Manchester United Women took on West Ham United Women at the Rush Green Stadium in what should have been a straight forward game but was anything but. The FAWSL is starting to take shape with Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea all taking turns at the top of the table. The Blues had their game called off against Everton because of a frozen pitch but now have a game in hand. Manchester United are fifth, three points behind Everton who have a game in hand.
The Red Devils have made a good start to the season even though they have a record of four wins and four losses. Their losses have been close defeats to three of the current top four and all by one-goal margins. West Ham, on the other hand, have had a poor start to the season having already registered five losses conceding 18 goals in eight games. They were demolished by Manchester City Women last week and needed a response against an inform Manchester United side.
Manchester United Women lined up in their traditional 4-2-3-1 system having made one change with Jane Ross replacing the injured Lauren James. Leah Galton, Jackie Groenen, and Kirsty Hanson continued to support the striker. Their counter-attacking tactics have been perfectly suited to this system giving teams a very difficult time. West Ham’s five-man backline would have been a test for the forwards.
West Ham made two changes for their clash against the Red Devils with Anna Moorhouse and Jacynta Galabadaarachchi being replaced by Courtney Brosnan and Martha Thomas. Matt Beard continued with the 5-3-2 system that he has favoured for much of this campaign
West Ham United Women: Brosnan; Kvamme, Flaherty, Hendrix, Vetterlein, Baunach; Lehmann, Longhurst, Dali; Keirnan, Thomas
Manchester United Women: Earps; Turner, McManus, Turner, Harris; Zelem, Ladd; Hanson, Groenen, Galton; Ross
Manchester United’s proactive approach
The Red Devils began the game in typical United fashion with their well-formed structure in their 4-2-3-1. Both Zelem and Ladd were once again tasked with keeping United’s backline protected but were given a license to push forward. They were expected to have more possession against a West Ham side that were set out to defend deep and compact. One of the biggest differences in United’s system was their slightly higher line which allowed Zelem to push forward and play a more controlling role in midfield. The United captain was able to recycle possession and look to play more threatening passes forward to try and penetrate West Ham’s tight defence. Ross would try and replicate the role Lauren James plays out through her movement and dropping deep to connect with the midfield.
West Ham’s defensive setup
The Hammers have decent forward players but against a side strong on the counter, they needed to reinforce their backline by remaining solid at the back. West Ham, on the other hand, set up in a 5-3-2 system knowing how potent United are in the wide areas. The two West Ham attacking midfielders dropped back to help the wing-backs from being overloaded.
It was imperative for them to keep their shape and not allow United any easy passing options especially in the wide areas where they are most dangerous. Galton and Hanson have been in fine form and keeping them isolated and restricted to back passes was high on the agenda. They were looking to play on the counter-attack trying to catch United in their own defensive third when both full-backs were pushed high. Using the pace of Alisha Lehmann and Kenza Dali to play through the channels and use them as their main attacking outlet.
Even as United tried to up the tempo and move the ball across the pitch quicker, West Ham made sure they kept a tight backline to ensure there weren’t any easy passageways through. While the early goal caught them off guard, they remained disciplined for the remainder of the half and repelled United’s attack. The midfield three focused on keeping a compact shape rather than intensely pressing United. They were afraid of Zelem controlling proceedings by playing passes over and around the press.
However, through analysis, there were moments the Red Devils were able to penetrate through and find success by getting crosses in. Any time West Ham committed players forward, their defensive line would push up. When United won possession back in their own half, they would look to quickly play out from the back and find Hanson or Galton in the wide areas. Due to their lack press, there were times United were able to travel further down the flank and get crosses in. Often times they would be cleared but eventually would inevitably connect.
Manchester United’s channel success
Manchester United were looking for deliveries into the channels for their wingers to run into. United’s main game plan was to try and exploit any space in behind the Hammers defensive line out wide. Many a time, Galton is often the free player when United look to counter-attack. 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
The above is an example of how West Ham can be vulnerable in wide areas.A switch of play allows Ji-So yun and Guro Reiten to make a late run into the box. The goal scored against West Ham typified their movement in forward areas. Reiten spots space in behind West Ham’s full-back and Kirby running in to release a quick pass forward. Having seen Emma Hayes’ side have success down the flanks, Manchester United wanted to use the pace and guile of Leah Galton and Kirsty Hanson to create a similar situation. Stoney’s plan worked almost instantly.
The first goal came within the first minute of play with United attacking West Ham’s left-hand side. Ross’ selection was justified as she dropped deep to help Galton and Harris out wide and is unopposed when she picks up possession. Immediately, notice how West Ham’s backline are compact and rigid in structure to not allow Ross any space to drive forward.
However, a late run from the opposite winger Hanson is spotted by Ross and she crosses in a lofted ball towards the far post that is met. The West Ham right-back Katharina Baunach was caught unaware and let her marker loose. Any hopes of West Ham keeping things tight for the first 20-30 minutes was dashed by a moment of poor tracking. Although, West Ham’s first goal was courtesy of a cross from Dali off the left for central defender Laura Vetterlein who nodded home within the first five minutes.
The second half saw a cagier affair between the two sides with very little chances to speak of for the first 25 minutes. Lauren James’ arrival in the second half had United continue to pass and probe into the channels and eventually saw her take advantage of a great ball over the top by Ella Toone. The two sides were looking to take advantage of the wide areas where arguably their most talented players are stationed.
West Ham’s set-piece glory
For a team that looked devoid of ideas to break down a well-structured Manchester United side, they still managed to find nine shots, four of which were on target. With only 44% possession, the team had to defend getting better as the game wore on. With the exception of a rare successful attack within the first five minutes that yielded a goal, the Hammers best chances of scoring came from set-pieces. Their second equalising and winning goal came from two wonderful free-kicks by Baunach. The German full-back first managed to find the back of the net by floating a ball into the area bypassing everyone, while the second was a direct free-kick that was chipped over the wall.
This wasn’t the first time the Hammers threatened an FAWSL side with their dangerous deliveries. As they did against Chelsea, the sent a ball in that was not cleared properly and allowed the second ball to be won by West Ham. This saw Adriana Leon make an unmarked run round the back to score. Similarly, they threatened Manchester United with a curling ball into the area that evaded every defender and found the back of the net.
Overall, the game wasn’t a great spectacle. The two teams were reliant on the wide areas and found it hard to break each other down. Despite the final 10 minutes being full of goals, and made for an intense finish, the rest of the game proceeded to see attack versus defence. Manchester United Women will be disappointed in losing out on three points after going 2-1 up especially given the troubles West Ham had against City and Reading not too long ago. They will learn from this experience and come back stronger. For West Ham, this will be a welcome three points especially when the bottom half of the table is quite competitive. They will need to improve on their attacking transitions and find a reliable goalscorer if they are to have any hope of moving further up the table.
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