“Title win is old news”: Why Cliftonville’s strong Premiership start shows that they are looking only to the future – scout report
When Euro 2022 ended, there was an expectation among fans that the women’s game around the country would grow in popularity and quality, and so it has proven when looking at the attendance and attention now afforded to the WSL, the Women’s Championship (English second tier) and the SWPL (Scottish Women’s Premier League) 1 and 2.
However, they are not the only women’s leagues to enjoy in the British Isles, with the Welsh and Northern Irish games providing just as many stories and excitement. Only this season, the Adran Premier division (Wales’ top flight) saw Cardiff City Women crowned champions for the first time in 10 years, whilst Wrexham Women will play in the league next season after matching the men’s team with their own promotion. In Northern Ireland, the Women’s Premiership has this season introduced professional contracts for the first time in its history, as well as expanding to include both Ballymena United Women and Larne Women in its fold after both succeeded in their quest to end the second tier last time out in the top two.
However, whilst it will be interesting to see how they get on, it will also be worth keeping a close eye on the title fight. Last season saw Cliftonville Women end Belfast rivals Glentoran Women’s two-year reign to get their hands on the trophy for the first time, and their defence of it has got off to a very promising start too, with them winning all five games and sitting above Glentoran on goal difference, with them yet to concede a goal.
For manager John McGrady and his players, it is clear that the focus is very much on the present and future, with Northern Ireland winger Kirsty McGuinness going as far as to state that the “title win is old news”, and this tactical analysis will detail how they are building on last season and why that mantra has been the catalyst for their positive start.
What has helped Cliftonville Women to be so successful in the last couple of years is the tactical variety that they show when in possession, and it has become clear that they can win games in different ways and can alternate between styles and tactics almost instantaneously.
Their preference is on long balls, with them constantly trying to catch their opponents out once they win the ball and exploit the gaps behind them before they have had a chance to set their shape up, and it has proven to be a really effective game plan.
The thing that facilitates this way of playing is their starting formation, which has been, on 67% of occasions, a 4-1-4-1. This setup lends itself to teams who want to play long balls, as it allows them to have a deep-lying distributor who can both protect the defence and send balls up the field, whilst also pushing players up the pitch to create numerical overloads. Here, it can be seen how Cliftonville have adopted those ideas, with Toni-Leigh Finnegan dropping back to play in close proximity to the defensive line whilst the rest of the midfield and forward players push into advanced spaces, giving her an array of passing options.
It is a system that provides a lot of benefits, with England playing the same way on their path to the European title last year. For them, it was former Manchester City Women and current Barcelona Femení player Keira Walsh who was given this deeper role, and it was something that she made her own and that led to her teammates trusting her to get on the ball and find them, and it is clear that Cliftonville share those thoughts and have the same trust in whichever player is in these areas, as evidenced by there being no midfielders or forwards moving towards her here as they take up positions inside Mid-Ulster Ladies’ half.
However, Cliftonville are not only a team who play long balls, instead, there is a hybrid flavour to their play, as they like to combine different elements and fuse them together to form their own style.
To explain, Kirsty McGuinness has received a long pass here, but doesn’t instantly control the ball and shoot at goal, as some in her position might do and as some in the stands would expect. Instead, she looks for her sister and fellow Northern Ireland star, Caitlin McGuinness, who is an outright nine for club and country. Once she makes a run into Sion Swifts Ladies’ goal area here, the ball is played into her path along the ground and she is able to test the goalkeeper, which, more often than not, leads to the net bulging.
The other thing to mention here is the importance of the wingers in making this possible, because they are the primary, though not the sole, outlets for the team to find when they are looking to make those initial long passes. As a result, the striker, who might be the target player in other teams, is given time to assess the situation and to time their run to have the greatest effect possible, and it is not hard to see when looking at Caitlin McGuinness’ numbers (19 goals in 2022, six already in 2023) that this is another reason for Cliftonville being such a difficult team to keep out.
The fact that they have the ability to both play long and keep the ball on the ground means that they can easily switch between the two when there is a need to do so. Against Mid-Ulster, they did play long a lot of the time, but there were also several examples of them constructing moves in groups of two or three during transitions, as they tried to play through their opponents at speed and access the areas behind.
What leads to a decision in either direction is the setup of the opponents, because if they are already set up in their shape and are ready to win an aerial pass and push Cliftonville back, then there isn’t much point playing long as it won’t achieve anything.
Therefore, playing through their lines is the best move to make, and the fact that they have a 76.2% passing accuracy indicates that they are more often than not clean and composed in these situations and rarely give the ball away. In this case, quick one-touch passing from Megan Moran and Louise McDaniel has given Kirsty McGuinness the chance to run into the space behind Mid-Ulster, and it is moments like this that show how they are not a one-dimensional team and can play tactically in different ways.
Another reason that Cliftonville Women’s play has been so noteworthy is their constant rotations and positional switches, with players continually moving into different areas of the field and making it difficult for their opponents to predict where the ball will go next.
Caitlin McGuinness is a prime example of that, with her not simply remaining in the central areas and instead drifting out to the wings a lot of the time in order to get on the ball and show more to her game than simply being a goalscorer.
However, what is particularly important here is that the wingers, sister Kirsty and another Northern Ireland star, Danielle Maxwell, have realised that she is now out of position and so have changed their own roles to become the new focal points, with both moving into the middle to maintain Cliftonville’s central presence. As a result, Caitlin McGuinness is able to turn and pass back into the central channel once she controls the vertical pass and doesn’t need to hold onto the ball for longer than needed, reducing the risk of her being cut off by Sion.
Caitlin McGuinness’ tendency to move around the pitch has enabled Cliftonville to build another tactical detail into their game plan, with them using her as a decoy at times in order to open up spaces in other areas. Here, Kirsty McGuinness has once again moved towards the middle and is looking to release the ball into Sion’s goal area, and Caitlin has instantly moved forwards as if to offer a passing option for her.
However, this is just a ploy, with Caitlin never intending to take the ball and instead seeking to manipulate the Sion defenders and drag them away from Maxwell, who had cut inside to play as a 10 here, and two of the three defenders fell into the trap, whilst one realised what was happening and tried to get across to close Maxwell down.
The trouble was that she didn’t have enough time to prevent the shot from being taken by the Cliftonville winger, and so this again shows how positional rotation has been key to the league’s defending champions keeping their opponents guessing when they have the ball.
Whilst it has been something that they have used a lot in recent years, this season has seen Cliftonville really invest in role rotation as something that can help them take their football to the next level. One player who has looked really dangerous, and yet who doesn’t sometimes get the credit that she deserves, is Kirsty McGuinness, with her often operating on the wings and tasked with running behind defenders and delivering balls into the central areas.
This season though, she has had her role tweaked by McGrady, with him asking her to stay in the middle a little more and to operate as an inside forward or as a creative playmaker. That has led to situations like this, when she has got on the ball and had players outside her, with Marissa Callaghan receiving the ball further up the field and closer to the sideline than the winger.
Again, this indicates how Cliftonville’s players don’t worry about leaving areas behind, because they know that others will move forward to cover them, but it also shows that they are continually adapting their overall style and trying to find new ways to play that will lead to them never getting left behind in the league.
This graphic indicates more clearly the exact change that Kirsty McGuinness has made to her individual game, with her not dropping as far back and playing as narrowly as she did in 2022 and instead staying higher up the field and playing across the field much more, and this is why she has arguably been an even bigger threat this time around than she was last year, with her having more opportunities to test opponents and to find holes in their defensive lines than she did previously.
However, the overall point to make here is again how Cliftonville are always looking to upgrade their style of play and to ensure that they never become too predictable, and it is clear from this that they really are looking to the future and always want to build on what they have already achieved.
As this scout report has made clear, Cliftonville Women’s attacking play is well-constructed and well-executed, and the fact that they are the joint top-scorers in the league with 35 goals (alongside Glentoran) is a testament to their hard work in possession. However, as was mentioned at the beginning of the analysis, McGrady’s team are also yet to concede a goal this season, and that is also something to celebrate and to be looked at in greater detail.
Defending is very much treated as a team game in the Cliftonville squad, with each player expected to play their part once the ball is lost as they look to limit the amount of time their opponents have to move it up the field. This involves pressing from the front and reading the play to spot passes before they are made, both of which are evident here, with Kirsty McGuinness getting tight to the ball and Moran recognising that Sion’s option here is to pass up the field, so she anticipates when the ball will be released and moves to close her opponent down at the right time, bringing the attack to a swift end.
Playing this way looks simple, but, in reality, it is just the opposite, as it only works if players can read the game and have good awareness of not only where the ball is but where the next phase of the attack will come from, and, even then, getting the timing of the run to win back possession is difficult to get right. However, Cliftonville clearly put in the hours on the training ground to ensure that they can execute these moves to perfection, and the fact that they have kept five clean sheets is a just reward for their efforts at this stage of the campaign.
When looking back at their offensive play, it was pointed out that Cliftonville like to flood the opposing half with numbers, and that does include the full-backs too, as their ability to push forwards is why the wingers are allowed to play with the positional freedom that has already been seen.
However, the downside of that is the risk of the defenders being isolated or outnumbered once possession has been conceded, and situations like this indicate that danger. Therefore, it is necessary for the midfielders to drop back and to slow play down until those players who have pushed forward can get back, and that again shows how Cliftonville work hard as a team to make themselves as robust and secure as possible.
In this case, McDaniel has tracked back to head the ball clear, with Sion trying to find a way into the spaces behind Cliftonville’s back line, and that does the job as it prevents Sion from shooting at goal despite them having the obvious advantage here. It again comes back to them being adaptable and having different ideas in their minds at the same time, and that is definitely something that has helped them over the last couple of years.
There are several players who should be given a mention, but one who stands out time and time again for the team is Fionnula Morgan, with her rarely having a bad game and seen by many as a star of the future of Northern Irish women’s football.
At the age of just 19, she is very much a modern centre-back, in that she offers a consistent set-piece threat at the top of the field, having scored five goals last season and having already matched that tally this time around (including a hat-trick in this game against Derry City Women), but can also work hard out of possession too, with her succeeding in 63.2% of her aerial battles and 58.3% of her defensive duels so far in 2023.
In this situation, she has read the game really well, with Derry closing in on breaking into Cliftonville’s goal area and the trio of Yasmin White, Kelsie Burrows and Abbie Magee all tracking back. However, Morgan is the one who is marshalling their effort due to her having the clearest view of what is happening, and it is evident from her aforementioned statistics that she is someone that her team can rely on in these situations, and she is undoubtedly one to watch as the season continues to progress.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at Cliftonville Women, providing an insight into their interchangeable tactics and style of play this season, not only showing what they do well as a whole but also highlighting the tweaks that manager John McGrady has made as he seeks to keep his team developing and improving as they try to retain their Premiership title.
It is clear to anyone who has watched the Premiership over the last years that that task will not be easy, with there being some really strong sides in the division who will do their utmost to prise Cliftonville’s hands off the trophy. Glentoran are the closest challengers, and the fact that they added the likes of former Rangers left-back Demi Vance and sealed return moves for strikers Emily Wilson from Crusaders Strikers and Kerry Beattie from Glasgow City over the close season indicates their intent. As well as them though, Sion have started well, whilst Linfield Ladies and Crusaders can never be counted out to pick up points when needed.
However, Cliftonville will back themselves all the way, with them believing in what they are doing and knowing that there will be plenty to enjoy this year, including a maiden Champions League campaign, a new All-Ireland tournament, which will take place over the next couple of months, and the attention now being given to growing the league and increasing interest in it.
It is worth mentioning that Cliftonville and Glentoran have yet to meet this season (they first clash in early June), and, until they do, there will not be any clear ideas about who is more likely to lift the secure the league title. However, for now, Cliftonville will know that they simply need to keep their heads down and focus on their own game, and, if they continue to keep plugging away, then a second consecutive Premiership title really would not be beyond them.