It has been three years since Manchester City Women last won the WSL title. In those three years, Chelsea Women have won the title twice, including this year, and Arsenal Women have won it once. So why have Manchester City fallen away from the top spot? The short answer is nothing major, because their squad is still of a high quality, and they are still a force in the league.
However, next season brings a new manager for them, in Gareth Taylor, who previously managed the men’s academy team. Therefore, this seems like a good time for a tactical analysis of their overall tactics and play, seeing what they do well in attack and defence, but, more importantly, to see where they can tighten some of the screws in their play, ensuring they have the best possible chance of regaining the WSL title again next season.
In the first of this two-part analysis, we will look at their attack, analysing its strengths, before using data and in-game stills to find the weaknesses that they can improve on ahead of next season.
Their attacking strengths
Firstly in this scout report, we will look at their attacking strengths.
In both of these images, we see how far forward Janine Beckie has advanced. Whilst naturally a winger or forward, the Canada international has been deployed for most of this season at right-back, which has been an interesting decision. However, Manchester City’s left-back Demi Stokes likes to play further forward and attack when she can, and Beckie, being naturally an attacking player, balances this out well. As we see in both of these images, she has advanced into attacking positions, allowing her to pick out passes to her teammates.
In the first example, her advance has given her plenty of options to move the ball into a good area. There is a teammate in the central channel, who can take the ball and attack the opposing goal with it, although this would be a risky pass given the opposing defence’s position around her. Beckie can also play the ball long towards her teammate on the other wing, which she is capable of doing because of the range of her passing. She can also lay the ball off in front of her for her teammate making the run forwards into space, or she can play the ball backwards to her other teammate if none of these are deemed safe enough to keep possession.
What we are showing here is that, because Manchester City have used Beckie as a right-back this season, they have opened up more options for themselves in attack. You can see how all of the players are spread out, which demonstrates how they make the pitch as big as possible when attacking.
In the second image, we see how Beckie has advanced forwards, and is looking to play the ball into the box for striker Ellen White to get on the end of. This shows us just how big a weapon Beckie has become for Manchester City this season, arguably becoming one of their most important players. In our analysis of the team’s attack, we can also add in how their central striker, White, is a player who loves to feed off these opportunities.
We see from the arrow how she is moving to get on the end of Beckie’s cross ball towards her, which sounds obvious to say, but it is crucial to have in the team. It is all very well having players who can advance into key areas and play the ball behind the defence, but it means nothing if there is no-one in the middle to make the chances count. This is something we have seen a lot of WSL teams do this season, which has led to good opportunities being wasted at times.
Here, we see how Beckie is again in an advanced position. This time, however, she is looking to play the ball right across to the other side of the pitch. This shows us two things.
Firstly, we see the range in Manchester City’s passing, and how that benefits their attacks, as they can shift the ball to whichever area it needs to be in, and without passing it across the ground, meaning there is less chance of it being intercepted.
Secondly, we notice that both players who are passing and receiving the ball are in very wide positions, which means that they are stretching the play and the opposing team. We see how the two central Manchester City attackers are playing between the Everton Women lines, waiting for a gap to appear. They know that Beckie’s long pass will force them to split apart eventually, as they try and ensure Manchester City can’t attack.
Finally, we see how they play in a wide structure when attacking.
Here, we see how they take advantage of the narrow defensive structure, playing around it. We can see from the lines how they have spread apart so that they can take control of the wider spaces around the defence, isolating the three opposing defenders in the middle of the pitch, making their job harder. Also, because of this wide structure, as a trio they can run through the defensive line.
To explain this, let’s look at the image. We see how the central player has already overrun Everton’s line. The two wide players are following suit by moving around the outside. Therefore, what will come from this is that Manchester City Women will have three players through on goal, instead of just one, as might have happened. They will have a better chance of scoring than if it was a 1 v 1 against the goalkeeper, where there is always a chance that the ball will be saved when the shot comes in.
Looking at the data
Now we have seen the positives that Manchester City Women have had in their attacking play during the 2019/2020 season, we will now look at where they need to improve. Before we analyse their gameplay, it is worth looking at their stats from the last three seasons, which will give us a much clearer idea of where they need to improve. To do this, we will look at how they compared to both Chelsea and Arsenal this season, and in the last two seasons.
We will start with a comparison between Manchester City and Chelsea.
Here, we see that Chelsea Women’s stats are higher than Manchester City’s for this season in all categories except passing accuracy, which is 85.1% for Manchester City and 80.4% for Chelsea. Therefore, if we are looking for reasons why Manchester City Women have fallen short this season, then we need look no further. Chelsea have scored more goals, have a higher expected goals number, and better accuracy and more success with their shots on target. The average possession statistic doesn’t tell us anything as far as the season goes, but it does show that Chelsea had more of the ball on average, which might explain why Chelsea have higher stats in the other categories too.
The table also shows the statistics from the 2017/2018 season, when Chelsea also pipped Manchester City to the WSL title. However, in that season, Manchester City had a higher goals per game number, with 2.64, not only compared to Chelsea that season, who had 2.54, but also compared to this season. In 2017/2018, they also had higher shots on target and accuracy numbers, a higher passing accuracy and a higher average possession than Chelsea, which shows you that it was much closer that season in terms of performances than it perhaps was this season, as Chelsea were more dominant.
If we compare Manchester City Women to Arsenal Women, both in this season and last season, when the Gunners were champions, we can analyse again why Manchester City fell short.
The stats for Arsenal this season are interesting, as aside from shots on target, Arsenal beat them in every category, despite finishing a place behind them. If we compare this to last season, we see how Manchester City had a higher goals per game number, but were still behind Arsenal. However, their expected goals number was slightly higher this time around than in 2018/2019.
Aside from expected goals and passing accuracy, Manchester City’s stats for this season were all down from last season. This would indicate that Manchester City have gone backwards this season, on initial looks. However, we must factor in the early end to the season, due to the worldwide COVID-19 crisis, and this is almost certainly the reason for the stats being down. Therefore, whilst we cannot take these stats at face value necessarily, they do give us some indications.
What we can conclude, having looked at the stats, is that Manchester City need to improve on their final third play, with goals per game and shots on target accuracy being below the eventual winners in all of the last three seasons. Passing accuracy is something they perhaps don’t need to focus on so much, as even when that number was lower than Chelsea or Arsenal, it was only just lower, by less than one. This backs up what we have already seen, in that the advance of Janine Beckie from full-back in particular allows them to make more passes.
Their attacking weaknesses
If we now take these stats and look at some clips in their matches this season, we see how they can make these adjustments.
Here, we see how Manchester City have moved into an attacking position again, with Janine Beckie advancing and playing passes across the pitch, spreading the ball to her teammates. However, this time, she plays the ball behind the opponents’ defensive line. If you see how her teammates’ forward line is in front of the defence, and is being prevented from running through, you see how this pass becomes harmless. Even the Manchester City Women player on the far side of the pitch is unable to get to the ball when it comes down in the area we have marked out, because it is just too far ahead.
Another way that Manchester City’s passing accuracy could be improved is below.
In both of these images, we see how Manchester City Women have made errors when passing the ball.
In the first example, we see how Manchester City have played the ball forwards, but there is no City player in that area able to receive the ball. The player who is on the wing is unable to reach the ball, and therefore it rolls harmlessly out of play, handing Bristol City Women a cheap throw in.
In the second example, we see how, in the same match and only a few minutes later, Manchester City have got themselves into another good position. However, a poor pass means that the ball goes behind the central attackers, and not in front, as indicated by the arrow. This means that the attack fizzles out with Manchester City again posing no threat here, despite getting into a good position. If we think back to the data above, we saw how their goals per game and shots on target were lower than Chelsea and Arsenal in all of the last three seasons.
Initially it seemed like this was because Manchester City’s strikers were not productive enough, but given they have the likes of England internationals Ellen White, Lauren Hemp and Georgia Stanway, as well as Scotland’s Caroline Weir all operating in that area, this seemed unlikely. The stats and the images show that it’s the service they are getting which needs to improve, particularly on the left hand side of the pitch, where we have seen in the last three examples that they struggle to get on the ball at times. On the right, they have Beckie getting up and down the pitch, so this is not so much of a priority area to fix.
In both of these examples, we see another reason why Manchester City’s final third productivity is down compared to Chelsea and Arsenal.
The first image shows how Beckie has advanced ahead of the ball and is receiving it from her teammate. However, there are no other Manchester City players ahead of her, and so she can’t move the ball forward behind the Everton defensive line.
The second example shows a similar situation, with the ball in a central area, and Manchester City Women looking to play the ball behind the Brighton and Hove Albion Women defence. However, you can see how the two best passing options are not possible, because the furthest Manchester City players forward are not able to receive the ball there. They are still roughly in line with the ball’s current position. Even though there are Manchester City players on the wings looking to make runs behind, passing there would be more difficult, and so would not help the situation.
What we can see from these examples, therefore, is why they struggle in the final third compared to Arsenal and Chelsea. Both of those teams play with forward lines who stay forward; Arsenal keep Vivianne Miedema around the box, with Jordan Nobbs, Lisa Evans and Danielle Van Der Donk continually helping to create space and options around her. Chelsea use a front two of Beth England and Sam Kerr, whilst their midfield diamond allows them to find the front two with the ball continually. Manchester City’s front players tend to drift backwards, leaving these spaces empty some of the time.
The purpose of this article has been to find the reasons why Manchester City Women have been runners-up in the last three seasons, and to suggest ways that they can improve and tidy up their attacking tactics for next season. As mentioned at the start of the article, they have a new manager in Gareth Taylor, and he will have been no doubt tasked with trying to win the title back. The points raised in this article will hopefully give him some areas to begin his work in.
Next month, we will look at their defence, going through the same processes to find the issues in their tactics and formations, and suggesting ways that they can improve there before next season.