FAWSL 2020/2021: Manchester United Women v Arsenal Women – tactical preview
This weekend sees the return of the WSL after two weeks away. There are many interesting games, such as Chelsea Women against Everton Women, but this analysis will preview the game between Manchester United Women and Arsenal Women, both of whom are in great form and challenging at the league’s summit. This tactical analysis will look at the strengths and weaknesses of both sides’ attack and defence, looking at where each team can exploit the others with some clever tactics. We will also compare each side’s statistics to see which has been more dominant.
Manchester United Women’s attack
Manchester United Women have been one of the busiest sides over the summer, bringing in three new forwards in USA internationals Christen Press and Tobin Heath, as well as Alessia Russo from the US college game, who is already an England international. If we look at the image below, we can see how they have given Manchester United plenty of attacking options.
Here, Heath has the ball on the right-hand side, in the red square. West Ham United Women have looked to cut off her route to goal, but Manchester United’s setup has made this difficult. Alessia Russo, wearing 23, is the furthest forward, whilst winger Leah Galton is stretching the defenders out. However, because the West Ham defence is marking these two, forward Ella Toone, wearing seven, takes up a position where she can receive the ball and shoot at goal.
Therefore, Manchester United’s new signings have had an impact on their attack. Heath likes to play on the wing, providing crosses into the box, whilst Russo has shown herself to be a goalscorer, so having her as the central striker ensures Manchester United take advantage of chances like this.
If we look more at Russo’s role in the team, we can see here how she gets into good areas, giving her options on the ball. Firstly, as the yellow arrow shows, she can dribble it through the gap, which would get her into the space behind, giving her a shooting opportunity. Secondly, she can play Heath in on the right-hand side, who is in the red square. She opts to pass to the USA striker here.
Manchester United like to have a three-player attack, with Russo acting as the pivot, whilst the two wider attackers get forward to create passing options. Therefore, Russo will play a key role in Manchester United’s attack against Arsenal Women, because this creativity will be essential to getting behind Arsenal’s defence.
We have looked at Manchester United’s attack in possession, but they are just as dangerous out of it too. This image shows how the Tottenham Hotspur Women defender has the ball in her third, but can’t clear it from danger, because Manchester United’s attackers have surrounded her, closing her down, as the red arrows show. This comes because midfielders like Katie Zelem are attack-minded, meaning they get forward and support the attackers in these situations, helping to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible.
Therefore, Arsenal’s defence will need to be quick with the ball, in order to avoid situations like these, and will need to ensure that Alessia Russo is given as little space as possible, preventing her from having her usual impact on the game.
Manchester United Women’s defence
In defence, we can see how they are also organised well.
Here, Birmingham City Women midfielder Christie Murray has the ball, but is being forced backwards by the lack of space in Manchester United Women’s third. If we pick this apart, we can see firstly how the back four have formed a line with equal spacings between them, stretching across the pitch and preventing Birmingham from getting behind them. Secondly, the midfielders have moved back to protect the defence, closing down whichever opponent has the ball; Murray has a player behind her here, in the red box. Finally, Murray has no passing options open to her, because her teammates are also being marked by other Manchester United players, as the red arrows show.
This was from a throw-in situation, so Manchester United have been able to organise themselves. Each player knows which opponent is theirs to mark, and how to work as a team to ensure that their opponents have no time on the ball.
However, when forced to get back mid-play, there are problems. Here, they are looking to stop an attack, but Sweden left-back Lotta Okvist can’t track back quick enough. This therefore means that there is a large gap in the defensive structure, as shown by the red line, and one pass forward from West Ham United Women, marked by the yellow arrow, exposes this gap.
If we look at another example, we can see the same thing, but in a different situation. West Ham have played the long ball out to the far wing, and Manchester United’s left-sided defender has again looked to meet it. However, she gets her positioning marginally wrong, and can only head the ball backwards, where it is met by the West Ham attacker behind her, in the yellow square. Again, the red lines show Manchester United’s lack of defensive shape, because of the movement forwards to meet the ball, and the failed clearance means West Ham can access the space behind. A central striker is waiting in the middle, showing how damaging these defensive issues are. This is where Arsenal can take advantage and create chances.
Arsenal Women’s attack
Arsenal Women’s attack has been one of the most potent in the league this season, but what helps them to create and score plenty of goals is the way the whole team plays a part in their attacks.
To explain, we can see in this image how Arsenal have an organised defence, positioned around the halfway line. The three players in this line are communicating with each other, working together to stop their opponents breaking through them. We can see how another Arsenal player has the ball further up the pitch, on the far side, but these three players ensure that Arsenal can keep possession if there is no space to move the ball into further up.
It also means that Arsenal can get more players forward into their attack, as can be seen here.
We know that Arsenal play in a 4-3-3 formation, with the forward line consisting of star striker Vivianne Miedema, flanked by two out of Lisa Evans, Beth Mead and Caitlin Foord. However, the high defensive line allows the midfielders to push forward, meaning that the likes of Danielle van de Donk, Jordan Nobbs, and Jill Roord, all of whom are goalscoring midfielders, can support the attack, offering themselves as central passing options. In this situation, it means Arsenal have four passing options, not just the striker and opposite winger.
In doing this, Arsenal ensure that attacking moves are maximised, giving them a good chance of scoring every time they get into these areas. It is because of tactics such as this that they have been scoring eight or nine goals every game. It helps that Vivianne Miedema is in the team to be the focal point, but the collective attacking effort, which comes from the whole team playing their part, is what causes the most problems for opposing defenders.
We have seen how Arsenal increase their attacking threat centrally, but they also rely massively on the wings to move the ball behind opposing defences too. Here, they have created a triangle on the right-hand side of the pitch, giving them a better chance of getting the ball forward, behind Reading Women’s defence. The ball is passed into the player currently in possession, before then being passed forwards, as the blue arrow shows, where it is met by the inside player, who has made the run forward to meet it, as shown by the yellow arrow.
In order to form this triangle, right-back Leonie Maier has advanced up the field, which is another of Arsenal’s strengths; attacking full-backs. Both Maier and Katie McCabe get up the pitch to support the attacks, increasing Arsenal’s threat, and again ensuring that Arsenal have players in the central positions to increase their chances of scoring.
The final thing to mention is the flexible structure of Arsenal’s attack. We have seen on many occasions how Vivianne Miedema doesn’t just remain in a central position for the whole match, but often drifts around the pitch to meet the ball in other areas. In this image, she has moved away from the goal, with Australia international Caitlin Foord taking her place as the striker, which is a common occurrence. Miedema makes the pass through to her, once she has the ball, as the red arrow shows. Given that Miedema is always the most dangerous player on the pitch, Manchester United Women will no doubt want to make sure she is marked at all times. However, when she drifts around this much, that is almost impossible to do well. However, it is Arsenal’s fluid attacking structure that causes the most problems, because Foord drifts inside, Mead drifts inside, Danielle van de Donk moves into attacking positions – they move around so much, and that is the reason they are so difficult to stop.
Arsenal Women’s defence
Like with Manchester United Women, Arsenal Women’s defence is their weaker point, and this is where Manchester United could take control of the game.
If we look at this image, we can see how Arsenal look to set up with an organised defensive structure. They have three defenders forming one line, and the right-back has helped form another three-player line a little further across. However, Manchester City Women have the players necessary to take advantage of the space in between, with the ball being crossed into striker Ellen White, before Sam Mewis, who is outside the box at this point, runs forward to shoot and score from close range.
This shows us that, despite their seemingly organised approach to defending, they aren’t as strong in this area compared to their attack. This is something we can see even more in the following image.
Here, the ball is in the Arsenal box, and Switzerland defender Noelle Maritz is looking to clear it. However, she doesn’t clear it far enough away, and it is met by West Ham United Women, who then score from this situation. Arsenal don’t seem to be as confident in front of their goal, and the fact that they have only registered one clean sheet in their five WSL games so far this season highlights this problem.
In this example, former Arsenal striker Danielle Carter has managed to get into the box and score for Reading. Given the number of Arsenal players between her and the goal, this didn’t seem possible, but Arsenal’s lack of confidence in defence means they give her the space to advance into. The two Arsenal players in the red square both make attempts to take the ball off Carter, but don’t commit to the tackle, meaning that, as the yellow arrow shows, Carter advances into the space ahead of her with relative ease, before taking her shot and scoring.
As far as Manchester United Women go, they will see this and make sure that Alessia Russo, as the player most likely to be the central striker, puts pressure on the Arsenal defenders, causing them plenty of problems. If they can do this, then they will be able to use their front three tactics to get the ball into the wider channels. We can see how there is a Reading player on the far side of the pitch, outside the defence, which is because Arsenal’s defence has narrowed to help out in the middle, where the threat is, and Manchester United could therefore set up and play in a similar way and with similar tactics.
We have analysed the strengths and weaknesses of both sides in attack and defence, but now we will look at where both sides will be more dominant in the game.
The first thing to mention is that Arsenal have higher values in most of the statistics, but they are lower in crossing accuracy and counterattacks that lead to shots. The crossing is likely to be because they attack centrally a lot of the time, and also because they keep their opponents trapped in their own half, increasing the chances of crosses being cleared by defenders. The low percentage of counterattacks that lead to shots is likely to be because, whenever they look to clear the ball, they never get it far enough and give it back to their opponents, as we have already seen in this analysis.
However, perhaps the most important thing to look at is expected goals (xG), which Arsenal have a higher value for, and goals conceded, which Arsenal have a lower value for. Given that we have already seen how both sides struggle defensively, it is clear that the game could come down to who scores the most and concedes the least, and Arsenal are better in these statistics. The fact that their passing accuracy is also higher means that they will be able to string more attacks together as well.
It is likely that both sides will start in their favoured 4-3-3 formations.
Manchester United Women will likely play with their front three of Christen Press, Alessia Russo and Tobin Heath, who have all made very good starts to their careers in the WSL. However, the main question for Casey Stoney will be whether she plays winger Leah Galton at left-back, as she did against Tottenham Hotspur Women. This would then give Manchester United more pace, as Galton would be able to get up the pitch and support the attacks, but it could also potentially leave them open at the back, which, as we have seen, could be costly for them.
Arsenal Women, meanwhile, have been struggling with injuries since the start of the season, with captain Kim Little, Jordan Nobbs, Steph Catley, Lisa Evans, Jen Beattie and Jill Roord all having issues over the last month or so. It is unknown yet as to how many of these will be available for this game, if any, but Joe Montemurro will put out as strong a team as he can.
In conclusion, we have seen in this tactical preview how both sides have strong attacks, but weaknesses in defence, and both sides also have the capability to exploit each other’s weaknesses. The statistics have shown how Arsenal Women look to be in better shape in terms of scoring goals and not conceding as many, but it could come down to who is in better form on the day. Arsenal, who have so far won every single game, will be expected to win, but Manchester United Women will definitely push them all the way.