“Fight and intelligence”: Why Man Utd will miss Dutch star Jackie Groenen if she departs this summer – scout report
Manchester United Women have been one of the WSL’s overachievers since their promotion back in 2019, which sounds strange given the name that they play under. However, the brutal fact is that they don’t enjoy the same amount of support that some of their league rivals receive from their clubs, meaning that transfers can be a problem and their dream of reaching the WSL’s top three and earning a place in the Champions League is yet to be realised.
Despite these issues though, they have some excellent individual players in the team who work hard to gain results, and one who perhaps doesn’t receive the credit that she deserves is Netherlands international Jackie Groenen. Since joining the club from Eintracht Frankfurt Frauen in 2019, the midfielder has established herself as an irreplaceable member of the team, contributing to defensive and attacking situations and playing a vital role in both Casey Stoney’s and current head coach Marc Skinner’s tactics.
As a result of her excellent performances and Manchester United’s inability to break into the Champions League so far, Groenen has been attracting attention from teams around Europe this summer, most notably Italian champions Juventus Femmenile. This tactical analysis will therefore break down her game in more detail, showing what she brings on the pitch and why she has become such a coveted asset for her current side.
When looking at her positioning during games, Jackie Groenen tends to play in a mainly holding midfield role, sitting in front of the back four and offering them much-needed protection whilst also keeping plenty of the pitch ahead of her.
She often plays alongside a teammate in this role, mainly next to captain Katie Zelem who is in the yellow circle here, which means that they cover more ground and form a strong second line of defence when needed. This allows Manchester United to dictate play in their own half of the field, with Groenen particularly important at disrupting attacks and forcing opponents to reangle their forward movements. In this example, Manchester City Women’s Scotland midfielder Caroline Weir was looking to find a way into Manchester United’s goal area, but her sole option now is to move the ball out towards the wings.
In most cases, this would give Manchester United the advantage, as it is always easier to defend crosses than balls coming from central areas. However, Manchester City are perhaps the exception to that rule, with Weir’s pass ending up at the feet of England international Lauren Hemp, who was arguably the best winger last season at cutting inside and creating goalscoring opportunities from wide areas. On this occasion, Hemp’s shot went narrowly wide, but the point still stands that Groenen plays an essential role in diverting opposing attacks and making her team hard to beat.
However, Groenen is not only a defensive player and is just as capable of moving up the field and pressing players in their half too. In this situation, Tottenham Hotspur Women have the ball in their own goal area with Maéva Clemaron trying to turn and clear her lines, but Groenen has got tight to her and prevented this from happening.
What is important to note here is that the Manchester United player doesn’t look to tackle her opponent, but instead simply wants to position herself in Clemaron’s eye-line and limit what she can do, and this is shown by the fact that the Dutch international only made 2.84 interceptions per game last season on average. As a result, Clemaron is forced to pass outside Groenen and send the ball out of play, giving Manchester United possession in a potentially dangerous area of the pitch.
Therefore, again, Groenen has worked hard to limit her opponents’ options and forced them to play the ball into an area where her team have an advantage, showing her importance in these situations.
Another major aspect of Jackie Groenen’s game is her ability to see spaces around the pitch, both when defending and attacking, and this again demonstrates the adaptability that has made her such a focal point in the central third for Manchester United over the last three years.
Reading Women have found their way into Manchester United’s third here and are now looking for a way to convert this attack into a shot on goal. Canada forward Deanne Rose was the star player at the Madejski Stadium last season and proved difficult to stop, with her ability to work with teammates critical to Reading’s recovery after a tricky start. Here, she has passed to fellow forward Emma Harries before moving to receive the return pass, and this creates a problem for Marc Skinner’s side because she has a clear route to goal.
However, it is a problem that Groenen has already noticed, with her pace meaning that she can get back here and block Rose’s attempt to pull the ball back into the middle. This shows how the Netherlands international sees dangerous situations and works hard for her teammates, again offering defensive support when a space opens up, and this is something else that has often gone unnoticed.
The theme of Groenen adjusting her position to aid her teammates also comes into play when Manchester United are on the front foot, with this situation showing the Dutch star ahead of the ball and looking to create a passing option in Arsenal Women’s third. The key here is that Arsenal’s defensive line is very narrowly structured, meaning that there are opportunities to play the ball on either side of them and build an attack from there.
With this in mind, Groenen moves towards the sideline and gives herself space to receive the ball away from those defenders, giving herself more time to control it before turning to look for the next best player to transfer it to.
The other positive that comes from this positional adjustment is that her teammate can play a straighter pass along the ground, avoiding the significant threat posed by Arsenal striker Vivianne Miedema, Groenen’s international teammate, who has come to close the ball down. Taking Miedema out of the game is always a good idea when facing Jonas Eidevall’s side, and it again shows how Groenen’s positioning and spatial awareness are a huge benefit to her team.
Normally, Groenen stays out of Manchester United’s attacking play, with her not finding the back of the net for her club last season and assisting just one goal (which came in their Continental Cup match against Chelsea Women back in February). Instead, she takes up a deeper position and waits for the ball to come her way, helping to balance Manchester United’s attack out and give the team a way of recycling the ball if it is cleared by an opposing player.
There are also downsides to Groenen playing deeper than her teammates, with one being that Manchester United at times overload the final third when moving up the pitch, leading to teammates treading on each other’s toes in their attempts to control the ball. That is what happens here, with defender Hannah Blundell’s shot deflecting off Groenen and going out of play for a goal kick, so there is potential for poor communication to lead to players getting in each other’s way. Nevertheless, the fact that the Netherlands international gets into these areas in the first place and constantly tries to support her team’s attacks again demonstrates what she brings during matches.
With this scout report so far focusing on Jackie Groenen’s ability to limit options and see spaces around the pitch, it would be forgivable to assume that she is not a player who is comfortable on the ball. However, this is not the case, with the midfielder showing good composure in possession and constantly searching for ways to build attacks.
It has previously been stated in this analysis that Groenen stays back when her team are out of possession, positioning herself in front of the defensive line alongside Zelem and making it difficult for opponents to break them down. This means that she does at times regain the ball in tight areas, with little time to plan her next move. Here, against Leicester City Women, she is close to the far side of the pitch and has plenty of opponents around her, but remains calm and keeps her head up, looking for the best option to move the ball to. In this scenario, she spots a teammate further up the pitch who has space to control the ball and keep the attack alive, with her pass shown by the red arrow.
It is worth noting that her passing accuracy last season was an impressive 81.4%, which demonstrates again how her calm and collected approach with the ball is key to helping Manchester United maintain their momentum around the pitch. Therefore, this is another reason that she will be a major loss if she does opt to leave this summer.
It is the same story when the ball is in more open areas too, with this situation showing Groenen taking the ball into Birmingham City Women’s half of the pitch. The key thing here is that she is the one dribbling the ball forwards, because that adds another dimension to her game and shows that, when she does win the ball in her own half either through a tackle or an interception, she doesn’t only look to pass the ball into a teammate.
In this game, Birmingham sat back as often as possible and tried to keep all eleven players behind the ball, forcing Manchester United to be patient and wait for the right opportunity. Now, with their opponents more spread out, Groenen has seen a gap through which she moves the ball into, setting up winger Leah Galton to shoot at goal. Groenen still needs to weight her pass correctly in order for Manchester United to take full advantage of this opportunity, but the fact that she had such a high passing accuracy proves that this was not something that the Dutch international had much of a problem with.
On this occasion, the chance didn’t result in a goal, but the intent was there and Groenen once again had a central role in building the play.
When Groenen gets into offensive areas of the pitch, her passing provides Manchester United with multiple options in possession, allowing them to break teams down in different ways. As mentioned, Birmingham sat back in this game and forced a lot of sideways passes, but Groenen’s presence meant that there was always an option to play forwards, as demonstrated by her 68.1% accuracy for passes into the final third. Here, she has Blundell and England star Ella Toone on either side of her, whilst three Birmingham players are looking to prevent her progress into their third.
When she has teammates in her vicinity, Groenen has been known to link up with them and try to play through opponents, exploiting any gaps that she locates in their ranks. Her short pass into Toone here is followed by a run into the space between Jade Pennock, Harriett Scott and Eleanor Ryan-Doyle, as shown by the white arrow, looking for the return pass, but Toone doesn’t see it and instead sends the ball across the pitch to Zelem, continuing to build the attack. However, Groenen’s intent was again clear to see and that’s what is important.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at Manchester United and Netherlands midfielder Jackie Groenen, breaking down how she contributes to her team’s play in defensive and attacking situations. Whilst analysing these different aspects of her play, it has become increasingly evident that she does a lot of the unseen work which allows other players to flourish, and the fact that Norway international Vilde Bøe Risa spent much of last season in a more attacking role, despite signing last summer as a central or defensive player, is largely because of Groenen’s strength and control further back.
With the team once again missing out on European football next season, it would not be a surprise if another club did come calling for the Dutch international’s services. The worry for Manchester United is that she is not an easily replaceable player, with her “fight and intelligence” making her adaptable and capable of playing in different styles and systems. It will be interesting to see if they do bring another player in to fill the same role as the summer goes on and whether that is to compliment or to replace her.