FAWSL 2020/2021: Manchester United Women v Bristol City Women – tactical analysis
The WSL served up one final round of fixtures before going on a Christmas break, with all teams looking to end on a high. Unbeaten leaders Manchester United Women, who would be top at Christmas if they won this game, entertained a Bristol City Women side who are quicky being cut adrift at the bottom of the table, struggling for goals and points, and without a league win at all so far this season.
However, coming to the Leigh Sports Village is never easy, and especially not this season, so it seemed unlikely their luck would change in this game. This tactical analysis will look at several areas of the game; Manchester United’s attack, Bristol City’s counter-attacking tactics, and the mistakes that Bristol made that have characterised their season so far.
Manchester United Women made just two changes from the team that narrowly beat Reading Women in their last game. Midfielder Hayley Ladd and forward Kirsty Hanson dropped out, with both moving to the bench, whilst club captain Katie Zelem came into the midfield, along with striker Jessica Sigsworth, who played through the middle of the forward line, with USA international Tobin Heath and in-form winger Leah Galton either side of her. Their other USA international, Christen Press, was left on the bench, with the forward having been suffering from illness recently.
Bristol City Women, meanwhile, made four changes of their own from the home defeat to West Ham United Women last weekend. Defender Faye Bryson, midfielders Emma Bissell and Australia international Ella Mastrantonio, and Scotland forward Abi Harrison all moved to the bench. Florence Allen moved from centre-back to right-back, whilst Aimee Palmer came in to take her place in the central defensive three. Australia midfielder Chloe Logarzo came into the centre of midfield, whilst Charlie Wellings and Ebony Salmon both came in to add pace to the attack.
Manchester United Women’s attack
The first section of this analysis will look at Manchester United Women’s attack. This is a key area of Casey Stoney’s tactics, because they like to overload the forward areas when in possession. It is for this reason that they have a lot of attacking players in the squad, and rotate them all as required. However, in order to make it work, they need to have a midfielder who can stay back and provide balls into those forward players, creating chances.
This is the role that captain Katie Zelem had in the game. She occupied the spaces between the defence and midfield, and her range of passing makes her ideal for this role, as she can play long and ground passes into the box. Her teammates know that, when she gets into these areas, they can immediately create options for her, knowing the accuracy of the ball that will come in. By therefore making the pitch as big as possible, they force the Bristol City Women defenders to split, increasing the chance of Manchester United scoring from whichever space the ball is passed to.
Again, here, we can see how Zelem has the ball, but this image adds something new to our analysis. Bristol set up to frustrate Manchester United in this game, which worked in a way, as we will look at later, but staying back gave Manchester United the space to then get forward and attack the box, therefore playing to their strengths. With Zelem operating just behind the main attacking players, acting as the central point of their attacking play, we can see why teams have found it very hard to keep them out this season.
However, the other thing that comes from Zelem’s positioning here is that it offers a third area to cross the ball from, alongside the two wings. This makes it harder for Bristol to defend against them, because they have to watch three possible crossing areas, rather than two. This leads to more spaces opening up, again giving Manchester United more of a chance of scoring when the ball does come into the box.
However, with the score only being 2-0 at half-time, and Bristol’s strong defence proving difficult to break down, Manchester United made a couple of tactical changes for the second half. One was to get their full-backs higher up the pitch, as we can see from the red circles in this image, and the other was to give Ella Toone a slightly different role to the first half.
It is often the case that Toone is asked to play between the midfield and forward lines, linking up the play, but, by taking this role in the second half, she helped Manchester United create a clear route through each area of the pitch, ensuring they had a better chance of getting the ball into the space behind the Bristol defence.
By moving the full-backs higher up the pitch, Manchester United manager Casey Stoney wanted them to cross the ball into the box, which would then allow Heath and Galton to cut inside much more, and this led to both of them getting two goals each in the game. Again, like with Toone’s positional change, the aim was to increase their threat centrally, ensuring they had the best possible chance of converting their opportunities in the final third. Therefore, we can see in both cases why the change in tactics helped them to dominate more in the second half.
It wasn’t all simple for them, though, because Bristol also changed their defence to stretch more across the pitch in the second half. This forced Manchester United to make more sideways passes and attack down the wings much more than they would ordinarily like to. We know that it is easier to block crosses from the wings than it is from central areas, so this, in theory, made it harder for Manchester United to get the ball into the central spaces, starving the attackers of opportunities.
However, whilst some crosses were blocked, the positioning of Ella Toone, along with her passing ability, meant that Manchester United played more ground passes through the Bristol defence from the middle, which ensured that their attacking threat remained.
Bristol City Women’s counter-attacking setup
If we now look at Bristol City Women, their tactics were to stay back and defend, and then to counter-attack once they had won the ball back. In this section, we will look at how this worked, stage by stage.
Firstly, as we see in this image, Bristol set up with two well-organised lines of players, making it hard for Manchester United Women to break them down. Manchester United did look to play between the defenders, as you can see Jessica Sigsworth doing in the centre of the defensive line, but it was still hard for Tobin Heath, or whoever had the ball, to find those players further forward. The first half didn’t see many clear-cut chances being created, and this organised defensive structure was a key reason for this.
The structure remained this way until an interception was made, and then the next stage of the counter-attack began. With Manchester United playing a high back line, often having Amy Turner and Millie Turner hovering around the centre line when Manchester United had the ball, space was left open behind them, which Bristol would then aim to find with a long ball forward.
This was the reason that Bristol started with former Manchester United striker Ebony Salmon at the top of the pitch; she has the pace to run onto balls behind and cause problems for opposing defenders. You can see in the image above how, now her teammate has the ball, in the yellow circle, Salmon immediately angles her body to run forwards and get on the end of the ball over the top. This tactic worked several times, with one long ball forward leading to Bristol’s only goal of the game in the second half, so the theory behind it worked.
However, it was often the case that Salmon lacked support from her teammates when making these runs. In the second half, former Manchester City Women midfielder Emma Bissell came on, and she is a more natural attacking midfielder, which Bristol didn’t have in the first half. She took up a position behind Salmon, offering a second target player when the ball was won at the back, and helping to link up play between the front and back sections of the Bristol team. This allowed Salmon to get further forward before receiving the ball, increasing their goal chances. In this image, Bissell doesn’t make the pass in time, as a couple of unfortunate touches takes the ball away from her, but you can see how having her on the pitch helped to increase their goal threat a little more.
Bristol City Women’s errors
However, despite this counter-attacking tactic causing problems for Manchester United Women, the errors that have led to Bristol City Women’s struggles this season were again on show, and led to Manchester United having an easy win in the end.
In the early stages of the game, Bristol wanted to make the pitch as big as possible, playing out from the back. We can see from the yellow lines how far apart the defenders got, but their problem came because they tried to be almost too clever with the ball. The thing about this tactic is that the movement of the ball has to be accurate, and Bristol often made errors with this, passing too hard and making each other take too many steps backwards. Manchester United have two players in this area, waiting for the right moment, and, once the passing has gone wrong, they pounced, closing down the ball and winning it back. Now, they are in a good position to create a goalscoring chance. Therefore, you can see how Bristol’s lack of precision in this area caused them problems, and this was just one mistake that meant the away side played right into Manchester United’s hands.
Another error that Bristol made was to leave wide gaps between the defenders when moving backwards. With Manchester United having so much pace in their forward options, Bristol needed to stop them getting into the space behind them. However, in this image, we can see how Leah Galton has done just this, shown by the red arrow.
From these positions, Manchester United were able to move the ball around wherever they wanted to, creating goalscoring chances. If Bristol had sealed off the gaps, then Manchester United would have only been able to move the ball sideways or backwards, so their passing options would have been more limited. Now that Galton has got behind, you can see how Heath is also running behind the defence to offer the winger a passing option. Therefore, leaving this space open has given Manchester United a clear route to goal.
In the second half, Manchester United took more control of the game, but the mistakes made by Bristol definitely assisted them in doing this. Here, three Bristol players have closed the ball down, but a heavy touch and lack of communication meant that it rolled into the danger area, as shown by the yellow arrow. Heath, who occupied a more central role in the second half, moves to meet it, as the red arrow indicates, and she then scores from this chance. Therefore, again, this was a poor error that led to a goal being conceded, and it is these types of mistakes that we keep seeing from Bristol this season, and it is this that they need to work on cutting out during the season’s break if they want to stay in the WSL.
It wasn’t just in defence that Bristol made errors. In attack, mistakes cost them valuable chances to trouble Manchester United’s goal. In this image, Salmon has the ball, but the quick pressing by Manchester United means that her space is very quickly limited, and she loses it. It’s not as bad an error as the ones we have already looked at, but, when you factor in how it cost Bristol a clear chance at goal in a game where Bristol didn’t have many chances, then it’s importance becomes more notable.
The other mistake they made was to make the wrong decision when in good areas. Here, Salmon has the ball on the nearside of the pitch. She has two teammates in the middle to pass the ball too, but she overhits the cross, and, as the yellow arrow shows, it goes between both players and out of danger. With chances being at a premium for Bristol in this game, they needed to make better decisions and have better accuracy with these opportunities. This was not the only time this happened, as Charlie Wellings had an opportunity in the same area, but shot at goal rather than crossing into the area for a teammate, ending the threat.
Whilst the points in this section have been individually small, if we add them up, we can see how the mistakes ensured that, whenever it looked like Bristol could make something happen, they lost the ball too cheaply, and Manchester United didn’t have to work too hard to win the ball back. These mistakes didn’t just occur in this game, but have happened across their whole season so far, and this is highlighted by the fact that they have only scored six goals, the lowest in the WSL, and conceded 45, the highest in the WSL, all in just 10 games. However, we can see how these errors can all be avoided, but, at the moment, they are costing them any chance of much-needed league points.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has shown how Manchester United Women managed to win against Bristol City Women with relative ease, creating plenty of chances and dominating large parts of the game. Bristol, in comparison, set up well, with some good tactics and ideas for how to frustrate their opponents, but individual errors again caused them to come away with nothing. The WSL now goes into a Christmas break, returning in early January, but, whilst Manchester United will be looking to rest and refresh over the break, Bristol need to look at themselves and work out what is going wrong, because, if not, they will quickly find themselves facing certain relegation at the end. Manchester United’s first game back will be a tough trip to face Everton Women, whilst Bristol will be at home to Hope Powell’s Brighton and Hove Albion Women.