Can Birmingham turn their season around?
Finishing in 4th place and being the only side to have a positive xGD outside the top three, Birmingham City had a strong season in 2018/19. Halfway through the 2019/20 season, however, and things aren’t looking so great. Some kind of drop was almost expected, Birmingham lost a huge number of players in the summer, but can they look to recover some of last season’s form in 2020?
Looking at their expected goals, it’s not positive for Birmingham. Their xGD per game of -0.71 is the 4th worst in the division. They’re not in the position they are because of some kind of bad luck or finishing slump. Removing fixtures against the top three makes for better viewing, but it’s still not great. Their xGD is -0.16, which is the 8th best in the division.
Defensively they’ve not been too bad. They have the 7th best xG against in the division, which includes games against the top three where they’ve lost to Manchester City and Chelsea with a combined score of 9-0. Removing games against the top three, they have the 5th best xG against in the division.
One area they suffer is xG from shots taken within 15 seconds of the opposition having possession. They’ve conceded the 2nd highest xG per game from these shots. However, looking closer at the chances, it’s mostly from the games against Manchester City and Chelsea. Against Manchester City there was an instance where they lost the ball in the City half, leading to Keira Walsh playing Janine Beckie in on goal and also the below counter-attack leading to a good chance for Lauren Hemp.
Then the same happened against Chelsea. In one instance Millie Bright grabbed herself a goal after breaking forward and in the second half Bright won the ball back in midfield and went on to set up a decent chance for Beth England.
In the games against City and Chelsea, it felt as though it was easy for the opposition to move through the midfield. With Birmingham wanting to get their full-backs wide and in advanced positions it can leave the middle a bit vacant. Despite this, their numbers for the completion rate of progressive passes is around average – while still including the games against City and Chelsea. Removing those two games sees the completion rate move to slightly better than average.
There may be some problems with their structure/pressing which was taken advantage of in the games against the top clubs, but the fact it isn’t manifesting itself in games against everyone else does it make it seem like it isn’t that worrisome for the Blues.
The main concern is in their attacking numbers. Only Bristol City have created less xG against sides not in the top three. The problem isn’t quantity, they take the 6th most shots per game, but the quality of their shots has been poor. They have the lowest xG per shot in the division and it’s no surprise when you see their shot map.
It’s not as though they’re taking long shots from just outside the area either. There’s plenty of shots that look to be a good 30+ yards out. Looking at shots that come from 30 or more yards out, Birmingham have the highest total despite playing the fewest games in the league. They’re taking 4.25 shots per game from 30+ yards out. It’s more than the top four combined.
I should probably dig deeper into looking at why they’re taking long shots. For instance, it may be a result of a lack of options in attack. It does feel almost pointless to point out a team takes bad shots without looking at why that’s the case or how they can improve. With that being said, there’s also been plenty of times when they’ve taken long shots with bodies forward and options available. It’s also not as though it’s one rogue player, all of Lucy Staniforth, Claudia Walker, Brianna Visalli and Chloe Arthur have more than one shot per game and none of them have an xG per shot above 0.05.
Despite the negatives when it comes to shot selection, there’s a lot to like about what this Birmingham side does with the ball. They look to play from the back and put together a lot of nice possessions. Birmingham average the 4th most passes per possession for possessions that begin in their defensive third and have the 4th most 10+ pass possessions per game in the division. While they don’t get a clear chance, the below clip is a nice move against Everton going from their ‘keeper to the opposition box.
A highlight of their season so far has been the form of 22-year-old Sarah Mayling. Last season I mentioned she had strong progressive passing numbers with good accuracy figures and even with the changed method she’s continued to impress. For players with more than 300 minutes played she has the 6th highest progression via passes per 90. More impressively, she’s leading the league when looking at progression per minute in possession, by quite some distance (as can be seen on the plot below).
A part of me is unsure if I did this the best way, I took the duration of passes (excluding crosses and set pieces) and divided their progression from passes by this figure. I constantly feel like I missed something obvious and I shouldn’t use this number, but her per 90 numbers are also strong. She’s the defender with the 3rd highest xT per 90 behind only Janine Beckie and Lisa Evans – who have both also played in more advanced positions. She has her club’s highest xT per 90 and even their 2nd highest xG + open play xA per 90 behind Lucy Staniforth.
Her strong xT and xG + xA numbers likely come thanks to a couple of good deliveries into the box, like the one below against Liverpool.
And a nice 1-2 before a low cross against Everton on the opening day.
Overall, Birmingham feel like quite an odd team in 2019/20. A lot of their numbers aren’t good but they don’t look like a bad side. They build well from the back, press high up the pitch with the 3rd highest number of pressures in the final third per game (@EveryTeam_Mark posted a cool graph looking at counterpressing in the WSL too), but a lot of that work is undone by poor shot selection in the final third. If they can improve in the final third there’s still time in the season for them to try and become more a part of the middle pack, as opposed to one of the strugglers.