“A step up in quality”: Why struggling Leicester City could still survive WSL relegation – tactical analysis
Last season, Leicester City Women took the Women’s Championship by storm, winning the second division by eight points and sealing promotion to the WSL for the first time in their history. However, their debut season in the top flight has so far been a struggle, as they have yet to pick up a point and sit rock bottom of the league, all of which led to the departure of head coach Jonathan Morgan last week, following seven years in charge. On Tuesday, his replacement was announced as England youth coach Lydia Bedford, who will officially take over on 6 December for at least the rest of the season.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at Leicester’s attacking and defensive play, focusing on where they have gone wrong this season on the field, and where Bedford can improve them. The scout report will also highlight the noticeable positives in their more recent performances, which have no doubt given the club encouragement that they can survive relegation and stay in the WSL for at least one more campaign.
We will first focus on Leicester City Women’s attack, and the good news is that there is no need to make drastic changes. In fact, as this section of the analysis will demonstrate, most of their problems can be fixed by tweaking their tactics here and there, helping them to be more productive in the final third.
The first major problem to address is their formation, as this was a major factor in their slow start. Last season, Natasha Flint scored 17 goals and finished as the Championship’s highest scorer, but she has not enjoyed the same influence on proceedings for the team during this campaign, because summer signing Jessica Sigsworth, who joined from Manchester United Women, has looked to be Leicester’s main target player so far.
As Leicester have played mostly with a 4-4-2 (39% of the time) or a 5-4-1 (22% of the time), Sigsworth has either been deployed on her own or partnered with a wide forward, usually Lachante Paul or Paige Bailey-Gayle. When on her own, she was often left isolated, with this image demonstrating how Flint and ex-Everton Women midfielder Molly Pike are positioned a long way behind her. As a result, when the ball comes into the box here, West Ham United Women’s defenders can clear the ball with ease, using their numerical advantage.
This comes down to the players and coaches having the confidence to push players into dangerous positions, offering more support for each other in the final third. This will give them a better chance of turning these situations into goals and eventually victories.
This lack of confidence is highlighted here too, with Shannon O’Brien, in the blue circle, looking to play the ball into a teammate. Pike can receive a short ball here and then pass between the two West Ham defenders ahead of her, allowing Flint to run onto the ball in the space behind, but O’Brien doesn’t see this option and instead waits for left-back Jemma Purfield to run down the left wing before releasing the ball. However, this allows West Ham to get back and close off the spaces that were previously available, meaning that Leicester have lost their momentum, and their eventual shot is taken from well outside the box and misses the target.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as we all know, but this looked like a big opportunity for Leicester to find a way through their opponents’ back line, which they didn’t take. Given the fact that they have generally not taken shots as early as they could have done, it is not too surprising that they have only got 34.9% of their total efforts on target in all competitions this season, whilst just 32.9% of their counterattacks have ended in an effort on goal. Therefore, having more confidence and awareness in these situations is something Leicester can improve on, which will again help them to carry a greater threat in the final third.
Their attacking problems have also been the result of a lack of composure around the opposing goal area. Here, Leicester have plenty of players in the middle, all ready to receive the ball, but Charlie Devlin’s cross is hit too hard and goes over all of them, giving Tottenham Hotspur Women a goal kick. Devlin has been one of Leicester’s key players in recent seasons, and is an attacking midfielder who provides a spark when needed, as proven by the difference she made to Leicester’s second half performance against Manchester United in their second game of the season. However, she is another who has yet to show what she can do in the top flight.
Leicester clearly have the ability to get into threatening areas of the pitch, but they have either lost their confidence or got caught in two minds when in open space on the wings, both of which have led to a crossing accuracy of just 39.8% this season, so this is something else that the new coaching team can work on in training. It should be noted that Jonathan Morgan altered their starting formation following the first few matches, playing Flint and Sigsworth together at the top of the field, but one of Lydia Bedford’s biggest challenges now is to ensure that that tactical change starts to produce goals, as this will give the rest of the team more confidence that their hard work is being rewarded.
Leicester City Women’s defence has been their biggest problem this season, having conceded 19 times in eight league games (the WSL’s second-worst defensive record this season, ahead of only fellow strugglers Birmingham City Women, who have let in 21). Therefore, the majority of their efforts need to be focused on making the team harder to beat, as this will help them to take points from games where they are struggling to create much in attack.
They have at times lacked intensity and a desire to win possession when their opponents have the ball, with Jonathan Morgan preferring his players to sit back and protect the goal during most games. This is proven by their average possession per game being just 38.67%. However, there are some teams that can’t be allowed to dominate games, such as Manchester City Women. There is no doubting that the injury crisis endured by Gareth Taylor’s side has affected their season, but they are still a good team with dangerous players, so their opponents need to be constantly wary of them.
Here, England midfielder Keira Walsh has the ball in the middle of the pitch, with none of the Leicester players in her proximity closing her down. As a result, Walsh has time to control the ball, get her head up and find a teammate higher up the pitch, breaking through the Leicester lines far too easily. This was a constant in this game, and shows how Leicester’s tactics have sometimes been their own worst enemy.
Giving opponents time to dictate play like this also allows them to get their defenders involved in Leicester’s half, as was another key feature of this match. Normally, Jill Scott and Alex Greenwood, who have stood in as centre-backs for Manchester City this season, would need to stay further back, but their ability to come up the pitch meant that the full-backs could get further forward too. England left-back Demi Stokes, in the yellow circle, has positioned herself around the Leicester goal area here, and the knock-on effect of this is that fellow England international Lauren Hemp can play in the half-spaces, which is where Manchester City are dangerous.
Therefore, whilst sitting back can be an effective way of playing, it has generally not benefitted Leicester, and has allowed their opponents to open them up and play to their strengths on too many occasions. In order to be a better defensive side, Leicester need to be more aggressive in trying to win the ball, as this particular game could have been a different story with more urgency in their play, with Manchester City forced to play quicker passes and potentially make more mistakes.
Another thing we have noticed is a lack of organisation and communication at the back. This image shows Leicester’s narrow defensive setup against Manchester City, again allowing Hemp, who was arguably Manchester City’s best player on the day, to position herself in open space and run at goal after receiving the ball from another England player, Georgia Stanway.
The simple fact is that Leicester could have done better here. Defenders are coached to never show their numbers to opponents behind them, as it makes it harder for them to turn and move when the ball is passed. However, Leicester’s Scotland defender Sophie Howard, in the blue circle, has shown her back to Hemp here, meaning that she can’t match the winger’s speed once she receives the ball.
This split-second lost by Leicester allows Hemp to score Manchester City’s third goal of the game, and their fourth from midfielder Laura Coombs came from a similar situation and area of the pitch. These are fine details to pick out, but football is a game of small details, and fixing them can make a lot of difference.
However, whilst the majority of points raised in this scout report have been negative, there have also been some positive signs in their more recent games, which will give Lydia Bedford plenty of encouragement that Leicester City Women can avoid an immediate return to the Championship.
The meeting with Durham Women, who were the team Leicester beat to the Championship title last season, was an opportunity for the WSL newcomers to demonstrate how far they had come since their promotion. Whilst we know that they still have improvements to make, they did control this game and play with the creativity and freedom that we know they possess. At the back, they looked organised and strong, with another former Manchester United player, centre-back Abbie McManus, getting tight to Durham midfielder Emily Roberts here, preventing her from getting into the space behind them. Leicester have won 58.5% of their defensive duels this season, so this is something that has improved, and will continue to get better.
This defensive quality was important against Durham, as they have some of the best attackers in the Championship, including striker Beth Hepple, who has scored four and assisted three in 10 league games this season. Leicester’s newfound defensive quality was also noticeable in their most recent league game too, as they continually frustrated Jean-Luc Vasseur’s Everton and looked certain to earn a first point of the season until an unfortunate mistake in the last ten minutes. This improved play has led to the whole team putting on better displays, and this strength at the back needs to be present in every game now, as it will be a key factor in deciding whether they stay up or suffer relegation.
In attack, they have looked more adventurous, and Molly Pike in particular has made more runs forward from midfield, providing Leicester with passing options and an increased presence in the opposing goal area. If we compare this image to the one shown at the start of the analysis, when only Jessica Sigsworth was in the box, then we can see the difference that players like Pike, who is an attack-minded midfielder, can make when allowed to advance into these areas. With Natasha Flint drifting out to the wing quite a lot, Leicester have needed a player to fill the gaps left open in the middle, and Pike has taken that role.
The underlying point here is that Leicester’s freer formation has given them more creativity, which we saw them display during their promotion-winning campaign, and which they now need to rediscover in the WSL. Again, we have seen elements of this coming through into their performances in their recent games, and making the most of it will be just as important as having a strong defence in deciding their end-of-season fate.
Left-back Jemma Purfield has been a key part of Leicester’s revival in recent games, making plenty of attacking runs and putting balls into the box for the attackers to get on the end of. We have come to expect this from her, as it is a quality she showed at both Liverpool Women and Bristol City Women, her previous two clubs, and so she will be important in Leicester creating more chances in the final third. With her getting up the field, Leicester can bring more players inside the pitch, outnumbering their opponents and giving players like Purfield more targets to aim for.
Whilst this is a positive in itself, they then need to ensure that their crossing is more accurate, as we have already highlighted that this has been a problem for them. However, with more confidence in the team, there is a good chance that this will also improve in the coming games.
In conclusion, Leicester City Women have had plenty of problems this season on the pitch, and their current league position is a reflection of their poor defensive organisation and lack of potency in the final third up to this point. However, most felt that the departure of Jonathan Morgan was not justified, because their recent performances have suggested that they might be turning a corner and be starting to settle into the division, which has undoubtedly been a step up in quality for them. As this analysis has suggested, the new coaching team’s task is not as big as first thought, with them only needing to work on the finer details at both ends of the pitch to start getting results.
Leicester may be bottom of the WSL at time of writing, but they will continue to fight for each game and won’t accept defeat until it is mathematically impossible for them to retain their place at English women’s football’s top table.