An out of the box appointment when she took charge of Birmingham City after Marc Skinner’s sudden departure mid-way through the 2018-19 season, Marta Tejedor remained an unknown quantity to many in WSL.
Tasked with coming in at an awkward time of the season and keeping the team Blues ticking over, the Chilean had a job on her hands at the end of the season when the Midlands club saw mass player departures. With a team that once competed for the title now facing down the real prospect of relegation, we spoke to Tejedor about the season so far, where she sees the team and where they go from their current plight.
In charge of the Blues for just over a year, Tejedor’s second season (or first full season) has been a constant struggle against the tide with the team struggling not just to keep teams out but score goals at the other end. A youthful team that ultimately relies too much on Lucy Staniforth for inspiration in midfield and Hannah Hampton to keep them in matches, the progress in the Midlands has been slow this season.
“I want the team to play closer to my ideal style which I think fits most of the players and the players that have joined us but what happened… what we were expecting and the reality didn’t work so close so we had a lot of obstacles. When you go to into such a difficult situation, the only thing is to get better because it’s not possible to get worse, considering who left and got injured so I’m very positive for the second half of the season because I think we’ll build from there and get better.”
The team doesn’t just sit in one formation all season long but Tejedor puts out a more proactive team that works on closing down space and forcing turnovers against the bottom half of the table – with varying degrees of success. Against the teams fighting or the title, Birmingham favour a more pragmatic approach, aware they can’t match man for man so there’s a greater overall picture – again, to varying degrees of success.
“To be realistic, there are some things you can do with some opponents and some with others so we prepare every match and for example, you won’t high press some teams especially ones who are very quick but you will who aren’t so fast and you know you can get something from that high press depending on different circumstances.”
Having spoken to Rachel Williams about the team, she half-jokingly said she missed playing in midfield, the experienced attacker routinely fielded as the centre forward in the team. A workhorse, Williams floats about the pitch, seeing herself as a senior figure, she is the first to break away and try to force a mistake in the defence but it’s clear – even against tougher opposition like Arsenal – the team prides itself on its fluidity.
“We always try to be very versatile and flexible and if you look at players… Claudia Walker, she starts playing at right wing then she went nine and then you found her on the left so that’s something we work a lot on to rotate. The problem is we don’t have another player with the performance that Rachel brings to us when she plays the nine, so there’s no one else with her characteristics so if she goes somewhere else, you’re missing her. But if we manage to get some other or rebuild someone in a similar performance, why not.”
One of the frustrations of watching Birmingham this season has been the tempo at which they’ve played, some of which can be put down to the inexperience on the pitch. Against Arsenal, there wasn’t much pass and move going on – it was pass, stop, think, attempt to pass – the dallying on the ball not something too many teams can get away with against the teams higher up the WSL table.
“Sometimes when you try to move the ball faster you increase the number of mistakes but when you slow down you play in a safer way, let’s say, and how to combine those difference speeds is something really difficult to master and we need to keep working on it.”
With seven points from their 12 league matches so far this season, the Blues are currently six points adrift of Brighton and West Ham in ninth and eight respectively (and with a comparable goal difference), although the Seagulls have played three more matches and the Irons one more. Leaving plenty of room for ascension up the table over the second half of the season, not least because three of Birmingham’s last four losses have come against the top three.
“Well, one thing is dreaming, another is being realistic because I can dream really high! But being realistic, I think there are some teams which I would say are three or four are clearly on the top and will play for the Champions League spots and I don’t think we’re at that level and there are some teams struggling at the bottom, we’ve been there before and I know what it is and how it feels and I don’t want to be there any more and there’s a group in the middle who can compete with the teams in the top if they have a good performance. Let’s say we are in the middle, average, I think we deserve to be in the middle and the highest in this block, the better.”
Tejedor makes no bones about the finances of the club, although it’s common knowledge that the team – the women’s side of a mid-table Championship team that’s currently closer to relegation than the title – have one of the smaller budgets in the Super League. In the same window that Chelsea brought in one of the highest rated – and now, best paid – players in the world in Sam Kerr, Birmingham City signed Emma Kelly from ÍBV and formerly of Sunderland.
“It’s really difficult because in my opinion, the women’s football market is getting crazy and the players who two years ago were earning whatever and doubling now and we’re not one of the top teams regarding budgets, our men’s team is not a top, top team. We can’t play in some markets, we can’t offer the things that some teams can… Sam Kerr won’t come to us because we can’t offer her what is being offered by Chelsea. So, it’s very important to know where you are, so we need to build our own market and I really believe in our players from our academy and creating our own players.”
A team renowned for developing youth players, the side is a victim of its own success and when the players reach a certain level, they inevitably leave for pastures greener although there are no sour grapes around the Midlands.
“But once we create a very good player and we receives an offer from somewhere and we can’t compete with that. You need to understand the player and that they want to compete in the highest level they can and maybe it’s not even in the country but it’s playing abroad so it’s knowing where we are and how we are, we need to build our own plan but considering what we can afford and we can not.”
For Tejedor, there is the understanding that the team will never be able to sign a Sam Kerr meaning creative solutions are a must yet, the Chilean knows the team has much to offer to help players develop which seems to be her biggest job.
“We’ve brought a lot of them, coming back from the US, some others needs to come from our own academy and something that we can offer… I really believe in that is development programme and opportunities and many players when they left us they are much, much better than a couple of years ago when they came so we focus a lot on the learning process and what we can offer. Some players will invest in that and think okay I want to play in my national team and I want to be better and that’s my priority but some players only look at the money and the cheques and say which one is bigger and there’s nothing we can do.”
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