England’s women’s football team are spoilt for choice at the moment, with a new generation coming through to balance out the experience they already have. Young stars such as Manchester City Women’s Chloe Kelly, Chelsea Women’s Niamh Charles and Arsenal Women’s Lotte Wubben-Moy are all in the international picture, as well as Manchester United Women’s 21-year-old forward Ella Toone. Toone has emerged as a creative force for her side this season, instrumental in their excellent form so far. In the recent Northern Ireland friendly, she made her debut from the bench, raising two interesting questions; how does she fit into the England side, and how can she bring the best out of those around her in the Lionesses team? In this tactical analysis, we will look at three tactical areas of her game, and then analyse what that gives England going forward.
As a forward, it is important that Ella Toone has excellent awareness of her on-pitch surroundings. This is something she has in abundance and uses it to her advantage.
She likes to find pockets of space in between opponents, offering passing options for her teammates. Manchester City Women favour a 4-3-3 formation, but Toone finds the gaps between their lines here, linking up different areas of the team for Manchester United Women, and allowing them to get the ball to their key attackers further up the pitch. Manchester United have plenty of goal scorers in their forward line, such as summer additions Tobin Heath, Christen Press and Alessia Russo, as well as Leah Galton and Lauren James, but Toone is the one who creates chances for them. Therefore, she has this season become an indispensable member of the team, and a key part of their attacking tactics.
Again, her spatial awareness means she finds the best places to offer passing options for her teammates. Here, Manchester United have the ball on the far side wing, but there is no way forward here, because Chelsea Women right-back Maren Mjelde has closed off the route forward. Toone sees this, changing her run to drop back and help out, as the red arrow indicates. This means that, whilst the ball can’t initially get to the attackers, Toone can find them when she receives it, because she has the space to do so.
This movement is another positive that comes from her spatial awareness, as it means that Manchester United’s attacks haven’t broken down as often due to defenders closing off space on the pitch. Therefore, this is another reason why Toone has become so important to their tactics this season.
Being a natural attacking player, Toone knows where to move to in the final third, ensuring her teammates always have a passing option in the central areas. Manchester United’s forwards like to drift around the pitch, sometimes coming short to receive the ball, and Toone sees this and moves to take their place at the front of the attack. This image shows just this, with the ball on the far side wing, and Press, in the yellow circle, behind the Everton Women defence. Toone, in the red circle, has run through, offering the central passing option that the USA international would have been if she had not dropped back.
To put it another way, if Toone wasn’t in this position, then there would have been no passing option ahead of the defence here, meaning the ball could have been closed down more easily on the wing. Therefore, again, we see why Toone has been one of her team’s most important players this season.
It is not just in the middle that Toone sees space. Here, she is on the right wing, which is where she often plays in these attacking situations. The blue lines show how Chelsea’s defence has narrowed, which is because Manchester United’s front three of Press, Galton and Scotland winger Kirsty Hanson have all formed a narrow attacking line.
However, Toone runs forward to play on the outside of this, opening up a wider passing option, and we can see how she knows there is a good chance of getting behind the defence here, as she is indicating that she wants the ball to come to her. From there, she can set up a chance in the box, and the fact that she already has 0.12 assists on average this season, from an expected assists (xA) value of 0.15, demonstrates her confidence and how her teammates do transfer the ball to her when in these situations.
Ella Toone’s excellent spatial awareness helps her to get into good positions around the pitch, again offering passing options in key areas for her team.
Here, the ball is on the near side wing, with Manchester United Women looking to get it into the space behind Manchester City Women’s defence. Ella Toone has seen where that space is, and is again indicating that she wants the ball to come to her in that area. This image also demonstrates her versatility, because we saw in the last section how she can play on the right wing, but has a more central position here. This is another of her key qualities, and is something else she can bring to the England team. Players who can play in multiple positions are always favoured, because they bring more to the team, giving managers more options tactically, and this is something both Casey Stoney and Hege Riise have picked up on this season.
We have already looked at how Toone can comfortably operate on the right of the attack, but here we see how she can use this to get into good positions to help her team. Here, Everton Women goalkeeper Sandy MacIver has parried Manchester United’s shot back into the box, into Toone’s path. Toone’s anticipation means she gets to the ball before anyone else and scores, so, by finding these spaces, she offers another goal threat to her team. This is equally as important for her to have, because, whilst her positioning and spatial awareness is important, she also needs to have an end product, and this demonstrates that she has that too. To prove this, she has so far scored 0.37 goals per game, with an expected goals (xG) value of 0.48, so can add goals to her team’s attacking performance when required.
However, the position we have seen her take up most this season is here, playing just behind the main forward line. We mentioned how she has become one of the most creative players in the WSL this season, and this is why. From this position, she acts as a pivot for her team, moving the ball to whichever area it can be most effective in, and also provides a link between the midfielders and forwards. Her accuracy of passes to the final third is 60.7%, whilst her accuracy of passes into the penalty area is 53.5%, both of which show the threat she poses to opponents in these situations.
However, if we look at this another way, we see another positive it can be interpreted as. Leah Galton, in the yellow circle, has two passing options immediately available to her, one centrally and one on the other side of the goal area. This is the way Manchester United normally set up in these situations, looking to get players into key positions, ensuring that there is always someone to move the ball to. However, Chelsea Women’s defence has moved to close off those options as much as possible, which is where Toone comes in. By taking up the position outside the box that she has, she ensures Galton can still transfer the ball inside the pitch, and Toone would then be in a good position to shoot at goal.
This positional awareness is why she has been one of the WSL’s best players this season, and why England have taken notice of her as a result.
So far, we have looked at how Ella Toone plays when out of possession, offering herself as a passing option for her teammates around the pitch. However, she is just as good with the ball too.
In this image, we see how Manchester United Women are looking to move the ball from defence to attack as quickly as possible, with Manchester City Women in transition, having come forward to join the attack. However, Toone has an excellent passing ability, making the long diagonal ball here to create an opportunity for her teammates to attack the forward areas. Her confidence with the ball means she never hesitates to make a pass, no matter how much ground it will need to cover, and this again gives Manchester United options on the pitch.
Toone’s teammates know that, whenever she gets the ball in this amount of open space, they don’t need to move towards her to receive it, which would make the pitch smaller and easier for the defenders to then surround them, knowing that Toone will find them in space. Instead, they can keep it as big as possible, as all coaches encourage their teams to do when attacking.
Toone can also make short passes as well, like here, against Everton Women. She has a more central midfield position this time, looking to advance as far forward as she can. Spain full-back Ona Batlle, in the yellow circle, is running forward to support the attack, and Toone’s aforementioned spatial awareness means she sees Batlle’s run, making a perfectly-weighted pass out to the Spain international, who runs onto it and takes it behind Everton’s defenders. Toone currently has a 73.7% passing accuracy for this season, showing how her range of accurate passing gives her teammates options and means they can get into spaces, knowing the ball will come to them.
The fact that Toone doesn’t panic in these situations also helps, because, if she did, her passes would not have the right speed on them, meaning that Manchester United would waste plenty of good attacking opportunities. Therefore, again, we see what she brings to the team.
We mentioned previously how Toone takes up central positions just outside the box, giving her teammates a third passing option when in a good attacking situation. Here, we see how this works, with Toone in possession and shooting at goal. However, as the red arrow indicates, she fires well wide here. She has got 35.5% of her shots on target on average this season, and, whilst we looked at how she scores tap-ins and rebounds from inside the box, her ability to score from these distances still needs improving. However, the fact that she is willing to have a go from these areas demonstrates her confidence, and that is something we have seen a lot of from her this season, which is a definite positive for her and her team.
We have so far looked at three different aspects of Ella Toone’s game at Manchester United Women this season, but now we need to turn our attention back to the two questions we asked at the start of this analysis; how does she fit into the England side, and how can she bring the best out of those around her in the team?
Here, we see how she is driving forwards with the ball, looking to gain ground for her team. Northern Ireland struggled to keep England back when the Lionesses attacked, and Toone was a key player in that after her second-half introduction. By moving forwards here, she makes it easier to feed the ball into players like striker Ellen White, who we know tends to play on the shoulder of the defensive line anyway. Therefore, Toone links up the play, finding spaces behind the main attacking line, and acting again in the pivot role that we saw her play in for Manchester United. She also allows players like White to get further forwards, which in turn forced Northern Ireland’s defence further back, so it all shows how Toone’s direct running is something that will really benefit England in the future.
The second thing we noticed was that Toone was comfortable playing short, quick passes, linking up with teammates where necessary. Here, she receives the short corner, before then playing the one-touch pass back into her teammate’s path, as the two red arrows show. This takes us back to her range of passing and confidence on the ball, which is again something that will benefit the Lionesses. If they can get Toone on the ball even more, they will create more ways of transferring the ball into the box, as they did here. The rapid passing also means that England will be able to get their dangerous players behind opposing defences much quicker, before those defenders have had a chance to organise themselves, and this is another reason Toone’s inclusion in the England side is a big positive for them going forward.
The final point to make is similar to one in the last section, in that Toone takes up positions just outside the box to offer a passing option for her team, as well as linking up the midfield and attack. England like to play with a similar 4-3-3 system to Manchester United, with Manchester City duo Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp providing the width in attack for the team. Both of those players have assisted goals this season, with Kelly having eight league assists and Hemp two, so, if Toone continues getting into these positions, she will offer them both another option centrally to pass the ball to. Toone again takes the shot here, which goes just wide of the post, but this also again shows her confidence with the ball and desire to have a go, even if there is little space to shoot from.
In this scout report, we have sought to analyse Ella Toone’s game at Manchester United Women, and how those qualities can be brought into the England fold, benefitting the Lionesses’ tactics. We have seen how important a player Toone is to the team, and how much she does for them, and it is clear that her fledgling international career has a long way to go if she continues playing like this. The future of English women’s football is safe with the new generation of players coming through, and Toone has proven this season that she can be a major part of that.