When Manchester United Women were promoted to the WSL in the summer of 2019, many expected them to get to the top and start to challenge for titles. The former team was disbanded back in 2005, but a new side was reformed in 2018, with England legend Casey Stoney appointed as their new head coach. Their first season in existence saw them promoted to the WSL, before then claiming fourth place last season, but they made some really good additions over the summer, and are now challenging for the WSL title, along with Arsenal Women and Chelsea Women, and sit at the top of the league at time of writing.
Casey Stoney’s philosophy and the way she sets her teams up has attracted a lot of interest, and her success with Manchester United has seen her linked with other roles, such as the England manager’s job. This tactical analysis will look at the tactics she likes her team to play with, analysing how they have helped Manchester United to the top of the table.
Wide attacking structure
The first key point to mention is how Manchester United Women play with a wide attacking structure. We can see in this image how they stretch right across the pitch, making it as big as possible, and this is a key factor in their attack.
This was present in their tactics last season, but the summer additions of USA internationals Tobin Heath and Christen Press have helped them to make it more effective, whilst another addition, young England striker Alessia Russo, has been played in the target player role by Casey Stoney. Therefore, Manchester United’s attack is balanced, with Heath and Press able to stay wide and cross into the box, or cut inside and shoot, whilst Russo can get on the end of anything that comes into the box and create plenty of problems for the opposition.
In this image, we can see the same wide setup, but this time Kirsty Hanson is on the right-hand side of the attack, with Press in the middle, wearing number 24. This highlights how Manchester United’s attack is flexible, with many different options and combinations that they can use, and the players are happy to fill into space wherever it appears. This is another key element that Stoney has built into the squad, making them a really powerful attacking side.
Having this wide formation doesn’t just allow them to stretch the opposing defenders out, but also to match their opponents’ formation. To explain, if the opponents are playing with three at the back, then each of Manchester United’s attackers close down one of the defenders. This is what we can see in the image above. It is also notable that there is a fourth Manchester United player in the middle, marking the central player, meaning that the defence can’t play the short ball out to the midfield, and have to clear it long. This will lead to more mistakes from their opponents, so we can see how Stoney looks to set up her team to use space and force opponents to make errors.
Overloading the central areas
The second notable thing that Casey Stoney likes her team to do is to overload the central areas when in attack.
This tactic starts with the role played by Leah Galton. Capable of playing at left wing or left-back, Galton provides the width for Manchester United Women, as we can see in the image above.
However, because Galton is versatile, able to play anywhere on the left of the pitch, it gives Manchester United options in attack. If they have Galton as a winger, she gives them pace in attack, and a constant source of shooting opportunities. However, if she is playing at left-back, with Christen Press, Tobin Heath and Alessia Russo preferred as the front three, then Galton gets forward and allows whoever is the wide left forward to play a little more centrally, without them having to constantly move back out to the wing when out of possession. The effect of this is that Manchester United can increase their central threat, looking to outnumber the defence in that area. Therefore, this is why Stoney has opted to move Galton to left-back for some games this season, and also proof of what it brings to the rest of the team.
Now that we have established how Galton keeps the width, we can see in this image how Manchester United use this to get players into the middle of the pitch. The players in the red circles are Press and Heath, which shows just how central they can get in their positioning. They are either side of the rest of the attacking players, with six Manchester United players in this area in total. Therefore, their attacking presence is increased, and there is more chance that they will score a goal if the ball comes in from Press.
Therefore, we can see how Stoney looks to set up her team to constantly attack and put pressure on opposing defences, and this has become a key part of her tactics this season, especially with the likes of Press and Heath as crucial options in her team.
Role of Ella Toone
However, whilst getting players into the forward areas has been a big part of Manchester United Women’s rise to the top of the WSL, this tactic doesn’t work unless there is someone to transfer the ball to them. We have analysed how Leah Galton provides crosses from the wide channels, but Ella Toone is the player who stays further back and closes down any opposing counter-attacks, playing the role of the provider for the forwards.
In this image, we can see how Toone, in the red circle, has moved towards her opponent. She ensures that they can’t get the ball away from their goal area too quickly, and any balls not quite under control are reclaimed from the defenders.
What this means for Manchester United is that the attackers don’t have to run too far back, because they know that Toone will be behind them, making interceptions and tackles and ensuring that the ball gets back to her teammates not too long after it has been lost. Therefore, she plays a crucial role in the recovery of the ball.
This image shows a situation where Manchester United are under pressure, having been forced back towards their own goal area. However, Toone, in the red circle again, runs forwards to win the ball off her opponent. Once she gets the ball, as mentioned, her teammates know the ball will go forwards, and we can see how there are already two players looking to get forward, behind the opposing defence, as shown by the red arrows. Therefore, Toone has a big influence on her team, and is the player they can rely on to win the ball in the middle and then launch attacks from. With so many options for Stoney in the final third, Toone is the one she has charged with winning the ball and feeding it through to them, being a key player in the transition once possession has been taken back.
However, we also need to remember that Toone is a forward by nature, not a midfielder, and that means she is in her natural position when playing in the final third. In this image, she is in a good position to receive the ball from the far side of the pitch, and ends up scoring here. Therefore, her spatial awareness is also excellent, and this again allows her to get into areas where she can help her team’s attack, which is why she is such a key player in Casey Stoney’s tactics.
When it comes to the defence, Casey Stoney likes her backline to be organised, and we expect that this will be the case, with Stoney a former defender herself, so she knows how to set up a defence to cause problems for opposing attacks.
This situation comes as Manchester United are retreating towards their penalty area. However, we can see how they are organised and working together even when going backwards, which shows how much defensive work they do in training. All four players are narrowly organised, which stops Manchester City Women from getting the ball through them. Instead, Manchester City have to play the ball wide, and we can see how there is a player on the far side of the pitch ready to receive the ball in that area. However, it will be easier to block a cross from that area than it would be to stop a shot coming from a ground pass through the middle of the defence, and this is what Manchester United’s and Casey Stoney’s defensive tactics are set up to prevent.
This is another situation where Manchester United have an organised defensive line at the back, but it is stretched across the pitch a little more this time. This is because they are looking to get tight to the Manchester City attackers in the middle, as you can see, and this stops the ball going to those players, limiting their passing options. The second part of the setup is to get the midfielders, who have tracked back to help out, closing down the player with the ball, putting pressure on them to move it quickly. All of this together looks to force Manchester United’s opponents to make mistakes in possession, and we have already seen how they look to punish mistakes and get the ball forward.
Marking and pressing opposing attackers
This tactic of using player-to-player marking is the last key tactic that Casey Stoney likes to use to make it harder for opponents to get the ball into their forwards, and this is what we will now take a closer look at.
Manchester United Women’s defence is built on having a strong backline, and also forcing their opponents to pass the ball into areas where it can be taken off them. Here, we can see how they have forced the ball out wide, and have set up to win the ball back when it comes into the middle.
The three red squares show how Manchester United have got tight to the Manchester City Women attackers. This now forces them to move the ball quicker, but their options have been limited. The obvious ball in would be the cross into the box, but with the two central attackers being closely marked, this is now likely to lead to the ball being cleared. Therefore, the ball can only really go backwards now, and the threat has been ended. This is how Manchester United’s marking stops attacks, and is a key reason why they have been so difficult to beat this season, having not lost any of their opening eight games in the WSL so far.
Again, we can see here how the ball is with Manchester City forward Chloe Kelly on the wing, but she is under pressure from the Manchester United defender. Her options with the ball are limited, and her two teammates inside are both being marked by defenders too, meaning they can’t be passed the ball without risking it being lost.
However, it isn’t just in these situations that Manchester United like to close down the passing options. This image shows a situation where Birmingham City Women are attacking, but striker Claudia Walker has been surrounded by red shirts. This means that, again, she has to move the ball quickly, and make a pass that she probably wouldn’t make by choice. In this image, it is likely to be the pass to right-back Sarah Mayling on the wing, and again, this would then make it easier for the attempted cross to be blocked, ending the threat. This is what Manchester United focus on in defence, taking control by marking players, and forcing the ball to be passed into areas where they can win it and launch counter-attacks.
In conclusion, we have seen in this analysis how Casey Stoney’s tactics have helped her side to reach the top of the table, and, in the process, become one of the hardest WSL teams to beat this season. Having looked in detail at how she sets up her defence and attack, we can see how both link together, and how it makes them a really hard team to play against.
Stoney’s philosophy is clearly to win the ball as quickly as possible when it is lost, getting it to the forward line at the first opportunity, and we have seen so many times how this has brought rewards for them in terms of goals and points. They may have conceded seven goals in eight games this season, but they have scored 19, which shows how Stoney has instilled a mentality in them that, even when they concede goals, they focus on scoring more, and this is exactly why her team has been so potent in front of goal this season.