As we turn to close the year what was 2019, we can look ahead to what to look forward to in 2020. One of, if not the most intriguing prospects bursting onto the scene in the women’s game is Lauren James. The Manchester United Women striker only turned 18-years-old on September 29th, a day after scoring her first FAWSL goal in United’s 2-0 win over Liverpool Women.
In this tactical analysis scout report, we will take a look at James and the role she has at Manchester United Women. We will focus this analysis on the strengths she brings to the side and how this will benefit the Red Devil’s tactics for the remainder of this campaign and many more to come. Having just turned 18 years of age, James has the world of women’s football in the palm of her hand, and the ability to become one of the greatest we have seen to play the game.
James’ fast rise
The English born striker joined Manchester United Women in the summer of 2018, having come up in the Arsenal Women academy. The United side was formed in the Championship division. She scored 17 goals in 27 appearances in all competitions in their inaugural year. This season, she has continued to make her mark.
To begin Manchester United Women’s first FAWSL campaign, Ross took the number nine position for Stoney. In 1-0 losses to both Manchester City Women and Arsenal Women, she was unable to bring the spark Stoney was looking for leading the line.
James was introduced in United’s win against Liverpool. The day before the forward’s 18th birthday, she scored a goal and gave United a different dynamic than they previously had when looking to attack, resulting in their first win in the top flight. Since this point, she has been a staple in the Manchester United Women side that are fighting for a top-four spot in their first season. Her mix of intelligence, strength, and speed have left oppositions with no clue how to go about defending against her. It is evident to see each and every week the forward strides she is making. United will be eager to hold onto their star-in-the-making, while other top sides across Europe are guaranteed to be watching her progress with intent.
James’ biggest strength is her ability to beat her markers on her own. The Manchester United forward is lightning quick with the ball at her feet. This gives opposition defences another huge problem in figuring out how to deal with the youngster.
James is averaging 8.47 dribbles per match. This comes second to only Kirsty Hanson in the side, who averages 9.03. However, the most impressive part is in the completion percentage. While Hanson sits at 46.4% completion, James is completing 63.8% of hers. Comparing this to a player in her own position in Ross once more, she averages 1.36 dribbles a match at a success rate of 16.7%.
This dynamic gives defenders issues in finding the most effective way of limiting James’ impact on a match. Her 2.05 progressive runs on average per match show that she often looks to break the lines and draw out opposition defenders when she is in possession. The confidence to have possession reaps rewards for herself and her teammates. By forcing defenders to close her down she is able to create space on the pitch to look to exploit.
Above you can see James gaining possession in a deep position in Manchester United Women’s match against Tottenham Hotspur Women. She starts facing the rest of her side. With a quick body feint, she cuts out wide before driving forward into a central space. In the image below, you can see the space she has opened up and created for herself, and she leaves numerous Spurs defenders trying to play catch up. James produced a player of the match performance in this game. While she did not get on the scoresheet, she had an xG of .98 and constantly threatened the Tottenham defence. She had a 100% completion percentage in her passes into the final third and into the box, highlighting her vision in these attacking areas.
James is also able to open up space for her teammates using this skill. By pulling oppositions out of position by getting them to commit to her in possession, intelligent teammates like Galton, Hanson, and Groenen are able to exploit this space. Below you can see another example of James dropping into a deep position to receive a pass. As she does this, the Everton Women defender steps forward to pressure the young striker.
James acknowledges the situation and takes her first touch towards her own goal. At the same time, Hanson recognizes the space in behind and makes a darting run. The Everton defender has not drifted too high up the pitch after James’ first touch to recover and block the space in behind that Hanson is looking to run into. James is able to make a quick turn before bursting forward with a wide-open lane to pass up ahead. The opposition had no choice but to commit a foul on James to stop the dangerous attack.
Winger’s perfect number nine
James has been a standout star for Manchester United Women. However, she has also contributed to her teammates taking their play to a higher level. One of these players is Leah Galton. The winger has been a constant threat down United’s left side this campaign. She has 2 goals and 3 assists so far this campaign, but her presence has been the biggest contribution to the side.
The duo have heavily benefited from each other’s abilities and contributions to the side. Galton, specifically, has been able to find her top form in large part due to James and her role. The winger is at her best when she is able to take up high positions on the pitch and look to attack from outside to inside. James is the key to opening the space for Galton to expose opposition defences. As you can see in the pass map below, Galton often occupies a very high and wide position. James will regularly drift into the space on this side between the forward and midfield lines.
Her position here benefits Galton in two major ways. James’ role as a link between these lines takes that responsibility away from Galton and lets her focus on working off of the backs of opposition defenders. As well, James’ movement also opens up the space in the centre of the park up top. Galton, therefore, has a vast area to operate in and find room to have her effect on the match.
On the other side, Kirsty Hanson operates down the right channel. Much like Galton, she is about to move into central areas as she looks to make her impact on the game. Hanson’s game varies, though, as often times she looks to find isolated scenarios to inflict her damage. Along with the dribbling ability we mentioned earlier, Hanson provides a potent attacking threat with late runs into the box. Often times she is found in one-v-one situations with her full-back because James’ presence towards the left has drawn out both centre-halves.
Above you can see James picking up possession in her defensive half. As she drops deep to receive it, her wingers move beyond her to get forward in attack. James has dragged her marker into a high position from this movement. She is able to turn out to the left before finding Galton out wide isolated with her full-back. Hanson recognises the space in the centre of the pitch due to James’ movement and makes a run across the pitch to provide an option to Galton.
While James developed as a midfielder, there can be no doubting that she has the ability to become one of the most potent finishers in the game. Week-in-week-out she puts on an example of these skills. With 5 goals in the league campaign, the variety of finishes included in these goals really stand out.
James holds the ability to score from a wide variety of situations. Whether she is making runs into the box like a traditional number nine or finding space outside the penalty area for a long-range effort, James is equally comfortable wish her finishing ability. Against Everton Women, James showed both sides of her finishing game perfectly. The first showcased her natural instincts to put herself in the right place at the right time. A Manchester United Women attack came forward down the right side. Ross, playing as the winger in this match, received possession in Everton’s final third, as you can see below.
James, once again working from a deeper position initially, uses her instincts to find space in the box to make herself available for a cross. With a quick forward run into the front post, she is able to come from behind the centre-half, leaving no chance to mark her run. Ross finds James with a perfect pass into the front post area for a goal.
Later in the first half of this match, James looked to find space in the left half-space. With possession on this side, she drifts over to provide an outlet for Galton and Groenen on the touchline. As she drifts off her marker to occupy space, she receives possession with her back towards goal. As the pass arrives, she is able to quickly assess her options to attack the Everton defence.
Acknowledging the space she is in, the Everton Women centre-half attempts to step forward to try and pressure James as she receives the pass. The forward is able to react quickly and uses her strength to shield the ball as it comes across her body. The defender cannot intervene and James spins away into the central space left behind. She then sets up body up to curl in a finish on the far side of the Everton goal, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance.
Natural midfield ability
A major factor that dictates James’ game in the number nine position has to do with her youth career. The 18-year-old grew up as a midfielder and has adapted a lot of the skills she developed from this into her role she now takes for Manchester United Women.
These tendencies can be seen in James’ natural movements in a match. Below you can see a pass map from United’s match against Liverpool. This shows her position slightly deeper than the wingers. She has links with every player around her, representing the metronome she provides for the side in this area, as they look for situations for the wingers to run beyond her.
Because of Manchester United Women’s playstyle, James will go for long periods the match without getting possession. She averages 17.82 passes per match and only 9.5 received. James is able to stand out, however, due to her efficiency at these times in possession. James attempts 1.31 passes into the final third, completing 89% of them. This eye for the right pass is a major key to the success of Stoney’s tactics during matches. Having a number nine who can consistently find a pass into these danger areas, while not losing possession is a major advantage.
In the example you can see above, James receives possession with time and space to press forward against a stretch Tottenham Hotspur Women backline. As she moves forward, she assesses her options. As the Spurs defenders look to try and halt the counter-attack by stopping her from continuing her dribble, James reacts fast. She splits the two defenders coming towards her and finds Jessica Sigsworth through on the right side. As you can see below, James’ pass has created a two-v-one situation for Manchester United Women pressing forward. Sigsworth finds a pass across to Groenen who is unlucky in the end to see her shot cleared off the line.
Looking ahead, an area we could see James’ career take her could be into a number ten position. Working behind a traditional number nine could allow the attacker to combine all of these abilities we have discussed and increase the end product on the situations she is able to create. It would also allow her to look at working solely in the space between the lines. This versatility will give Stoney a lot of tactical options as Manchester United Women look to build on their already strong squad.
Looking ahead, quite possibly the most impressive asset of Manchester United Women’s attacking youngster is the vast amount of potential to continue to improve. As James continues to get used to the high level of the FAWSL, and soon even possibly the Champions League, she will learn more about how to use her abilities to achieve her greatest potential on the field.
James offers a wealth of different attacking options for Stoney to implement into her team’s tactics. The forward’s versatility with playing in deeper positions allows the side’s counter-attacking philosophy to truly flourish. We have also discussed her ability to get on the end of attacks, scoring goals like all great number nines must do.
2020 will be a major year for the 18-year-old. Manchester United Women are one of, if not the most intriguing side in the English top flight. Their mix of experience along with youth has caught the eye of many, and they will be looking to build upon a good start to their first campaign in the FAWSL. James will be an essential piece in this puzzle for Stoney. A quick comparison to Arsenal Women’s Vivianne Miedema gives you a glimpse of the type of attacking output we could see from James in the future. She still has a lot to learn in the game, but her quality at such a young age is unmatched, and she is a major player to watch in 2020.