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FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical analysis tactics

FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical preview

As we move into February of the 2019/20 FAWSL campaign, the title race could not be more perfectly poised for a grand-stand finish. This weekend, a massive encounter between the top two Manchester City Women and Arsenal Women could have a major say in where the title ends up this year.

Joe Montemurro’s side were sucker-punched two weeks ago, falling to a 4-1 defeat to Chelsea Women. Since then, they have reacted well, with two cup victories in succession, the last one being a 2-1 victory over tomorrow’s opponent. In the league, they will be looking to establish their dominance once more. However, Arsenal are now the only side of the three now that must rely on results out of their control going in their favour.

In Manchester, the side are preparing for life after Nick Cushing. The manager has been with the squad for six years and leaves for a role with New York City FC in the MLS after this match. Manchester City Women have been in scintillating form in recent weeks, blitzing their league opponents, and then winning their second Manchester derby on the year in the Women’s FA Cup over last weekend. They will be looking for revenge against an Arsenal side that has beaten them by a one-goal scoreline in each of the two encounters between the sides this campaign.

In this tactical analysis preview, we will look at both of these sides. We will discuss their usual set-ups and what to expect there, before going into specific tactics that could make the difference in this clash of the titans on Sunday.

Arsenal Women style of play

Montemurro’s Arsenal Women side are best know for their fluidity in their tactics. Possession based, interchanging, and attacking football is often what the Gunners bring to the table. While we are likely to see a slightly altered approach due to the opposition in this match, along with being away from home, their key tactics will largely remain the same.

Arsenal look to build through stages of possession as they look for holes in their oppositions defence. They can often be seen passing from side to side as they carry out these searches, with Lia Wälti being essential to these tactics. The Swiss international acts as a metronome for Montemurro, with her great passing range allowing her to find a teammate anywhere on the pitch. Arsenal typically look for two options when attacking. The first are opportunities to play into their star player: Vivianne Miedema.

The Dutch striker is having yet another stellar campaign. Although the goals have dried up in recent weeks, she always poses a threat and commands a large amount of a defence’s attention and respect. If a side does not put enough emphasis on shutting her down, she can very quickly punish them with any number of goals. However, if too much emphasis is put on her, she uses her intelligence to base her movements off of creating room for teammates rather than looking for goalscoring opportunities herself.

FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical analysis tactics
Arsenal Women pass map against Tottenham Hotspur Women

To get the maximum possible output out of Miedema, Arsenal set their side up to have a plethora of creativity around her. One of the staples of the Gunners’ structure this campaign has been their wingers who drift inside throughout the match. As you can see in the image above, Daniëlle van de Donk and Bethany Mead both drift into the half-spaces to look for room to receive possession and combine with Miedema. Behind them, the centre-midfielders are encouraged to get forward and look for passing combinations as well, with Wälti providing defensive cover.

The second option Arsenal Women most often look for are quick combinations out wide. With the wingers occupying inside positions for large portions of matches, it is the responsibility of the full-backs to provide width. When the opportunity arises, these defenders bomb forward and link with attacking players on their side of the pitch to try and create numerical superiority in these areas, which will often lead to a chance for a cross into the box.

FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical analysis tactics
McCabe providing width and finding van de Donk operating in the half-space

In the image above, you can see the wide position Katie McCabe occupies. This allows van de Donk to occupy space in the half-space, which she uses effectively to provide a passing option behind the Tottenham Hotspur Women defensive line for her full-back.

FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical analysis tactics
McCabe getting forward in support

The Spurs defender does well to marshall the Arsenal attacker into a position where she is forced to pull back and look for options. McCabe has followed her pass and looked to provide a wide option for a pass. However, in this instance, she uses her intelligence to identify the space in the penalty area. With a burst, she flies into this area to receive a pass and beat a tackle, before disappointingly putting her effort over the bar.

Manchester City Women structure

For an in-depth look into Manchester City Women and their tactical alterations following Janine Beckie’s addition at right-back, I did a tactical analysis on the top of the table side a couple of weeks back. Here, we will just go over their general structure.

With that being said, City will be disappointed to be without their marauding full-back for this crunch clash, as Beckie is away with her Canadian national side on international duty. Georgia Stanway has been asked to provide a similar option down this side in her absence. She has started here since Beckie left, with slightly different responsibilities.

In this set-up, City are very asymmetric. Due to Fidalgo’s only start coming in a disappointing 1-0 defeat to this very same opposition, it is likely that Cushing will stick with this structure rather than reverting to a more defensive one. With the right-back given the responsibility of moving up and down this side of the pitch in defence and attack, the Manchester side have been deploying two strikers in the centre of the pitch, usually in Ellen White and Pauline Bremer. These two have created a fierce attacking presence together, and are scoring goals for fun. However, the difference we have seen since Standway’s addition is Scott’s increase in her attacking role. Below you can see a pass map from City’s 2-0 against Birmingham. You are able to see Scott almost playing as a right-midfielder in this set-up.

FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical analysis tactics
Manchester City Women pass map against Birmingham City Women

On the left side, Demi Stokes at left-back has been given the role of staying slightly closer to her centre-halves, just as Aoife Mannion did at right-back before her injury. This positioning allows for more protection in the event of a counter-attack. Ahead of her and the centre-halves, Caroline Weir has dropped into an even deeper average position this campaign and often accompanies Keira Walsh in a double pivot. The two sit back and look for passing lanes through the opposition midfield lines and into the attackers. On the wing, Lauren Hemp is Cushing’s preferred selection.

The tricky attacker is given license to come inward and look to combine with the two strikers. Specifically against Tottenham Hotspur Women at the beginning of January, this tactic worked to perfection. It resulted in the winger scoring and providing an assist in City’s dominant performance, while also completing all six of her attempted dribbles. Below you can see the structure we have seen from City in recent weeks and the typical movements the players make within it.

FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical analysis tactics
Normal structure for Manchester City Women with typical player movements

Key areas – Arsenal

Arsenal’s biggest issue in their shock loss by a scoreline of 4-1 against Chelsea Women two weeks ago was their failure to win the midfield battle. The Blues’ manager Emma Hayes used her outside midfielders in their normal 4-4-2 set-up to come in-field and create a midfield diamond. This provided Chelsea with a 4v3 advantage in the centre of the pitch, and Arsenal were unable to bypass this.

Montemurro will be sure that his side do not lose the battle in this area of the park once more. Arsenal’s tactics are based on having control in midfield and they will need this to come away with three points on Sunday.

However, a major possible attacking threat Arsenal could possess against City this Sunday could be moving from inside to outside when quickly moving in transition. With City’s encouragement of attacking full-backs, specifically on the right side, there is the chance for space in these areas behind them. Especially with Walsh and Weir’s defensive positioning in the centre of the park, Arsenal’s biggest success could come from getting the wingers of full-backs into these wide spaces in counter-attacking scenarios.

FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical analysis tactics
Arsenal Women’s defensive set-up against Manchester City Women in possession

Above you can see a situation where Manchester City are set-up in their attacking structure. As you can see, City’s full-backs will be encouraged to press forward when possible to try and break down the Arsenal defensive structure. You can see the space that could be potentially open in these areas, and the lack of space in the centre of the park due to the double pivot of Walsh and Weir.

FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical analysis tactics
When possession is regained, the forward players must focus on stretching City’s defensive structure

With possession being regained in this circumstance, players such as Nobbs and Little can look to move forward at pace. Ahead of them, the attackers will need to move to create options to expose this space. Van de Donk and Mead will be essential in providing width to not only provide passing options but to make sure that City’s defensive block are not able to suffocate the Arsenal attack by restricting the options in the centre of the pitch.

Key areas – Manchester City

As Manchester City Women have found their goalscoring touch, they have accomplished this in a number of different fashions. Cushing’s side always possess the ability to cut through any opponent with quick and sharp short passes in tight spaces, but they are tactically flexible. One of these tactics has been long balls over the top of oppositions. This has the potential to have a very effective outcome against a side like Arsenal.

When City hold possession in their initial structure, they have four players capable of making line-breaking passes. Cushing gives his centre-halves and double-pivot the freedom to set-up as they see fit to deal with the final line of an opponent’s press. This has a square shape structure to it for the majority of the time, but we can also see dynamics such as Walsh dropping into the middle of the centre-halves to form a back-three.

FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical analysis tactics
Manchester City Women in their initial build-up structure

When this press is bypassed, Walsh and Weir look to players in higher positions up the pitch. One of the keys to Cushing’s tactical alteration is the movements of the two strikers along with Hemp on the left side. Between the three of these players, they are able to use each others movements to find space to run into between the defensive line. As soon as this comes together, one of City’s deep playmakers releases a pass into this space.

FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical analysis tactics
Walsh in possession, drawing the Spurs defender towards her

In the image above, you are able to see City sitting in their initial build-up phase, with Walsh in possession. The English international looks downfield for passing options, but also uses her intelligence to draw the press away from her teammate Weir. Once the Tottenham defender is far enough away, she makes a smart pass laterally, leaving Weir with plenty of room ahead of her to look for passing options.

FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Arsenal Women – tactical analysis tactics
Weir receives possession and looks for a ball over the top into White

When Weir receives possession, the City attacking players immediately look for space to present a passing option. White makes a smart run from behind her defensive marker and into the space behind the last line of the Spurs defensive block. Weir puts a pass over the top of this block and White is able to run onto it, having beaten her defender due to the intelligence of her run.


Both coaches have a plethora of talent to choose from for this match, and we undoubtedly have potential for fireworks on Sunday.

For the home side, it is unlikely we will see many changes from the side that lost to Arsenal midweek. The one change we could see is Bremer coming in for Tessa Wullaert, and adding the two-striker dynamic Cushing enjoys at the expense of an out-and-out right-wing.

Arsenal will have their full host of attacking talent to call onto. Expect to see their marauding full-backs in Lisa Evans and McCabe providing a plethora of attacking threat down each flank. In attack, Miedema has finally found the back of the net again and will be determined to continue that on Sunday.

Manchester City Women (4-3-3): Roebuck; Stanway, Houghton, Bonner, Stokes; Walsh, Scott, Weir; Bremer, White, Hemp

Arsenal Women (4-3-3): Zinsberger; Evans, Schnaderbeck, Williamson, McCabe; Wälti, Little, Nobbs; Van de Donk, Miedema, Mead


This match on Sunday will have a massive impact on the rest of the season moving forward. Both sides have aspirations to be lifting the trophy come the end of the campaign, and need to prove they can beat the best in order to be the best.

For Arsenal Women, they know that following their defeat to Chelsea Women, they must try and win every match from here on out to realistically have a chance to win the league. With Chelsea’s game in hand, they are in control of their own destiny, while Arsenal have to hope for them to slip up.

Manchester City Women still have their fate in their own hands as well. With a meeting against Chelsea still to come, victories in each of these matches against their rivals would leave them clear favourites to bring the title back to Manchester.