It was a huge game for Albion in the WSL on Saturday away to bottom of the table Bristol City. A win for Hope Powell’s side would have taken them up to 8th and a massive 10 points clear of their opponents who started the day bottom in the WSL’s relegation place, with just 2 points collected from the 11 games they’d played so far this season. Instead a defeat has meant Bristol climbed to within 4 points of them.
A recent Covid outbreak among the Albion team left among others key player Fliss Gibbons still serving an isolation period. All of which has limited Hope Powell’s options of late, but she was still able to reshuffle things at the back after that 7-1 hammering at the hands of Man City last time out. Namely dropping Kerkdijk and bringing in Williams at centre back with the young Bethan Roe also coming in at right back for only her second appearance for the first team, with Nora Heroum dropping out and Kayleigh Green reverting to her usual position higher up the pitch after deputising in defence their last time out.
Roe had been on a season long loan at Charlton in the Championship until earlier this month, but after the Covid outbreak limited the players available for selection, she was recalled. As a result of which, Powell could only name six out of the eight possible substitutes. Still, this is one more than the five they named last weekend away to City.
Powell was optimistic ahead of the game with some players now beginning to return from COVID isolation periods. Saying “it is nice to see players coming back, not possibly at full fitness, but I would take that rather than not having them at all.”
But this somewhat makeshift Albion team made possibly the worst of starts. When trying to play the ball out of the back, Albion gave it away on an admittedly heavy pitch and after failing to sufficiently close down Bristol’s Yaya Daniels, went behind after her slightly speculative shot caught out Fiskerstrand inside the first three minutes. Powell was critical of her keeper saying: “The early goal really put us on the back foot. I question our goalkeeper’s positioning, she was probably a little bit too high.” Albion’s defence should take their fair share of the blame here too, first for giving away the ball, and then giving Daniels too much space to get the shot away.
In response Albion put Bristol under plenty of pressure but failed to really test the keeper and get an equaliser. But it was Bristol who looked the most dangerous on the break and they caught Albion out again when a simple long ball through the middle of defence beat Le Tissier and allowed Ebony Salmon in behind to make it 2-0.
As half-time came a two-goal deficit was already a hard task for Albion to overturn, and it would get even harder after the break when Williams was penalised for what looked like a harsh handball decision and from the resultant penalty Salmon scored to double her tally and make the game safe for City.
Things got even worse shortly after when Kayleigh Green was given her marching orders, losing her head in all the frustration and stamping on Bristol’s opening goalscorer Yaya Daniels. Hope Powell said after that game that Green was “disgusted with herself”, and so she should have been. City’s interim manager Matt Beard’s comparison with Green’s actions and WWE wasn’t unfair.
Green did apologise after the game and Daniels stated that all was forgiven, but that was only after her red card was followed by Green having to be held back by her team-mates during what was described by Tom Garry in The Independent as “an expletive-ridden exchange with a furious Bristol City bench.”
But at least things didn’t get any worse after that, Albion only losing by three on this occasion compared to the six goals deficit the week before. Nonetheless this is a damaging 3-0 defeat, which leaves Albion right in the middle of a relegation dogfight and with many of the teams around them having games in hand, it may get even worse as the weeks go on.
Saturday saw Albion have lots of possession but struggle with their ball retention all afternoon on a bad pitch. They can’t just blame the pitch though, their average passing accuracy on Saturday of 69% is on par with their average all season and is the third worst in the division. In contrast, Bristol adapted far better to the conditions, with their far more direct style allowing them to create the better chances despite having significantly less possession.
Absences haven’t helped, both Gibbons (71%) and the Denise O’Sullivan (79%) have averaged higher passing accuracies than the team and tend to be far more reliable on the ball. Denise O’Sullivan’s in particular, who has now returned to her parent club North Carolina Courage after her loan period ended last month, has a passing accuracy that is the best at the club this season and her absence has been keenly felt this month.
It was ultimately the basics in defence that cost Albion here. Caught out by a speculative long range effort after giving the ball away in their own half and then again by a fairly straightforward long ball down the middle, making the game all-but out of reach before halftime.
In contrast, there was lots of possession and lots of promise going forward but simply not enough bite up front from Albion who have struggled for goals all season, scoring just 8 in their 13 WSL games. In fact it’s been an issue all season in the WSL, whilst they have averages over 10 shots a game this season, more than 4 of the other 5 teams in bottom half of the WSL, they have only scored a goal every 0.04 shots, the worst conversion rate in the division this season.
As Powell admitted after the game: “We weren’t good enough by our standards,” going onto say: “With how much we’ve developed, it feels like we’ve hit a brick wall and we have to go again.”
Especially given this was such a heavy defeat to a Bristol City side who hadn’t won in the Super League for nearly a year and who since the start of the season had amounted just two draws along with nine defeats in their eleven games played. A job recently taken on by interim manager Matt Beard, which he described after their 4-0 defeat last time out to Everton as “a big challenge”.
All making for a miserable day in the West Country, which mean they have lost 6 from their last 7 games and find themselves in a really bad place at the moment. The aforementioned hammering last weekend at the hands of Man City is unfortunately one of those things for Albion at the moment in what is becoming an increasingly top-heavy WLS, but taking a three-goal hammering from bottom of the table Bristol City who’d only scored six goals all season prior to kick off is another thing entirely and a huge setback for Powell’s team.
With Albion now being only 4 points above Bristol in 12th, the home games coming up against West Ham and Spurs later this month are now huge, especially if they are to avoid the season finale rematch with Bristol being a relegation decider. And just the little matter of a trip to league leaders Chelsea up next weekend.
On that prospect manager Hope Powell said “we’re gonna have to [be better]”, and she’s not wrong. If Albion are going to get out of the slump they find themselves in, they have to look after the ball better. Giving the ball away for Bristol’s opening goal here shows just that. Poor passing out from the back gifted possession to Bristol far too often, and if they keep doing that against better opposition they’ll be punished again and again, just like they were against City last weekend. Chelsea are likely be just as ruthless.