Going into women’s football weekend, the FAWSL saw a number of hotly contested matches between some of England’s biggest clubs including Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Everton. However, arguably the biggest game of the weekend was an affair between Manchester United Women and Chelsea Women. The two teams have been in good form coming into this encounter and three points would make a statement in their own right. Chelsea would cement their position on top of the league while a win for Manchester United would put the league on notice.
Chelsea came into the game having made one change from their last league match against West Ham. Fran Kirby was relegated to the bench giving Ramona Bachmann a rare start in attack. The Blues lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation to balance their attacking prowess and defensive solidarity.
Chelsea’s 4-1-4-1 gives them several attacking benefits, namely their ability to field two strikers that can complement each other and the team. While Bethany England is a natural centre-forward who prefers to make intelligent off the ball movements, Bachmann was tasked with putting in a tough shift on the right. Their midfield four has established a good understanding between them with the back four a reliable defensive outfit. Chelsea have become a well-balanced team with a mixture of attacking flair and defensive solidarity. The double-pivot of Ji-So yun and Sophie Ingle provide the perfect balance to protect Millie Bright and Magladena Eriksson and support England and Bachmann. The addition of Erin Cuthbert added extra energy and work rate into midfield.
Manchester United Women lined up in their traditional 4-2-3-1 system having opted for the same team that beat Reading in the last round of fixtures. Lauren James continued to lead the line being supported by Leah Galton, Jackie Groenen, and Kirsty Hanson. Their counter-attacking tactics have been perfectly suited to this system making Casey Stoney’s side a very impressive and difficult outfit to beat.
Manchester United’s defensive resolve
In our tactical analysis preview, we paid close attention to United’s defensive set up and structure and how they would look to make it difficult for Chelsea to penetrate through the central areas. Having once again kept a top tier opponent to a 1-0 scoreline is a testament to their defence. Chelsea grew into the game using their full-backs and strikers to good effect. A combination of the two central defenders and defensive midfielders held Chelsea and forced them to look for other options.
One of Chelsea’s biggest threats was England’s pace and movement and United did well to isolate England and keep her at bay. With Bachmann in the starting line-up, Chelsea were looking to add an extra player in midfield to try and compete against United’s defensive structure roaming around the right-hand side creating overloads. The added press from the right hand side would apply pressure across midfield. Bachmann’s energy provided just that. That did cause problems but for the most part, the United backline dealt with Chelsea’s central attacking threats well.
Any time Cuthbert or England tried to penetrate through the middle, United surrounded them with multiple players. This stemmed from United’s well-structured shape attempted to block off any easy passing lanes, especially in the first half. This left Chelsea’s ball-playing centre-backs no room to play it out from the back but was sometimes forced into playing long balls down the channels. This left England isolated in one v one sometimes one v two situations against United’s defenders.
In this case, Galton and Groenen shifted across to one side forcing Bright into a long pass over the top. Cuthbert, Mjelde, and Bachmann are all man-marked, even going back to Eriksson isn’t an option because of James.
Millie Turner is now in a favourable one v one situation against England where she can shepherd out to byline and keep her occupied till her other teammates are in a position to defend against the attack. In isolated situations, Manchester United felt stronger in defending and for the most part, defended adequately when it came to overloads in the wide areas.
Leaving the wide areas slightly unprotected in the middle third is a deliberate tactic by Manchester United. They use this tactic especially against teams that have strong, quick wingers. Stopping the opposition full-backs and wingers from getting forward becomes the utmost priority when they enter the defensive third. While we will take a closer look at Chelsea’s attacking structure in the next section, they favoured the wide areas and looked to get crosses and cut-backs throughout the match.
Their wingers will look to try and keep the full-backs pinned back, and play in behind them. Chelsea’s use of the wide players was apparent throughout the game and while the goal came from a run down the channels, they dealt with the threat by having their wingers trackback for a good portion of the match. Galton was often seen dropping back to help Harris against the combination of Mjelde and Bachmann.
An example from the first half shows a three v three situation between the teams with Cuthbert looking for an outlet but her two passing options are away from goal and any movement into the Manchester United box will be plugged by the United defender in the box.
Chelsea’s attacking structure
Much of the game was dominated by Chelsea with most of the possession lying with them. The Blues looked to take the initiative at home and play through Manchester United’s compact defensive shape. Knowing United would play in their usual counter-attacking style forced Chelsea to come up with new ideas to try and break through their tough defence. Chelsea attacked in a 4-2-3-1 formation with the two wingers tucking inside to allow the two Chelsea full-backs to take up the wide positions.
Cuthbert was positioned in a central midfield position away from her usual right-wing position to play more of a central attacking role. Her position changed in and out of possession as she played a more of a number ’10’ role in possession and dropped back into central midfield out of it. Cuthbert was a nuisance in keeping United’s defensive midfielders at bay. With United keeping the central areas occupied; Chelsea looked to take advantage of the wide areas. From the get-go, we could see both the Chelsea full-backs attack and defend diligently.
Whilst Mjelde was proficient at both ends, Andersson was better going forward. The two looked to get up and create overloads in the wide areas to get the better of Martha Harris and Amy Turner and keep them backed up in their own half. The two United full-backs barely got a proper run down the flanks with Chelsea’s two attacking from the front.
Chelsea started off slow but gained momentum in spurts during the first 15 minutes. Their first good chance came here when Ji’s quick ball to Reiten was followed up by a defence-splitting pass that is met by the run of Andersson on the overlap. While the cross was intercepted by Abbie McManus, it showed Chelsea had the capabilities to threaten in the wider areas. They created a lot of chances but failed to convert them in open play. They had an xG of 1.55 meaning they created more than they scored.
Mjelde and Bachmann combined down Chelsea’s right flank giving them the most impetus and attacking threat. United found it difficult to contain the two players with Bachmann playing a slightly deeper position and constantly pushing up with late runs and crosses when Chelsea were on the attack. Mjelde would bomb forward at every opportunity and laid off accurate crosses for the likes of Ji, England, and Reiten to latch on to. Even Chelsea’s winning penalty came courtesy of some neat interchanges between England and Fran Kirby. Kirby’s powerful run saw her win the penalty and give Chelsea the lead.
Bachmann’s role was important at both ends of the pitch. The Canadian attacker was visibly energetic throughout the match and provided Chelsea with thrust in attacking transitions. While she started at right midfield, we could see her drift into central areas and move out wide depending on the build-up. If Mjelde ran the inside channel, Bachmann would provide a wide option and vice versa. From an attacking sense, she created space and provided a regular passing option. Her on the ball skills and intelligence in understanding space was a real asset in the attacking areas. She caused the full-back a number of issues forcing Galton and Ladd to track back to keep her quiet. Defensively she provided a base for Mjelde and protected Chelsea from an onslaught on the right-hand side. Bachmann attempted five offensive duels winning three and seven defensive duels winning four proving her effectivenss.
Pressing from the front
Emma Hayes set out her team to press Manchester United and stop them from playing out from the back. Not only did they immediately pressure the centre-backs but the United goalkeeper too. Knowing United would sit back, they wanted to apply early pressure when they were on the ball. In doing so they tried to force United to play it long or play a quick pass which Chelsea’s attackers could intercept high up the pitch. The roaming Bachmann and Cuthbert were important in this regard with their energy and work rate. Chelsea were energetic and clinical in their passing and movement throughout the match as they were against Arsenal.
As soon as possession reached Zelem or Ladd, Chelsea’s central midfielders would push forward and pounce on the ball receiver. The example below shows Ji pushing up to press while England started the pressure from the top. Her role slowly became more of an advanced forward that looked to press the opposition and allow her deeper teammates interception opportunities.
Every pass made by United in their defensive third was a trigger a Chelsea forward to go and press United. As soon as Zelem released her pass, Bachmann was on her way to press McManus. Chelsea’s players were so relentless in their pressing keeping the pressure up constantly. In the same passage of play, Cuthbert darted forward to close down McManus after bypassing Bachmann. The Blues were trying to force United into playing long balls over towards Groenen and James which isn’t their style of play.
In truth, United were able to bypass Chelsea’s pressing through quick passing but were faced and played through the channels trying to include Galton, Hanson, and James. Chelsea were ready for this and responded by having their wingers track back and defend in numbers against United’s wide attackers. This forced James to drift between the left and right channel, holding up and providing support in the form of an extra player to interchange passes with. One of James’ fundamental strengths is her ability to play in tight spaces and evade pressure and that makes her very comfortable in some of those wide encounters.
Here we can see James coming from a central position to a wide left one to aid Galton from Mjelde, Cuthbert and Reiten’s press. Her presence allows Reiten’s attention to be diverted and give Galton a chance to be isolated against Cuthbert closer to goal.
Isolating Manchester United’s attacking threats
As we touched on in the earlier section, United’s most influential source of attack was the wide areas and stopping them would be key to keeping a clean sheet for Chelsea. They managed to contain United’s attacking threat to eight shots and just three on target. Mjelde and Andersson did well but the Norwegian, in particular, was impressive in her all-round performance. She contained Galton and stopped her from her usual attacking forays. This was done in through both extensive one v one defending and defensive overloads.
Chelsea held a 4-1-4-1 shape to try and stop United attacking from the front. Bachmann and Reiten would tuck in slightly and track the full-backs runs to aid Mjelde and Andersson. Cuthbert would become a central midfielder moving away from her number 10 position.
Keeping Galton oppressed was clearly a tactic deliberately employed to force United into long balls, or early crosses which could be easily dealt with by the central defenders. Many a time, Galton is often the free player when United look to counter-attack or switch play. The forward is proficient in one v one situations and that is reflected in her attempted 5.53 dribbles per 90 this season with a 62.1% success rate. Her effectiveness going forward and finding spaces in behind the opposition full-backs is proven, but this emphasises the excellent performance by Mjelde.
As the above image portrays when Galton receives possession she immediately tries to take up a position to deny Galton space or force her into passing to the overlapping Harris. Either option favours the Norwegian because of Bachmann’s presence next to her. The pass ends up pushing Harris out wide giving Mjelde an advantageous one v one scenario.
When United did, however, breakthrough, there was a common scene with James on the ball just outside the penalty area with no easy passing lanes forward. Chelsea would bring players back to defend and surround the young United striker. Any time James was in possession, Chelsea would look to press and pressure the striker with multiple players.
Knowing how dangerous James can be, as we saw against Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, they knew giving her time and space on the ball would spell danger for the centre-backs. Spurs really struggled to contain United’s attacking force with Galton especially menacing in the wide areas. The move started with James dropping deep and winning possession to push Manchester United forward with Galton and Smith bombing down the left flank.
We can see how Chelsea have four players in close proximity to James and six players in total behind the ball to stop United’s threat in the forward areas. The only player in the box, Groenen, was marked giving James very few options to pass into.
The two teams battled hard in a progressively entertaining game. Chelsea’s win solidifies their position as league leaders while Stoney’s side will be disappointed with a loss having been in such great form coming into the match. Manchester United will need to find an alternate plan to start breaking down teams and increase the tempo. At the moment they look solid but predictable after a few mirroring performances. Chelsea will go into the game against Birmingham City full of confidence and will be expected to pick up three points before facing title challengers Manchester City. That game could go a long way in deciding who will end up at the very top.
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