A Sneaky Peek At The Tractor Girls


As we ready ourselves for the men’s derby, how would our rising women’s side fare against their equivalent? Lucy Chen went undercover to see how we’d stand up against the Tractor Girls.

Portman Road is the last place you’d expect to see a Norwich fan, but that was where I was, watching Ipswich Town Women take to the pitch against Chatham Town. Sat in the West Stand amid an oppressive sea of blue and Ipswich chants, I asked myself what the eff I was doing there.

But truth be told, the idea of watching Ipswich’s first-ever league game at Portman Road intrigued me to no end, and my curiosity was simply impossible to resist. With Norwich City Women in the middle of a promotion push, I wanted to see this supposedly formidable side for myself should we cross swords with them next season.

The rumours of their formidableness were not exaggerated

Aside from the basics, I didn’t know much about them going into the game – though it’d been clear for some time that their women’s team had a leg up on us. The Tractor Girls play in the FAWNL Premier Division South, one tier above Norwich City Women. Now in their third year in tier three, they’ve established themselves as one of the strongest sides in the division, only missing out on promotion to the Championship in goal difference in the 22/23 season.

Well, I saw them for myself – and the rumours of their formidableness were not exaggerated. The game unfolded to reveal a side with an abundance of quality all over the pitch and a clear and attractive playing style, imbued with self-belief and determined to land on the big stage with a bang.

Cheered on from start to finish by an enthusiastic crowd of more than 10,000, the Tractor Girls romped to a 5-0 victory – a score they could easily have exceeded. Just like City, Ipswich seek to become the protagonist from the get-go – but they go about it in a distinctly different way.

Under former head coach Martin Herdman, City have this season established a clear playing identity – one that emphasises aggression and physicality. The Yellows seek to press the opposition high, force a turnover then break forward quickly; letting the opposition have the ball so they can press and pounce on turnovers. Ipswich, on the other hand, want to have the ball; their game is based on what they do when they have it. Though they’re also a pressing team, that press is merely a useful tool rather than the core of their playing identity. This can be discerned from the responsibilities the two sides place on their centre backs.

Norwich’s 23/24 campaign has seen the skipper Anna Larkins – a right back by trade – move to central defence, partnered by Ceri Flye or Hope Strauss. But regardless of personnel, the centre backs are expected to be strong in defensive transitions – covering for the full backs in the wide areas and breaking up counterattacks. Flye, in particular, excels at this; I’ve never seen her lose a foot race.

Ipswich are less aggressive out of possession and less vertical in possession than City

For Ipswich, who expect to have plenty of the ball, their centre backs’ responsibilities lie primarily in-possession rather than out. Though the Suffolk side lines up in a 4-2-3-1, their back four morphs into a back three in possession, with right back Leah Mitchell tucking in to become the third centre back. All three of their centre backs are comfortable on the ball; they look to move it patiently from side to side, keeping the ball and shifting the opposition until space opens up for a line-breaking pass.

Ipswich are less aggressive out of possession and less vertical in possession than City, and rather than seeking to get the ball forward quickly and playing mostly in transition, they’re more than happy to hold onto the ball. As such, they can be considered a possession-based side, where City’s football is more transition-based.

Quite often, I saw Ipswich’s back three shift the ball to one side, draw the opposition across, then quickly switch the ball to the other side and break forward from there. Even more impressive are their forwards. Each of their front four is quick, technical and versatile, lending the Tractor Girls many avenues of attack. The ability of their forwards to both come short for the ball and either lay it off or turn and dribble, as well as to run in behind and get on the ends of through balls, makes their attack highly unpredictable.

Indeed, the hallmark of their game is opposite movements – there’s always someone dropping to drag defenders out of position or someone running in behind to attack vacated space. City, of course, also utilise opposite movements. One can roughly draw a central axis in their 4-2-3-1, running from centre forward Tash Snelling to attacking midfielder Ellie Smith and central midfielder Katie Knights. When Snelling drops, Smith makes the run; and when Smith drops, Knights makes the run.

I was struck by the fluidity and multifaceted nature of Ipswich’s attack, the player who impressed me the most being their number 7, centre forward Natasha Thomas. As complete a forward as I’d ever seen, she was linking up, dribbling, running the channels and putting away chances, scoring a brace for her trouble and deservedly winning the Player of the Match award. She has a particularly good on-pitch relationship with number 11 Lucy O’Brien, the shadow striker always making the runs to take advantage of the space vacated by Thomas.

And if Thomas elected to stay high, then O’Brien was just as comfortable playing like a more typical 10, picking up the ball between the lines and either dribbling into dangerous situations or playing in one of the other forwards. Their relationship isn’t unlike that of Snelling and Smith.

Their two wingers have rather different playing styles, but were equally impressive on Saturday. Their number 17, Sophie Peskett, is very much a touchline winger. She held width in attack, which opened up the right half-space for O’Brien and made it possible for the right back Mitchell to remain deep and form the back three in-possession shape.

Ipswich expect to have the ball and dominate the game

The left winger Lenna Gunning-Williams is good on the ball and has no trouble getting past defenders like Peskett. However, while Peskett held width, Gunning-Williams played almost exclusively in the pockets. She often picked up the ball between the lines and looked to create, and it fell onto the full back Summer Hughes to provide width on the left.

The relationship between Gunning-Williams and Hughes is unlike that of City’s wingers and full backs. Where Gunning-Williams effectively plays like a second 10, we see a common pattern at the Nest of the winger holding width while the full back drives forward with the run, releasing them down the flank for the 1v1. And while the wingers often do come inside, they almost always hold width initially. Indeed, the left back’s adventurousness is a telltale sign that Ipswich expect to have the ball and dominate the game.

Watching Hughes on Saturday, the Arsenal fan in me was reminded of Kieran Tierney, another number 3 who bombed up and down the flank, dominating the left-hand side. Hughes has that burst that lets her explode past defenders and go for the cross or cutback; she attacked the far post as needed, getting on the score sheet in the 72nd minute for the final goal of the afternoon. However, this is also something we could look to exploit, should we ever come up against them. Hughes’ adventurousness means there are always acres of space behind her in transition; though Chatham Town were thoroughly outclassed on Saturday, they did look dangerous the few times they managed to do this.

We’d need to defend well, fight for every ball, and make chances count.

Nevertheless, I want to stress that the standard of football I saw was high. In fact, it was frightening, and I left Portman Road profoundly unnerved by how far our rivals are ahead of us. To put things into perspective, we went out of the FAWNL Cup back in October to London Bees – a side that’s rock bottom in the same Southern Premier Division, while Ipswich are currently fifth with a game in hand.

If you’re wondering what we should expect if we go up or draw Ipswich in a cup game next season, I’d suggest looking at the FA Cup game against Hashtag United back in November – even though Ipswich would be even more difficult to play against. We managed to grind out a 1-0 win thanks to tenacious defending, some unreal saves from Sarah Quantrill and a moment of magic from Ellie Smith. If we’re to stand a chance against Ipswich, we’d need to do more of the same – defend well, fight for every ball, make chances count, and turn the fans out in numbers.

On the whole, I was – unfortunately – very impressed by what I saw on Saturday, whether the style of play, the quality of the players or the atmosphere in the stands, and I believe we should use them as a reference point for where we want to be. From what I saw, there’s much we can learn from them.

More than anything else, while we’ve made huge strides since full integration in 2022, there’s still a long way to go – there can be no complacency, even if we do go up this season.


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