(fun fact: every WSL game I’ve seen this season has included a team in an all-red kit!)
Birmingham put in a solid, intelligent performance to come away 2-1 winners over Bristol, and extend their lead at the top of the WSL 1 table to three points; although they should have scored more from open play – with their goals coming from a set-piece and a defensive error – Bristol were outplayed for large portions of the game, with the visitors showing poor defensive discipline and a lack of end product in attack.
Bristol were largely poor defensively; they should have conceded when Birmingham right-back Weston overlapped, finding space against the isolated Yorston, and crossed for both Westwood and Lawley to take air-shots on the six-yard line in the 40th minute. Both sides played an attacking 4-2-3-1, meaning that the wide attackers had few defensive responsibilities, and Bristol were often exploited on the flanks as their full-backs were overloaded against Birmingham’s wingers and full-backs. This was especially dangerous when Carney pulled wide, away from the no 10 role, leading to 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s on the wings; it’s no surprise that Birmingham’s first goal game from a free-kick conceded in the channel between the right-back and centre-back.
The midfield two of James and Ingle were too central in this respect, trying to pack the midfield to crowd out Carney, but lacked the initiative to follow her out wide; Bristol were often left with two central midfielders marking no-one in a blue shirt. This also harmed their push for a late equaliser, as James and Ingle remained central, trying to force their way through a packed Birmingham centre (two centre-halves and two deep midfielders), instead of pulling out wide to support the dangerous wingers Harding and Del Rio, who were now outnumbered by Birmingham’s full-backs and wingers, who had dropped back to form a 4-5-1 late on.
As well as this tactical rigidity, Bristol were individually weak at the back; there were no Birmingham midfield runners, as Moore and Potter sat deep, but both Rose and Dykes were pulled around by Birmingham’s striker Westwood; the concept of one defender to mark the striker, and one to drop back to cover the space, was non-existent, as Westwood created gaping holes in the Bristol back line, which Carney could exploit. Their lack of positional discipline was apparent on Birmingham’s second goal, where Rose’s underhit backpass put the visitors in trouble, but it was really Dykes’ distance from her defensive partner that gave Birmingham the space to pass it around the keeper, giving Westwood an open goal to pass into.
But Bristol weren’t terrible going forward, and were on top for the first 20 minutes or so; (the largely disappointing) Watts and Harding combined well early on, switching positions and finding space against Birmingham’s left-back George, much like Lawley and Weston were able to do for Birmingham at the other end. However, neither these forwards, nor Pablos Sanchon and Del Rio, could generate any clear-cut chances, scuffing shots and misplacing passes. I think that Bristol’s lack of a designated striker – all for ‘forwards’ rotated and swapped positions at will – resulted in too little pressure on the Birmingham centre-halves, letting Mannion and Harrop have all the time they needed to read and break down attacks, time that Bristol’s Rose and Dykes were not given by the constant presence of Westwood. Bristol’a attack was dangerous on paper, but was too fluid and incoherent to break down a well-organised, and well-manned (Birmingham kept six players, the back four and both midfielders, back for most of the game) Blues defence.
The home side were not just individually more clinical – with Carney’s free-kick to take the lead after eleven minutes being the best technical piece of skill all game – but more intelligent as a team; when Bristol dominated the opening minutes, they went long, hitting diagonal balls up to Westwood, or a winger, and allowing them to find space because of the pace of Lawley and Allen, and the craft of Carney, who was both playing people in behind the Bristol back four, and making dangerous runs herself. Essentially, Birmingham’s tactic, of using a broken team and hoping their attacking players could fashion chances, worked because their forwards were physical enough to win second balls, and smart enough to fashion chances from them.
This made defending a lot easier for them, as they could attack with one full-back at a time in the first half, leaving five players back, and then stop overlapping altogether as they ran the clock down in the second; unlike Bristol, they attacked through clever play, not weight of numbers, which made defending much easier. On that note, I’d like to congratulate Birmingham on closing the game out excellently in the last ten minutes, conning two cheap free kicks near the Bristol corner off hapless substitute Brown, killing the tempo and ensuring that Bristol never really got a chance to generate momentum; it’s telling that the final whistle was blown with the ball deep in the Bristol half.
Their forwards also contributed to this great defensive display, pressing the Bristol back four relentlessly; obviously the second goal was the result of this, but by the second minute, Birmingham were winning second balls in midfield from their long passes up to Westwood, and in the second minute, Bristol won the ball back, and immediately kicked it out of play to end their first period (of about half a second) of possession, showing nerves for the Bristol defence. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to replace the 22-year-old substitute centre-back Jemma Rose, who gave the ball away for Birmingham’s second.
It is also indicative of Birmingham’s good defence that I’ve not deemed the goal they conceded important enough to talk about until the final paragraph; it was a Hannah George own goal from a floated free kick, but her header only went backwards because of bad luck, and keeper Spencer was standing on her line when she couldn’t reach the ball as it hit the underside of the crossbar, which I attribute to the fact that women in the UK are, on average, six inches shorter than men, but use goals of the same height, not Spencer’s mistake. Honestly, I consider the women’s game to be just as important as the men’s, but this piece of ‘equality’ is disadvantaging goalkeepers through no fault of their own; either lower the crossbars, or provide step-ladders for keepers.
I’d like to see Birmingham be more clinical going forward, as they created chances but didn’t score from any of them, but this is a problem with the forwards’, otherwise excellent, performance on the day, not a deeper tactical problem with the side; at this point, it’s hard to see them falling behind in the title race.
Birmingham (4-2-3-1): Spencer; Weston, Mannion, Harrop, George; Potter, Moore; Lawley, Carney, Allen; Westwood (Keryakoplis 80)
Subs not used: Simpkins, Torkildsen, Stringer
Cards: One yellow (Allen), no reds
Goals: Carney 11, Westwood 54
Bristol (4-2-3-1): Earps; McCatty, Rose, Dykes, Yorston (Matthews 68); James, Ingle; Harding, Watts (Brown 80), Del Rio; Pablos Sanchon
Subs not used: Vega Leandro, Windell, Cleverly
Cards: Two yellows (McCatty and Watts), no reds
Goals: George 71 (og)
Referee: R. Massey-Ellis