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Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again – Part 2: Defence

Gareth Taylor has now had two months at time of writing to settle into his new role as head coach of Manchester City Women, with his aim to reclaim the WSL title after three years of coming second. With this in mind, we looked at how he can tidy up Manchester City’s attack ahead of next season in one of the July magazines, and now we will complete the analysis picture by identifying the positives and negatives of their tactics in defence in this scout report.

Their defensive strengths

Before we look at how they can improve the defence in this tactical analysis, let’s first see what the positives are.

Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

The first thing that we see Manchester City Women do a lot when defending is hunting in packs, surrounding the opposing player in possession. By doing this, Manchester City ensure that the opposition have little space to move in when attacking; one of their defensive strengths over the last season. To illustrate this, Liverpool Women’s Kirsty Linnett is advancing through the central channel here to meet the ball, but there is little hope of it reaching her, because of the way that the ball has been cut off from every angle. This ability to stop attacks is what makes this such a useful tactic to have.

It is not a one-off either, as we can see from these images below.

Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics


Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

This was a common and effective tactic that former manager Nick Cushing liked to use. However, it goes further in these two images.

If we look at what is happening outside of the surrounding players, we see how the attackers are trying to get into the area. However, because half of the defence has gone across to join the hunt for the ball, the rest of the defence has shifted across to cover the gaps. That has meant that, where the attackers are coming centrally forward, looking to offer an option for their teammate in possession, they can’t now get ahead of the defence. This is because Manchester City’s left-back Demi Stokes has become the central defender, and is now in a perfect position in both images to mark the central attacker. This is a really important role for her to play, because if she hadn’t come across to block off these possible attacking movements, then Manchester City’s opponents would have been able to run through, ensuring that they always had a good passing option in the final third. As it is, because the ball has been surrounded by Manchester City, and the runner has also been cut off, this has become a good tactic defensively for them.

The second defensive strength is that they stay behind the ball when they can. This allows them to become almost impregnable at the back.

Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

Here, Stokes is staying behind the ball, positioning her body between the attacker and the goal. You can see from the blue line how she is tracking the run of her opponent, and this makes it easy for her to stay with them and increases the chances of her or a teammate intercepting the ball, should a pass into the central areas be attempted.

We will see later on how she can sometimes get this wrong, but this shows why Stokes is such an important player in the Manchester City Women and England team. You can see how the opposing Birmingham City Women player has her back to Stokes, and yet the left-back is already very tightly marking her. That shows us how she anticipates the play, ensuring that she does what she can to help Manchester City Women’s defence be as strong as possible.

Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

In this image, we see how the other full-back this season, who has been Canada international Janine Beckie (circled), has got herself between the ball and the rest of the defence, again getting tight to the opposing attacker. The difference in this image is that she has her defensive teammates behind her, stopping any attackers running centrally into the space behind them. A fifth player has moved from the midfield to the defence, ensuring that Manchester City Women have no gaps in amongst their defensive line, which again makes Manchester City Women defensively watertight. You can see how Everton Women’s attackers are positioned in front of Manchester City’s defence in this image, because of the solid structure of the defensive line.

Everton’s only option with the ball in their attempts to get forward is to take it down the line, before crossing it in. However, in doing this, Manchester City have a greater chance of tackling and winning the ball back, and even if they don’t, and the ball were to be crossed into the middle, there would be no central attackers available to meet it, as we can see in the above image how they are struggling to break Manchester City down to get behind them.

Looking at the data

Those have been the positives of Manchester City’s defence, but now we will look at their key defensive statistics, compared with Chelsea Women and Arsenal Women this season and in their title-winning seasons in the last three years, attempting to identify their weaknesses, and where they can make improvements ahead of next season.

Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

If we begin by looking at Manchester City Women’s stats compared with Chelsea Women’s, both in this season and in 2017/2018, when Chelsea were also champions, then we can see the areas where Manchester City can make some adjustments to their play. The value in red for each type of statistic in the table is the higher value.

Firstly, it is notable that Chelsea had a higher value for goals conceded in both seasons, which shows us that Manchester City defensively are better at stopping goals going in, and this is obviously a positive. However, when we examine the defensive duels both sides had in 2019/2020, then we can see how Manchester City had more, but Chelsea won a higher percentage of theirs, which immediately gives us something that Manchester City can improve on next season. If we look at the same statistic for 2017/2018, then we can see how Manchester City won a higher percentage of theirs compared to Chelsea. Now, again, we have to remember that last season the league was called off early due to the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, however, it is clear that Chelsea have improved their defensive duel success rate, and Manchester City haven’t. Aerial duels in both seasons have again been topped by Chelsea, so perhaps defensively, we now have an area where Manchester City can work on to help them regain the WSL title.

Briefly looking at the formations, this shows us how often the two teams have kept the same setup this season. Chelsea this season were more consistent with keeping their favoured system, whereas Manchester City changed a bit more. This is interesting, because if a team changes around a little too much, then partnerships between defenders and midfielders don’t have time to gel, which can then lead to opposing teams getting through them a little too easily. Given how we have already said that Manchester City are organised defensively, this is obviously not the case, but less consistency than Chelsea may explain why Chelsea pipped them to the title last season.

Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics


Here, we have compared the statistics of Manchester City Women and Arsenal Women, both from 2019/2020 and from 2018/2019, when Arsenal beat Manchester City to the title.

Again, we can see how Arsenal conceded more goals than Manchester City, so this confirms that this is one of Manchester City’s defensive strengths. They also have a higher amount of defensive duels and aerial duels than Arsenal, which is interesting because of Arsenal finishing below Manchester City this season. Therefore, we can conclude that Manchester City have a good percentage of successful duels to ensure second, but if they want to come first and regain the title, then they need to reach an even higher level with them to beat Chelsea’s percentage. It is also interesting that Arsenal in 2018/2019 had a higher percentage than Manchester City, therefore, given that both Chelsea and Arsenal beat Manchester City in this area when they were champions, this is perhaps where Manchester City can focus their efforts.

The final point to make is that Arsenal this season were more consistent in their formation choices than Manchester City, so again, we can see that perhaps staying with one system for longer periods of the season may help Manchester City to regain the title again next season.

Their defensive weaknesses

We have already analysed Manchester City’s defensive strengths, but now, using the data above, we will identify the areas where they can improve on. These seem to mainly be their duels and duel success rate, and in staying with one formation for longer periods of the game, which will mean players know who is closing down opposing attackers, and who is staying back to plug the gaps.

The first improvement to suggest is that they often leave gaps in their defensive line. This is what we can see in the below image.

Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

Here, Manchester City Women have lost possession in a dangerous area, and Beckie, who has been their right-back for the majority of this season, has not been able to get back in time. This has allowed Arsenal Women to get behind them, and you can see how one of Manchester City’s central defenders has had to come across to block off the run. However, this ultimately leaves a large gap open between the centre-backs, as you can see. Arsenal’s central attackers are now looking to get in behind the defensive line through this gap, and this is a common feature of Manchester City’s defensive play. Beckie is naturally a winger, and that means that she likes to get up the field and join in the attacking play; here, we see the downside of this.

Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

If we look at this image, we see the same thing happening. Beckie has got back to defend, but hasn’t closed down the player with the ball. There is also a gap between her and the centre-backs, and, like with the Arsenal attackers in the previous image, you can see how Chelsea’s Norwegian midfielder Guro Reiten is looking to run through this gap to get behind the Manchester City backline. Therefore, these gaps are an area that Manchester City need to address, and their defenders need to ensure that they work together to block off the spaces, which would stop opponents taking advantage of them like they have here.

Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

The alternative is that they play too narrowly at times, which is what we can see above. Left-back Stokes has drifted inside as we have seen her do previously, but this time Arsenal have moved a winger into the space outside her, ensuring that they can get players behind the narrow defensive line. Whilst Stokes has seen this, she is unable to do anything about it, as she can’t move across because it will leave a gap open for Arsenal to move through the middle.

Therefore, you might be wondering how they can change this, as they can’t be too narrow but also can’t be too stretched out. Well, in the image below is a potential solution that fixes both.

Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

Manchester City here have moved into a back five formation, and this enables them to cover all of the spaces. You can see how they have spread out across the pitch, meaning Chelsea can’t get any of their wide attackers beyond them, and there are no huge gaps in between the defenders. There is one attacker amongst the defensive line, but they are not posing a threat, because the Chelsea player with the ball on the nearside of the pitch has been closed down by a Manchester City midfielder. In the middle, the central Chelsea attacker is also being watched and marked by a Manchester City player. Therefore, this formation is not natural for Manchester City, but would give them the defensive stability that they were missing at points last season, which ultimately is one of the reasons why they have come up short in the race for the title. It would also enable Beckie and Stokes to get up the pitch and attack much more, playing as wing-backs rather than full-backs, which might suit them better too.

The final improvement that Manchester City Women can make also comes from their full-backs, when they move out to close down the opposing attackers.

Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics


Manchester City Women: How to win the WSL again - Part 2: Defence - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

In both of these images, we see how both Stokes and Beckie have been caught out by this at points this season. Firstly, Beckie is circled out of position, and Chelsea have isolated the remaining defenders. We know that Chelsea use a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation, with Beth England and Sam Kerr as their strikers. We see here how those two have moved to either side of the defence, giving them the advantage here. Now, it isn’t certain that Beckie’s addition to the defence here would have stopped this, but we can see how the full-backs not tracking back does leave the defence open and vulnerable to these situations.

In the second image, we see how Stokes has stepped out to meet the ball but has lost her duel, and now Chelsea have space and a gap to attack into the area behind her, as the blue arrow shows. This is where the earlier statistics comes in, and we remember how Manchester City’s successful duels value was not as high as Chelsea. This loss of the ball is why that is, and the result is that it opens up spaces behind the backline for attackers to exploit. Therefore, something that Manchester City can definitely work on this summer under new manager Gareth Taylor is being more successful when tackling or duelling opponents for the ball, and that will then stop situations like this happening. The end product of this will be that Manchester City may be able to edge their opponents in more games, which could make all the difference.


In conclusion, we have analysed in this article how Manchester City Women can tighten up defensively, and we have seen how they are not overly leaky at the back, but there are areas that they can work on to become even harder to attack and score against. We have used the data to identify some areas for them to improve on, before analysing their games last season to see how they can put these improvements into practice. If they can tighten up at the back in these ways, as well as work on the attacking improvements suggested last month, then they will have a good chance of regaining the WSL title for the first time since they lifted it in 2016/17.