As we near the halfway point in this year’s instalment of the FAWSL, it is looking like a three-horse race that could go down to the wire for the title. Arsenal Women, Chelsea Women, and Manchester City Women have all looked to show their strength early on. Arsenal and Chelsea Women each have a marquee win under their belt eight matches in, with the latter coming out victorious in the match between the two London sides. Arsenal Women responded immediately following this loss by defeating Manchester City Women at home.
Chelsea Women come into this match full of confidence. Their statement win against Arsenal sent a message to the rest of the league, and they have followed it up with convincing wins against West Ham, Manchester United, and Birmingham City. Much of their success has come from a tactical alteration from Emma Hayes, lining up her side into a 4-4-2 formation for much of the new season. This system has allowed her to get all of her best players in the side and working well together.
This weekend we have the final match between two of these sides in the first round of fixtures. Manchester City Women travel to London to take on league leaders Chelsea Women.
Nick Cushing’s side began the campaign with a victory in the first-ever Manchester derby. They are a squad built on defensive solidity, keeping a clean sheet in each of their seven wins this season, and only conceding one to defending champions Arsenal. The loss of Kiera Walsh had a massive impact on City’s season early on. The key midfielder was absent in the loss to Arsenal and to Manchester United Women in the Continental Cup. This was compounded by their round-of-16 exit in the Champions League at the hands of Atlético Madrid, a second year running. They have rebounded well, however, with three wins on the bounce, posting an 11-0 aggregate score.
In this tactical analysis preview, we will take an in-depth look at Cushing’s City side. We will discuss the tactics that could be used to exploit Chelsea Women’s system, and a potential trouble area they will need to be wary of. Abdullah Abdullah has previewed Chelsea Women in a separate analysis for this top-of-the-table clash.
General style of play
Cushing’s side is built on the foundations of possession and positional play. Much like Pep Guardiola’s men’s side, who Cushing admits has a massive influence, Manchester City Women look to use possession to move the opposition’s block out of position. While they initially line up in a 4-3-3, the players are accustomed to taking up a variety of formations during matches, depending on different circumstances.
Manchester City Women are likely to try and impose themselves in this match through dominating possession. They excel in looking to force the opposition into deep positions that leave them unable to create meaningful counter-attacking opportunities. Their attacking structure leaves sides with limited space when possession is gained. Often Cushing’s side take up a 2-3-5 or 3-2-5 formation when attacking. This forward line looks to restrict passing options when possession is lost. They look to force oppositions into kicking it long, with Steph Houghton and Gemma Bonner in the heart of defence having great aerial abilities to win these clearances and get their side back into the attacking phase.
City are resolute in their defensive set up. When the initial press is beaten, they drop into a 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation, depending on the opposition. Defensively, Cushing’s side are the best in the league, allowing one goal in eight FAWSL matches so far. It is this defensive solidity that gives City the foundation to get forward and attack with numbers. Every player has bought into contributing on both the offensive and defensive sides of the game.
Walsh’s return holds key
Chelsea Women create a great amount of success in their high pressing structure. These tactics gave Manchester United Women all sorts of problems in trying to build attacks earlier this season. We saw City struggle with this against Arsenal Women as well. Cushing’s side were consistently forced into passing backwards, with most instances resulting in long balls to evade the press. This allowed Joe Montemurro’s side to win back possession through the resulting aerial duels and restarting attacks.
The main issue Manchester City had in this defeat was the holding midfielder position. Walsh’s absence in the pivot role had a massive impact on the side’s ability to build out from the defensive line and penetrate opposition presses and blocks. Jill Scott emphasised her importance to the side after her suspension, stating she was one of the only players in the squad that was irreplaceable.
The formation was changed in the absence of the holding midfielder. Cushing shifted his side into a 4-4-2, with Scott and Carolina Weir dropping into deeper positions than their usual more advanced number eight roles. An extra striker was brought in in place of Walsh. The lack of a second midfield line created a dilemma for City throughout this match in particular. Weir and Scott were often isolated by the Arsenal press. They were not allowed to combine between each other, and any forward options were cut off, mainly due to the 4-4-2 shape itself distancing the attackers from this build-up structure.
With Walsh’s return to the side, City not only have a better ability to deal with a high press, but they have the chance to exploit it. Returning to the midfield triangle Cushing’s side is known for will provide more passing options and shapes to carry out the initial build-up phase in this match. Below you can see an example of this midfield structure when City have possession in the initial stage of their build-up.
Her ability to work in this lone pivot role is second to none in the FAWSL and is why she is thought of so highly by her teammates. In this example above she presents an option to her centre-halves in possession. She plays a one-two from Gemma Bonner and into Steph Houghton. Getting her head up, she then looks to find space on the right side of the press, where Houghton finds her totally unmarked. She is able to turn and play forward into Wullaert to start the attack.
This represents a potential area to exploit in Chelsea Women’s set-up if they are caught out with too many players in the initial press. The speed of Millie Bright and Maren Mjelde is a worry for Hayes when defending with a higher line, and if Manchester City Women’s attackers are given the space to look to exploit this, it could cause issues. Due to this, it is likely we will see Hayes set her side up in a low block as we saw against Arsenal Women. Picking their times to get forward and press will be more selective, with very specific triggers that will call for this high press. Either way, City’s ability to bypass the forward lines of Chelsea will be crucial in imposing their dominance on the match as they look to break down any block Hayes sets up, high or low.
Exploiting the wide areas
Bright is one of England’s finest centre-halves, but her speed, along with that of right-back Mjelde is a concern for Hayes when the side look to hold a high line. This has a massive influence on bigger matches, as we saw against Arsenal Women earlier this season where Chelsea set up largely to defend.
A similar tactic could be seen on Sunday, with City representing a similar ability as Arsenal to hold onto possession. When Cushing’s side are able to beat the initial line of press, Chelsea Women will revert into a low block and soak up pressure.
Due to this, City’s best initial outlets will be through their wide players. Cushing has the exact type of personnel to be able to exploit this.
An unlikely candidate has begun filling in at right-back for Manchester City Women. After first-choice Aoife Mannion suffered an unfortunate anterior cruciate ligament injury, new signing Matilde Fidalgo was assumed to be the natural replacement for Mannion. She started in the match against Arsenal Women but failed to impress. In the matches following this defeat, Janine Beckie has been tested in this role. The natural striker has played in a very advanced full-back position. Her presence in this position has given Cushing a host of different tactical looks that have had a positive attacking output. While just two assists to show in the statistics, she has played a major role in chance creation and build-up.
With Beckie’s attacking movements, this has shifted multiple dynamics of the players around her. Tessa Wullaert, City’s usual right-winger, has been allowed to drift inside in support of Ellen White. This allows for more tactical flexibility in-game, with Wullaert able to roam between the central and wide spaces. She is tasked with finding the hole’s in opposition defensive structures. In addition to this, Scott has begun to take a more advanced position in midfield, drifting out to the right side in support of Beckie. This connects the marauding full-back with the rest of the squad. Both the positioning of Beckie (11) and the link Scott (8) provides can be seen in the pass map above.
In this match against Bristol City, the majority of City’s attacks were focused down the right side. 29 of the 56 positional attacks came through this area, resulting in an xG of 1.01. Beckie was directly involved in two of the goals on this day, as well as another two against West Ham in the previous week. In the image above, you are able to see Beckie making a forward run that overlaps Wullaert. With the West Ham winger failing to track back to mark this run, the full-back is left unmarked and in plenty of room, with the winger ahead of her dragging the opposition full-back inside.
Beckie finds herself with a huge space out wide to settle the pass over the top, and find Stanway in the middle for the game’s third goal. This move could be a perfect example of how City could look to expose Chelsea on Sunday. With Guro Reiten’s attacking nature on the London side’s left-wing, Beckie could find success evading her marker and finding space in these wide areas, or looking to create overloads against Chelsea’s defensive block alongside Wullaert and Scott.
The left side has the potential to give City similar opportunities for success. Chelsea’s right-back Mjelde is a natural defensive midfielder. While her intelligence has allowed her to find success in this role, City’s attacking prowess in this area can give her issues.
Stokes has occupied a slightly deeper role with the addition of Beckie into the right-back role. She takes a more central position between the lines of the centre-halves and midfielders at the base of City’s attacking structure to cut off space in event of counter-attacks and has been more selective as to when she chooses to move forward in support in wide areas.
In this specific example from earlier on in the campaign, Stokes is holding a high starting position in possession. She makes a pass inside and waits for play to develop. When she sees the potential room to exploit she is quick to react.
With her quick thinking and a quick burst of pace, Stokes gets in behind and is found through on goal with a perfect pass. While she is likely to hold a lot of defensive duties in this match, her offensive capabilities as seen above provides Cushing with a constant threat down this side. City could look to hold a majority of possession down their right-hand side and look for long diagonals into Stokes on the left. She will be looking for one-v-one situations she could get into against Chelsea’s defenders to be able to find a delivery into one of City’s attackers.
Chelsea’s opportunities to counter
With four consecutive league starts, it is likely we will see Beckie hold her place in the team on Sunday. This tactic would involve a high-risk high-reward dynamic. Her attacking nature makes her a huge threat from this position, but also a potential downfall. In Chelsea Women’s match against Manchester United Women, the London side initially struggled to find a way to penetrate United’s deep block. After close to a half-hour, they found their success down the left side through Reiten. The summer signing was able to find space in behind United’s full-back, before looking to get crosses into the box to threaten United’s resolve.
While Reiten will be tasked with tracking back much more in this match than in their victory over United, her attacking presence remains a huge threat. Defensively, the lack of a traditional right-back needs to be addressed by Cushing. This has been done in recent weeks by dropping Weir into a deeper position when CIty are in possession. With this, Walsh is able to move to the right side and cover Beckie’s forward runs in the event of a counter-attack. This has worked to good effect in the past two matches.
Above you are able to see this positioning. Notice the deeper position Weir takes up on the left side of midfield in comparison to Scott on the right. Both of these players normally play in higher number eight positions together. Walsh now has the ability to move to the right side in the absence of Beckie, keeping the defensive structure intact.
However, Chelsea represents a much different dynamic in the opposition’s attacking phase. Fran Kirby was dropped to the bench in Chelsea’s win over Manchester United Women, and it remains to be seen if she will make her return to the side in this match. If she does, however, the London side could adapt a similar set-up to that they used early in the season, and specifically against Arsenal. Kirby’s best attributes come in her ability to create for teammates around her. Starting alongside Bethany England upfront, she is given the freedom to move around the pitch.
In the 4-4-2, Ji So-Yun is also given the ability to step forward when counter-attacks arise. Her ability on the ball allows her to drive Chelsea forward very quickly, with the forward players making intelligent runs ahead of her.
These players will look to combine with Reiten on the left side when possible. The space on City’s right could be the weak point in a normally solid defensive unit. In the image above, this example shows Chelsea’s counter-attacking ability that could exploit Cushing’s side. Sloppy possession from Arsenal Women’s midfield has allowed Ji to gain possession and press forward. She takes the space available due to Arsenal being caught out in their attacking structure. Reiten bursts down the wing and is rewarded by her teammate with a pass into the space ahead of her. Below you can see the room Reiten has. Upfront, Kirby makes a front-post run that drags an Arsenal defender slightly out of position. Reiten then cuts back and finds a cross to England who has made her run to the back post.
Based on the analysis, I think we will see Manchester City Women set up in their typical 4-3-3 formation. This is only to begin the match, however, as we have discussed how this changes in-game depending on the situation and where they try to attack. Cushing will have his side look to pin Chelsea back, dominating possession as they look for a way through. They must be very mindful of the counter-attacking presence Chelsea holds, though.
Chelsea Women is likely to revert back to the 4-4-2. This formation saw them get the better of London rivals and defending title-holders Arsenal Women earlier this year. In defence, the two banks of four give them a solid base, and the two forwards allow them to press the initial possession holders of the opposition. Attacking, England sets up in a traditional target-man role, with Kirby given the freedom to find space to combine with teammates as the side look to press forward.
Chelsea Women (4-4-2): Berger; Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson, Andersson; Bachmann, Ingle, Ji, Reiten; Kirby, England
Manchester City Women (4-3-3): Roebuck; Beckie, Houghton, Bonner, Stokes; Walsh, Scott, Weir; Wullaert, Hemp, White
This match is perfectly poised to have a huge say on this season’s FAWSL title race. With Chelsea missing out on Champions League football this term, and City making an early exit, both sides will be looking to not only secure this for next campaign but use this ability to focus on the league to come out on top.
Both sides have been experimenting with different tactical setups in the weeks leading up to this match. Cushing has reshaped his side following the loss of Mannion, and in doing so has created a new attacking dynamic available at his disposal on Sunday. Hayes has consistently altered her team’s shape during this season and has succeeded in doing so. This will force Cushing into having to prepare for multiple tactical setups, rather than being able to focus on a specific structure.
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