Defending champions Arsenal Women have only conceded five goals this season, whilst Birmingham City Women have only scored five goals this season, although admittedly they have played two games less than the Gunners. This perhaps gives you an idea about how this Women’s Super League match was expected to go. Arsenal’s tactics of pressing from the front and hunting in packs will all feature in this analysis. However, it wasn’t a complete runaway victory for them, as they struggled to create too many clear cut chances against a reasonably strong and resolute Birmingham side. This tactical analysis will look at how Arsenal Women, managed by Joe Montemurro, were able to dominate during the first half, and then how Birmingham City Women, managed by Marta Tejedor, changed their playing style to stop Arsenal playing the free-flowing football the Gunners had been allowed to play in the first half. The analysis will also show how Arsenal Women used their defenders to play the defensive midfield role throughout the match, which was another reason that they came through in this one.

Lineups

Arsenal Women                                                   Birmingham City Women

P. Peyraud-Magnin (gk)                                          H. Hampton (gk)

L. Maier                                                                L. Simkin

L. Williamson                                                        H. Scott

V. Schnaderbeck                                                    R. Holloway

K. McCabe                                                            A. Jordan

K. Little (c)                                                           L. Staniforth (c)

L. Walti                                                                C. Arthur

L. Evans                                                               C. Walker

J. Nobbs                                                               L. Whipp

D. van de Donk                                                     A. Grant

V. Miedema                                                           R. Williams

Arsenal started with a loose 4-3-3 formation, making several changes for this match from their last game, a 3-1 win against Everton Women before the winter break. France goalkeeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin came in for Manuela Zinsberger, who was on the bench, and the Gunners also started right-back Leonie Maier, with Lisa Evans moving back to her favoured right wing position. England star Jordan Nobbs also came in, with striker Beth Mead and midfielder Jill Noord moving to the bench. For Birmingham City, their last game was postponed after a waterlogged pitch, so they named an unchanged squad from their previous game back on the 8th December, starting again in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Arsenal’s attack

Arsenal’s game plan was clear to see from the early stages of this match. Their attacks featuring a three-pronged assault unit of Jordan Nobbs, Vivienne Miedema and Lisa Evans, and when you combine the pace of Evans, the lethal goalscoring traits of Miedema, and the creative ability of Nobbs, you know you are in for a tough afternoon. These three were the Arsenal players constantly at the front of the Gunners’ ranks, pressing the Birmingham City Women defence and forcing them to play sideways or attempt long balls. What this meant was that Arsenal didn’t have to win the ball at the front, because when Birmingham tried to clear the ball by moving it down the pitch, Arsenal would then win the ball in the air, and pass it back towards the front three. This sort of pressing was constant in the early stages of the first half.

It was also not just Miedema, Evans and Nobbs that were pressing Birmingham – every Arsenal player was in the mood when they were in attacking positions. In the images below, you can see how this was put into action by Joe Montemurro’s side, and the effect of it was that Birmingham had no joy in the first half. It was only partly the reason for this, but I’ll explain the other part later on.

FAWSL: Arsenal Women v Birmingham City Women - tactical analysis tactics
When Arsenal were attacking, the trio of Jordan Nobbs, Vivienne Miedema and Lisa Evans were constantly pressing the Birmingham City defence together, meaning that the away side were constricted and didn’t have time to think when on the ball.
FAWSL: Arsenal Women v Birmingham City Women - tactical analysis tactics
Again, here Birmingham are in possession, but three Arsenal defenders have crowded around them to close the gap. This tactic of hunting in packs was seen time and time again in the game’s early stages.

Arsenal’s defence

Defensively, Arsenal Women were also incredibly well organised. They knew where each other was and what their roles were, and that can also be seen below. Essentially, this was another way that Arsenal squeezed Birmingham in the first half, and ensured they weren’t able to attack at all. When they did see a chink of light to pass the ball into, it was by using the wings, but then it was easy for Arsenal Women to close them down and put an end to the attack. This high back line was always located at around the halfway line throughout the game, and it was incredibly effective, and was yet another simple reason why Arsenal dominated the first half. What it meant for Birmingham was that they effectively had only one half of the pitch to work in, which meant it was easy for Arsenal to win the ball back all the time.

FAWSL: Arsenal Women vs Birmingham City Women - tactical analysis tactics
You can see how Arsenal have lined up in two ranks to ensure Birmingham have no option but to work the ball to the wider areas, where it can then be won back by the Arsenal defence. This shows how organised the Gunners were when defending.
FAWSL: Arsenal Women vs Birmingham City Women - tactical analysis tactics
When they were attacking, Arsenal’s backline was sitting so high up the pitch that it meant Birmingham City had little space to play in, and in any space they did have, they couldn’t move forward because of this defence. This was an incredibly effective tactic.

Arsenal using defenders to attack

This leads me onto how Arsenal then managed to dictate play using this back line. This is where Arsenal Women were particularly clever with their tactics. Normally, teams would use a midfielder with an excellent long-range passing ability, and position them just in front of the defence, to then spray balls around the pitch, and orchestrate the attacks. However, the downside of this is you lose an extra player on the end of these passes, so an option is lost. Arsenal, therefore, used their centre-backs to do this job, allowing all of their midfielders and forwards to create the space to receive the ball. Leah Williamson, in particular, was exceptional at this, and in fact, most of Arsenal’s attacks involved the England defender, who started her career as a midfielder, for this reason.

FAWSL: Arsenal Women vs Birmingham City Women - tactical analysis tactics
Here you can see how Arsenal used their defenders to attack. With Leah Williamson passing the ball out, Arsenal could create so many options. Each of their midfield options is in a square, whilst the attacking trio of Jordan Nobbs, Vivienne Miedema and Lisa Evans, again working together to press the Birmingham defence, are all on the front foot, ready to get on the end of any passes from the midfielders.

The effect on Birmingham was that it meant more players and more space for them to try and close down, and obviously this is a tough task at the best of times, let alone against the defending champions. In my personal opinion, Birmingham needed to try and exploit this a bit more, and perhaps if they had managed to put a striker next to the Arsenal defence, and this player had then made some runs to give the Arsenal defenders something to think about, this might have lessened the impact made by Williamson in particular, as she would have had this striker to worry about too.

Birmingham’s tactical change

As far as Birmingham City Women were concerned, the first half brought them precious little to cheer about, as previously mentioned. But as well as being on the end of Arsenal’s high press tactic, when Birmingham were on the attack, and Arsenal were in possession, they didn’t help themselves too much. By this, I mean that they afforded Arsenal too much space to pass around them, as shown below. Whilst this was perhaps a way of cutting down Arsenal Women’s passing options, it was still a primary reason why Birmingham City Women weren’t able to stop the Gunners dominating them. Another reason was that they weren’t clinical enough, and when they did get in good positions, they lacked composure with the final pass.

FAWSL: Arsenal Women vs Birmingham City Women - tactical analysis tactics
In the first half, Arsenal Women had plenty of time and space to play the ball, as the Birmingham players didn’t close them down or put any pressure on them at all. It was too easy for Arsenal.

But something obviously changed in the second half, because suddenly Birmingham looked more urgent and willing to close down Arsenal when the Gunners were in possession. The difference is illustrated in the images below, but the contrast was clear to see. Now, every time Arsenal had possession, they had no time, and when the ball was passed to the next player, they also found they had no time to think. For Arsenal, they didn’t score in the second half, and actually only created a couple of really good chances, and this is the reason for that. In the first half, Arsenal Women could pass through the Birmingham City Women ranks, and in the second, they had the complete opposite.

FAWSL: Arsenal Women vs Birmingham City Women - tactical analysis tactics
In the second half, Birmingham were pressing Arsenal much more, and Arsenal had less time on the ball. They also got closer to their individual opponents.
FAWSL: Arsenal Women vs Birmingham City Women - tactical analysis tactics
Again, Birmingham are now surrounding the Arsenal player in possession.
FAWSL: Arsenal Women vs Birmingham City Women - tactical analysis tactics
The tactical change was very clear in the second half, and it helped Birmingham City to push Arsenal back, and stop their attacks.
FAWSL: Arsenal Women vs Birmingham City Women - tactical analysis tactics
One of the best examples of this here, with one Arsenal player receiving the ball, and immediately two Birmingham City players are rushing towards her to close down the pass before it has happened.

Conclusion

So what can be summarised from this match is that whilst Arsenal Women are seemingly unstoppable at the present moment, Birmingham City Women have shown that there is a way to stop them. In fact, Miedema had a very quiet game by her standards, not really able to get going much apart from a couple of good chances. This was in part due to her having an off day, but also down to Birmingham’s second-half revival. But, whilst Birmingham finished fourth in the league last season, this season they may not be so high up, because they seem to miss a final pass at the moment when in good positions. That, and the aforementioned reasons, is why they lost this match.