FAWSL 2019/20: Manchester City Women vs Chelsea Women – tactical preview
As the weeks continue, the title race slowly becomes clearer and clearer as to who has the edge in this campaign of the FAWSL. For much of the season, Arsenal Women have led the way, but consecutive losses to rivals Manchester City Women and Chelsea Women have left them fighting to keep up.
This Sunday, we have arguably the most important match for the remainder of the campaign. Chelsea Women travel to play league leaders Manchester City Women, who they trail by a single point with a game-in-hand. Both sides still have important matches as the season winds down – City travel to play Manchester United Women and Chelsea play Everton Women twice – but this game is the last time for either side to make sure that the title race is in their own hands. With the game in hand for Chelsea, a win or draw leaves them in pole position, but a Manchester City Women victory would leave that game-in-hand null and void.
In the tactical analysis preview, we will look at the approaches we can expect from either side. We will touch on the tactics used in the reverse fixture earlier this season that saw Chelsea grab a 2-1 victory, and how City can look to improve from this performance to get the win themselves this time around.
One of the most impressive parts of Emma Hayes’ Chelsea side so far this campaign is you are never able to say with confidence how they will line up. As soon as they get comfortable in a formation such as 4-4-2, they switch and play in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1. The London side is extremely deep with a lot of attacking talent, and as an opposing manager, you have to try and account for every possible structure Chelsea can use.
With that said, it is likely we will see Chelsea continue to use the 4-4-2 formation. Sam Kerr has been out of the side since their 4-1 demolition of Arsenal Women, with an injury and international duty with Australia keeping her away. That being said, she is back with the side and training. With the quality she possesses, it is difficult not to include her in a match of this magnitude.
Chelsea Women (4-4-2): Berger; Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson, Andersson; Reiten, Ji, Ingle, Cuthbert; Kerr, England
For Manchester City Women, they are coming off the back of a 10-0 victory over Ipswitch Town Women in the Women’s FA Cup. Their attack is firing on all cylinders and they will be looking to keep this up. Similar to Chelsea, the Manchester side will be boosted by the return of their make-shift right-back Janine Beckie, who has excelled in the role since her inclusion in this position of the side. Her return gives City a massive boost in their attack down the right side and will give Hayes a lot to think about as she prepares for this match.
Manchester City Women (4-3-3): Roebuck; Beckie, Houghton, Bonner, Stokes; Walsh, Weir, Scott; Bremmer, White, Hemp
Chelsea’s recent success
Much of Chelsea Women’s success, particularly against top sides, has been their pressing structures when possession is lost. Hayes sets her side up to suffocate the opponent when they are in their defensive set-up in a bid to win back possession and move back into the attacking phase as quickly as possible. Against Arsenal Women a month ago, we saw the London side line up in a 4-4-2. However, instead of the traditional flat midfield line we normally see, they often used a midfield diamond. This tactical shift created a 4v3 advantage over Arsenal’s midfield and restricted them from getting into their typical possession-based football. Chelsea and Arsenal have the joint lowest passes per defensive action (PPDA) in the league. However, in the matches against each other, Chelsea’s PPDA has been significantly lower – 9.76 to 12.14 in the latest matchup – than their London rivals, emphasising their focus on their pressing tactics.
While City and Arsenal set up differently, we could see this ideology still being used by Chelsea. Keira Walsh and Caroline Weir are immensely influential for the league leaders, and restricting the effect they can have on the match would give Chelsea a massive advantage in this match.
With Chelsea setting up in a 4-4-2, instead of using this tactic once more, it is possible we could see them shift into a shape more similar to a 4-2-3-1 out of possession. With this, Kerr would drop into a deeper position behind Bethany England, and give another pressing option to the main midfield two for City. The Australian international is equally adept at playing in this type of role off of the main striker as she is at being the finisher herself. Her work-rate off the ball and passing ability make her perfect for this secondary striker role, and Hayes will undoubtedly use this to her advantage as the season goes on.
Above you can see how this set-up would look for Chelsea. Adding Kerr into midfield would allow Chelsea to have a numerical advantage in midfield against City’s double-pivot, and probably force Scott to come into a deeper position which would limit her attacking input on the right side of City’s attack. As well, when possession is regained the Australian striker provides a connection between the midfield and forward line, as well as an extra runner from midfield if possession is able to get up to England to hold up and wait for her teammates to push forward. With how intent on attacking both sides are, there will undoubtedly be space on the counter for the other side to look to exploit, and Chelsea have the quality to make it a difficult afternoon for City.
City’s long passing tactics
With Manchester City Women’s new structure, we have seen a couple of new tactics deployed as well. One of these could play a major part in Sunday’s match.
City has followed in the model of the men’s side in recent seasons, and have put an emphasis on possession-based play through a midfield three in a 4-3-3 formation. This has included a player acting as a single pivot – Walsh – and two eight’s who have the freedom to roam forward in attack – Weir and Jill Scott. To begin this campaign we saw this shape being used, but factors such as injuries have forced the side to adapt. We have spoken in detail previously on Manchester City Women’s tactical alterations having to do with Beckie’s inclusion in the side, and the effects this has had.
One tactic we have seen a lot more of due to these changes in structure has been the avenues City find to break down a defensive block. With Weir joining Walsh is holding deeper positions, we have seen longer passes into space behind an opponent’s defensive line more often. Bremer joins White up front to form a front two, and often times Lauren Hemp will push inside and join these two strikers. From here they each look to create space to make runs in behind the defence. Chelsea’s centre-halves are not known for their speed so this tactic could be used to a high degree of success on Sunday.
With Chelsea Women’s focus on not allowing City’s main operators time and space on the ball, it could be the responsibility of Houghton and Bonner to initiate these attacking outlets. Both centre-halves possess the ability to dribble forward in possession from the defensive line and look for the spaces higher up the pitch to find their attacking teammates.
Above you can see the typical shape City use in their initial build-up when possession is won. You can also see Chelsea’s set up with two players – England and Kerr – leading the initial press as the rest of the side prepares to set up in their defensive block. With Chelsea’s intent on restricting play through the midfield as we have seen in past matches, we could see these players being used by the defenders to use wall passes quite often.
Using the midfielder to move the ball from one side of the defence to another quickly could allow one of the centre-halves or Stokes on the other side the space to be able to drive forward and look for these long passes into the attacking players. In addition to giving the centre-halves the ability to look for long passes like we discussed above, bypassing the initial press like this will also force Chelsea to step out of their defensive block, which will either open space out wide for the likes of Beckie to receive possession with room to attack or in central areas for players such as Scott or Hemp to collect a pass in between the lines and continue the attack forward.
Battle of the two-striker systems?
Sunday’s match could give us a sight that is not too common in the modern game of football: both sides could line up using two traditional strikers. This tactic is not used too often but has allowed both sides to strive this season since it has been used. So, how does each side use this structure and how could it play a part in Sunday’s match?
For City, their two-striker structure during a match comes at the expense of a right-winger. To make up for this, Beckie gets forward from her right-back position and is aided by Scott, who often drifts into more advanced areas on this right side from her midfield position. In some circumstances, City’s shape can resemble a 4-4-2 when Scott moves out here. Both of City’s strikers are poachers. As you can see in the pass map below against Birmingham City Women, the passing lines between the two up front and the rest of the side are rather weak. They often do not get involved in any of the build-up, but instead, look to get on the end of these attacking moves in the box.
Chelsea Women’s strikers are slightly different. It has been well documented of Sam Kerr’s ability with the ball at her feet to work in a creator role, and she often combined with teammates during his time with Chicago Red Star. But England does not get the credit she deserves for her ability to link up play, as she can be much more than a poacher as well. Chelsea’s structure relies much more on the midfield linking up with the two strikers. The pass map you can see below is from Chelsea’s match against Arsenal. Here you can see this two-striker set-up being utilised, and it is actually England who is often dropping deeper than her partner Kerr. As you can see, the passing lines between the two strikers and the rest of the side are much stronger than in the City image.
We have already discussed how City’s attack could penetrate Chelsea’s defensive line, but how will Chelsea’s frontline look against City’s defence? The Manchester side has the best defensive record in the league, and in the two side’s last meeting, held off the Chelsea attack for 80 minutes before conceding from a rebound off of a corner. While both sides will look different on Sunday since this meeting, this fact will still weigh heavily on Hayes’ mind leading up to the match.
One of the reasons City have dropped Weir into a deeper midfield position alongside Walsh is to have the ability to push one or both full-backs up at points in the match. The second holding midfielder gives the cover for counter-attacks, but against a side such as Chelsea, this could be dangerous. As we saw against Arsenal Women, both strikers for the London side are adept at moving into the channels in behind either full-back and looking to receive a through pass to attack the heart of the opponent’s defence on the dribble. Cuthbert and Reiten are also very good in attack and always pose a risk.
Above you can see the space in behind that City’s set-up could allow. England and Kerr are both extremely dangerous at playing on the shoulders of either centre-half and looking to make runs in behind or coming in to receive a pass before laying it off to an overlapping teammate. Some extra defensive cover could be a valuable asset for City in this match and it would not be surprising to see Stokes positioned much closer to her centre-halves when her side is in possession than we have seen in recent matches. The blue lines show the shift the City defenders would make with this and the better positioned they would be to deal with counters.
With both sides in good form coming into this match, this will surely be a fantastic spectacle for FAWSL fans. The title race will most likely go down to the final day, but this match will go a long way in deciding where the title will end up come that final match. While Manchester City Women lead the league currently, Chelsea Women’s game in hand makes it essential that they come out victorious on their home pitch on Sunday in order to keep control of their own destiny. Meanwhile, Arsenal Women will be watching on hoping for both sides to drop points so they can still have a say as the season comes to a conclusion. Whatever the result, this match is sure to be an intriguing tactical battle between two of the league’s best sides that could come down to some of the points we have covered in this analysis.