The ninth fixture of the FAWSL saw a top of the table clash between Manchester City Women and Chelsea Women but while the two battled it out, Manchester United Women quietly got on with business. The Red Devils hosted fifth-place Everton in a game that would try to close the gap to third-placed Manchester City.
The Red Devils have made a good start to the season even though they now have a record of five wins and four losses. Their losses have been close defeats to the current top three by one-goal margins. Having beaten Everton in the Cup last month, United would have been considered as favourites for the tie. Everton, however, have won three out of their last five games and are well placed in fifth.
Team News & Lineups
Casey Stoney made two changes to her side’s win over West Ham with Jessica Sigsworth and Lauren James coming in to replace Kirsty Hanson and Jane Ross. Stoney lined up her side in her usual 4-2-3-1 formation. This system has been tried and tested and one the players are accustomed to and teams have found it increasingly difficult to beat and break down.
Everton also lined up in a 4-2-3-1 system making one change with central defender Kika van Es being replaced by Gabrielle George. The rest of the team was unchanged from their impressive 3-1 win against Tottenham Hotspur.
Manchester United Women: Earps; Turner, McManus, Turner, Harris; Zelem, Ladd; Sigsworth, Groenen, Galton; James
Everton Women: Korpela; Morgan, Finnigan, George, Turner; Graham, Clemaron; Kelly, Pike, Kaagman; Magill
Tactical Analysis – Everton Women’s build-up & press
Willie Kirk’s side began the game in quick fashion by playing a high tempo game from the start. The Blues were looking to put Manchester United under pressure from the start and wanted to get an early sight at goal. They looked to play out from the back and progress possession through the thirds in as fewer passes as they could. They shaped up differently on and off the ball using a 4-4-2 when United had possession. From that perspective, they wanted to press United higher up the pitch and force the centre-backs into passing to the two full-backs. This was especially important because it allowed Everton to push their wide players up to create numerical superiority against the ball carrier.
This example early in the game showed Everton’s well-maintained structure in midfield which allows the two strikers to press in tandem. Notice how they blocked the passing lanes into Hayley Ladd and Katie Zelem. The two United midfielders have been key in their build-up this season and keeping them away forces United to react differently. Both Harris and Amy Turner are not the best under pressure causing them to come under pressure and forcing Leah Galton and Sigsworth into a more defensive position.
Both centre-backs would look for the two defensive midfielders who would look for the wide players. Attacking United’s full-backs was a deliberate plan, especially down the right flank. Chloe Kelly was the pick of Everton’s players as she tormented Martha Harris time and time again using her pace to devastating effect. The Evertonian right-winger more often than not used the channels to drift in or run down the byline to whip in low crosses putting United’s centre-backs under pressure.
Chloe Kelly’s energetic performance
Everton were unlucky to lose by a two-goal margin given how they played from an attacking point of view. Going forward Everton looked to play primarily through the wide players and get them on the ball as much as possible. The two wingers were given license to attack United’s full-backs and get in behind. While Turner has enough pace to keep up, Harris isn’t the quickest thus becoming a focal point of Everton’s line of attack. Kelly was dangerous from kick-off and constantly attacked Harris by going either side of her. The first goal came from a corner that was made from Kelly’s first major foray down the right flank. She has been a menace this season registering an average of 10.86 dribbles, 2.99 crosses, and 31.94 duels per 90. This has shown her willingness to attack any full-back she comes up against and immediately applies pressure on one side.
The build-up play before this moment is a good example of how Everton managed to progress the ball into the final third before United could really settle into a shape. Before the ball reached Kelly, United tried hard to penetrate Everton’s back four but were blocked out each time. They tried to pressure them into making a mistake but Everton ultimately bypassed United’s midfield and found themselves in a favourable situation going forward. With no real press in midfield, Maéva Clemaron was able to find Kelly who was essentially left to take on Harris in a one v one situation. The amount of space left in behind was exploited by the Evertonian winger.
Manchester United Women’s defensive response
Despite the early pressure from Everton, Manchester United were able to rely on their usual defensive solidarity and structure to remain in the game and seeing as their equaliser came very early on, it allowed them to reset and try and get a foothold in the game. While they were comfortable in possession in the middle and final third, they were harried by Everton’s high press. United usually look to progress play and build-up through Zelem who is their primary playmaker and tempo controller in midfield.
However, Everton did a good job in controlling United’s build-up into the two defensive midfielders. To counteract this, Stoney made an in-game adjustment by asking one of Zelem or Ladd to drop in between the centre-backs to create a passing option and extra support in the event that Everton win back possession and counter-attack. Below we can see Ladd in a position to drop into the centre-backs position to try and cover the space vacated by one of the central defenders. Either Zelem or Ladd would fulfil this in case Everton’s high press results in a meaningful attack.
Manchester United Women’s intelligent use of space
For as good as Everton’s performance was, United were simply clinical in their attacking efforts. While their attack needs some work in terms of balance, their 18-year-old prodigal striker once again came up with a magnificent performance to score a first-half brace to put Manchester United in the ascendency. Having been relegated to the bench last week against West Ham due to a minor injury, James returned to the line-up and proved why she’s been so vital to United not just in terms of her goal-scoring but her overall play too. A lot of United’s play comes from the wide areas.
Through the analysis we have conducted throughout the season on Manchester United Women matches there has been a common theme with Galton, Sigsworth, and Kirsty Hanson all being the main attacking providers for James in the penalty area. They look to distribute the ball into the full-backs who quickly move it towards the wide players. Jackie Groenen is a key component to these moves as she pounces on anything that is played centrally until the ball reaches the box. James’ first goal was a typical United goal with play advancing down the sides and using space intelligently.
The move starts with Harris and eventually makes its way to Amy Turner at right-back. What’s important to note here is Sigsworth’s run into the wide area pulls the Everton midfielder opening up a passing option to Groenen. While the Dutch international scuffs her initial attempt to gather possession, she recovers and this pulls close to five players to her.
Not only does this give Sigsworth space to drive down the flank but notice how James is able to ghost through into the area almost unnoticed. Sigsworth’s cross is met by a perfectly timed run by the United striker.
Lauren James’ brilliance
There was a distinct difference between Jane Ross and James in the centre-forward position. Both United strikers – Ross and James – have slightly different play styles and it looked like Ross was asked to play in a similar style to James against West Ham by dropping deep to collect possession and link up with the midfield. However, while Ross did earn herself an early assist, she started to fade away against a stubborn West Ham defence. James’ inclusion this week was a clear upgrade and her finesse on the ball was breath-taking with the way she carried the ball in tight places. Part of her movement against Everton Women was tasked to create triangles and encourage more intricate give-and-go passing moves to shift Everton’s defenders out of position.
This was evident in her second goal of the game where Groenen, Galton, and James combined to play around the three Everton defenders. James manages to pick up the final pass and uses her exquisite touch allowing the ball to roll across her body and get a shot away from just outside the box. We could see how her movement was imperative in getting the first goal too. James’ play style is reminiscent of both Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi in her link-up play and ability to understand and time her runs in and around the box at the right time. Both European football greats were renowned for their intelligence and excellent movement on the pitch and this young teenager has the potential to match their greatness.
The game came down to the brilliance of James and United’s brilliant play to her strengths. The teenage prodigy has been a core centrepiece to United’ attacking crown, and at 18-years of age, she already looks set to become an all-time great. Her grace, elegance, and intelligence on the ball is remarkable and rarely seen in other players her age. This United side have the potential to become a force to be reckoned with in the future.
With experience and a few good signings next summer, Stoney could assemble a squad to tackle Champions League qualification next season. Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal seem to be above the pack and are in a race of their own. United can hope for a top-four position which will represent a fantastic return in their first season in the top flight. Everton have begun the season in good form and are probably just about where they should be.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the December issue for just ₤4.99 here