The FA Women’s Championship concluded with Aston Villa promoted as champions. Here we give a tactical analysis of the clash between two of the sides who will be among the favourites to follow them up to the FAWSL in 2020/21, London City Lionesses and Sheffield United, who met in December.
London City Lionesses started with a 5-4-1 formation, but this quickly morphed into a 5-3-2 within minutes of the match beginning, as Juliette Kemppi joined Vanessa Susanna in a front two as soon as it became apparent Sheffield United would look to play short from the goalkeeper.
Sheffield United deployed a 4-2-3-1 with their full-backs encouraged to get on and provide width if the left and right-side forwards moved inside.
Sheffield United exploit the flanks
Almost from the kick-off Sheffield United set about dominating both territory and possession, pinning London City Lionesses back with waves of attacks.
The data shows Sheffield had 64% of the ball, completed 80% of their passes and launched 0.72 attacks per minute compared with London City’s 0.26. This was as one-sided a first half as you are likely to see.
Key to this was Sheffield United’s work both in and out of possession.
With the ball, Sheffield looked to play out from the back, pushing on their full-backs extremely aggressively. Their two holding midfielders, Aimee Palmer, on loan from Manchester United, and Sam Tierney, did not typically drop into the pocket to receive from the centre-halves, staying high and forcing the London City midfield back. With London City Lionesses playing with a narrow midfield three and a back five, this meant Sheffield United could expose this space in the wide midfield areas by pushing on their full-backs, Sophie Barker and Alethea Paul, to break lines to receive beyond the London City front two. At this point the Sheffield full-backs could elect to drive forward into this space and overload the London City full-backs with support from their wide players or, if London City did manage to scramble across, Sheffield would switch play through their central midfielders and exploit the space on the opposite flank.
These tactics can be seen very clearly in the image below. Barker receives the ball having pushed high into the space outside the London City midfield three and beyond their forward line and can now carry the ball deep into opposition territory before encountering any pressure.
This happened again on the left flank in the build up to the opening goal in the 8th minute, where Paul could again carry the ball over distance, breaking beyond the whole London City Lionesses midfield with comparative ease, then played down the line for Olivia Fergusson to run into more space and deliver a cross from which centre forward Katie Wilkinson scored after an error by London City goalkeeper Lucy Thomas.
Although the opening goal came from the left-hand side, it was on the right flank that Sheffield looked consistently dangerous due to the greater variety in their approach there and the volume of the ball Barker received. This finding is supported by the fact Sheffield United’s right flank created 0.70xG, compared with 0.05xG on the left, according to the data analysis.
As well as sometimes receiving the ball near the touchline, right forward Jade Pennock also made runs inside between the London City full-back and centre-back, with and without the ball, either to strike at goal or open space for the overlapping Barker to deliver into the box. We can see this in the footage below: Pennock runs inside to take the full-back with her and Barker overlaps into the space that has been vacated.
As the half wore on, London City Lionesses responded to the threat in wide areas and began to cover more of the pitch with their midfield. This resulted in passing lanes opening up in central areas, which Sheffield United exploited by playing penetrating balls into the feet of Wilkinson at centre forward, who would move short to receive as either the centre-backs or central midfielders got their heads up and then show strength by shielding the ball on her back foot, before setting the ball back for a midfielder to find runners beyond. This is demonstrated in the image below, with Wilkinson pinning her defender and Fergusson poised to attack the space beyond.
Another key feature of Sheffield United’s dominance was their extremely aggressive counter press. Upon losing the ball, the nearest player would aggressively press and hunt possession back. The rest of the team was alert to this and would also press up, closing the space around the ball carrier and getting tight to immediate opponents if they themselves could not affect the player in possession. As a result, they quickly won possession back on numerous occasions. The footage below demonstrates this with the Sheffield United midfield converging quickly on the turnover.
In the rare moments when London City Lionesses did secure good possession, they looked to play direct and quickly find Susanna running the channels, however, these passes were often poorly executed or played when Susanna had no realistic prospect of controlling or running onto the ball, so compounded London City’s problems.
The one saving grace for London City Lionesses in the first half was that, for all of Sheffield United’s possession and territorial dominance, they actually created few big chances beyond Wilkinson’s goal, due to a combination of good emergency defending in the Lionesses’ penalty area and poor final balls.
London City Lionesses play higher
The character of the London City Lionesses play changed completely after half time, with the team setting their defensive line much higher and aggressively pressing all over the pitch, in stark contrast to their more passive play in the first period.
We can see from the image below, London City started defending high with their front two, looking to stop Sheffield United from building out through their centre-backs to then play to their full-backs. They have allowed the pass through to the middle, which they will then press upon the midfielder receiving, but want to discourage the centre-half to full-back pattern of play which caused them problems in the opening 45 minutes.
The next image demonstrates the aggressive counter-pressing employed by London City Lionesses after half-time. The closest players looked to swarm the Sheffield United player before they could get their heads up in an attempt to win the ball back as quickly as possible. Indeed the approach was so aggressive, it almost appeared ‘all or nothing’ at times to get themselves back in the game, such were the gaps that could be exploited behind if the press was broken.
However, the Lionesses were successful in this approach and began winning the ball back deep in Sheffield United territory, catching them in transition. In this image, Susanna has chased 30 yards to successfully win the ball and then attack into space to win a corner.
This more intense pressing is demonstrated from the match data, as London City allowed 8.7 passes per defensive action in the first half, compared with 5.2 in the second: a substantial difference.
Eventually, this pressure told as, thanks to these ball recoveries in the attacking third, London City won a succession of corners, resulting in an equaliser from a goalmouth scramble in the 56th minute through Vyan Sampson.
This equaliser led in turn led to a Sheffield United response, as they began to move the ball more quickly in expectation of the counter press, asserting more control, albeit without their level of first half dominance.
Sheffield exploit the press
Sheffield United grabbed the decisive goal in the 75th minute. In an effort to continue London City’s aggressive pressing game, right wing-back Lucy Fitzgerald stepped up high to try to intercept an underhit lofted pass from Sheffield United goalkeeper Becky Flaherty to her left flank. As we can see from the image, Fitzgerald takes a poor first touch as the ball arrives, allowing Sheffield United’s Tierney to recover the ball and exploit the huge space behind Fitzgerald by playing in Fergusson to run at the now back-pedalling defence.
The picture below shows that Fergusson, who has carried the ball into space from half-way, still has plenty to do, but she unbalances the centre-back before bending an excellent finish from range beyond Thomas in the Lionesses’ goal.
Ironically then, the intention to press that got London City Lionesses a foothold in the game was also their downfall as Fitzgerald’s bad touch as the Lionesses pushed up, left the team exposed with lots of space behind.
This was a deserved win for Sheffield United, who, as we can see below, were never behind on the cumulative xG dynamics and enjoyed almost complete domination of the first half as they exploited the space down the sides of London City Lionesses’ midfield three who were unable to stop Sheffield’s marauding full-backs and the combination of Barker and Pennock on the right.
London City responded after half-time with a far more aggressive approach to their pressing, preventing play to the Sheffield flanks and winning more possession in their opponent’s half, which resulted in a goal to mark their only sustained spell of pressure. However, a high-quality finish after a defensive error sealed the victory for Sheffield United, who would go on to finish second in the Championship, with the Lionesses in fourth place, eight points behind.
Sheffield United ended six points behind champions Aston Villa and will probably be considered favourites for promotion in 2020/21, while the London City Lionesses recently hired the highly regarded ex-Chelsea coach Lisa Fallon as manager and it will be interesting to see what impact she has on them next season.