“Pivotal”: Why Man City’s win at Arsenal is significant in “epic” WSL title race
In a WSL season with an incredibly close title race, the games between the top sides are carrying a bigger significance than normal. This one, which saw Arsenal Women host Manchester City Women at Meadow Park, proved to be potentially decisive in the race. Arsenal looked to be off the pace and lacked fluidity in their play, probably due to their lack of games recently, whereas Manchester City are growing in confidence week by week. In this tactical analysis, we will look at Arsenal’s struggles in the game, as well as how Manchester City set up their attack to put pressure on Arsenal, and how the away side’s formational changes helped them to win.
Arsenal Women made three changes to the side that played in their last game, which was a 1-1 draw back on 17 January away to Reading Women. Young defender Anna Patten, Switzerland starlet Malin Gut and club captain Kim Little missed out, with Patten and Gut on the bench, and Little injured. In came England defender Leah Williamson and winger Beth Mead, as well as Australia forward Caitlin Foord, with Arsenal moving back to a 4-2-3-1 formation. With Little and Jordan Nobbs joining the list of players out injured for the club, Arsenal could only name six substitutes, instead of the usual nine; none were attacking players.
Meanwhile, Manchester City Women named the same team that started in the 4-0 win at home to West Ham United Women last weekend. That meant that Ellen White was again given the centre forward role, with Georgia Stanway playing behind her. Lauren Hemp and former Everton Women forward Chloe Kelly played on either side of the England striker, whilst there were returns for right-back Esme Morgan, England U19 forward Jess Park, and Canada attacker Janine Beckie, who were all on the bench. USA international Abby Dahlkemper, last month’s new signing, again played alongside captain Steph Houghton in the centre of defence.
Arsenal Women off the pace
Both sides saw this game as crucial to their title prospects, but Arsenal Women were noticeably lacking in quality in all areas of the pitch. In this section, we will look at exactly what went wrong for them.
Arsenal’s tactics usually revolve around getting the ball up to Vivianne Miedema at the earliest opportunity, and we can see how the Netherlands forward, in the red square, is on the front foot, aiming to get on the end of a ball forward. However, playing with these tactics means that the passing needs to be virtually perfect, otherwise there are no chances to score. In this image, the pass from Scotland winger Lisa Evans, who was playing at right-back in this game, is not weighted correctly, and ends up going too far forward. Manchester City Women have left the space open for the ball to get through, so the opportunity was there to get behind them, but this lack of quality let Arsenal down many times in these good attacking situations.
In defence, it wasn’t much better. In this image, Danielle van de Donk, wearing number seven, has passed the ball back to the defence, but it has been intercepted by Ellen White, in the blue circle. By giving the ball away too easily, Arsenal have given Manchester City a chance to score, which was nearly taken. Like with the previous example, this was not the only time that this happened, and it was another reason that Arsenal struggled to get going in the game.
When White is on the pitch, teams quite simply cannot play like this, because she takes up these positions and puts pressure on opposing defenders in and out of possession. Arsenal seemed to be a little unnerved by her presence, and it caused them to make decisions in possession that we don’t normally see them make. Again, this is likely due to their lack of game time in recent weeks, but it was another reason why they lost this game.
Their key players, who are normally the ones we look to in these games to bring the team together, were also lacking in confidence. In this image, we see how Miedema has the ball in a good area of the box, and we would normally expect her to hit this with her first or second touch of the ball. However, she couldn’t get it out of her feet, which allowed the Manchester City players to come across and block off the space. By the time Miedema takes the shot, the chance had gone, and these are the opportunities Arsenal needed to take.
These are just a few examples of Arsenal’s poor quality on the ball, but it happened all over the pitch throughout the game. We normally associate them with quick, direct, accurate passing, and the ability to open up opponents as a result, but they just couldn’t get anything going in this game.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for them though, with a goal coming for them after half-time from Caitlin Foord. That gave them a bit more of a spark, particularly in attack, and they began to move the ball around with a little more speed, trying to find a gap in Manchester City’s defence to shoot at goal from.
Here, Beth Mead has received the ball, before moving it across the box into some space. As a result, Manchester City’s defence is pushed across too, and this side-to-side movement increased the chances of a gap being opened. However, when they did create an opportunity, Arsenal couldn’t take it. This again shows their underlining lack of quality on the day, and the fact that they seemed to be off the pace in all aspects of their play. Head coach Joe Montemurro said afterwards that they are still in the title race, and he’s right, but the fact that they couldn’t take advantage of losses for Chelsea Women and Manchester United Women on the same day will make it harder for them to reach the league’s summit.
Manchester City Women’s attacking tactics
Manchester City Women, meanwhile, are currently playing some of the best football we have seen them play in a long time. In this game, they always seemed to have the edge over their opponents, which came from the tactics they used in attack. This is what this analysis will now turn its focus to.
We can see here how Ellen White positions herself amongst the defenders, and her strength means that she is usually dominant for them in these situations, which is why she is such an important player for them. This strength and presence is a reason why she was selected for this game, especially since she could then put pressure on an Arsenal defence that we know is their weak point for virtually the whole game.
What is also notable here is that Arsenal’s defence has a wide structure, which comes because of Manchester City’s attackers’ positions. By playing either side of the box as they are, it forces Arsenal to stretch across to close down the ball and stop the cross into the box, where White is dominant. However, by stretching apart, gaps appear between the players, which is where White likes to play. Therefore, we see how Manchester City set up in a way that helped them create goalscoring opportunities.
Another thing that Manchester City did well tactically was to target the full-backs. Arsenal like to push them as far up the pitch as possible, relying on them to control the wings, and Evans and McCabe in this game constantly looked to do this and provide balls for the forwards to get on the end of.
However, to stop this, Manchester City played wide forwards Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp in and around the full-back positions. With McCabe injuring herself in this match, and being replaced by Noelle Maritz in the second half, Kelly here knows that this is where there is a weakness that she can exploit. Now, with her natural pace, she can get around the substitute, in the red circle, who has not yet got herself into the game, and sets up the second goal for Hemp to head home. Therefore, having their quicker wide players positioned on the shoulder of the full-backs gave Manchester City a constant attacking presence, and plenty of opportunities to score goals.
This means that, whenever an attacker has the ball in the wide channel, Manchester City’s central attackers instantly look to flood the box, knowing that the ball will come into it. Here, Hemp has possession on the far side of the pitch, and you can see how White, Kelly and Georgia Stanway are all moving into the box, offering passing options for her. Kelly’s positioning is particularly notable, because she moves towards the far post, ensuring that, if the ball is missed in the middle, she can pick it up and recycle it.
Against Arsenal, all of this gave Manchester City the advantage in attack. Arsenal tended to play with just Miedema pressing forwards to try and win the ball, whereas Manchester City morphed from a 4-2-3-1 into a 4-2-4 at times, with all four of their attacking players working together to make the most of these opportunities, as can be seen here. Therefore, this increased attacking presence is another reason why Manchester City won this top four battle.
It was a good performance from the away side, but it wasn’t perfect. We can see here how, in the early stages of the game, they looked to outnumber the Arsenal defenders when moving forwards. However, whilst they passed the ball around well, the final pass was always missing. Like with Arsenal, they struggled to transfer the ball behind the defence, and Arsenal were able to clear most opportunities. However, there is no doubting that, despite not taking all of their chances, Gareth Taylor’s side were better on the day in the final third, which is why they won the game.
Manchester City Women’s formation changes
The main reason for Manchester City Women’s victory was their ability to switch formations, depending on the stage of the game they were in.
Here, we can see how they transitioned from a 4-2-3-1 starting formation to a narrow 4-3-2-1 in the first half. This allowed them to have a solid defensive line, with three players in front, offering some protection for them. By having these two lines, Manchester City could trap Arsenal’s key central threats in between them, ensuring that they had little space to operate in. The reason for this was that Manchester City wanted to surround Miedema whenever they could, and, by getting plenty of players around her, she could never control the ball and move it forwards in time, lessening her threat.
Further forward, having Ellen White playing ahead of two other attackers gave Manchester City a target at the top, occupying the Arsenal defenders, as we have already analysed. However, having quick players behind her means that, when she gets the ball, those players can get forward and offer passing options, but also stay back and offer another layer of defence when Arsenal have the ball.
Perhaps the most notable thing is the narrow structure it gives Manchester City. By playing like this, Arsenal are forced to use the wings, and play down the line or switch the play with a long pass across the middle of the pitch. This makes it easier for Manchester City to defend against them, because they can block a cross from wide better than stopping a run through the middle.
As the game went on, Manchester City gained a more defensive focus, and we can see here how they changed to a 4-4-2 in the final quarter of the game. By doing so, they now have greater protection at the back, closing off those spaces where they had previously looked to trap Arsenal’s central attackers, further starving them of service. At the front, Janine Beckie, who replaced Ellen White in the second half, and Georgia Stanway have formed a front two, and they now looked to press the Arsenal attackers gently, forcing them to play sideways or backwards, but not forwards. Arsenal as a result couldn’t find the likes of Miedema with long balls or ground passes, and so struggled to create too many opportunities in the closing stages of the game.
However, when Manchester City saw the opportunity, this changed into a counter-attacking structure, with all attacking players getting forward to close down the space. USA midfielder Rose Lavelle, who replaced Chloe Kelly in the second half, has led the charge, and her introduction was the point at which Manchester City changed to this style of play. Here, she has been joined by Stanway and Beckie, with all three making the space that Arsenal have as small as possible. Goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger has the ball, but Lavelle is forcing her to play across goal, and in a tight space between her and the goal line. Therefore, again, Arsenal’s options on the ball have been limited, and this ability to switch tactics and be adaptable in their formations was another big reason why Manchester City won the game.
In conclusion, as the headline of this tactical analysis suggests, this game was pivotal in the WSL title race. For Arsenal Women, they would have wanted to get a win here to realistically keep them in the hunt, as they are currently in fourth place in the league, but they would have also known that it was going to be tough to get anything against a Manchester City Women side in good form. This loss now leaves them seven points behind Manchester City, in third, but they do have games in hand on all of the teams above them. Manchester City, meanwhile, will know that this victory keeps them firmly in the title race, and will be happy to have capitalised on losses for Chelsea Women and Manchester United Women. They now also have the best goal difference in the WSL too, which could be decisive, as they are only two points off top spot.
Both sides have another top four clash this week, with Arsenal travelling to Chelsea on Wednesday evening, whilst Manchester City host city rivals Manchester United on Friday night.