The football fraternity expected Chelsea Women to have a convincing win against Liverpool Women in Women’s Super League. However, this analysis will show how they came to Prenton Park and found a Liverpool Women team who had thought about how Chelsea would attempt to beat them and reacting to the situation figured out how they would avoid being beaten by Chelsea. The tactical analysis will highlight several tactics used by both sides, including Chelsea’s method of forcing gaps in the Liverpool Women ranks from their goal kicks, and how Liverpool Women changed their starting formation slightly to ensure they could apply pressure on the Chelsea backline. This change in tactics definitely helped them to earn a very important point towards their battle for league survival.
Liverpool Women looked to use the same 4-2-3-1 formation that helped them earn a point and score only their second goal of the season when they hosted West Ham United Women last weekend. Their full-backs were kept back for this one, with Becky Jane and Leighanne Robe not seen running forward too often. Instead, it was left to wingers Melissa Lawley and Niamh Charles, who was a standout performer last weekend, to do this. Lawley was, however, unable to do this – more on that later. The Reds made one change from the match against West Ham, with forward Rinsola Babajide, who made an impact against West Ham, starting in the striker’s position against Chelsea. Ashley Hodson was withdrawn to accommodate this, and given a place on the bench. For Chelsea, they began with a 4-1-4-1 formation, with the intention obviously being to try and nullify Liverpool’s attacking threat with a midfielder protecting the defence. Former Liverpool midfielder Sophie Ingle was given that role, whilst Drew Spence was brought into the team in place of South Korea attacking midfielder Ji So-Yun, who relocated to the bench. Chelsea were looking for their eighth straight win in the league, to keep up the pace with the top two, Manchester City Women, who they beat last week, and Arsenal Women.
The interesting thing about this match was that, whilst both teams tried to outwit the other, the tactics ended up cancelling each other out, and that was one primary reason why this WSL match ended up as a 1-1 draw.
Liverpool’s plan ‘to sit behind the ball’
Starting with Liverpool, they set up with a 4-2-3-1 formation, as outlined above, but clearly the game plan was to sit behind the ball and stop Chelsea advancing forwards. Their full-backs, Norway international Maren Mjelde and Sweden left-back Jonna Andersson always tried to get as far forward as they could and often provided width to their team whilst the other players operated in the middle of the pitch. Here, though, whilst they did this, Liverpool ensured that they couldn’t play as they normally enjoy to. This the Reds did through two different tactics.
Firstly, as I said, they sat behind the ball, and this can be clearly seen in the image below. The 4-2-3 of the formation is outlined, and all players know their roles in the team. You can see how Chelsea Women are in between them, but that doesn’t matter if they aren’t able to have the ball, and because Liverpool are set up in this way, they can’t. So why did Liverpool feel the need to sit back and not press Chelsea in these instances? Well, Beth England is one of the most in-form strikers in the league at the moment, so starving her of service would always be a good thing for Liverpool Women to do. You can see how she has been cut off from the ball because she is behind the last line of the Liverpool defence.
The second thing that they did was to force Chelsea’s wingers and full-backs to play the ball wide, rather than crossing into the middle of the pitch as they like to do. This is demonstrated in the images below, but essentially, if a defence sets up as Liverpool’s is shown to be below – tightly lined up and all working together and talking to each other – then it is not possible for attackers to move the ball into the box, because the gaps simply aren’t there. Instead, they have to continue to move along the wing, up to the goal line, and then attempt to cross the ball in from there. The advantage to Liverpool of this is that it is far easier to force Chelsea to cross from the wide areas, and for Liverpool to block it from there than it is for them to allow Chelsea to pass the ball through the gaps in their defence and play their way into the box. In the images below, you can see in both instances this tactic, and how it was used by Liverpool to ensure that their goal was protected.
Chelsea’s defenders ‘split to the wide areas’
In contrast, whilst Chelsea were being frustrated by Liverpool in this manner, Chelsea were using tactics of their own to ensure Liverpool couldn’t attack when they wanted. As you can see, when Emma Hayes’ side had a goal kick, they set up in a certain way. The two centre-backs, England’s Millie Bright and Sweden’s Magdalena Eriksson, both split to the wide areas, whilst the full-backs, Mjelde and Andersson, didn’t track back but stayed in a position further up the pitch as wingers would. The obvious thing to mention is that it meant goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger always had an option on either side to play the ball to, but it also meant Liverpool’s lone striker, Rinsola Babajide, was left a little isolated in the middle of the pitch trying to mark them. She also couldn’t get any support, because the other players were either marking those in the middle of the pitch, or they were trying to ensure Chelsea’s full-backs didn’t exploit any gaps left open behind the Liverpool defence. It also meant that when Chelsea were attacking, they already had more players in attack ready to go – but then they couldn’t get anywhere with it because of Liverpool sitting back, and so had to play sideways passes, trying to find a way through, and when they could, they had to play outside of the Liverpool defence, as shown above.
This is how both Liverpool Women and Chelsea Women contributed to what was effectively a “vicious circle” in this match, with both sides’ tactics ensuring the other team wasn’t able to get the breakthrough as they would have wished.
Reds needed ‘constant presence in attack’
Finally, I want to take a look at the positioning of Rinsola Babajide, as I felt she didn’t play in the positions that a striker would normally. Whenever she didn’t have and was looking for the ball, she would drift wide and operate as another winger, when I would have liked to have seen her play more central, and leave the wing-play to Melissa Lawley and Niamh Charles. What this would have given Liverpool is a constant presence in attack so that there is always someone to pass the ball to quickly when they want to try and counter-attack, but because Babajide drifted wide, this wasn’t possible.
Last week, Liverpool Women played with Charles, Lawley, Kirsty Linnett and Ashley Hodson in the attack, and whilst they interchanged so that it wasn’t always Hodson in the centre, there was always someone there playing the striker role. Babajide this week didn’t do this. The image below shows how she was effectively a right-winger at times, and this meant they didn’t have anyone in the middle when they needed one. The knock-on effect of this was that we saw virtually nothing of Melissa Lawley in the entire match because she was caught between Babajide and right-back Becky Jane. The fact that Lawley was substituted after 68 minutes backs this up.
In Lawley’s place, on came Courtney Sweetman-Kirk -an out-and-out striker. I think Reds boss Vicky Jepson had noticed Babajide’s positioning and had decided to bring on Sweetman-Kirk in response to this. Now, when Babajide did drift wide, Sweetman-Kirk could play in the centre forward role. But as the image below shows, it also meant that Liverpool could play with a new attacking edge because they had two players operating together in that area. Both Sweetman-Kirk and Babajide had support when they attacked, and this, I think, whilst it didn’t contribute to the result as such, was important in the context of Liverpool seeing a problem and providing a solution to it. It also meant that if Liverpool had the ball in their half, one of either Sweetman-Kirk or Babajide could come short and receive it, whilst the other stayed further up the pitch, ready to act in a counter-attacking move.
Liverpool Women and Chelsea Women both saw this match as a chance to build on their league performance. Chelsea came into this match on the back of seven straight wins in the league, and Liverpool wanted to make it two games without defeat – knowing that, with fellow strugglers Bristol City Women’s game called off, a point would see the Reds move out of the relegation zone, albeit temporarily as Bristol have a game in hand. But with both sides playing smart tactics to attempt to frustrate the other team, a draw seemed like the only possible result for this one. It is a point that will suit Liverpool Women more and will please them more, but for Chelsea Women, it sees them lose ground on the leading pack of Arsenal Women and Manchester City Women, and they now lie third in the table. With the winter break now upon us, there will be much for both sides to reflect upon before the league resumes again in January.
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