The FAWSL continued an exciting start to the season with a matchday 3 encounter between last season’s champions Arsenal Women and visitors Brighton and Hove Albion WFC. After analysis, we see that Arsenal took the pitch employing possession-heavy attacking tactics. On the other hand, Brighton and Hove Albion brought a conservative and defensive approach to the match.
Arsenal ran riot and stepped off the field 4-0 victors to maintain a first-place tie with Manchester City. Brighton and Hove Albion, meanwhile, slipped to ninth place in the standings and are still searching for their first victory. This tactical analysis will examine exactly how it happened.
Team notes and line up
Arsenal conducted a thorough 2-0 victory three days prior in the Champions League round of 32 against Fiorentina. They now await the Round of 16 draw after a convincing 6-0 aggregate win. Arsenal are managed by Joe Montemurro, who previously managed Melbourne City to an undefeated campaign in their 2015-2016 season.
Brighton are managed by former England manager Hope Powell. This season’s campaign sees creating defensive stability as a top priority. Brighton conceded the second-most goals in the league last year and will be keen to not repeat themselves. Entering the game, Brighton had conceded just one goal in two league matches. The prior league match being a 1-1 draw with first-place contenders Chelsea.
Team line ups for Arsenal and Brighton and Hove Albion.
Arsenal entered the match with their typical 4-3-3 . Brighton, who usually opt for a 4-3-3 as well, entered the match with a defensive 4-5-1.
Brighton’s sliding defensive block
Knowing that they faced a well-oiled powerhouse, Brighton entered the match ready to concede possession. Powell prioritised restricting Arsenal’s upfield access by maintaining a compact 4-5-1 defensive block. This formation allowed Brighton to maintain a 4v3 numerical superiority in the defensive line and a 5v3 numerical superiority in the midfield line.
By having such a large overload in the midfield line, Arsenal were forced to take initiative to move and shift the Brighton block. Because Brighton deployed one striker, Arsenal centre-backs Viktoria Schnaderbeck and Jennifer Beattie had ample time on the ball and controlled the tempo of play. This allowed Arsenal to play the ball to one side of the field to draw in a shifting Brighton unit. Once the defence was drawn to a flank, Arsenal attempted to switch the point of attack through quick passes through Schnaderbeck and Beattie to progress the ball up the now open opposite side of the pitch.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, Brighton’s 4-5-1 block shifted horizontally very quickly and cut off any upfield access as Arsenal circulated the ball across the field. In the picture below we see Arsenal have played the ball up the left flank to a widely positioned Danielle van de Donk. Within the blue circle, we can see that Arsenal have created a 2v4 underload, which is not an ideal situation to play forward through. Van de Donk sees this and returns the ball to the defensive line to circulate the ball to the other side.
Arsenal attempt to shift the Brighton block to the left flank to create space on the right flank.
Seven seconds later in the image below, we can see that Arsenal have switched the ball to the right flank through the centre-backs. Brighton have anticipated the ball circulation and shifted the midfield line of five horizontally across the field. By moving the midfield unit as the ball moves, Brighton created a stout defensive wall that was difficult to play through.
Arsenal switch the point of attack. Brighton slide as a unit to block upfield progress.
In both images, we can also see that Brighton’s back four stay within the central channel and halfspaces. By tasking Brighton’s midfield line with snuffing out Arsenal’s forward play, Brighton’s back four are able to prioritize blocking central channels from Arsenal attacks.
By keeping a compact and quickly shifting defensive unit, Brighton were able to block most of Arsenal’s attempted progressions upfield. To advance through the Brighton midfield line, Arsenal would have to disorganise the opponent’s lines.
Arsenal disorganise the Brighton block
Arsenal created goals not by moving the Brighton block side to side, but by drawing the players out of shape within the block. Arsenal’s forward and midfield players would look to find space in between the Brighton defensive and midfield lines. Arsenal’s defensive players typically had plenty of time to find a forward pass to an attacking player dropping into space.
Once the upfield Arsenal player received the ball in space between the lines, the nearest Brighton player in the defensive back four would press forward to pressure the ball carrier and prevent her from turning upfield. As the Brighton defender stepped out of the defensive line, a nearby Arsenal attacker would immediately make an off the ball run into the now open gap in the Brighton backline.
Below we can see that Arsenal striker Vivianne Miedema has dropped into space between the Brighton defensive and midfield lines. Miedema did this knowing that Brighton centre-back Fern Whelan would step forward to keep pressure on her back. Central midfielder Kim Little recognized that the Brighton centre-back was pulled forward and out of line with the back four. Upon Miedema receiving the ball, Little immediately exploited the open gap in the Brighton back four.
The instant that Miedema receives the ball with Whelan on her back, Little penetrated into Miedema’s formerly occupied space. Miedema received a pass and put the ball through delicately behind the Brighton line for the sprinting Little to run on to. Little then pushed into a wide-open box and fired the ball into the back of the net.
A similar sequence led to Arsenal’s second goal. Arsenal played a series of short passes off of a corner kick to draw Brighton players to the flank. As this happened, centre-midfielder Jordan Nobbs occupied a space in front of the Brighton defensive line. As Nobbs received a pass, Brighton’s Ellie Brazil moved forward to pressure the ball. At that moment, Miedema was occupying Brazil’s blindside in a dangerous pocket of space.
Immediately upon Nobbs gaining possession of the ball, Miedema moved out of Brazil’s cover shadow and towards the goal. Nobbs, recognizing the attacking movement, quickly played the ball into the path of Miedema, who one-touched the ball past Megan Walsh.
Arsenal were able to create space to attack within Brighton’s defensive block by playing the ball to players in spaces within the block. Once the ball was within the Brighton block, the Brighton defensive line would lose its shape in an attempt to pressure the ball carrier. In that moment, a nearby Arsenal player would quickly turn the newly vacant space into an attacking platform. With this tactic, Arsenal found success and were firmly ahead 2-0 at the halftime whistle.
Danielle van de Donk finishes off Brighton
Brighton held approximately 25% possession in the first half of the match and created only one shot on target. Powell had to make a change. Initially, Powell started with substituting in former UEFA Women’s U19 Champion Lea Le Garrec at forward.
Brighton’s counter-attacking pace in the first half lacked aggression and hunger. Arsenal players were quick to snuff out any Brighton transitional opportunities. Garrec brought intensity onto the field that saw an instant effect in the rest of the Brighton team. For the first 10 minutes of the second half, Brighton began to apply attacking pressure to the Arsenal defence.
To put Arsenal under pressure, Brighton began to open up more expansively in possession. This allowed Brighton to use the space of the field more efficiently and spread out the Arsenal defensive unit. Through opening up their team shape and committing more numbers forward in attack, Brighton initially created a few goal-scoring chances.
Unfortunately for Brighton, as they began to create attacking momentum, they made a critical mistake.
Brighton, while building out of their defensive third, committed a turnover in their midfield line. Leonie Maier, who won the ball, quickly dribbled into space. As this happened, van de Donk was quick to make an attacking run into the temporarily expanded Brighton defensive shape (seen in the image above). Arsenal moved the ball to the quickly advancing van de Donk who immediately drilled home a goal that put an end to Brighton’s hopes of gaining any points from the match.
By quickly moving into momentarily open space within the Brighton team shape, van de Donk was able to take advantage of Brighton’s lack of compactness. At this moment, no Brighton player was near enough to stop van de Donk from receiving the ball and effectively ending the game.
In the end, Arsenal asserted themselves throughout the match and completely dominated Brighton. The former champions move forward having won their first six fixtures of the season. Next week will see Arsenal testing their ambitions by visiting Chelsea, who have also allowed only one goal in FAWSL play. Brighton will look to lick their wounds and bounce back with a home match against West Ham.
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