After the WSL cup and the international break, the FAWSL finally returns to action with matchday six. There are plenty of high profile matches taking place this weekend including the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton. Tottenham takes on Arsenal in the London derby and arguably the biggest game of the weekend is between Chelsea and Manchester United.

The two teams have had contrasting starts to the season with the Blues finding themselves at the top of the table playing some scintillating football. The Red Devils, on the other hand, have played good football but haven’t won as many points as their performances have warranted. Having kept Arsenal and Manchester City to one goal, United have shown they have what it takes to stay afloat and eventually compete in the league.

Chelsea, meanwhile, have ambitions of winning the league. 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.

This tactical analysis preview will look to dissect and understand the different areas of strengths and weaknesses the two teams possess and how they can be exploited to gain three valuable points.

Tactical Analysis – Chelsea Women’s style of play

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Chelsea Women’s average positions [Credit: Wyscout]
Chelsea have regularly utilised a 4-4-2 formation this season with Emma Hayes looking to unleash her wealth of talent together. 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.

Manchester United Women’s style of play

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Manchester United’s average positions [Credit: Wyscout]
At first, it was tough to see Manchester United Women’s exact play style after coming up against tough opposition but as fixtures became more competitive, we could see Casey Stoney looking to implement a strong, solid defensive foundation to work off of. The Red Devils usually line up in a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation going forward and a deep 4-5-1 out of possession.

Against top-quality opposition, United look to play on the counter-attack using the pace of Leah Galton, Lauren James, Jackie Groenen, and Kirsty Hanson. The four bring individual qualities and strengths that have troubled teams going forward. Their 4-5-1 gives them defensive solidarity and aims to tighten up spaces between their defence. Katie Zelem and Hayley Ladd usually patrol the defensive midfield area effectively, sweeping up any loose balls providing Manchester United with a solid foundation to build off of.

Manchester United Women – Defensive structure

For Manchester United to have any success against the league leaders, they will need to rely on their solid defensive structure. Having limited Arsenal and Manchester City in their opening fixtures has shown incredible resilience against two of the most feared attacks in the league. They followed a rigid out-of-possession structure against both teams with Zelem recycling possession and initiating counter-attacks.

Using a hybrid 4-1-4-1/4-4-2, United always want to secure their midfield to not allow the opposition teams to transition through the lines of midfield quickly. Ladd would fill in positions that were vacated or needed extra protection providing ultimate coverage across the back four. As we mentioned earlier, against the bigger sides, United tend to adopt a low compact block in an attempt to keep it tight and organised at the back and play on the counter-attack.

They aim to win back possession in central midfield to try and catch teams out and quickly transition with their quick, intelligent attacking players. West Ham approached their game against Chelsea in similar fashion by trying to keep their shape and moderate Chelsea’s attacks. They employed a more man-marking system which United could look to replicate. They usually try and add numbers in the central areas to frustrate teams into taking long shots or having to play try their luck in the wide areas.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Manchester United Women’s out of possession shape [Credit: Wyscout]
As the above image shows, Manchester United usually revert to a hybrid 4-1-4-1 formation with Zelem given the freedom to fill in where she’s most needed. United’s most complete midfielder, Zelem’s match awareness is unrivalled and is the root cause of United’s exceptional defensive performances. They look to play with a flat, narrow midfield trying to compress the spaces in the middle and expand outwards the deeper they go. Ladd will look to come across and provide extra support to the full-back and tracked back winger.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Katie Zelem’s heat map this season [Credit: Wyscout]
Another part of their strong defensive foundation comes down to their defence in the wide areas. The full-backs in Kirsty Smith, Martha Harris, Amy Turner, and Lotta Oqvist have been rotated in the full-back areas but are very much defensive-minded. For the most part, Smith has made the left-back berth her own, providing Leah Galton support down this side. On the other side, Harris and Turner have been sharing time at right-back. They offer added protection to United’s wide areas in combination with the wingers tracking back.

Jessica Sigsworth played a more defensive role on the right by playing as an auxiliary right-back [Credit: Wyscout]
They use this tactic especially against teams that have strong, quick wingers. Stopping the opposition full-backs and wingers from getting forward becomes the utmost priority for Stoney. While we will take a closer look at Chelsea’s attacking preferences, they do tend to favour the wide areas and look to get crosses or cut-backs for their strikers to latch on to. Their wingers will look to try and keep the full-backs pinned back, and play in behind them. However, this is where Stone can effectively use the wingers especially Sigsworth to stop the wingers from pushing forward.

The above example shows her stationed in a defensive position looking to press Katie McCabe. This will offer Turner more protection and keep Manchester United Women much more compact in the wide areas. Against Manchester City Women she engaged in 20 duels and winning 10, showing her willingness to track back and work hard to protect her right-back.

While this has been a point of strength for Manchester United, they have been susceptible to quick, pacey, technical wingers getting in behind. Both Tottenham and Liverpool found joy in behind Manchester United’s full-backs. This is an area Chelsea will definitely look to exploit once again. Both of United’s full-backs are defensive and although they stay deeper are found against pace.

Rinsola Babajide was particularly menacing down Liverpool’s right-hand side against United and constantly found space in behind. She took advantage of some sloppy passing that further aggravated United’s weakness at the back. If they afford Chelsea the same space and gift them possession then the scoreline could be big. Chelsea’s forwards are much more proficient and effective in the final third meaning they will not leave chances go begging.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Abbie McManus looking to play in Kirsty Smith but the pass is intercepted by Babajide [Credit: Wyscout]
As the image above highlights, Babajide is trying to close off any easy passing options for McManus while Sweetman-Kirk is closing her down to apply additional pressure. Smith can be seen in a slightly higher position ready to make a run down the right-wing expecting the pass from McManus.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Babajide capitalises on the unoccupied space and uses her speed to try and play in a cross for Courtney Sweetman-Kirk [Credit: Wyscout]
However, a poor pass made straight at the Liverpool winger meant they could interchange quick passes and look to get in behind Manchester United’s defence. Here we can see Babajide with acres of space to run into with support arriving in the penalty area to aim for. Liverpool pounced on Manchester United’s wayward passing to try and capitalise.

Manchester United’s counter-attack

Stoney’s main tactic has been to provide a solid foundation to launch clinical counter-attacks with quick transitions from back to front. The biggest threat United have going forward is being able to exploit is unorganised defences after they have had a period of possession. United have had an average possession of 43.95% this season showing their preference to stay off-the-ball than on it.

As we’ve seen in the previous section, United are very effective in keeping the central areas protected and look towards Zelem to propel the team forward. She is critical for United from her defensive midfield position using her excellent range of passing and vision to initiate smart counter-attacks. The ability to transition from defence to attack is important to allow the likes of Galton, James, and Groenen to attack. With only 311.6 passes per 90 they utilise a direct style of passing compared to their opponents (403.4 passes per 90).

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Ella Toone wins possession in the centre of the park and puts Manchester United on a counter-attack through Lauren James [Credit: Wyscout]
They counter-attacked brilliantly against Liverpool. As we can see above how the move starts with Toone dispossessing Roberts in central midfield allowing James time on the ball to run forward. Liverpool are sprinting to get numbers back in the penalty to stop Manchester United from counter-attacking.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
James has several passing options but chooses Leah Galton who is in a one v one situation [Credit: Wyscout]
James immediately looked for options on her left and right and eventually found Galton free on the left. As you can see here, Galton is in a perfect position to take on Ross and look to get the ball into the box.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Using her intelligence and quick, nimble feet, James is able to navigate through the bodes in the penalty area and score [Credit: Wyscout]
As the above graphic illustrates, none of Liverpool’s defenders are marking James close enough to intercept or dispossess her. The young striker showed great skill in tight areas throughout the match and gave Liverpool enough warning about her skills with the ball at her feet. James turns and feints the Liverpool centre-back to slot the ball home.

Ideally, they will need to overrun the midfield pivot of Ji So-yun and Sofie Ingle if they want to stand any chance of getting at the Chelsea defence. Chelsea’s wingers aren’t known to track back a whole lot but do so in certain situations, so that is one area United can look at taking advantage. Galton is particularly dangerous down United’s left-hand side and will give Maren Mjelde a tough time at right-back. Galton has attempted 5.53 dribbles per 90 this season with a 62.1% success rate. This proves her effectiveness going forward and finding spaces in behind the opposition full-backs. She isn’t afraid to take a shot either with an average of 2.48 per 90.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
The two left-sided players for Manchester United look to break quickly [Credit: Wyscout]
Spurs really struggled to contain United’s attacking force with Galton especially menacing in the wide areas. The move started with James dropping deep and winning possession to push Manchester United forward with Galton and Smith bombing down the left flank. Smith receives James’ pass with Galton on the overlap.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Galton’s cross goes into a worrying area for Tottenham to deal with [Credit: Wyscout]
The ball eventually lands at Galton’s feet and she expertly takes on her full-back and accurately crosses it in towards the corridor of uncertainty. Spurs are unable to properly deal with the delivery and forces Ashley Neville to score an own goal.

Chelsea Women’s attacking threat

Arguably Chelsea Women’s biggest threat will come from their forwards. Kirby, England, Ji, and Reiten will pose the biggest threat to Manchester United’s defence. Their biggest win came against Arsenal Women three weeks ago and their style of play was different from what played against West Ham and what they would expect to play against Manchester United. Against their London rivals, they had 41% possession attributing to their counter-attacking style of play. Indeed their equalising goal came courtesy of some good pressing by Erin Cuthbert to release the front three. However, against West Ham, they had 56% possession and managed to come back to win 1-3 after going 1-0 down.

Chelsea have shown resiliency and ability to adapt to their opposition to play to their strengths. They have averaged 2.2 goals this season so goals should be expected. After moving towards a more fluid 4-4-2 they have been able to create a fluid and flexible system that allows Reiten, England, Kirby, and Ji to flourish. One of their many problems last year was to integrate England, Kirby, and Ji in the same starting eleven. Hayes has managed to fix the issue by changing from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2. The two wingers complement each other with Reiten able to interchange between a winger and wide forward helping out England when Kirby drops into midfield. Cuthbert acts as the hardworking, pressing winger who supports in midfield if required.

The two wide players will look to run in behind United’s full-backs. Even though United will look to keep their wide areas overloaded, it’ll allow Chelsea to create space in other areas of the pitch. If Chelsea find even the smallest of spaces in behind they will look to take full advantage.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Fran Kirby looking to drive into the unmarked space [Credit: Wyscout]
A switch of play allows Ji and Reiten/Cuthbert to make a late run into the box. The goal scored against West Ham typified their movement in forward areas. Reiten spots space in behind West Ham’s full-back and Kirby running in to release a quick pass forward. Kirby patiently waits and takes the ball forward and switches play with Ji making a run on the far side unmarked.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
The switch of play shifts focus on to Ji who is in space and is targeting the open area just outside of the box [Credit: Wyscout]
This starts to disjoint the West Ham defensive shape and opens up space in the middle of the penalty area for another player, in this instance Ingle to drive into.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Sofie Ingle makes a late run unmarked [Credit: Wyscout]
Ingle is able to find adequate space in the box to place her shot. No West Ham player is able to track her deep run properly allowing the defensive midfielder to have a clear shot on goal. The switches in play and ability to find passes in the smallest spaces to create chances are exceptional. Their xG of 2.25 this season has shown their ability to create multiple chances in a match and United will have to produce an exceptional defensive performance to keep the league leaders at bay.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
West Ham have put players behind the ball giving Ji space to take a long shot [Credit: Wyscout]
Chelsea have not only been able to break teams down through their superior wide play and movement but also through some effective long ranged shooting. The likes of Kirby and Ji are especially proficient in this regard and have scored some wonderful goals. Ji managed to find the back of the net against West Ham after the Hammers piled numbers behind the ball blocking any easy passing lanes as we can see in the example. Against Arsenal, the South Korean took a number of (four) from outside the box. While she didn’t score in that game, it caused Arsenal all sorts of problems defending against her runs.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Ji So-yun’s shot against West Ham [Credit: Wyscout]
FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Ji So-yun’s shot against Arsenal [Credit: Wyscout]
If Manchester United prove to be stubborn in their defensive shape and are tough to break down then it may come down to Chelsea taking long-ranged shots to force United into adapting their defensive tactics and possibly create space in other areas of the pitch.

Defensive stability

Chelsea have been efficient and effective from a defensive standpoint. With only three goals conceded this season, their back four have been solid in defence and kept teams at bay. The back four consisting of Mjelde, Millie Bright, Magdalena Eriksson, and Jonna Andersson have been consistent and able to sweep up anything played in behind due their mixture of pace and strength. Bright is an aggressive centre-back while Eriksson will provide cover when she pushes up. The two full-backs are balanced with Mjelde usually sitting deeper than Andersson who prefers to bomb forward. With help from Ingle in shoring up the central areas they have been able to repel most attacks.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
Chelsea’s attackers tracking back and dropping in to help their defenders [Credit: Wyscout]
Against the teams with quick and technical forwards, Chelsea tend to play a deeper line and reign in the full-backs. The two wingers drop in to help the full-backs in creating wide overloads to and block passing lanes to the central areas. The image shows Reiten tucking into a more central area to block Jill Roord while Ji is pushing up to press McCabe.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
[Credit: Wyscout]
Ingle as the defensive midfielder will look to drop in between the centre-backs and plug in any gaps that are needed. The double-pivot of Ingle and Ji provides a real balance to this Chelsea team with the South Korean able to express herself going forward with Ingle’s support behind her. This is supported by an xGa of 0.76. Chelsea have brilliantly nullified their opposition and effectively limited the opposition from creating too many chances.

However, if we examine and conduct an analysis on their three goals conceded there is a common theme in each occurrence. Each of their goals have come from not being able to clear their lines in the penalty area. The goals scored by Reading and West Ham specifically show the Chelsea defenders not able to clear the ball properly and fail to close down the second ball winner. The goal conceded against Arsenal was similar because of Danielle van de Donk’s brilliant feet in the box that both Bright and Eriksson failed to handle.

FAWSL 2019/20: Chelsea Women vs Manchester United Women - tactical preview tactics
No Chelsea players are close to either West Ham player to stop the goal [Credit: Wyscout]
The image here shows the goal West Ham scored two weeks ago. There are no players closing down the ball carrier neither Adriana Leon (#19). Mjelde should be aware of her runner and be much closer in this scenario. The ball bounces through to the Spanish international and scores a relatively easy goal due to some poor defending.

Manchester United are a dangerous counter-attacking side and with James, Galton, and Groenen can manoeuvre through unorganised defences with ease. James is a special talent with incredible ball-playing ability at such a young age. Chelsea will need to wary of her movement in the penalty area just as she did in devastating fashion against Liverpool. She doesn’t require too much space to operate.

Expected lineups

Chelsea comes into the game off the back of a comeback win against West Ham and an impressive victory over Arsenal before that. Since then they have suffered one major injury in Maria Thorisdóttir. The Norwegian will be out for the remainder of 2019 after fracturing her leg in the lead up to the West Ham fixture. Thorisdóttir struck the late winner in the Blues’ previous Women’s Super League game as they overcame Arsenal. Chelsea will be expected to field their strongest line up for this game.

The Manchester United Women’s starting eleven should constitute with the same core group of players with the exception of the full-back areas. Stoney has consistently rotated her full-backs and will look to play her two strongest defenders at the back. They are expected to continue with the 4-2-3-1 formation that has served them well this season.

Chelsea Women: Berger; Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson, Andersson; Reiten, Ingle, Ji, Cuthbert; Kirby, England

Manchester United Women: Earps; A. Turner, McManus, M.Turner, Harris; Ladd, Zelem; Hanson, Groenen, Galton; James

Conclusion

Even though Chelsea are favourites for this tie, I expect this to be a tight-knit affair with Manchester United defending deep. They will look to apply as much pressure as possible to force Chelsea to come up with answers to break down their sturdy defence. Having kept Arsenal and Manchester City to one-goal deficits, it’s hard to imagine anything different tactically from Stoney’s side.

Hayes will want a repeat of their heroics against Arsenal and dogged, ruthless mentality against West Ham. If they want to establish themselves as title challengers winning games like this is necessary. It’ll come down to the two teams effectiveness in playing to their strengths. So for these reasons, we’ll go with a narrow 2-1 victory to the Blues.


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