Brighton and Hove Albion were sat in 9th position in the FA Women’s Super League at the suspension of the league season. The Seagulls had spent much of the campaign looking over their shoulders at the relegation places, but have managed to force some daylight to Bristol City, Birmingham and Liverpool below them. However, they will be conscious of having played two games more than Bristol and Liverpool and three more than Birmingham, although the seven-point gap to Liverpool at the bottom should make them feel confident of safety for another season.
Manager Hope Powell was hired by Brighton in 2017 and is a respected figure in the game, with a long spell in charge of the England national team. She oversaw Brighton’s promotion to the FAWSL in 2017/18 and successfully kept them up in their first season in the league, finishing 9th. Their task this season was made more difficult by the long term injuries of defender and ex-Chelsea player Laura Rafferty and last season’s top scorer and rising talent Ellie Brazil, who both damaged ACL’s and would have been expected to feature prominently in Brighton’s campaign.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at how Powell has set Brighton up in 2019/20, their preferred methods of playing, their strengths and where they will be looking to improve.
Brighton under Powell have usually preferred a 4-4-2 formation during the 2019/20 FAWSL season. The set up typically sees a ‘flat’ two-striker system from structured restarts by the opposition, complemented by two banks of four behind. This can, however, adapt into a 4-4-1-1 with the ‘10’ looking to link midfield and attack or providing additional support to the midfield to become a five.
The personnel in forward areas has often been adapted for games, usually with Kayleigh Green leading the line, but with a rotating cast of strike partners depending on either injury or Powell’s tactical considerations. Ini-Abasi Umotong has operated as a forward, as has top scorer Aileen Whelan, although she is more commonly deployed on the right flank or in central midfield, whilst midfielder Amanda Nilden occasionally takes up this position too. Lea Le Garrec has also fulfilled a number 10 role on numerous occasions, although she is also used as an attack-minded midfield presence, but is an obvious fit for the position when Powell chooses to play the 4-4-1-1 or the much more occasional 4-3-3.
According to FBRef stats, Brighton’s 0.92 expected goals per 90 is 9th best in the division, matching their league position. Powell’s team rank 10th for expected goals against across the season (25.4 xGA) and their expected goals difference also places them 10th. So in terms of league placing, Brighton are very much where the data suggests they should be.
Pressing high and compactness
Powell’s philosophy always has Brighton looking for opportunities to press high in an effort to regain the ball in their opponent’s defensive third. Their initial forward line is quite aggressively positioned on structured restarts such as opposition goal kicks. Forward players will set up just outside the penalty area, tempting the opposition defenders to play out from the back, but holding a compact central shape, ensuring a progressive pass cannot be slid between them into midfield.
In the following footage from the game against Everton, you can clearly see Brighton have adopted the 4-4-2 shape. The two forward players, in this case, Umotong and Amanda Nilden, have a high starting position, inviting Everton to play from the back, but are ready to pounce on any errors or force the ball into areas of the field Brighton feel they can win the ball.
In this case, Umotong has already begun to pressure the ball carrier. Both forward players are positioned close together to ensure passes cannot penetrate their screen but must go around.
Note the midfield line is also pressed high, as is the defence, ensuring a high level of vertical compactness. In this case Everton were eventually forced to play long for the Brighton defence to head away.
Brighton will look to their forwards to work hard and keep forcing the ball wide, whilst the wide players will ‘jump’ on the opponent’s full-backs if they see this predictable pass to the flanks, in an effort to keep their heads down. Powell has instructed Brighton to continue this press until such time as the ball is won back or the opposition beats the press to achieve time on the ball, at which point they will recover their shape until another opportunity to press arises.
This image against Reading provides a good example of these tactics; a pass back to the goalkeeper has already been chased hard, forcing her into a rushed ball out to the supporting full back (out of shot). Before the pass was even been played, Kate Natkiel and Umotong (who have rotated from their positions as they pursued the press) were on the way to aggressively close down the ball. Again, Brighton will stay committed to the press until Reading work themselves into a position where they have more time on the ball.
Under Powell, the Seagulls put an emphasis on vertical compactness. The midfield and defensive units will stay closely connected and push up behind the forward lines: Brighton clearly take the attitude that they would prefer the opposition to play around or even over them, rather than through them.
Brighton will place an emphasis on cover and balance as they go about their defending. They often look for triggers to press on, such as slow square passes, the ball moving into wide areas, or players, particularly central midfielders, receiving the ball with their backs to goal. When this happens, Powell ensures the defensive line reacts to the press and closes the gap between the units.
This method again suggests they are happier to defend long balls than they are teams looking to probe and penetrate and play between the Brighton lines, so they ensure there is as little space for them to do this as possible.
The image below against Liverpool demonstrates the backline’s willingness to push high and minimise the space opponents have to play between Brighton’s defensive and midfield lines. The defence might be considered quite high given Liverpool have the ball approaching the halfway line, but as long as there is effective midfield pressure on the ball, the Brighton back four are encouraged to step up and support, preventing opponents from turning out of trouble and driving into space.
This same approach also applies when Brighton’s forwards are chasing down backwards passes, with the coaching team audibly encouraging the back four to push up as quickly and as aggressively as possible.
Again here against Reading, who are attacking from left to right, we can see another example of the high Brighton defensive line that Powell encourages and also how close the midfield and defensive units are.
Should the ball be played long, the defence are adept at turning to recover and goalkeeper Megan Walsh is asked to take a strong starting position and sweep up through balls. Brighton have confidence in their back four to nullify threats, especially if they can force the opposition to play in a more direct fashion.
Statistical analysis shows some impressive numbers for Brighton’s defending. The unit typically has Danique Kerkdijk and Victoria Williams occupy the central defensive positions, although Maya Le Tissier has broken into the team this season and is comfortable at either centre back or full back. Felicity Gibbons provides running power from the left back position and is comfortable in foot races going backwards or forwards.
As you can see from the scatter below, Brighton performed extremely strongly league wide for the number of tackles made and the number of tackles won. The defenders are solid in successfully carrying out their defensive actions when called upon.
We must be cautious and recognise that Brighton do not necessarily keep the ball for long periods under Powell, which we will look at in more detail later, so these numbers might simply result from the fact they have to do more defending than other sides. But the supposition that they are competent as a back four-unit is further supported by data about interceptions where they rank first according to stats from FBRef and then, according to the same source, rank second for successfully blocking forward passes. This implies the team that is well organised and can rely on its defensive set up to win and intercept balls.
Playing forward and crossing
Powell has Brighton being generally risk-averse in building the attack from deep. They will on occasion look to play to centre backs dropped onto the byline from goal kicks, or play shorter to full-backs and midfielders if they can do so before the opponent is organised. However, if the opposition has decided to set a high line or is in position to stop quick passes out, goalkeeper Walsh will more often than not look to the play the ball long into the opposition half with Brighton looking to squeeze behind the ball to win knockdowns, but make sure they are not in a vulnerable position should the ball be lost.
An important part of Powell’s attacking ploy to create and score is for Brighton to win the ball in the opposition third as and when they can. We have already discussed in looking at their out of possession strategy that the forward and wide players especially will look for opportunities to press the opponent as they play out, looking to catch them in transition by winning the ball cleanly and then playing forward quickly and vertically to put the front two, usually Green, plus one other, in on goal.
The image of their second goal against Reading at home demonstrates this principle, as Brighton recover the ball and then play quickly through Reading in two penetrating passes, the final ball a superbly weighted pass by Le Garrec, for Umotong to go on and score.
However, when Brighton cannot play quickly through teams after regaining the ball, they are not a side that typically holds possession for long periods and patiently probes for the moment to play the penetrating pass. They have the second-lowest pass completion percentage in the FAWSL according to FBRef stats (67.7%). However, they will mix up their play and try to be unpredictable, ranking fifth in the FAWSL for short passes attempted and sixth for long passes attempted. So there is some variety: what they are not usually, is a team that will look to circulate the ball and build in central areas, preferring to move the ball quickly forward and concentrating their efforts ‘down the sides’ of teams towards the wings.
The scatter graph further supports the idea that Brighton like to play the ball quickly forward over teams and into space. As we can see, they are not one of the FAWSL’s possession hungry sides, like Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester City, ranking lower mid-table for attempted passes, but they are more inclined than the majority of teams to favour high passes, behind only Reading and Chelsea.
This is further supported by the footage that shows Brighton placing an emphasis on this speedy, sometimes direct, forward play into the wide zones.
Against Tottenham below we see Brighton immediately knocking the ball over the Spurs full-back shortly after a throw-in and choosing to work the channel instead of building back infield
Again below against Reading, we can see that Brighton have regained position and shifted the ball wide before playing in the high cross, instead of looking to build further or reach the byline for a low cross or cut back.
Lauren Le Garrec comfortably tops the goal creating actions per 90 in the squad (0.31), ranks top three for shot-creating actions per 90 (2.53) and also tops the expected assist charts for the team (0.16xA per 90). It is clear she is the main offensive midfield cog in Powell’s Brighton set up and has a more potent attacking game than many of her midfield colleagues, with ability to play penetrating passes through sides, as we saw from the image against Reading earlier the piece. It is perhaps little wonder Powell has looked to deploy her further forward as the season has progressed.
Kayleigh Green tops the expected goals rankings for Brighton with 0.25xG per 90 but has only converted twice in the league, with the flexible Aileen Whelan leading the scoring charts with five strikes. It is notable just how adaptable all these players are, with Powell regularly asking Le Garrec, Green and Whelan to do different jobs in forward and midfield areas. This helps in planning for opposition strengths and weaknesses and provides useful injury cover.
Nevertheless, Brighton do struggle to create shooting opportunities overall, ranking second bottom of the league for shot-creating actions per 90 with 13.2. This metric represents two offensive actions such as passes, dribbles or fouls then leading to a shot. Brighton have problems then regularly stringing these actions together to get shots off. This is likely to be because, aside from Le Garrec with her powerful running and passing ability, Brighton have relatively few players who stand out as speedy dribblers who can skip past players or draw fouls or who can create in tight spaces on the edge of the area to forge those shooting opportunities.
The picture is slightly better for goal creating actions, but it would still imply the side could benefit from more players who can create in crowded areas or beat multiple opponents with dribbling or pace: but the argument could be made that Powell’s style of play recognises this and plays to the group’s strengths as they are.
Although Brighton’s defence and organisation can generally be relied upon, one suspects they would still like to do less defending. Brighton are a team who are comfortable without the ball, but I would surmise they would like to be able to hold onto it for longer than they do, given their low pass completion percentage.
This is something Powell might look to address in future seasons in order to have Brighton climb the league. The players at her disposal also might be why she is inclined to have Brighton look to play forward quickly and into space instead of utilising more patient build-up play.
Defensively they will set their line high and look to win the ball back in areas where they can immediately hurt their opponents upon turning the ball over. If this isn’t possible, they ensure teams cannot play through them or work the ball into pockets of space between the lines.
Powell can feel comfortable Brighton have a recognisable playing style, especially without the ball, which makes them a tough proposition against mid and lower table clubs. They are able to mix up their range of passing and often force their opponents to play in a way that suits their own defensive strengths. The long term injuries to Brazil, who would provide greater attacking spark and unpredictability in forward areas, and Rafferty at the back, are important absences that Powell has had to set up her team to adapt to.
Powell would seem on the way to achieving her primary target of keeping Brighton in FAWSL for a second consecutive season. Their high press and reliable back four give them a sound platform, but in order to regularly challenge in the top half, the Seagulls might have to improve their retention of the ball to build and penetrate against congested midfields, with players who can stay on the ball and dominate 1v1. This might be something that is addressed in future transfer windows.