There’s no hiding from the fact that it has been an incredibly disappointing season thus far for Liverpool Women. This piece of tactical analysis will attempt to highlight exactly what is going wrong for them. The scout report will also show how, despite this, it is not all doom and gloom and what is going wrong can actually be fixed with a change in tactics. The analysis will show the positives and negatives of their current system and tactics, and attempt to point out how they can improve them to give themselves the best possible chance of survival when the season concludes in May.
This is actually where I think they are strongest overall. They are organised and work together well, and I think one of the primary reasons for that is their captain and vice-captain are the two first-choice central defenders (Sophie Bradley-Auckland and Niamh Fahey respectively). This always means that the back four is orderly and everyone knows their roles. From the game against Brighton, this was seen very clearly, but it is in all matches that this organisation is visible. Despite their league position and form, the fact that they don’t actually concede too many goals per game, usually just one or perhaps two, is testament to this strong defence.
As shown above, when opposing players have the ball and are in advanced positions, Liverpool try to shepherd them towards the sidelines, from where it is easier to block the cross when the opposition, in this case Brighton and Hove Albion Women, attempt it. What it also does is cut off the supporting player, meaning that Brighton have no choice but to take the ball into the rapidly decreasing spaces. It is very clever when done properly, and I think Liverpool know that because they don’t score goals, they have to be tight defensively, and this is just one instance of moves like this that help them be just that.
When defending corners or attacking throw-ins, Liverpool Women are just as organised. You can see below how the midfielders track back to help out, and that means they can effectively line up and close down the spaces. The effect of this on opposing teams is that their individual attackers are isolated, and it forces them to play long balls, which is exactly what Brighton and Hove Albion Women did directly after the scene in the image below.
Defending opponents’ goal kicks
Another part of their defence is when opponents have a goal kick and Liverpool are trying to cover the spaces – this is an area that they need to improve upon. What you can see below are several examples of how opposing teams have worked out how to get around Liverpool Women from goal kicks.
Essentially, what this shows is that, because Liverpool play with one striker in a usual 4-2-3-1 formation, they have an impossible task of trying to cover the spaces. Opponents have worked this out, and now position the centre-backs as wide as possible, to make the space as big as they can. This forces Liverpool Women to stretch as well, and that creates the spaces that opposing teams can then exploit. This is a downside to playing with one striker, and it is one reason that I think Liverpool should change their formation to play with two strikers. The reason I think they should do this is so that they can do what other teams, such as Tottenham Hotspur Women and Brighton and Hove Albion Women, do when they are in the same situations.
Sometimes, such as in the game against Brighton, Liverpool try to do this, as seen below, but they don’t seem to be too confident in using two strikers to close down each of the two centre-backs. The rewards for them would be that opposing goalkeepers would be forced to play long balls, which can then be won in the air, or play down the middle, where the ball could be perhaps more easily cut out, and then because they already have two strikers in forward positions, goalkeeping mistakes would be more easily punished.
It’s in attack where Liverpool Women’s biggest problems lie.
Liverpool’s own goal kicks
Firstly, Liverpool Women try to play the ball out from the back whenever they can and to do this, they need to set up as above: with the full-backs getting as wide as possible, and the centre-backs standing on either side of the six-yard box. This kind of precision means this is no accident that the players are in these positions every time they have a goal kick – it is a formation they have worked on in training.
This is all very good, but then when they move the ball forward to the attackers, things start to unravel slightly.
Playing with one striker
Again, coming back to their 4-2-3-1 formation, this is the issue that I think they need to change. If you play with a single striker, then you need to have your attacking midfielder realistically running in behind to create opportunities for the wingers to cross to. This is in case the striker has pulled back to receive the ball, and left the box empty of attacking players. But this sort of movement seems to be where Liverpool Women are having trouble. When Liverpool’s wingers do have the ball, they are able to cross it. However, there is no one available to cross it to, and this means that every time they get the ball into the area, it just goes out of play and possession is handed over to the opposition. Below, you can see what I mean by this. Constantly, when watching Liverpool, you can notice that the striker comes short, and no other player makes the run in behind to create the chance to score.
Also from the defensive point of view, playing with one striker is easier to defend against. The images below show how Liverpool have played right into their various opponents’ hands with this, and this is another reason why Liverpool are struggling to get on the end of chances, and are struggling to score goals this season.
Benefits of a formation change
In order to solve these issues, I feel that Liverpool need to play with a 4-1-2-1-2 formation, for several reasons. Firstly, they can get one player, probably Jade Bailey, playing in the defensive midfield position, and she would add extra strength and protection to the defence. In the wider positions of the diamond, I would play Rhiannon Roberts, who is brilliant at moving the ball around and getting in spaces, and Melissa Lawley, who is perfectly capable of creating opportunities and getting the ball into the box, and this is something she has been doing all season.
At the point of the diamond, behind the strikers, I would use either Niamh Charles or new signing Rachel Furness. I’ll come back to the impact Furness has had a little later on, but Charles has the technical ability, pace, creativity, and eye for an accurate pass to make this role her own. As the strikers, I would play Jess Clarke and Rinsola Babajide, and again, I’ll explain later why.
The reason I think this would help Liverpool Women to score more goals, and therefore hopefully win more games, is this: when they have a single striker, that striker tends to drift over to one side of the pitch, understandably, as they are trying to cover the gaps that the opposition are forcing open. Having two strikers would help to ensure all the gaps are closed down. This is something I talked about in a previous article, analysing Liverpool Women against Chelsea Women.
Secondly, I think it would allow more runners into the box for Liverpool Women – a point raised and explained above. But using this system would be one way to improve that too.
Occasionally, Liverpool Women do find themselves with two players in the forward positions, and you can see how this gives them more of an opportunity of scoring a goal. In fact, when Jess Clarke and Courtney Sweetman-Kirk were both on the pitch against Brighton, there was a bit of a partnership developing, in that both players were in the middle of Brighton’s defence, and giving them something to think about. Clarke, in particular, is a player I think has to start for Liverpool when she’s fit because she can be wherever is needed and is as adept at crossing in from wide areas as she is at running at the defenders and trying to make things happen.
Filling the middle gap
The final, but most important point to make about how to improve Liverpool Women’s attack, is to try and plug the middle gap. Too often, players get into the box ready to get on the end of crosses, but no player is running into the area and into the six-yard box, which is where I think there should always be a player available to get on the end of efforts, and put them into the net. Now, if the team is playing a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond, as I previously described, then the two strikers are likely to be playing in the wider parts of the goal area, as shown below.
But what you can see from those images is that there is a hole in the middle, and that is where I think the attacking midfielder should move into. As I said previously, this is a role I think either Niamh Charles or Rachel Furness should have, because both are natural players in this position. In particular, this is a good example of why Charles would be good in this role.
Here, you can see how Charles has seen the gap and is playing the ball through to Rinsola Babajide, who is on the left of the image. Jess Clarke is on the far side, and the Bristol City Women defenders are in the middle of the two forwards. Both Clarke and Babajide are forwards who seem to prefer playing as free-roaming wingers, which is why I think if they paired up as a strike duo, it would suit both of their styles of play. This is a way that I would see the diamond formation working for their attack.
Similarly, against Brighton and Hove Albion Women, this was even more clear. Babajide has the ball on the far side of the box, and Rachel Furness is moving into the middle of the box, towards the six-yard area. Melissa Lawley is positioned on the near side of the box.
Then, a couple of minutes later, the same situation has been set up, with Furness again in the middle, but this time Lawley has her body facing the right way and is running to get on the end of a cross.
Above, against Brighton was the first time I saw Liverpool try this, and I think it is down to the signing of Rachel Furness. She was brilliant against Brighton – organising the team’s attack, and getting in the right areas. Her pace and eye for movement is going to be incredibly important for Liverpool going forward, and I for one think bringing her in was a masterstroke by Reds boss Vicky Jepson.
I think in attack, the attacking midfielder is going to be instrumental for them if they can make it work. Here, you can see how Brighton are trying to close Liverpool down, but have left a big gap in the middle of the pitch for Liverpool to exploit and get a player into – except they haven’t. Maybe this is because they want to make the pitch as big as possible by keeping their players as far apart as possible, but I think if they can use this open space to position a player in, then it would give Brighton one more thing to worry about, and they might then leave a gap open elsewhere for Liverpool to exploit.
As I said right at the start, there isn’t an awful lot for Liverpool to worry about in terms of player ability. They have a good squad and a good manager. But what is going wrong is their inability to score goals, because aside from small moments where they lose concentration, the defence hasn’t been all that bad this season.
So if Liverpool can tweak their tactics ever so slightly, to try and utilise an attacking midfielder more than they are at the moment, then I think they will have a better chance of scoring more goals, and this will lead to them drawing or even winning more matches. The simple fact is, they are at the bottom of the league, and they need to do something to alter their tactics, or they will find themselves exiting the Women’s Super League at the end of the season.