FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Chelsea Women – tactical analysis
For most FAWSL fans, this weekend’s matchup between Manchester City Women and visiting Chelsea marks not just a match that would more than likely decide the league winner but brings us debatably the most exciting match of the season. City currently sit one point ahead of Chelsea Women in the table, but Chelsea lie in wait, ready to pounce, with a game in hand.
Both teams have run absolutely rampant in the league averaging almost three goals a game, while both teams have also given up less than a goal a game. Chelsea have recently added world-class striker Sam Kerr to the ranks of an already powerful attacking arsenal. Manchester City Women have recently lost their manager Nick Cushing to a coaching role with New York City F.C. in the MLS.
After analysis, we see that this game did not disappoint in bringing a highly entertaining contest. Would Manchester City feel a bump in the form with newly arrived manager Alan Mahon taking the reins? Would Chelsea’s new striking partnership between Beth England and Kerr be able to tally goals against the league-leading City defence? This tactical analysis will look at the tactics of both the managers and the nuances of the game.
Chelsea: out of possession
To those who have followed Chelsea through the current FAWSL campaign, it will be no shock that Emma Hayes employed a high press when out of possession. The visitors sought to create maximum pressure on the Manchester City ball carrier while City were building out of the back.
This was executed through a player to player marking scheme that attempted to eliminate all nearby passing options. While passing options were being restricted the nearest Chelsea player to the ball carrier was tasked with pressuring and directly gaining possession of the ball.
From the early minutes of play, Chelsea displayed their aggressive out of possession approach. In the ninth minute of play, Manchester City were attempting to play out of their defensive third from a goal kick. City brought both of their centre-backs inside of the 18yd box to create an initial safe area of progression.
Chelsea matched the positioning of the two centre-backs with the high positioning of Kerr and England. As soon as the play was initiated, Kerr and England directly pressured City centre-backs, Steph Houghton and Gemma Bonner.
The ball quickly made its way to City right-back Janine Beckie, who in turn was quickly pressured by Guro Reiten. Reiten focused on pressuring Beckie from an upfield position to dissuade Beckie from dribbling forward.
As Beckie moves the ball to a temporarily unmarked Keira Walsh, who is quickly closed down from behind by Sophie Ingle. Walsh is able to receive the ball, but due to the intensity of the pressure from Ingle, she is unable to turn upfield and play the ball forward. She returns the ball to Beckie.
At this point, City right-midfielder Jill Scott recognises that City are matched player for player in the immediate area and will currently have trouble progressing out of the defensive third. Scott drops in to aid in forward progression and receives the ball from Beckie with her back to the Chelsea goal.
As Scott dropped in to assist, Chelsea left-back Jonna Andersson closely shadows Scott’s movements. As Scott receives, she also is under intense pressure from behind and has no safe nearby passing option. Scott attempts to turn off of Andersson and play a pass up the right flank, but the ball is deflected out of bounds.
Chelsea not only used this intense pressing tactic throughout the opening minutes of the match but throughout the game as well. This is a testament to the Chelsea work ethic and team mentality. This is reflected in the fact that Chelsea maintained a 9.6 PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) for the match. For a frame of reference: Pep Guardiola’s treble-winning Barcelona maintained a PPDA between six and nine.
Below we can see that Chelsea continued to press into the later stages of the match as well. In the fifty-ninth minute, Chelsea were pressing so aggressively that they were outnumbering the Manchester City players in that area of the pitch.
This tells us that a large part of Hayes’ game plan was to win the ball in higher areas of the pitch and create quick and dangerous attacks with their talented attackers. We will discuss that further below.
Manchester City: out of possession
Manchester City entered the match with a slightly more conservative approach when out of possession. Manager Alan Mahon sought to maintain a compact unit in a base 4-4-2 shape. City typically allowed the Chelsea defensive players to maintain possession in their defensive third of the pitch. City’s primary focus was to prevent forward access to the high positioned and mobile Chelsea attackers. This was achieved through a few specific defensive tactics.
One of Mahon’s main out of possession objectives was to retain a compact and well-positioned back four while simultaneously dealing with attacking runs from deeper Chelsea players. Chelsea are known to use positional interchanges between their attacking and midfield players to quickly create and exploit space in the midfield and defensive lines.
Mahon countered this attacking tactic by instructing the City midfielders to track forward attacking runs from deeper lying Chelsea players. This allowed the City back four to focus on the high and centrally located Chelsea attackers while the midfielders focused on incoming off the ball runs.
We can see an example of this in the sixteenth minute of play. Chelsea’s England is positioned in the gap between the City centre-backs. Reiten has also pushed high into the defensive line as well. At this moment, Retien drops into space between the City midfield and defensive lines to receive. As she does this, City right-back Beckie tracks Reiten to prevent her from turning upfield.
As this movement occurs, Chelsea left-back Andersson penetrates forward into the left flank that is now neglected by Beckie. Typically this would put Beckie in a very unpleasant 2v1 situation against Reiten and Andersson.
Mahon countered this deep attacking movement from Andersson by having right-midfielder Jill Scott track the run of Andersson. This tracking by Scott prevents a 2v1 against Beckie and more importantly allows the two centre-backs to remain focused on England.
It is easy to imagine what this scenario would look like if Scott had not dropped from the midfield line. This a small defensive tactic employed by City, but it made a huge impact on play through the match.
Another subtle and conservative defensive tactic employed by Mahon was seen in how the Manchester City strikers behaved when out of possession in the attacking third. Ellen White and Georgia Stanway were not tasked with all-out pressure against the Chelsea ball carrier, but a subtle pressure while maintaining a defensive presence in the central pivot area. White and Stanway rotated these duties throughout the match.
Chelsea often rely on the skills of central midfielders Ingle and Ji So-Yun to dictate possessional play and create a foundation for attacks. Mahon sought to disrupt a key element of Chelsea’s possession by positioning a City forward in the pivot area at all times.
Below we see an example of this subtle disruption over the course of about fifteen seconds. Initially, Stanway has passively pressured Chelsea right centre-back Millie Bright and has forced play wide. At this moment, White positioned herself in the central channel and within pressuring distance of Ingle.
Seconds later we can see that they have switched roles. White has passively pressured the goalkeeper to play wide. At that moment, Stanway tucked in behind White and stayed within pressuring distance of Ji.
As the ball is played out to the flank again, Stanway and White rotate their duties of pressuring players and pivot covering a player. This tactic proved to be fairly effective and often forced Chelsea to use a double pivot to create any forward progression.
Forcing Chelsea into a double pivot removed an additional midfielder from an attacking position upfield. This, in turn, helped the City midfield and defensive lines to deal with the swarming Chelsea forwards.
After halftime, Manchester City became more aggressive when out of possession. Below we see a graph displaying defensive recoveries in the 1st half and the 2nd half. In the first half, City saw 65% of their defensive recoveries in the defending third of the pitch. This confirms that City were comfortable with sitting back and allowing Chelsea to maintain possession in their defensive backline. City focused on maintaining a compact and central defensive and midfield block that proved to be very difficult to play through.
In the second half, Manchester City maintained similar marking roles, but became more aggressive and pushed their compact unit higher up the pitch. This is supported by the fact that City had a majority of their defensive recoveries in the middle third of the pitch in the second half.
This more aggressive second-half approach was also shown in Manchester City’s shift from a first-half PPDA of 18 to a second-half PPDA of 11.7.
Chelsea: in possession
Chelsea when in possession allocated an aggressive vertical attacking tactic. Although listed as a 4-4-2, when in attack Chelsea were often found in a shape closer to a 4-2-4. Kerr is already known as one of the best female players on the planet and can create enough attacking chaos on her own. A striking partnership with England has slowly been blossoming over the past weeks. Both are capable of dropping between the lines to receive, making dangerous runs behind, taking dangerous shots from outside the box and creating a number of other problems for opposing defenders.
Hayes added to City’s defensive problems by starting Reiten and Erin Cuthbert as outside midfielders. Reiten and Cuthbert both play forward for their national teams (Norway and Scotland respectively). When in possession, Chelsea actually used four strikers that used constant off the ball movements and rotations to create attacking space. These movements often led to dangerous crosses from wide areas and attacking 1v1 situations in the Manchester City defensive third.
Below we can see Chelsea’s average player positioning. Chelsea have naturally lined up in a 4-2-4 shape. This tells us that A) Reiten and Cuthbert constantly pushed high in the halfspaces and flanks. B) The full-backs had little attacking responsibility and typically remained in defensive positions. (Andersson would push forward on occasion). C) Ingle and Ji rarely left their central pivot positions.
This team shape lends itself to using direct play to move the ball into the attacking third and that’s just what Chelsea did.
Chelsea often played the ball directly to the wide areas of the attacking third. This was done knowing that a high positioned striker would remain central and pin the Manchester City backline in the central channel.
This allowed the other forward players to slip out wide to receive in the attacking third. Once the ball had been received on the flank, Chelsea quickly sought to push the other three forwards into the box while the ball carrier crossed from the flank.
Below we see that Chelsea created many crosses throughout the match. We also see that a majority of these crosses were executed by Kerr (20), England (9), Reiten (11), or Cuthbert (22). Chelsea often use this type of positional rotation. The positional principles are always the same, but the players who occupy the position constantly changes.
This meant that Cuthbert could receive on the flank and cross to the other attackers. Kerr could receive on the flank and cross to the other attackers. So on and so forth, you get the idea. This allowed Chelsea to create a fairly fluid and dynamic attacking front four.
Below we see a moment in which the Chelsea attackers have taken position in and around the Manchester city defensive and midfield lines of four. Kerr has slipped wide to the right flank. England has remained high and central to pin back the City backline. Reiten has dropped into the space between the forward and midfield lines.
At this moment the ball carrier (right-back Maren Mjelde) has two options: A) playing to the feet of Reiten, who can then create combination play in the central channel with England. B) playing the ball to the feet of Kerr, who has plenty of space around her. C) Playing a through ball to Kerr to space behind City left-back Demi Stokes.
Mjelde places a near-perfect ground pass into the forward path of Kerr.
Kerr receives the ball in full stride with Stokes behind her and can either shoot, play the ball into the attacking run of England, or make a cutback pass to Reiten, who remains in space between the lines. Each of these choices creates an immediate threat to the Manchester City goal.
Kerr eventually takes a few touches forward and rips a shot towards the upper corner of the goal. City keeper Ellie Roebuck is forced to make an acrobatic save.
Moments like this show that Chelsea chose to use the talent of their four forward attackers to play through Manchester City’s defensive and midfield block of eight players. Four vs eight might not sound like an optimal situation, but through their direct attacking tactics, Chelsea were able to create 15 shots with 9 of them on target and 3 of them hitting the back of the net.
Manchester City: in possession
When in possession Manchester City used a positional play based tactic that sought to create an optimal team structure, shift the ball to move the Chelsea unit out of position and then quickly take advantage of the created space.
This is done by positioning the team so that each player is spaced on a number of different horizontal and vertical lines. By staggering players across different heights and widths, many passing angles are created within the team shape. Manchester City would then be able to hypothetically move the ball within the structure to drag the Chelsea defensive block out of shape. Once the Chelsea unit had been misshaped, City would quickly strike into the newly opened attacking space.
Initially, City had a fair amount of trouble progressing out of the Chelsea high press. Although once City had progressed through the press, their positional play was on full display. The first goal of the game brought us a prime example.
City were able to progress over the Chelsea press with a long diagonal pass to Lauren Hemp on the left flank. With Hemp in possession, the rest of the City attacking unit moved into a very aggressive attacking diamond shape. Below we can see that City have formed a diamond shape with a focus on occupying the halfspaces with a player each and two players in the central channel. The highest player in the diamond and the wide players serve to act as attacking options but more importantly force the Chelsea back four back and narrow.
Caroline Weir, who is the base of the diamond at the moment, is free to drop just in front of the defensive line to receive in dangerous space. She knows that if she receives and is pressured by a Chelsea defender, space will be opened for Ellen White to move into. Two more players are positioned slightly deeper to circulate horizontal passes or become a platform for dangerous through passes.
Off-screen in the right flank, Janine Beckie has pressed high to the offside line and is completely unmarked.
At this moment, Manchester City have already established a very dangerous attacking shape deep in the Chelsea defensive third. Through circulating the ball, City have also forced six Chelsea players into a very flat backline. Defending in flat lines can be dangerous considering one well-placed pass behind the line can instantly eliminate six defenders.
This is a perfect moment for Manchester City to strike. After a few passes within the right halfspace and central channel, City play the ball out wide to the feet of Beckie. As the ball travels to Beckie White is already making a curved run behind Chelsea centre-back Millie Bright. Beckie one-touches the ball into the path of White who easily places the ball into the net.
By using a highly structured positional play tactic, Manchester City were able to trouble Chelsea and create chances on goal. This eventually led to less shots for City than Chelsea (13 shots, 7 on target), but a higher overall xG (2.37 to Chelsea’s 1.6).
City were able to create fewer goal-scoring situations overall, but the situations that were created were more dangerous and clear-cut opportunities.
In the end, both teams will be disappointed with a 3-3 draw. There were many near misses and narrow escapes for each team. In a grander view, this match did showcase that the FAWSL is not a league that is slowly arriving at the upper echelon of women’s football, but a league that is already there.
With five matchdays remaining for most teams in the league, the title race is too close to call. Both teams displayed that they have what it takes to take be crowned champions of England. The next few weeks are going to be quite exciting.