Arguably the biggest game of the weekend was the derby between Manchester United Women and Liverpool Women. This highly anticipated fixture had more than just points at stake. Both teams started the season in lacklustre fashion registering no wins or goals in both of their opening FAWSL matches. Manchester United Women had lost the opening two league fixtures away to Manchester City and at home to Arsenal by the slenderest of margins. Liverpool had also been beaten 1-0 by Reading and Spurs, before losing 3-2 at home to Sheffield United in the Continental League Cup last Sunday. Rooted to the bottom of the league, both Liverpool Women and Manchester United Women needed points to kickstart their season and look to leave the other in their wake.
Lineups and Squad
Manchester United Women made a couple of changes from their narrow loss to Arsenal Women last week with Lotta Ökvist and Lauren James coming in for Amy Turner and Jane Ross making way. The Red Devils were without summer signings Jackie Groenen and Jane Ross, due to injury and illness, so this gave a chance to 17-year-old James to make her first start and prove her credentials as worthy to start as the centre-forward for Casey Stoney’s side. Stoney kept faith in her 4-2-3-1 formation with Jessica Sigsworth continuing in her right wing berth. Hayley Ladd and Katie Zelem played as the two defensive midfielders laying the foundations for their more attack-minded teammates.
Liverpool Women made two changes to the line-up that faced Tottenham Hotspur Women with Jessica Clarke and Jade Bailey being replaced by the energetic Rinsola Babajide and Rhiannon Roberts. The two players came in to freshen up the side and provide a solid base at the back while adding more venom in attack.
Manchester United Women: Earps, Smith, McManus, M.Turner, Okvist; Ladd, Zelem, Toone; James, Sigsworth, Galton
Liverpool FC Women: Preuss, Jane, Robe, Bradley-Auckland, Fahey, Roberts, Rodgers, Lawley, Charles, Sweetman-Kirk, Babajide.
Liverpool Women’s energetic wide play
One of the more interesting tactical points of the match was to see how Liverpool Women would attack a sturdy defensive line. Manchester United had shown their ability to keep it tight at the back through a series of transitions and overloads. Liverpool’s main hope came from their forward line where they would rely on pace and dribbling to create attacking chances for Courtney Sweetman-Kirk. The former Doncaster Rovers Belles’ forward had scored 49 goals before making the move to Liverpool in 2018 and has scored nine goals in 17 appearances. The introduction of Babajide was to introduce a winger with a direct style of play and someone who could beat the Manchester United press.
It was an open game with both teams threatening but much of the first half saw Liverpool create dangerous chances. Liverpool held the majority of possession for the first 15 minutes and started to cause their opposition issues. Liverpool looked to build out from the back by looking to their wide players.
Through a combination of working it through the channels going from a wide position to a more central one, they looked to pass it in between the opposition centre-back and full-back. Leah Galton held a narrower position thus allowing Liverpool to consistently get balls down the right wing.
As the graphic above shows, Becky Jane looks to play around Galton and find Niamh Charles who is looking to make a run out wide. Ella Toone recognises this and tries to instruct Galton to follow her run but is ultimately too late.
With no one pressing Charles down, she has a free run into the final third and is allowed to assess her options. Melissa Lawley’s position and run takes the attention of Ladd and Millie Turner, giving Babajide a one v one against Abbie McManus. This allowed Babajide to put herself into favourable goal scoring positions.
Babajide and her blistering left wing runs were a constant threat to Manchester United throughout the match. Kirsty Smith had trouble keeping the Merseyside winger quiet with her pace and burst of speed causing her issues. Even with Sigsworth doubling up and dropping back to help curtail Babajide, she still found ways to penetrate Manchester United’s defence.
What also helped Babajide’s cause was Manchester United’s sloppy passing in midfield, allowing the English winger to pounce on loose balls and run towards goal. As the graphic above highlights, Babajide is trying to close off any easy passing options for McManus while Sweetman-Kirk is closing her down to apply additional pressure. Smith can be seen in a slightly higher position ready to make a run down the right wing expecting the pass from McManus.
However, a poor pass made straight at the Liverpool winger meant they could interchange quick passes and look to get in behind Manchester United’s defence. Here we can see Babajide with acres of space to run into with support arriving in the penalty area to aim for. Liverpool pounced on Manchester United’s wayward passing to try and capitalise.
Manchester United Women’s Counter-attacking potential
While Liverpool Women were a constant threat going forward in the first half, Manchester United were the cause for their own mistakes. The Red Devils’ sloppy passing, especially from their defenders, allowed Liverpool more chances than they were able to create. They were able to keep out Liverpool’s crosses through their disciplined defensive organisation and potent counter-attacking potential. For the most part, United looked much more comfortable without the ball than with it.
They certainly were much more dangerous on the counter-attack by finding pockets of space to attack when Liverpool were left unorganised at the back. In Saturday’s tactical preview, the analysis had shown Liverpool’s weakness in dealing with quick switches in play and counter-attacks around the penalty area. They are especially vulnerable in wider areas because of the wingers and full-backs pushing forward.
The second half saw Manchester United assert more control when in possession and looked the most likely to score. Galton adjusted her position and started to station herself slightly wider and looked to cut inside tormenting Leighanne Robe. They employed a more aggressive press to allow Liverpool no time to build out from the back to the wide areas. This also played a part in the build-up to their first goal. Winning possession back higher up in midfield would allow them to counter-attack swiftly and get their two inside-forwards in Sigsworth and Galton on the ball to cause havoc to Liverpool’s full-backs.
For example, we can see above how the move starts with Toone dispossessing Roberts in central midfield allowing James time on the ball to run forward. Liverpool are sprinting to get numbers back in the penalty to stop Manchester United from counter-attacking.
The 17-year-old striker immediately looked for options on her left and right and eventually found Galton free on the left. As you can see here, Galton is in a perfect position to take on Ross and look to get the ball into the box.
The move is ultimately halted, but United’s excellent pressing wins them possession around the Liverpool penalty area with Sigsworth looking for James in space. As the above graphic illustrates, none of Liverpool’s defenders are marking James close enough to intercept or dispossess her. The young striker showed great skill in tight areas throughout the match and gave Liverpool enough warning about her skills with the ball at her feet. James turns and feints the Liverpool centre-back to slot the ball home.
James’ goal was ultimately what Manchester United deserved based on their second-half showing. The teenage striker showed class, patience, and maturity beyond her age. Liverpool failed to completely deal with the initial attack thus allowing Manchester United a chance to score.
The second goal came through some neat footwork and another typical Galton drive down the left flank into the penalty area. This was the first real attempt at hacking down the United number 11 and in doing so Liverpool gave away a penalty in stoppage time.
Lauren James – Manchester United’s prodigal striker
James was a surprise inclusion in Manchester United’s line-up with the teenager making her first start after impressing in the Championship last season, scoring 14 goals. The trust put in by Stoney was repaid with a well-taken goal against arch-rivals Liverpool.
“She’s an incredible kid – you can’t show her right and you can’t show her left, because she can play off both feet.” – Vicky Jepson
The United striker showed graceful touches and a deceptive movement pattern that was reminiscent of Manchester United legend, Dimitar Berbatov. While she is far off from fully emulating the former United striker, James has shown incredible potential to become the best player in the FAWSL. Her relatively short career has seen her attempt 4.24 dribbles and 12.71 offensive duels per 90. This shows her willingness to get on the ball and attack opposition teams. Against Liverpool, she was able to drop deep and link-up play with midfield and was at the heart of Manchester United’s attacks. After hitting the underside of the woodwork in the first half, she continued to persist and as we saw in the earlier example, she was able to link Manchester United’s midfield and attack that resulted in her goal.
The Red Devils march forward
Over 90 minutes, Manchester United Women deserved their win and a 2-0 scoreline was a justifiable score. Liverpool defended well by keeping Manchester United at bay for 70 minutes and held their shape decently well. The inclusion of Babajide was crucial as she was able to get in behind on numerous occasions and will be key to Liverpool’s success in the future. While they will go back to Merseyside disappointed, Jepson can take heart from their performance and use it to kickstart their season this week.
Manchester United, on the other hand, will be buoyant with their performance and Stoney will be delighted with the reaction and will be looking to take this momentum into the game against Tottenham Hotspur Women next week.
Indeed, this could be the start of Manchester United Women’s run in the FAWSL and possibly see themselves as a top-four rival sooner rather than later.
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