“A truly momentous achievement”: Why an adaptable game plan has helped Montrose secure SWPL 1 promotion – scout report
When Craig Feroz took charge of Montrose Women, he found a team in a mess, with them not being affiliated with the men’s side of the club in any way and having to pay for use of the training ground. He had also never coached in the women’s game, and so was undergoing something that he had yet to fully experience.
Tasked with building a squad that could achieve promotion to the second tier of the Scottish women’s football pyramid, he quickly got to work, and earnt plenty of plaudits when he managed to secure a jump into the SWPL 2 last summer. Not many expected them to repeat the feat and seal a second successive promotion, with only Aberdeen Women achieving that feat, and yet that is exactly what Montrose have done, with them mathematically ensuring a place in next season’s SWPL 1 campaign at the weekend, allowing them to finally look forward to league clashes with the likes of Glasgow City, Celtic Women and Rangers Women.
There have been plenty of off-field improvements for the women’s team during Feroz’s time at the club, such as greater financial backing and the decision to make the men’s stadium, Links Park, their permanent home ground, and all have contributed to their success.
On the field, Feroz has worked hard to implement a game plan that allows his players to express themselves, with it including some structured elements but mainly relying on individual quality and the ability of those on the field to adapt to different surroundings, and this tactical analysis will look at that side of things in order to highlight why the club have achieved something that, until very recently, they thought was impossible.
Final third play
In an interview with The Herald back in February, before a Scottish Women’s Cup fifth-round tie at Motherwell Women, Feroz stated that he felt his side’s attacking nature made them the best team in the SWPL 2, and, whilst it might have been a bold statement for him to make, results and performances have proved him right as the campaign has gone on.
One of the things that really stands out is that Montrose never rush when they have the ball, with each individual pass being carefully planned and them never giving their opponents a chance to clear their lines.
This situation illustrates that perfectly, with the ball travelling towards forward London Pollard, as the blue circle illustrates, whilst both Flora Bruce and Stacey McFadyen are moving ahead to take up positions amongst the East Fife Women defence in order to provide the next passing option for her. By doing so, they now make Pollard’s decision very simple and ensure that the team can keep hold of the ball more ably, with a risky cross into the middle not being attempted and a series of shorter diagonal passes instead being used to progress the ball into the goal area.
Many in Pollard’s position would have crossed the ball in, but this gives the opposing side an opportunity to clear their lines and end the attack, and that is not what Montrose want here. Therefore, in order to keep the pressure on their opponents and to constantly probe their defensive line to find any weak points, it is common to see them construct these sequences when inside the final third, and it has become a key feature of their overall game plan and something that has provided them with a great deal of success.
Another important aspect in Montrose’s attacking play is the desire to constantly think about the next phase of each move, with the midfielders in particular never resting and allowing the forwards to work their magic and instead moving into position to offer support if needed and to prevent any attempted clearances from gaining too much territory.
This situation was a clear example of that, with Montrose’s Holly Daniel sending the ball into the path of Charlotte Gammie and allowing her to run behind the East Fife players, as she likes to do, but the rest of the team instantly turned their thought processes towards giving her passing options and trying to regain the ball as high up the field as possible should it be lost.
The result was that, when Gammie conceded possession whilst under pressure from Mirren Lumsden and Nicola Wallace tried to clear her lines, Eilidh Reid was able to win the ball inside East Fife’s third and keep the attack alive, and, when considering this, it is not difficult to see why Montrose have averaged 3.25 goals per game this season, with them rarely letting chances go to waste.
It is not all about structure though, and a large part of Montrose’s attacking potency is the result of them relying on instinct when they do get into promising areas. In this case, the ball has been played into the path of forward Aimee Ridgeway, and she has looked up and noticed that St Johnstone Women goalkeeper Rebecca Cameron has come off her line, and so sends the ball towards the goal and tries to catch the stopper out. With Cameron on the back foot, the ball did find the back of the net, but it only came because Ridgeway had the confidence to test her opponents and didn’t hold onto the ball.
Therefore, even though Feroz wants to have several key tactical ideas implemented into his game plan, he does also give his players the freedom to make their own decisions, and that is another reason for them playing with so much confidence around the field and consistently making the most of their opportunities.
That ability to choose between options has been particularly important in Montrose Women’s transitions, with this being one area where any team in any league around the world needs to be adaptable in order to use the ball in the best possible way.
More often than not, Montrose have opted to keep the ball on the ground and to play through the thirds, with them once again deploying the quick passes highlighted in the previous section of the analysis. However, in order for that to work, they have needed players in the central third who are comfortable on the ball and who can make quick decisions.
Louise Brown has been one player who has facilitated that, with her becoming a player that her team have constantly looked to involve whenever they move the ball up the field. Here, she has received the ball and has instantly spotted the positioning of Gammie, who is the side’s top scorer this season, with the forward indicating that she wants the ball to be played through to her in order to give her a chance to run into the space behind the St Johnstone defensive line and get a shot away at goal.
As is the case with the majority of the Montrose squad, Brown is not one to hang onto the ball longer than she needs to, and so makes the pass without hesitating and gives Gammie an opportunity to test the goalkeeper. On this occasion, she is thwarted through St Johnstone getting back to prevent her from transferring the ball into the box, but the thought and accuracy was there from Brown to create the opportunity, and that is the key here.
The adaptability element comes in when it is not possible to play through the thirds, with some teams opting to sit back in a low block and to keep as much distance between the ball and the goal as possible. On those occasions, longer passes are required, and, again, it is Brown who tends to make those decisions and to deliver the ball into areas where her teammates can create problems for their opponents.
On this occasion, she identifies the positioning of Pollard on the shoulder of the East Fife line and sends an aerial pass in her direction, as the blue arrow shows, and the fact that Montrose have a 61.5% passing accuracy and have converted 33.3% of their counterattacks into shots on goal demonstrates that, regardless of what is happening around them, they do tend to find a way of testing their opponents.
That ability to switch between being direct and keeping the ball on the ground is why Brown is a player that Feroz rates highly, with him stating when she joined Montrose that he had wanted to sign her for seasons and had been monitoring her progress closely. Given the variety of her play, this is not a surprise, and this graphic provides a clear indication of what she can give her team on the field.
What immediately stands out is the number of progressive passes that she has made, but also the different distances of them, with some travelling from Montrose’s half into the goal area, and that shows just how influential Brown has been in her side’s attacking play this season. There are other players who have contributed, with their high passing accuracy a clear indication of how each player has played their part in their success, but, as this section of the scout report has demonstrated, Brown is someone that they would struggle to play the same way without.
However, whilst the attacking side of things is very promising, Montrose Women’s play out of possession has looked very suspect at times, and, when looking at some of the mistakes that they have made across the course of the season, it is not hard to see why they have let in 25 goals in their 24 league games so far.
What must frustrate Feroz and the fans is that, when they set up at the back between the ball and the goal, Montrose do have a good basic defensive structure, with their back four evenly spaced out and the gaps between them manageable should the attacking side look to exploit them.
The result of that is that the players on the outside are allowed to move out and challenge any opponent who has the ball, with Gartcairn Women trying to find a way into Montrose’s goal area here by attacking up the nearside wing. However, because there is this structure in place, left-back Megan Burns has been able to come across and close Sarah Wardlaw down, knowing that she has support from those behind her and any spaces that are now opened up will be protected.
It is common to see Montrose’s full-backs closing the ball down in this way, and it is one reason that they like to deploy attack-minded players in those positions. In this case, Queen’s Park Women forward Nicole Cairney has been met by Erin Ross, who is trying to slow her progress down.
However, the key point here is not Ross’ speed of thought, but that centre-back Georgia Carter has shifted across to close the gap behind her teammate, as the yellow arrow shows, and that comes back to the previous point about players continually working together and readjusting their positions in order to make themselves as difficult to break down as possible.
This might be seen as a risky way to defend by some, but it is something that all football coaches encourage their players to do when in these situations, with it providing layers around the ball and ensuring that, should the ball make it past the first defender, there is someone else ready to engage it. Montrose have won 71% of their defensive duels throughout this season, and, when looking at how they work together to stop opponents from testing them on too many occasions, it is not difficult to see why.
However, the point still remains that Montrose have leaked an average of 0.96 goals per game this season, and that shows that there are issues with their ability to keep the ball out of the back of their net.
The reason that they are so leaky is because it is not only the full-backs who come out to close the ball down. Instead, the centre-backs do too, and that leaves gaps open in the defensive line that can’t be as easily plugged. It also means that there is more pressure to win the first ball, and yet Montrose have on a number of occasions either misconnected with it or have failed to meet it at all.
On this occasion, Haley Kern has misjudged the flight of the ball and so has headed the ball behind her rather than up the field, which catches Burns out and immediately allows Boroughmuir Thistle duo Sydney Hinchcliffee and Eilidh Begg to move forward and create a 2-v-1, with the result being that the ball ends up in the back of Montrose’s net. It was an avoidable goal, and these are the types of things that Montrose cannot afford when they do start to compete in the top tier next season.
Potential summer recruitment
If Montrose Women are to survive an immediate return to the second tier, then they will need to recruit well in the summer in order to develop the squad in the right way.
In goal, it might be handy to add competition for Beth Mowatt, who has been their main stopper this season, and one player that might be worth looking at is Glasgow Women’s Molle Reeve. Even with her side struggling this season and yet to pick up a single point, she has stood out as someone who can make good saves and can frustrate opponents, even if only for short periods of games. With a better defence in front of her, she might not be a bad player to have in the squad.
In central defence, they could look for experience, and a player who joined Glasgow City last summer from Liverpool Women, but who has not had as much game time as she might have liked, is New Zealand international Meikayla Moore. The SWPL 1 leaders might choose to loan her out next season to gain minutes, and that might work in Montrose’s favour if they did choose to shore up a porous defence.
At full-back, another player with top-flight experience is Lucy Parry, who has spent the season on loan at Hibernian Women from Liverpool. Highly regarded by many, she has demonstrated an ability to support attacks, deliver accurate balls into central positions and to move back and do her defensive duties, and that would fit with Montrose’s attacking full-back profile.
In midfield, they will need someone who can lead and who can adapt to different styles of play, and one name that immediately springs to mind is former Bristol City Women and Manchester United Women midfielder Aimee Palmer. Previously, she might not have been interested in a move to Montrose, but now that they will be playing in the SWPL 1, she might be tempted, having recently left Bristol following their promotion to the WSL. Her leadership and ball distribution skills could prove useful as Montrose look to build for the new season, and it would not be a surprise to see Feroz move for her in the summer.
Finally, in attack, Feroz might look to add another goalscorer to his side, and one who might become available should her side exit the SWPL 1 is Hamilton Academical Women’s German striker Josephine Giard. She has not been the most prolific in front of goal, but she does ask questions of goalkeepers and likes to make runs beyond opposing defensive lines, so would be another player in the forward areas who could both offer passing options and make runs ahead of the ball.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at Montrose Women, breaking down their tactics in each third of the field and why their calm and collected approach to games has helped them to achieve their dreams and reach the top table of Scottish women’s football.
Securing back-to-back promotions is “a truly momentous achievement” for the team, as a report after this weekend’s win at East Fife stated, and, given where they were just two years ago, they should definitely celebrate the moment.
However, all eyes will now turn towards next season and their first adventure into the promised lands of the SWPL 1, when they will want to put on as strong a display as possible to prove that they deserve to be there.
In attack, no one can argue that they have the ability to compete with other sides already in the division, but their defensive issues could be their undoing if they are not ironed out, because, as Glasgow Women will attest to, the top tier is an unforgiving beast and is a league where any mistakes will be capitalised on.