Manchester City Women have made many big signings this summer, but 18-year-old right-back Esme Morgan could be one of their most important players this season. She spent last season with WSL rivals Everton Women, but started this season as the first-choice right-back for her parent club; Lucy Bronze’s arrival may change this, but Morgan still has a role in her team’s tactics. In this tactical analysis, we will look at how Morgan fits into Manchester City’s tactics in defence and attack, and how she can be a major part of their quest to regain the WSL title after three seasons finishing as runners-up.
Brick wall defender
The main point to make in this scout report about Morgan’s defensive qualities is that she is a “brick wall defender”. By this, we mean that, like a brick wall, she doesn’t let anything get past her, and is the last line of defence for her team. This is something she did last season and this season, as this section of the analysis will show. If we look at the image below, we can see this.
Here, Morgan is in the blue circle, in line with the other Everton defenders. A Reading Women attacker behind her wants to receive the ball and move towards goal, but Morgan’s positioning and ability to clear the ball from these areas ensures that the ball never gets behind the defensive line. The blue lines also show how she has stepped slightly forward from the main defensive position, showing that she has the confidence to meet the ball in the air, rather than waiting for it to hit the ground and then reach her, by which time it could have been controlled by an opponent.
This image shows the same concept but in a different way. This time, Morgan is facing her goal, whereas, in the last image, she had her back to goal. Liverpool Women right-back Becky Jane, in the red circle, has crossed the ball into the box, behind the main Everton defensive line. The ball would have reached Jane’s teammate in the yellow circle, but Morgan has seen and cut out the danger, putting it behind for a corner instead.
Therefore, what we can see from both images is that Morgan anticipates where the ball is, getting herself in positions that ensure she gets the ball before the attackers. This is perhaps something you would expect from a centre-back, but it shows how focused Morgan is in her own goal area that she has this ability at right-back.
Here is another example of Morgan as a brick wall defender. We can see that she has moved tight to the wing, pinning Arsenal Women striker Vivianne Miedema close to the sideline. By doing so, Morgan has closed off the space behind her, which, even though it is plentiful, cannot be used by Arsenal, because the ball can’t get into it. Therefore, we can see how Morgan’s spatial awareness comes into play again, and this is why she is really useful in her own third. By closing down the ball, she forces the opposition to play it more quickly, ensuring that they don’t get caught in these situations. Miedema’s only option here is to play the ball back along the line, and hope that Morgan doesn’t get a foot in to block that pass. It looks really simple, but we must remember that Morgan is stopping the WSL’s deadliest striker here, and that shows us how good a defender she is that she can do this.
Now back at Manchester City Women, we can see one example of Morgan using her spatial awareness in the same ways. In this image, newly-promoted Aston Villa Women are looking to play the ball behind the Manchester City defence, which is organised but has a narrow structure. With Aston Villa making a run behind, Morgan sees what is happening and, as the blue arrow shows, tracks the Villa attacker’s run. This means that should the ball get through to the attacker from its current position, Morgan can either keep tight to her opponent, and we end up with a situation like with Miedema above, or she can make an attempt to win the ball and clear it from danger.
Therefore, we can see from all four images what Esme Morgan offers teams when in these key areas. With Lucy Bronze coming in to challenge Morgan for the right-back starting position, it is likely that Morgan will become second choice. However, with her skills, she could fill in at centre-back every so often, with her ability to see danger and cut it out, and also be the player to come on and protect a one goal advantage in tight games, with her aerial ability stopping attackers from getting behind her.
Competing for the ball
It sounds as if all Esme Morgan does is sit back in defence and clear balls for 90 minutes, but actually, there is more to her defensive play than that. This next section will analyse how she competes for the ball. This is particularly notable in the transition from attack to defence.
At Everton, it was clear that Morgan was asked to get higher up the pitch. However, when they lost the ball, she instantly switched from attack to defence. This image, from the game against Reading, shows how Morgan has seen where the ball is, running forward and slide-tackling her opponent. This takes time away from Reading, meaning that their options are now to play the ball backwards or to keep hold of it, which risks mistakes being made by giving it away. However, it also allows Morgan’s teammates to organise themselves behind her, closing off any gaps that Reading could have quickly counter-attacked through. This is the main reason that Morgan makes these challenges.
When closing down the ball, Morgan breaks away from the main defensive line, challenging opposing attackers, and we can see in these images how she brought that back to Manchester City.
The first image shows Aston Villa’s Portugal striker Diana Silva looking to play the ball forward, but Morgan’s incisive decision-making takes that option away from her. Instead, Silva now has to look behind her, and play the ball backwards. Morgan’s movement has created a large gap in the defence, opening up the space behind it, but this is irrelevant as there is no way for the ball to reach it.
In the second image, Morgan has again left the main defensive line, and is closing down the ball, preventing a forward pass. This image shows us how much of an effect this has on opposing attackers because they know that, when facing Morgan, she will dominate her side of the defence. This means opponents have to attack either centrally or on the other side of the pitch, lessening their options. Diana Silva is a player who generally likes to run close to the goal line and cross into the box, but we can see here that she had trouble doing this against Morgan. By stopping crosses from getting into the box, against any team, the central attackers become starved of service, making it harder for them to score. This is what comes from Morgan’s intelligence to take time and space away from her opponents.
The main point to take from these images is that Morgan doesn’t wait for the ball to come to her. Instead, she likes to ensure that it stays as far away from the danger areas as possible. This is an important quality to have, and, against teams that play counter-attacking football, Morgan will be a useful player in stopping that happening.
In this image, Aston Villa midfielder Chloe Arthur is looking to move the ball into a goalscoring position. However, even though Morgan is behind Arthur at this point, she still manages to get back and stop Arthur’s attack in time, getting her foot in the way. This comes from her pace and desire to have control of the ball, and it also means that attackers are never safe, even when ahead of her.
Supporting the attack
We have looked at Esme Morgan’s defensive qualities, and now we will look at how she supports her team’s attacks.
In both of these images, we can see the same thing happening; Everton are in possession, and Morgan is looking to run ahead and offer a passing option behind the opposing defence.
In the first image, we can see that Reading have moved up the pitch, closing down the ball. However, they haven’t done it well enough, and have left space for the ball to be passed forwards, but also for Morgan to run into the space behind to receive it. However, if Morgan hadn’t made the run, then this pass would not have been possible, because, whilst the ball would have gone behind the defence, Reading could have tracked back and picked it up, albeit further back then they would have liked to. However, you can see how Morgan’s instinct is to get forwards whenever Everton get the ball and space is available ahead of it. This is something that we know Manchester City Women value, because it is one of Bronze’s qualities, and is something we have seen their full-backs do a lot over the last seasons.
In the second image, we can see how Liverpool have a three-person defensive structure, which is narrow, as they are looking to stop the ball going through the middle. However, because Morgan has advanced up the pitch, as Everton clearly wanted her to do, she is now able to run on the outside of the defence, offering the passing option behind. This time, she is in front of the ball, whereas against Reading, she was behind it. This shows that she can make these runs regardless of where she is on the pitch, and her instinct is always to get forward and help her team in the final third. By making this run forward in the second image, she also stretches the defence, as her team looks to force a way through the middle and get on the end of any potential cross that Morgan might make, once she receives the ball.
As mentioned, this is something that Manchester City really value in attack. We can see here against Aston Villa how Morgan is running behind the defence and into the space, ensuring that there is always somewhere for the ball to go. Aston Villa have left the space open on the far side of the pitch by moving to meet the ball; Morgan’s aforementioned anticipation and spatial awareness allows her to get through these gaps.
The other way that Morgan supports the attack is by taking up a position on the edge of the box, as she has done in both of these images, offering her team a key passing option. This is a crucial position to fill when in the final third, because defenders will naturally want to mark the attackers in the box, as they are seen as the biggest threat and the likeliest target for the ball to go to. Therefore, by positioning herself just outside the box, Morgan ensures there is always an option to cross the ball to, and, from these positions, she can either pass the ball to a teammate in the box, or shoot at goal herself. Therefore, it creates options, which, if Morgan wasn’t there, Everton wouldn’t have had. This is something that Manchester City may not need her to do so often this season, but it gives them flexibility if they do. It also shows that Morgan attacks with purpose, rather than just making a run to help out, and she knows where she will be most effective for her team.
We have looked in-depth at three defining features of Morgan’s game, in defence and in attack. However, to make any conclusions about what she offers Manchester City, we need to look at her statistics this season compared with last season, allowing us to see her strengths and weaknesses.
Before going too deep into these, we need to mention that her statistics for Manchester City are only from the Aston Villa game, which has been her only league game to date for the club. However, in that game, she had a passing accuracy value of 84.8%, which is really high, and shows that, when she has the ball, her team can rely on her to get it into good areas, and that her passing will be accurate.
We looked a lot at how she dominates in the air when clearing balls and the points made are supported by the fact that she won 100% of her aerial duels against Aston Villa, although this was only one. However, it shows that she is confident in the air and able to challenge when she needs to; something that we have looked at in-depth in this analysis.
Another strength to pick out is that she made 4. 79 interceptions against Aston Villa, which is important as it supports what we have said about her awareness and anticipation of where the ball will go. For Everton, she made an average of 6.58 interceptions per 90 minutes, so it is clear that this is one area she is confident in, and can help Manchester City this season.
If we look at an area she could improve on, her crossing accuracy at Everton was only 33.3%. This is more likely to be because she isn’t normally asked to cross the ball in, but, as we have seen, she runs forward and takes up central positions outside the box instead. She didn’t make a cross against Aston Villa, so there is no value to compare this with. However, as Manchester City like their full-backs to create chances through crosses, this is an area she can look to improve on if she wants to take the right-back spot off Lucy Bronze, who we know is good at putting crosses into the box.
We have looked at many different things, but ultimately, what we have shown is how promising Esme Morgan is as a defender and an attacker, and there is no doubting that, from what we have seen of her at Everton and at Manchester City, where she has started the season well, she is a future England star. She will learn a lot from playing with Bronze and competing with her to start at right-back. However, given she is still only 18 years old, she is already showing a lot of the qualities that players need to play at the highest level, and still has plenty of time to improve and get even better.