Powell’s tactical perfection: how “resilient” Brighton punished wasteful top 3 hopefuls Manchester United
Brighton and Hove Albion Women are one of the form sides in the WSL at the moment, but are also unpredictable at the best of times, with their last five games containing four wins, including a 2-1 victory over quadruple-chasing Chelsea Women, whilst they lost heavily to Everton Women in their last outing. Manchester United Women, meanwhile, are in inconsistent form, having won two and lost two of their last four games, with the majority of their key players currently on the sidelines. This tactical analysis will examine in greater detail how Brighton’s intelligent and well-executed game plan helped them to frustrate their opponents, as well as the reasons why Manchester United’s usual tactics didn’t work in this game.
Manchester United Women’s problems
Before we look at Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s setup, we will focus on Manchester United Women’s problems in the game.
We see here how Manchester United had a wide defensive setup, looking to stretch across the pitch and make it hard for Brighton to win the ball off them. This structure allows them to find space by moving the ball from side to side, waiting for a gap to open up for them to find the players further forward. You can see how Brighton’s two attackers here are trying to track the ball across the pitch, but they can’t make a challenge, because the ball will simply move back to another player in the line, and a gap will have opened up.
This also allows Manchester United to push their full-backs, Martha Harris and Ona Batlle, higher up the pitch, which in turn enables the wingers, Kirsty Hanson and Lauren James, to cut inside and help out centrally, therefore increasing the team’s attacking presence in the box. This is generally how Manchester United like to play under Casey Stoney.
However, what happened in this game was that, whilst the attackers were all in the same area, they weren’t in the middle. Here, we can see how they have congregated in the nearside channel, leaving the box unoccupied. This makes it impossible for Manchester United to create a good chance to score here, because there is no-one to get the ball to in the open space.
On a more general note, Manchester United have always been capable of winning games and placing in the top three, but have lacked the quality required to turn performances into results. They made some good additions from the NWSL last summer to address this, with USA internationals Tobin Heath and Christen Press, as well as young England striker Alessia Russo, giving them more experience and balance in attack. Heath and Press tend to play more as wide forwards, which has allowed Casey Stoney’s side to stretch out more in the final third, making it harder for opponents to close them down. However, with all three of them, as well as influential winger Leah Galton, currently out injured, they have lost that shape, becoming narrower again. This is what has happened here.
The main question currently surrounding them is whether they have players who can bring the same quality when their key players are missing? At the moment, the general consensus among fans is that they don’t have the necessary strength in depth to finish in the top three in the league, compared to their nearest competitors.
From Brighton’s point of view, we can see how they have been able to surround the three Manchester United attackers, as the blue lines show. The midfielders have come back to help out too, showing how their game plan relied on all players doing their bit to stop Manchester United playing with the freedom they normally like to have. Therefore, we see how Brighton looked to take advantage of Manchester United’s poor attacking structure, preventing them from creating clear-cut chances.
That wasn’t the only thing that was wrong with their attack in this game. Here, we see how Lauren James has the ball in a good position, with teammates in the middle providing her with central passing options. However, Brighton are looking to stop the ball getting there, crowding around the Manchester United players. James cuts inside, as the red arrow shows, and is closed down by the Brighton player in the blue circle, with the ball being taken off James and cleared to safety.
The key point here is that James, who we know poses a threat in these situations, perhaps made the wrong decision here. With Brighton defending with this level of planning and organisation, they needed to adapt their play, and the better option here might have been to play the ball down the wing to Batlle, who is in open space and could then look to cross the ball into the box. This is something we have noticed about Manchester United more generally, in that they only have one way of playing, and struggle to adapt to different match situations. This makes it easier for their opponents to get around them, as Brighton did here, because they know what Manchester United will look to do at each moment of the game. Therefore, they knew where James would go here, getting there to win the ball and end the threat.
At times, Manchester United’s struggles simply came down to a lack of quality. We see here how they stretched across the pitch much more in the second half, looking to force Brighton to move out more. However, when they tried to get the ball to the wide attacker, in the red circle, the pass was poor, and Brighton could easily intercept and clear it. Therefore, whilst the second half saw Manchester United play with more attacking purpose, they still couldn’t get the ball into dangerous areas of the pitch, and that was another reason they struggled to break Brighton down.
Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s setup
It wasn’t all down to Manchester United Women’s problems though, as this analysis will now look at.
Brighton and Hove Albion Women had a good defensive setup, looking to stretch out and make the pitch as big as possible when in possession, just as Manchester United looked to do. Here, Finland right-back Emma Koivisto and experienced centre-back Victoria Williams have moved out to the wings, giving goalkeeper Megan Walsh wider options to move the ball to, as well as the normal short and long passes being available for her. This makes it harder for Manchester United to close down each of the Brighton players, because, if they close down one or two players here, then the ball will go to the one left open. If they are all closed down, then the ball can be played high and long. Therefore, Brighton had thought about how to move the ball around the pitch, making it hard for Manchester United to intercept the ball in these situations.
When out of possession, Brighton were organised, leaving no gaps open for Manchester United to exploit. This is the essence of good defending, and again demonstrates how they had a plan for how to win the game. Manchester United could see the space behind the defence, but couldn’t access it. If they tried an aerial pass over the top of the defensive line, Brighton watched it well and met it, as is happening here. Therefore, the away side had to resort to playing sideways passes, trying to find a way through, but they rarely did.
However, Brighton didn’t just stay back and clear balls; they were also on the front foot, closing it down when they could. What was crucial here was communication and awareness, with players working together to ensure no open spaces were left by players going forward to make a tackle or interception. This was another common sight in Brighton’s defence, and was another reason Manchester United came away from this game frustrated.
What helped Brighton with this was the second half change in their setup. Before half-time, when they attacked, three players tended to go forward together, creating an offensive line that stretched across the pitch. However, in the second half, they only had two players at the top at most, which gave them two lines of four in the midfield and defence, increasing the number of players they could get behind the ball to help close off the spaces. Ellie Brazil and Aileen Whelan dropped back into midfield, as both are quick players capable of getting forward in defence-to-attack transitions, whilst Inessa Kaagman and Rianna Jarrett, who was later substituted, tended to keep the pressure on the Manchester United defenders, preventing the whole visiting team from getting forward to help out their attack.
Getting more players back again helped Brighton to fill the gaps left when players closed down the ball, demonstrating their resilience in keeping Manchester United out and claiming three well-earned league points for their efforts.
Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s closing down
We have already mentioned how Brighton and Hove Albion Women looked to close Manchester United Women down all around the pitch, but it is a key aspect that is worth looking at in more detail.
In this image, Brighton have formed a square shape around Manchester United captain Katie Zelem, putting pressure on the midfielder to move the ball quickly away from her. This structure came about because Brighton’s formation was fluid, and they were able to move players to wherever they were needed. Therefore, they could create these shapes as often as they wanted to.
However, the thing that was particularly notable about these structures was that they were compact when Brighton didn’t have the ball, as we see here, but moved further apart as soon as they did have possession, making the pitch as big as possible and giving themselves passing options around the pitch. This is the basic teaching point of football, and so shows how Brighton’s tactics weren’t complicated, but were just simple things being done well.
The teamwork aspect of this was a common theme throughout the game, as we see here. Manchester United’s Netherlands midfielder Jackie Groenen, who was pushed further forward after Lauren James’ first half injury, is looking to play the ball into a teammate inside the pitch. However, Brighton have three players closing her down, and there positions are particularly good here. Groenen now can’t play the ball along the ground into the middle, and so has to play either a backwards or sideways pass, or move the ball along the wing, both of which suit Brighton.
The possible backwards pass links back to what we have already analysed, with Manchester United continually looking to force a gap and failing to do so, whilst the wing pass would be getting the ball forward, but the ball is always easier to block from wide than from central areas, so Brighton would again be able to stop it getting into the box from there. Therefore, Brighton’s awareness of what was around them was another key reason for their eventual victory in this game.
The other type of closing down they did was in central defence, with Victoria Williams and Maya Le Tissier having a particularly important role in the game. Their task throughout was to ensure that Manchester United striker Jessica Sigsworth, who was playing upfront on her own for the majority of this game, had no space to operate in whenever she received the ball. In this image, we see how Groenen is looking to move the ball forward to Sigsworth, but she is being marshalled well by Williams and Le Tissier, taking her out of Manchester United’s attacking game. This was another reason the visitors couldn’t find the goal to get them back into the game.
This image shows how Brighton further identified and isolated Manchester United’s key players. Again, Sigsworth is being marked here by Brighton’s central defenders, preventing her from being a viable passing option, but we can now see another element to this defensive move. Three Brighton players have formed a line in front of Ella Toone, in the red circle, with one Brighton player moving forward to close Toone down. We know that Toone brings attacking creativity to the Manchester United team, always looking to move the ball into teammates ahead of her, who can then shoot at goal in space.
However, Brighton have again done their homework here, preventing the new England international from playing the ball forward. Right-back Martha Harris, in the yellow circle, has made the run forward to offer a passing option, but Manchester United are unable to make anything of this, because of the way Brighton defended and controlled the situation.
It is worth mentioning that Manchester United did have opportunities to score, with defender Millie Turner firing over in the box after a set-piece, and Sigsworth shooting straight at Walsh when through on goal, but they were wasteful in the final third. This again links back to our point in the first section, when we mentioned how they lack quality and look a different team without their key players on the pitch. This is what they need to look at and address if they want to break into the top three, but we also need to give Brighton credit here for the way they saw the different threats and acted on them.
In conclusion, the statistics will show how Manchester United Women dominated this game, with 66% possession, 16 shots at goal and eight corners. Brighton and Hove Albion Women, meanwhile, had just 34% possession, nine shots at goal and two corners, and yet came away with a 1-0 win. Whilst the goal did come from the penalty spot, the fact that only two of Manchester United’s shots were on target highlights a key point; they need to find a way of scoring and winning more consistently without their key players. Brighton, meanwhile, will be happy that their tactical game plan helped them to take all three points, especially as it is their first ever WSL win against Manchester United.
With the women’s game now on an international break, both teams’ next games are in the FA Cup fourth round on 18 April, when Brighton host WSL strugglers Bristol City Women, whilst Manchester United are away, but won’t know who they will travel to until the third round of the cup has been played this Sunday.