“We want to be a WSL club”: Why the sky is the limit for Southampton after a strong start to life in the Championship – tactical analysis
Whilst the men’s World Cup will of course take centre stage for football fans over the next month, with the men’s domestic seasons all grinding to a halt, it is worth remembering that there will still be plenty of women’s football to enjoy, with some very interesting games on the horizon.
In the Championship, things are really starting to gather pace, as teams at the bottom fight to avoid the drop and those higher up the league set their sights on the promised lands of the WSL. One of the teams that many thought would struggle this season would be Southampton FC Women, who were promoted from the National League in the summer after seeing off Wolves Women in a playoff match. However, a run of five wins and only one defeat in their first eight games has seen the side coached by former Arsenal Women attacker Marieanne Spacey-Cale occupy third place in the league with just over a third of the campaign gone, putting them firmly in the title fight.
This tactical analysis will look at why they have made such a promising start to the campaign, taking a closer look at their tactics in attack, midfield and defence and highlighting the different ways that they have caused problems for their opponents and why their teamwork in all areas has been central to their good form.
Last season, in the Southern Premier Division, Southampton FC Women managed to score a highly impressive 99 goals in 26 league games, and have already found the net on 11 occasions this time around. Therefore, there can be no doubt that the offensive side of the game is not something that they struggle with, so it is a good place to begin this analysis.
The main reason that they have been so potent at the top of the field is because they have players in that area who are full of confidence and who always know what their roles are. Ella Pusey, in the red circle here, was their top scorer last season with 25 goals, but it is her movement that makes her such a threat in the final third.
In this situation, she has noticed the spaces in the Sheffield United Women defensive line and is looking to exploit them, with her running between two opponents here and meeting the pass from Ella Morris, which travels through another gap in the line. What this shows is that she constantly gives her team passing options and helps them to keep their opponents on the back foot, with the rest of the team knowing that she will be in the right position to receive the ball whenever they have a chance to launch an attack, and the ease with which she rounded goalkeeper Bethan Davies to score here indicates that she will be a dependable goalscorer for her team as the campaign goes on.
However, it is worth noting that Southampton are at their most dangerous when they have multiple players in the final third, and it has been common to see Pusey partnered with summer signing Katie Wilkinson as part of a 4-4-2 setup (which they have used in 64% of their matches). This has taken some of the pressure away from Pusey, with her now no longer the only player relied upon to convert opportunities, and it has also given her more freedom to move around the pitch and affect the game in different ways, with her now pressing and dropping back as required in order to cause all kinds of problems for the opposing defenders.
In this case, the striker has gone forward to put pressure on league strugglers Coventry United Women, who have looked to play the ball out from the back but have lost it in a dangerous area. However, she is not in a position where she can shoot at goal, which might have been a problem last season. This time though, they have former Coventry captain Wilkinson in their ranks, meaning that Pusey can simply pull the ball back into the middle and know that her strike partner will finish the move off, with the fact that Wilkinson recorded a hat-trick in this match demonstrating how she is equally as potent if given the right amount of space and time on the ball.
It is also common to see three Southampton players attacking together, with the midfielders getting forward to play their role in creating and converting chances. In this case, Wales and former Tottenham Hotspur Women winger Megan Wynne has possession, with Wilkinson on one side and midfielder Lucia Kendall, in the white circle, on the other, making it difficult for Birmingham City Women to work out where the ball will go and which player or players they need to mark.
As has been the case throughout this section of the scout report, Southampton are decisive with their passing and each player knows what to do at each point, with Wynne passing to Wilkinson and the striker then instantly feeding the ball into Kendall’s path, who finds the back of the net for what turned out to be the only goal of this game.
This is not the only occasion that Southampton have got numbers into the final third and profited from it, and it is undoubtedly something that they worked on during pre-season and in the first months of the campaign as they looked to give themselves the best possible chance of staying in the league. Therefore, when looking at the factors behind their positive form, the overall strength and quality of their offensive play undoubtedly needs to be considered.
When looking at the makeup of their midfield, what becomes immediately obvious is that Southampton FC Women are always striving to find the right balance, with them needing players who can sit back and players who can push forward.
The importance of having different qualities on the field is best seen when examining how they set up when without the ball. Coventry are looking to move the ball out of their third here, but are being closed down in their own half by Pusey and Wilkinson, who are once again in close proximity to each other.
However, whilst they are keeping the ball pinned back, the key element to look at is the midfield line, because those players constantly alter their shape depending on what is needed at each point of the match. In this case, they were in a flat line, but are now changing into a diamond shape, with Alice Griffiths edging further forwards and Leeta Rutherford dropping back, as both recognise the need to fill the gaps between the individual Southampton ranks in case Coventry were to find a way past their front two.
However, when that happens, Griffiths might opt to drop back and close off the central gaps, or someone else might change their position slightly, and that is the key point as it means that Coventry can’t mark players and plan ahead, simply because they don’t know which gaps will be available and when. As a result, they are forced to take a shot from long range here, with midfielder Simran Jhamat sending the ball wide of the target, and that shows the effectiveness of Southampton’s ever-changing shape to their ability to make themselves hard to beat.
Looking specifically at Rutherford’s role, she is generally tasked with offering defensive protection and stopping Southampton’s opponents from creating any momentum when they look to move forward.
Here, Sheffield United, who have been below par for large parts of the season, have made a poor pass and enabled Rutherford to get on the ball high up the pitch, and the amount of space that she now has allows her to pick the right pass and help her team to move the ball towards Sheffield United’s goal area as they launch their own attack. The fact that her teammates instantly move into different areas of the pitch once she takes control of the ball shows how they know what she will look to do when she gets her head up, and that again demonstrates the teamwork and understanding that has been present in so much of their play so far.
When it comes to the attacking side of things, Beth Lumsden has been the key player for them in this aspect of the game, with her demonstrating a good awareness of where her teammates are and where she can affect the game.
In this case, with Crystal Palace Women leaving plenty of space open behind them, Lumsden knows that the best thing to do is to run behind the line and get into a position from where she can receive the pass from Morris, who is in the yellow circle. She knew that there would be an opportunity to get behind Crystal Palace, with Dean Davenport’s team showing plenty of defensive frailties this season, and the fact that Lumsden was able to set up forward Lexi Lloyd-Smith, in the white circle, to score with the next pass demonstrates once again how potent Southampton are when allowed this amount of time on the ball, as well as their quality in the final third and ability to punish opposing mistakes.
Whilst some teams prefer that their defensive line stays back and focuses on not leaving space open for opponents to attack into, Southampton FC Women encourage theirs to get forward and join in with moving the ball around the field. As a result, it has been common to see them advance up the field and get plenty of touches on the ball in different areas of the pitch, offering support to their teammates.
In this case, Northern Ireland defender Laura Rafferty has possession, and it would be easy for her to simply pass the ball towards one of the players immediately ahead of her. However, this wouldn’t achieve much in terms of helping Southampton to progress up the field, so the former Chelsea Women player instead looks further up the pitch and notices that current league leaders Bristol City Women have left space open on the far side wing, with a teammate already in that area and ready to run onto any pass that comes her way.
Therefore, she sends the ball into that area and launches an attack into the space behind Bristol’s players, as the red arrow shows, and the fact that the team have a 71.2% passing accuracy so far this season shows how they don’t often fail to find their intended targets when moving the ball around the pitch.
As mentioned, it is common to see Rafferty and other defenders making these passes and starting attacks from the back, and this graphic indicates how many times the Irishwoman has individually helped to keep her team moving up the field. What is immediately obvious from the arrows is that passing is one of her strengths, with her able to find different areas of the field and constantly locate teammates, and the fact that her passes don’t all start from inside her own half also shows how she likes to get up the field and support attacks.
Therefore, again, Southampton treat their defenders as four extra attackers when they have the ball, and that is a key reason that they have been able to create so many opportunities and win so many games.
Once they lose the ball, Southampton’s defenders focus on protecting their goal but also simultaneously push forwards to try and win it back as high up the field as they can, and this situation against Bristol shows how they balance out both of those tactics.
Firstly, there are three players who stay central and form a compact line in the middle of the field, with their job being to prevent Scotland striker Abi Harrison and former Aston Villa Women forward Shania Hayles from accessing the space behind them, and this is important as Harrison has demonstrated both this season and last that, if given half a chance, she will score (she was the Championship’s top scorer last season with 17 goals). Therefore, any hope of Southampton not conceding here relies on staying between her and the goal.
That leaves one player out on their own, as the yellow circle shows, and their role is to support the rest of the team as they look to win the ball. Their body positioning is essential here, because they need to limit what Bristol can do when moving forwards, and the only possibility here is to take the ball down the wing and try to beat the lone Southampton player for pace. On occasion, it might not be possible to defend this way, and attempting a tackle might be the better option, but that is left to the judgement of the defender to make that call.
It is very much a “risk and reward” way of playing, because it works well when it is successful but can leave Southampton too exposed when it doesn’t. In this case, Lewes Women, who are managed by former Glasgow City and Birmingham boss Scott Booth, have passed the ball into Republic of Ireland international Emily Kraft, who now has time to take the ball forwards and put Southampton under pressure. Milly Mott was the player who came out of line on this occasion, but she has been unable to get back in time, whilst the midfielders have not reacted to the defenders moving back and have therefore left space open between the two lines for Lewes to exploit.
All of this together means that the home side can now take advantage of the error, with Kraft pulling the ball back into the open space and giving midfielder Amelia Hazard, in the blue circle, a chance to find the back of the net. This is something that Southampton have to be aware of as the season goes on, because mistakes like this might not have been capitalised on in the National League but will be in the Championship.
However, this should not detract from what is essentially a well-organised and well-thought-out way of defending, with them showing more often than not that they can press the ball and protect their goal at the same time, and the fact that they have conceded only six times in the league (the joint-second-best record in the division) shows that they don’t often get it wrong.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at Southampton FC Women’s strong start to the Championship season, picking out their attacking, midfield and defensive tactics and showing why they are currently in contention for a second consecutive promotion.
The fact that they have done so well in their maiden campaign is made all the more impressive when considering that this version of the women’s team has only been in existence since 2018 (there had been a team before that, but it had had its support withdrawn in 2005 due to financial difficulties caused by the men’s team’s Premier League relegation). They are also now fully professional, having become a full-time outfit following their promotion in the summer, which will only serve to help them improve their training and the quality of their play, as well as showing that they have the backing of their owners.
When asked in interviews about where the team is going, England legend Spacey-Cale has made it continually clear that their ultimate aim is to be a WSL team. Given where they are at the moment and the progress that the club is making both on and off the field, that dream becoming a reality is surely only a matter of time.