Marc Skinner: what Man Utd fans can expect tactically from their new head coach – tactical analysis
When Casey Stoney left Manchester United Women earlier this summer, not many expected the wait for her replacement to take as long as it did. However, the club have now appointed Englishman Marc Skinner, who left NWSL side Orlando Pride earlier this month after two and a half years in charge. The questions most fans are now asking is what changes he will make at Leigh Sports Village, and how the team could set up on the field. This tactical analysis will seek to answer some of those questions, detailing the tactics Manchester United might play with next season.
There are several distinct features to Marc Skinner’s footballing philosophy, the first of which is controlling the wide channels during matches.
This image demonstrates how Orlando Pride create space by using the wings. Crystal Thomas, in the white circle, has possession, with a Racing Louisville defender closing her down. The other Louisville defenders also have to spread out, ensuring they fill the gaps that have subsequently appeared. As a result, the central Orlando attackers now have spaces to move into, giving Thomas something to aim for with her cross, and this demonstrates how Orlando are able to manipulate their opponents.
Manchester United Women played last season with a 4-3-3 formation, with USA internationals Tobin Heath and Christen Press tending to operate in the wide attacking roles, stretching the attack out and increasing the space in the middle. However, they weren’t treated as wingers, and were given licence to cut inside and attack. Under Marc Skinner, this may change, as he favours a 4-2-3-1 formation, having used it 91% of the time this season with Orlando, and has only used the 4-3-3 formation 6% of the time.
Therefore, we could see wingers used more often than wide strikers, but the only options currently available are Leah Galton and Scotland’s Kirsty Hanson. As a result, we may see additions in that position, as Skinner prepares his new team for the season ahead.
Marc Skinner also encourages his full-backs to advance up the pitch and support attacks, often leading to 2-v-1 situations being created. In this image, the North Carolina Courage right-back has been drawn towards the Orlando winger, enabling the full-back to run ahead and offer a passing option in the space behind. This has been a key detail in Orlando’s play this season, so we can expect to see it at Manchester United next season as well.
Manchester United’s current full-back options are Martha Harris, former Hibernian Women defender Kirsty Smith, Spain international Ona Batlle and Aoife Mannion, who joined this summer from Manchester City Women. Whilst all four are capable of getting up the pitch, this may not be the main way that Manchester United look to move balls into dangerous areas, as Orlando’s crossing accuracy for this season is only 36.5%. Therefore, this is something that may change a few times at the start of the season as Marc Skinner finds out what works and what doesn’t.
Having attacking full-backs also gives the team added options in the final third. Here, New Zealand captain Ali Riley has the ball, with the winger, now not in possession, becoming one of the three available passing options. The fact that all three are in different areas also helps, as it makes it harder for North Carolina to make an interception, because they don’t know which player the ball will go to. We can expect that Manchester United will play the same way, giving each other passing options in the final third, and it could lead to an increase in their attacking productivity.
Creating attacking options
We mentioned that the wings are not where Marc Skinner sees most attacks going, and that is because he likes his teams to create options centrally, getting into spaces between opponents and playing through the thirds.
This image shows a clear example of how this works. Orlando Pride are looking to move the ball up the field, but Portland Thorns have limited the space available to them. To bridge the gap, one Orlando player has dropped back into the space between the Portland players, receiving the short pass, before turning and moving the ball forwards. This style of play requires players to have excellent spatial awareness and a good passing accuracy, and 75.5% of Orlando’s passes have reached their intended target this season. Given this, it seems likely that Manchester United will base a lot of their game on passing and moving next season, potentially opening up new spaces that weren’t previously available to them.
One very noticeable thing about Orlando is that, even though there is a formation, the players drift around the pitch, always seeing where they can affect the game, and this is something Manchester United Women struggled with last season, partly due to their 4-3-3 setup. A new formation may help them to improve their general play next season, potentially allowing them to break opponents down with more ease.
We have mentioned how Marc Skinner prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation, and this means there is only one striker on the field, running the risk of them becoming isolated during games. However, he compensates for this by encouraging the wingers to get ahead of the ball, creating passing options behind the defenders. In this case, Sydney Leroux has possession, but the presence of two North Carolina defenders means she can’t turn and run at goal. The red arrows show the wingers’ runs forward to help her out, and this demonstrates the teamwork that Marc Skinner values.
Orlando have scored 1.06 goals per game, from an expected goals (xG) value of 1.25, and 37.2% of their shots have been on target. These statistics demonstrate how, even with only one forward on the pitch, they create plenty of chances and have players who can convert opportunities, which is important.
Manchester United need to find a way to break into the top three, and winning games against good defensive teams has often proved to be their undoing. Playing with this tactic may be one way to fix that, and this is one part of their game that Marc Skinner can improve. If they can make it work, it could be the difference between a draw last season and a win in the next one.
The two main points we have looked at so far are that Orlando don’t play with a front three, and that they get into spaces between opposing defenders. If we put those together, we can see how they end up in situations like this, with an attacker unmarked on the edge of the box. From here, she can either pass to a teammate inside the box or shoot at goal herself.
This is something Manchester United are already familiar with, as England midfielder Ella Toone got into the same positions last season. Marc Skinner therefore already has a player who can operate in this attacking midfield role, so it is likely that Manchester United will build their attack around Toone, and having the right players around her could again help them to win more games next season.
When it comes to defending, Marc Skinner’s teams have a particular style of play that keeps most opponents out, with Orlando having conceded just 1.13 goals per game so far this season. They have also won 63.5% of their defensive duels and 51.9% of their aerial duels, so are strong at the back, and it is likely that he will introduce this rigidity to Manchester United Women this summer too.
We have already mentioned how the former Birmingham City Women head coach pushes his full-backs high up the pitch. However, only one full-back goes up at a time, with the other staying back to form a back three, preventing the centre-backs from becoming isolated.
However, once Orlando lose possession, they form the structure shown in this image. OL Reign forward Tziarra King is on the far side of the pitch, in the yellow circle, looking for a way to move the ball into the middle. Whilst the three-player defensive shape is important, the returning full-back, Kylie Strom, in the white circle, has the crucial role here. She keeps an eye on those around her, positioning herself where she can lessen OL’s threat. OL winger Sofia Huerta, in the blue circle, is a player who loves to create problems for opposing defences, so ending her ability to be a viable passing option is essential in stopping OL scoring.
Manchester United last season played with a high backline, which often caught them out against teams that played long balls up the pitch. However, if Marc Skinner can organise them into a structure like this one, they will be much harder to beat next season.
This structure is adaptable, as with every other part of Marc Skinner’s tactics. Washington Spirit play with three players in attack, as the yellow lines show, so Orlando need to have all four defenders back here, forming a compact line that prevents the attackers accessing the space behind. Therefore, instead of the full-back moving around to cover opposing attackers, the midfielders drop back and close them down. With the defence and midfield working together in this way, Washington are unable to attack forwards and are forced to play sideways or backwards instead.
Having this defensive adaptability, depending on who they are facing, could help Manchester United next season, and this is something else we can expect them to work on before the new WSL season gets underway.
It is notable that, when they do have possession in their own half, Orlando make the pitch as big as possible. In doing so, they make it harder for their opponents to win the ball in what would be a dangerous area, because, when one player is closed down, the ball is simply passed along the line. This can continue until an opportunity arises to make the forward pass, either along the ground or aerially. Portland tend to play with a front two, as the black line shows, so having this wide setup allows Orlando to surround them, getting the ball out of danger.
We saw Arsenal Women set up with this structure last season against Brighton and Hove Albion Women, moving the ball around the attackers and using the wings to get up the pitch, so it is a tactic that clearly works in the WSL. We also know that wing play is a key part of Marc Skinner’s philosophy, so it is highly likely that Manchester United will set up in this way when with the ball in their own half next season.
When playing teams who like attacking, Marc Skinner has no problem sitting back to defend the goal. His team is organised and covers all the spaces, making it difficult for the opposing team to penetrate them and shoot at goal. However, they also set traps for the attackers, as this image shows. Once Kansas City have moved into the space just outside the box, Orlando move forwards to close them down, winning the ball before it can be moved into the box. Once they have possession, they can launch a counter-attack, and this is another defensive tactic that has made Orlando difficult to beat.
This season, they have averaged 46.54% possession per game, whilst 55.8% of their counter-attacks have ended with shots on the opposing goal, so it is something they are well-drilled in and which works. Manchester United conceded 20 league goals last season, more than Chelsea Women (10), Manchester City (13) and Arsenal (15), so they need to have a stronger defence, and having tactics like this available to them could be what they need to improve it.
In conclusion, this analysis has looked at how Marc Skinner could set up his Manchester United Women team next season, following his appointment as their new head coach. His previous experience of WSL management will help him with the league culture, but he needs to bring in some new players to successfully implement his preferred style of play. They have so far signed Aoife Mannion, fellow full-back Hannah Blundell from Chelsea, Norway midfielder Vilde Boe Risa from Sandviken, Scotland and former West Ham United Women striker Martha Thomas, and ex-Bristol City Women goalkeeper Sophie Baggaley, but their attack still needs a lot of reinforcement. It will be interesting to see who he does bring in, as it will have a big influence on what tactics they play with next season.