol a better chance of keeping their attack going, as it is harder for Crystal Palace Women, in this case, to successfully close down all five players. It also ensures that there are a range of passing options for the ball to go to, meaning that the player currently in possession can pick the right pass at the right time.
The impact on Crystal Palace is that they can’t predict where the ball will go as easily, and this is a big difference to last year, when Ebony Salmon tended to lead the line during most games and was Bristol’s target player in the attacking third. However, she left the club for NWSL strugglers Racing Louisville last summer, and Smith saw this as a chance to change her team’s tactics in the final third. As a result of her alterations, their goals per game value has risen to 1.74 from 1.14, so they do now carry a bigger goalscoring threat.
As well as creating more chances, this numerical overload has also forced opposing teams to think again about how to defend against them. In this situation, Blackburn Rovers Ladies have opted to stay narrow, leaving space open on the wings, and Bristol used the wide channels last season to move the ball behind opposing defences. However, they didn’t tend to have two players in the channels at the same time, as is the case here, and this makes it harder for Blackburn to defend against them. They now have a tough decision to make, as staying narrow would leave the wide players open to receive the ball, whilst spreading out would leave gaps open for Bristol to exploit through the middle.
In the end, they are too narrow, leaving room for Scotland striker Abi Harrison, Bristol’s 14-goal leading scorer this season, to run behind them from her central position once she receives the ball. However, rather than simply running towards the goal, Harrison is clever. She knows that Blackburn’s three defenders could work together to create a 3-v-1 against her, so she instead runs diagonally, as the yellow arrow shows, taking the Blackburn defenders with her. This creates space in the middle for other Bristol players to come in and give Harrison a passing option in the middle.
Harrison’s individual intelligence is the key point here, but she would have not have been able to turn this run into a shot on goal without the support from those behind her, so we again come back to the fact that Bristol’s added numbers in the final third have helped them to be a better attacking side.
Bristol also have the ability to set traps for their opponents, positioning themselves in a way that dictates where the defenders play the ball. Here, Lewes Women’s Izzy Dalton is trying to find a teammate ahead of her, but she is being closed down by Bristol’s Melissa Johnson. The former Aston Villa Women striker’s intention is not to win the ball here, but to limit Dalton’s options and force her to move the ball inside the pitch, where Bristol have numbers waiting. As a result, when Dalton does release the ball in this direction, Bristol pounce and win possession in a dangerous area. Again, this is not something we saw too many times from them last season, due to their lack of numbers, so winning the ball higher up the pitch is another reason that Bristol’s increased numbers has been a positive for them.
As mentioned, using the wings was a feature of Bristol City Women’s play last season under Oxtoby and stand-in coach Matt Beard, and it is something that Lauren Smith has encouraged her side to keep doing. It is a regular sight during their games to see the two full-backs high up the pitch and supporting attacks, and this further ensures that they can be as productive as possible in the final third.
Here, the ball is close to the nearside wing, with Wales international Ella Powell, who has tended to play at right-back this season, in possession. The movement of the forward ahead of her is the key thing to look at here, as her run away from the goal has drawn some of the defenders out of Powell’s way, creating space for her to play the ball through.
The reason that Bristol have pushed both of their full-backs higher up the pitch this season is because they haven’t tended to play with traditional wingers. Instead, their forwards drift into different areas of the pitch as necessary, so it is the strikers who sometimes end up in the wide channels, and crossing is not necessarily their strength. Last season, many of their attacks broke down through poor deliveries from the wings, and their crossing accuracy was a disappointing 28.7%.
Therefore, whilst Smith wanted more free movement in the final third, she also needed players who could consistently transfer balls into the box, and tasking the full-backs with this responsibility was how she went about fixing this problem. As their accuracy has increased to 31.8% this season, the change has evidently led to some improvement.
Another advantage of having attacking full-backs is that the forwards don’t become as easily isolated, meaning that there is less risk of them losing the ball. This is because, when defenders do close them down, there is always an option close by to enable the team to keep the ball and maintain their attacking presence. This means that Bristol’s attacks haven’t broken down as easily, leading to more efforts on goal.
One of Bristol’s biggest problems during the last campaign was that they didn’t get players into the box quickly enough, resulting in their attacking play often being slow and laboured. Therefore, having two players in close proximity to each other means that, if they can’t get players into the goal area, they can be patient and move the ball around the pitch until there is someone available for them to find. With their increased numbers, they do manage to position attackers inside the box on most occasions, but there are a few times that they haven’t been able to, due to limited spaces, so good wing play has been important in enabling them to hold onto the ball when required.
Having a good control of the wings is just as important when opposing teams look to win the ball back in these areas, as is the case here, with Blackburn coming out to close them down. However, because Bristol’s players have a good knowledge of each other’s games, they can work their way through this press and take advantage of the space left open behind before an interception can be made. On this occasion, it is another of their Welsh players, Gwen Davies, who is in the space behind, but her cross doesn’t lead to anything. However, this situation does demonstrate that having control of the wings is important in modern football, and Bristol have used that to good effect in their attacking play this season.
The final aspect of their play that needs looking at in this scout report is how their players move around the pitch and don’t stay in the same position. We have already mentioned that this is something Lauren Smith has introduced this season, and it has been a big factor in their play having more flow and effortlessness.
In this example, the ball is deep inside Bristol City Women’s half, and there is no need for all of their attackers to be high up the pitch. Therefore, whilst Harrison remains around the halfway line and occupies the Crystal Palace defenders, the others drop back to provide a link between the attack and defence. This is in preparation for when Bristol look to move the ball forwards, as they have tended to play through the thirds more this season, which requires players to offer shorter passing options and give the team a way of passing the ball up the pitch as quickly as possible.
Had these two attackers not dropped back here, Crystal Palace would have had a chance to cut off any attempted pass from the Bristol defenders, which shows how important it has been to have attackers creating these shorter passing options. Since they have had this style of play, opposing teams have generally found it harder to take the ball off them, as indicated by their rise in average possession per game from 39.63% to 50.57%. Therefore, enabling players to move around and take up different roles when in and out of possession has been critical to Bristol’s ability to build from the back, leading to more chances being created in the final third.
There has also been an emphasis on attacking as a team this season, and a couple of players have stood out in this regard. One is Davies, who was arguably the best player on the field against Crystal Palace, constantly finding spaces and providing the creative edge that has helped Bristol thrive. Here, Bristol’s four main attackers have spread out and looked to cover as much of the pitch as possible, with Davies in a slightly withdrawn role, behind the main forward line. However, this is where she was dangerous, as she was constantly making clever movements and seeing how she could influence proceedings, and Crystal Palace struggled to deal with her throughout the game as a result.
Another player who has had a big impact this season is Chelsea Women loanee Aggie Beever-Jones, who has mainly operated in a forward role for Bristol. However, the reason that she suits the way Lauren Smith wants to play is because she fits the profile of not having a fixed position during games. Here, she has dropped back to receive a pass from Powell, helping her team to keep possession under pressure from Crystal Palace by allowing the ball to travel over a shorter distance.
We have already mentioned that Bristol’s focus this season is keeping the ball on the ground, and their increase in passing accuracy of 2% has come through players like Beever-Jones dropping into holes and positively affecting play, whilst she has also been known to run ahead and work with Harrison to create and score goals. She therefore has the versatility that Bristol depend on, which is why she has become one of the key architects of their good form this season.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the differences and improvements in Bristol City Women’s attack since their relegation from the WSL last season. We have identified and dissected several areas of their play and made comparisons between this season and the last one, showing why key individuals have allowed them to play with an added freedom and effortlessness.
It is becoming increasingly unlikely that anyone will catch Liverpool this season, but, given what has been said in this analysis, Bristol fans can expect their team to mount a genuine promotion charge in the near future, maybe even in 2022/2023. There are exciting times ahead for the club, and, after a disappointing campaign last time out, the level of their performances is much better and they are on track to make a fairly quick return to the top flight.