The race for the FAWSL is heating up and Chelsea have impressed everyone with victories over Arsenal and Manchester United in recent times. The Blues have shown signs of dominance in each of their games including a thrashing of Tottenham Hotspur in the Conti Cup in mid-November. Their next test will be title challengers Manchester City Women. The Citizens are Chelsea’s other major threat outside of Arsenal in their march to the title. Having beat the Gunners at Kingsmeadow, they now host Manchester City in what could be a defining moment in the season.
Manchester City started off the season well going undefeated for the first eight games, winning seven and including a dominant 5-0 win over Leicester City and 1-0 win over arch-rivals Manchester United Women. However, a defeat to The Red Devils in the FA WSL Cup started a run of poor form, losing their next three. It’s safe to say Man City haven’t had the smoothest of seasons but still remain in the hunt for silverware this season.
Chelsea Women, meanwhile, have ambitions of winning the league after their last win in the 2017-18 season. With no Champions League football to contend with, many are giving the Blues a major chance of picking up silverware ahead of Manchester City and Arsenal. Having beaten Manchester United, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur this season already, the Blues are well on their way but this game will test their credentials yet again.
This tactical analysis preview will look to provide an in-depth overview of Chelsea Women’s tactics and dissect how they can exploit and pry on Manchester City’s weaknesses. We have a Manchester City Women’s focused preview analysis by Gavin Robertson on the game looking at their chances and tactics in the upcoming clash.
Chelsea Women’s style of play
Chelsea have regularly utilised a 4-4-2 (27%) formation this season with Emma Hayes looking to unleash her wealth of attacking talent together. Hayes has managed to fix the issue by changing from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 but has shown her capability to adapt to the opposition put in front of her. However, against the big teams, she seemingly has a surprise up her sleeve.
Against Manchester United, she sprung a surprise by starting Ramona Bachmann in a 4-1-4-1 formation. The tactic proved to be effective catching Manchester United by surprise. As the analysis showed, it highlighted Chelsea protecting their wide areas where United were dangerous whilst keeping their backline pressed and hurried. We’ve only seen Chelsea use the 4-1-4-1 system sparingly (10%).
Getting Bethany England and Fran Kirby in the same lineup was a goal for the season and so far has proved effective. Chelsea look to play in the half-spaces using a combination of their forwards dropping into deep areas along with the wingers to create passing lanes and overloads. This is to provide service to England who has proven herself to be one of the most lethal finishers in women’s football.
Bachmann was expertly used as an offensive workhorse who was able to disrupt United’s defenders from building up and forcing them into mistakes. The midfield double pivot of Ji-So yun and Sophie Ingle has proven to be fruitful and the balance between the two players has worked well. Ji presses the opposition well with Ingle providing support by covering any players that pass the South Korean.
Utilising Chelsea Women’s effective forwards
Chelsea’s strength has always been in their forward line. With England, Kirby, Ji, and Reiten amongst their ranks, Hayes will be hoping her team can gain the advantage early on. Not only have they shown an ability to score a number of goals but are tactically flexible too. We’ve seen them beat Arsenal using a 4-4-2 and Manchester United using 4-1-4-1 system. The common factor between the two formations was the forwards’ work rate and patience off the ball. A lot of Chelsea’s tactics against the bigger sides revolves around patiently waiting for the right moment to attack through their intense pressing mechanisms. They aren’t strangers if given the lion’s share of possession –against Arsenal they averaged 41% possession and 55% against Manchester United, showing their ability to adapt to their opponents and grind out wins. Both resulted in 1-0 victories but under different circumstances.
The Arsenal game saw them chase the game whilst sticking to their principles even after going 1-0 down early on. Against United, they needed to be patient and work hard to break down a stubborn defensive block, through patient pressing and probing. Chelsea’s attacking efforts come from the good work done by the midfielders and attackers pressing the opposition high up the pitch to release the quick forwards. In both matches, Cuthbert was a key fundamental player who was at the heart of Chelsea’s pressing mechanisms. Whether it be from right-midfield or central attacking midfield position, she harried the opposition to play quicker and allowed her team to pounce on mistakes.
Chelsea’s first goal against Arsenal came courtesy of some brilliant work from Cuthbert to send a through ball for Kirby putting the Blues on a counter-attack with the two strikers combining. The goal was a combination of everything that Chelsea did well. A long pass into midfield was contested between Sophie Ingle and Lia Walti, with Cuthbert’s persistence winning the second ball. The image above shows Cuthbert’s willingness to make contact and send the ball forward, putting Kirby through unmarked. Chelsea gain numerical superiority against Arsenal’s defensive line.
Kirby manages to find space and send in a cross for England who finds space in the box. England manages to collect Kirby’s cross and equalise. Kirby’s attentive run and England’s awareness and first touch were sublime, giving Chelsea a deserved goal.
Can City cope with Chelsea’s press?
Besides their lightning-quick counter-attacking potential, Chelsea are equally proficient in the defensive side of the game. The Blues are heavily reliant on collective defending and the forwards are tactically one of the best when it comes to defending from the front. Starting from the front, the centre-forwards look to pressurise the centre-backs forcing them into full-backs or long balls over the top to the central midfielders. If the initial pass is bypassed the double-pivot of Ji and Ingle look to keep the pressure on by closing down the ball carrier and winning it high up the pitch. Their partnership has been steadily growing stronger and now has a solid understanding of their positioning on the pitch. When Ji pushes up, Ingle stays close by providing support.
This will be an important aspect for Chelsea as City have suffered against high presses in recent matches and gave away clear cut chances, particularly against Arsenal in the league and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. The Spanish side caught the Citizens in the final third and managed to carve out chances testing the two centre-backs. Both games saw them concede in two different ways – the wide and central areas.
The goal conceded against Atletico Madrid was avoidable with the right-back getting caught out and the Madrid runner volleying the cross towards goal. However, the biggest problem Manchester City Women have is when Keira Walsh is missing. The defensive midfielder is the fulcrum of the team and her positioning and protection is key to City’s defensive resolve. Against Arsenal she was absent and her presence there was felt.
Having someone defensively aware in the deeper midfield position is key. As the image above highlights, as Arsenal build out from the back, they look to exploit the unoccupied space that City have left open. Kim Little can drive into space and put pressure on City’s centre-backs.
Little pushes forward and her surprise run has caught City’s defence off guard and the step forward from City’s centre-back allows Vivanne Miedema a free diagonal run in behind the defensive line. Little’s through ball leads to a goal.
In big games away from home, Nick Cushing sets up his side to defend in numbers and did so against Arsenal. However, Arsenal Women used their numerical superiority out wide to press City in the wide areas. When the City gained possession in their defensive third, they were encouraged to look into their full-backs to try and build-out. When this happened, Arsenal tried to pressure the player in possession. Chelsea did this extremely well against Manchester United with Bachmann, Cuthbert, and Maren Mjelde suffocating the full-back and winger from having enough space to attack.
Their wingers will look to try and keep the full-backs pinned back, and play in behind them. Chelsea’s use of the wide players was apparent throughout the game and while the goal came from a run down the channels, they dealt with the threat by having their winger’s trackback for a good portion of the match. Galton was often seen dropping back to help Harris against the combination of Mjelde and Bachmann.
Chelsea’s right side holds key
This game will be decided by the finer details and one of the most important areas for Chelsea will be their wide players. Mjelde and Bachmann will be Chelsea’s most important players in both attack and defence. With Mjelde specifically, since her move to right-back, she’s been an ever-present force for Chelsea Women and is tactically aware and intelligent. Against Manchester United, we saw her defend diligently keeping Leah Galton quiet while assisting Bachmann in advanced areas.
The Norwegian right-back had an xG of 0.76, the highest of her team against Manchester United showing her effectiveness in the final third. She combined with Cuthbert and Bachmann to create overloads in the pockets out wide to force numbers out wide to allow England and Ji to push forward unmarked.
In the example above we can see Chelsea looking to attack United with Ji in possession. Mjelde is seen on the overlap and is making a bursting run down the flank. Cuthbert’s position between the three is vital. Her movement towards Ji to receive the pass causes Manchester United to press the Cuthbert but the South Korean plays a quick through ball into the empty space in behind.
Mjelde’s run is untracked and she manages to find space to pick her cross. The three players stationed on the right side vacated space in the central areas allowing England and Kirby to find space in the middle of the penalty area. Her attacking runs have been much improved. Mjelde averaged 1.01 dribbles in the 2018/19 season compared to her 2.82 dribbles per 90 currently. The defender also had four touches in the box which was second highest after England’s seven in their league game against United. Demi Stokes must be wary of Chelsea’s movement and positioning on the right flank and will need help from her winger to contain them. Keeping them quiet will go a long in making sure Chelsea’s major threat is thwarted.
Janine Beckie – Manchester City’s right-sided threat
City, however, have shown a tendency to balance their wide players and focus their attacks from one side. The injury to Aofie Mannion has forced Cushing to rejig his backline and accommodate other players at right-back. Manchester City have tested out Matilde Fidalgo and Janine Becky at right-back. Against West Ham, they looked to concentrate play through Becky who was deployed at right-back. A natural number nine, Cushing wanted to utilise her pace and incredible dribbling to pressure the West Ham defenders and inject pace into the wide areas. With Chelsea employing a high line, they use Becky’s pace to pin back and target Joanna Andersson and get in behind.
The pass map shows how high Becky stayed during the West Ham fixture, and threated the Hammers left-back. As a result, Ellen White would be supplied with more crosses to attack and use her large frame to attack the ball. Becky registered nine crosses, three dribbles, and four interceptions to go along with her one assist. Even from a defensive point of view she attempted 12 duels winning eight. Fidalgo is yet to finish 90 minutes making two appearances to date.
This example starts off with City playing out from the back and managing to recycle possession until they find an opening in midfield. Jill Scott’s forward drive eventually sees her pass the ball to Becky who makes a far side run.
The right-back has space in front of her to run into but chooses to play an early cross with White on the shoulder of the two West Ham defenders. These early crosses could allow City to get in behind Chelsea’s high defensive line and take advantage of Bright’s lack of pace.
Chelsea’s defensive deficiencies
While the above section described and explained how City’s full-back can pose a threat towards Chelsea’s backline, here we will explain where Chelsea could falter. The Blues have conceded just five goals in all competitions, with three coming in the FAWSL. They have been incredibly tight at the back but there are still weaknesses when we take a closer look at the goals they’ve conceded. The Citizens possess strength, power, and pace in the forward line. White’s move to City this season has ensured they have a strong reference point spearheading the attack. She should be able to occupy Bright and Magladena Eriksson posing issues for 90 minutes.
One noticeable trend teams have tried is creating quick interchanging and switches in play. This is something City’s forwards are capable of doing quite well. Each of Chelsea’s goals in the league this season have come as a result of not being able to clear their lines quick enough. The loose ball ends up with the second man and that inevitably ends up in a threatening pass or goal. The goals scored by Reading and West Ham specifically show the Chelsea defenders not being able to clear the ball properly and fail to close down the second ball winner. Teams haven’t been able to really run at Chelsea’s defence and when they have, it has caused them all sorts of problems. Danielle van de Donk’s brilliant skill in the box flummoxed both Bright and Eriksson resulting in a well-taken goal. Lauren James of Manchester United had some joy in this regard.
Cushing’s side love to attack in numbers and if they can catch Chelsea higher up the pitch they can really put pressure on Chelsea’s back four. The full-backs tend to be in a marginally higher position due to their wingers’ slightly narrower position. As the example above portrays, City win the ball back from Tottenham Hotspur in their defensive third with five players now pushing forward. This creates numerical superiority against Spurs’ backline.
As City progress the ball towards the penalty area, Spurs recover and start to surround White after receiving a pass from Scott. However, the numerical advantage comes into effect with two spare players across from White. The ball is passed to Georgia Stanway who scores with no one really attacking her space. City could employ a 4-1-4-1 (38%) or 4-3-3 (24%) formation which have the capacity to match Chelsea in midfield.
However, coming up against a tall, strong striker in White could pose Chelsea new problems. Having kept Vivianne Miedema quiet, the centre-backs will have to produce another quality display to nullify White.
Player to watch: Guro Reiten
While much has been made of Chelsea’s prolific forwards, one slightly less talked about player been Guro Reiten. The Norwegian winger has made a good start at Chelsea with two goals in her opening few matches. Reiten can be classified as a speedy, intelligent winger that prefers to drift into central areas. With a lethal left foot, the winger looks to play an inside-forward role coming in off the wing driving into opposition defenders putting them on the back foot.
We can often see her take on defenders using her intelligence and pace to create space. Reitan has shown some good spatial awareness by drifting centrally to take on a shot or release a forward pass to another player. Throughout her career, the Nordic winger has attempted a mere 2.96 dribbles per 90 with a 54.2% success rate. City’s full-backs will have to be wary of the Norwegian’s runs through the channels and by line supplying the forwards.
Lineup & Squad
Based on the analysis, both teams will look to line up with balanced sides with a mixture of attacking flair and defensive stability. We expect Chelsea to line up in a 4-4-2 just as they did against Arsenal with City expected to see more of the ball. They will look to play more in the style they did against Arsenal where they patiently waited for their chances and pressed the opposition hard.
City, on the other hand, will want to play out from the back and use Houghton and Walsh to build attacks to put their fearsome wing-backs and attackers into the mix. Cushing’s go-to 4-1-4-1 is in the offing once again.
Chelsea Women: Berger; Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson, Andersson; Cuthbert, Ingle, Ji, Reiten; England, Bachmann
Manchester City Women: Roebuck; Beckie, Houghton, Bonner, Stokes; Walsh; Scott, Weir, Wullaert, Hemp; White
The title race is on with three teams potentially vying for the championship. This game would solidify Chelsea’s status as frontrunners if they beat one of the best teams in the league over the past few seasons. City, meanwhile, will want to make up ground on Chelsea and apply as much pressure as possible.
After being knocked out of the Champions League, they have no European commitments and can put their sole focus on the league. While we’ve discussed their strengths and weaknesses, we expect this game to be cagey, low scoring affair as both teams will want to avoid a loss to keep their position. Therefore, I predict a 1-1 draw should be the likeliest outcome given the circumstances.
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