Beginning this campaign, expectations for Manchester City Women were high. A side that lost the league title to rivals Arsenal Women the season prior, they wasted no time in trying to right these wrongs for this term. Big names like Ellen White and Aoife Mannion were brought in over the summer to improve upon the side to give them the best chance to push Arsenal all the way.
Nick Cushing’s side are well-positioned to achieve this goal as we enter the second half of the season. They sit in second place, three points behind leaders Arsenal, albeit with Chelsea Women one point behind them having a game in hand. The next two match weeks will go a long way in deciding where the title ends up at the end of this season. On January 19th, Chelsea travel to play Arsenal. Next, on February 2nd, Arsenal make the trip up to Manchester, as City look to avenge their 1-0 loss to their rivals earlier this campaign.
Manchester City Women have had an up and down campaign. An early exit in the Champions League and losses to both of the other two title contenders will have been massive blows, but they remain in the title race. A surprise came in the past week in the form of the clubs announcement that Cushing would be leaving the side at the beginning of February. He leaves after six and a half seasons with the squad, and his departure will leave a massive gap. However, he has laid a foundation to be built upon. His recent alteration to the side’s tactics has transformed a side that was faltering for much of the first half of the season into a side that is scoring at will in recent weeks.
This tactical analysis scout report will look at the tactics Cushing has implemented to his side. City have adapted due to circumstances such as injuries in a way that has offered a different dynamic. This analysis will look at these tactical alterations.
Manchester City Women’s start to the season
Manchester City Women began the season with a defined structure they used every week. Cushing has often mentioned the influence of Pep Guardiola on his philosophy and tactical approach. This is very evident in the City side we have seen. Below you can see a general set-up from Cushing’s side in the first half of this season. In possession, Mannion was tasked with dropping into a deeper position to give the side more defensive protection. With this, Demi Stokes was given the freedom to move up and down the left side and have an influence in the attack. This is a very similar approach to that of the men’s side, where we see Guardiola deploy Kyle Walker as a deeper defender on the right and allow Benjamin Mendy more freedom on the left.
In midfield, Keira Walsh was given the role of a single pivot in connection the defensive structure to the personnel higher up the pitch. Carolina Weir and Jill Scott were given the freedom to move forward into the areas behind and between the attacking trio. Up here the rolls differed depending on the situation. The right-winger, normally Tessa Wullaert, often played close to the touchline due to the Mannion’s central positioning from right-back, but the left-wing, often Lauren Hemp, worked with Stokes in moving between the roles of hugging the touchline and moving centrally into the halfspace.
In the images below we can see a couple examples of City’s general attacking shape at the beginning of this campaign. In this first-ever Manchester Derby, the Citizens recorded a season-low .68 xG. In this first image, you can see a common tactic City deployed as they attempted to get their wingers in isolation situations with opposition full-backs. While this has been achieved, there are issues with the structure of the side around the player in possession. Behind her, the full-back is too far back to offer any support from the wide area. This allows the United defender to focus solely on having to defend the attacker in front of her, rather than being forced into deciding whether to block off the pass out wide or move inside. Additionally, the other two attackers are not in positions where they can look to receive a pass from the player in possession. While the United defender has been isolated, the City attacker is isolated as well, making the defensive task easier than it should be.
Another example can be seen below of City in possession during this match. As Mannion works play forward down the right side, she is left with very few options as she is being closed down by her marker. Ahead of her, you can see the numbers United have back in defence to deal with City’s attack. In this situation, the United left-back reads the intended pass into the winger’s feet and intercepts it easily.
Cushing’s tactical development
A serious alteration in tactics was forced due to injury. In the first leg of City’s round of 16 match with Atletico Madrid, Mannion suffered an injury to her anterior cruciate ligament that will leave her sidelined until the summer. With a trip to London to play Arsenal Women the next weekend, Fidalgo was brought into the side to provide temporary cover. The summer signing would not keep her place long, however, as Cushing had another idea in mind.
A surprising idea came from this unfortunate situation in the form of Janine Beckie taking the roll as right-back in City’s side. The natural striker has thrived in this role and given her side a different dynamic, both in attack and defence. It is similar to Weir’s transition from a forward into a deeper midfielder.
This addition has brought changes throughout the entire side in how they operate. Below you can see the general set-up City have used since Beckie’s inclusion in this position. It has involved multiple tactical alterations that we will look at more in-depth in the sections to come. There have been two primary changes in the side. City’s build-up and counter-pressing structures have changed to give the fullbacks, specifically Beckie, the freedom to push forward. On the attacking side, the Canadian’s ability going forward has allowed City’s attacking players to put more focus into overloading other areas of the pitch.
Statistically, City have improved upon their output with these alterations. Before Beckie was used at right-back, Cushing’s side had an expected goals (xG) of 1.83 and an expected goals allowed (xGA) of .57. Since this change, their xG has risen substantially to 2.83. City’s xGA has also risen up to .61. These stats, via Wyscout, show that while the Manchester side has been slightly more susceptible to conceding, they have been even more dangerous going forward. We will take a look at the tactics behind this newfound attacking success.
Build-up and counter-pressing structure
Earlier, we discussed City’s initial build-up structure and counter-pressing scheme. This involved the right-back staying back to give more cover to the centre-halves. With Beckie’s addition in this role, the dynamics have changed. During the build-up, City have looked much more flexible with how they go about moving forward. Instead of having one concrete set-up, Cushing has added multiple different dynamics to this part of the match that has allowed City to keep their opposition guessing in this area.
One look we have seen is a mirrored image of their set-up at the beginning of the season. Beckie will look to push forward, and Stokes takes a more central and deeper positon to give cover for this. While the England international is rather unfamiliar with this role, she has filled in exceptionally well.
A set-up we have seen the majority of, however, has been centred around the midfield. Cushing has not wanted to limit the attacking production from the left side, so he has created a new structure to allow both sides to look to move forward. To do this, Weir has taken up a much deeper position. Oftentimes, as you can see below, she will take up a position in a double pivot alongside Walsh. This gives both fullbacks the freedom to look to move forward in positons that they can combine with teammates higher up the pitch.
These tactics give City an almost square-like shape in the initial build-up and provides various passing lines to utilise as they move up the pitch. The two of Walsh and Weir are extremely mobile as they look for room to receive possession and either combine with one another or turn and move forward themselves.
One tactic we have seen extensively since this alteration is long balls through and over the opposition’s press and into the strikers. Steph Houghton and Gemma Bonner both possess brilliant passing abilities that make either a threat when they are given too much time in possession. This offers tons of options for Cushing’s side when building out from the back.
Above you can see an example of a couple of the concepts we mentioned above. In this match against Everton, Stokes takes up a deeper position with the centre-halves than her counterpart on the right in possession. In the middle of the pitch, you can see the double pivot of Walsh and Weir offering the support from deep. Beckie has plenty of time and space with the ball at her feet and uses it to find her teammate ahead of her.
Stanway drops in to receive the pass, before dropping it into Walsh who Everton Women have left completely unmarked. Bremer acknowledges the space in behind the defensive line due to Stanway’s drop into the midfield area and bursts forward into the space. Walsh is able to make a first-time pass through the Everton defensive lines and City are able to generate a chance at goal.
In the attacking half of the pitch, the introduction of Beckie has given Cushing the opportunity to set his side up much differently than their normal orientation. One idea to note from earlier on in the season came due to the suspension of Walsh for two league matches and one cup match. Instead of looking for a like replacement for the England international, Cushing changed the team formation into a 4-4-2. Weir and Scott were tasked with playing in deeper positions, and a second striker was brought in to make up for the loss of the two midfielders higher up the pitch. While this did not generate much success, it showed the idea of Cushing’s interest in a two-striker set-up.
Beckie’s inclusion in the side has given Cushing the opportunity to revisit this idea. In most matches, Wullaert has kept her place in the side as a right-winger. However, with Beckie being given the whole of the right side to push forward, Wullaert has seen her role involving drifting inside close to White, or even onto the left side to combine with Hemp. In the past two matches, Cushing has taken this one step further, and starter Pauline Bremer. The German lined up alongside White in the match against Tottenham Hotspur Women and with Georgia Stanway as City host Everton this past weekend. In these matches, City were fully committed to playing with two strikers and leaving Beckie to carry the load on the right side.
This attacking shape, as you can see above, has been massively effective. Against Spurs, City had an xG of 3.8. Hemp often came inside to create a dangerous attacking trident alongside the two up top that the opposition was unable to control. Above you can see City’s pass map from this match. This emphasises the build-up structure we discussed earlier, as Beckie (11) is given license to roam forward. You can see the central positioning of both White (18) and Bremer (9) to overload the Spurs centre-halves.
Another tactic we have yet to discuss is the role of Scott (8). With Weir’s deeper positioning in the centre of midfield, Scott has been given more freedom to move forward up the pitch. The duties she does take on have to do with linking up with Beckie in wide areas. Because of the absence of a right-winger, Scott has often taken a position closer to this area of the pitch, as you can see above. This provides a link between Beckie and the side, and also allows City to have the potential to combine quickly in this area.
In this example, you are able to see the link of play between Scott and Beckie on this right side of the pitch. The attack begins earlier from an interception from the right-back before she takes possession forward herself. Dragging the marker backwards, she drops a pass back into Scott, before continuing her run up the pitch. Walsh comes from a deeper position to offer support and receives possession before playing a quick pass out wide in Beckie once more, who is now occupying a position similar to one a right-winger would hold.
The Canadian then picks out a pass down the channel into White, who makes a run into the halfspace from her normal central position. She then looks into the middle and finds a cross into Bremer for the side’s opening goal.
Below you are able to see another example of Beckie’s dynamic position she has taken. Possession has quickly been shifted from the left side of the pitch into Houghton in the heart of defence before this image. The City captain then picks out Beckie who has drifted into a right-wing position to take advantage of the space Brighton & Hove Albion Women have left vacant. This area is so often exploited by the right-back because sides will switch off in this position due to the lack of a right-winger occupying this space. Defenders drift inwards to help deal with the overloads City are trying to create in the middle of the pitch. Beckie then produces a brilliant cross into the feet of White, who finishes with ease behind the defensive line.
Looking forward, all eyes will be on how Manchester City Women manage to manoeuvre the remainder of the FAWSL campaign without Cushing. The manager has been massive in leading the side to where they are today and will be a massive miss. That being said, it is unlikely we will see anyone come in with monumentally different ideas that they attempt to implement down the stretch of this season. Rather, we will likely see Cushing’s successor continue in this vein we have witnessed in recent weeks that has led the side to look better than any other time this season. These tactics have come as a breath of fresh air following a rather stale beginning to their title charge. Now, City have reason to be confident heading into their crucial match against Arsenal Women. Being at home, they will likely try to implement their attacking style on the visitors much more than they did in the reverse fixture. If they are able to claim a victory in this match, the title will be very much in their hands.