Manchester United Women have wasted no time in looking to establish themselves as one of the top sides in England’s top flight. After consecutive 1-0 defeats to juggernauts Arsenal and Manchester City Women, the Red Devils have won three in a row, and sit 4th in the table after five matches. Manager Casey Stone has implemented tactics that produce a very dangerous attacking side that remains sound at the back. In this tactical analysis, we will look at how Manchester United Women have started their first season in the FAWSL.
Stoney experimented with a couple of different lineups to begin the season but looks to be finally settling in on her best eleven. Manchester United Women line up typically in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Young star Lauren James has become the side’s focal point up top and gives them a lot of options as they go forward. Out wide, Leah Galton has been electric down the left side, causing opposition’s defences all sorts of trouble. Kirsty Hanson and Jessica Siggsworth share time on the right-hand side, with both offering specific abilities depending on the match at hand.
In midfield, Hayley Ladd and Katie Zelem form a double pivot that is the centre of everything Stone’s side does. Their defensive protection allows Jackie Groenen to sit in her normal higher-right position and make the line splitting passes she is known for.
In defence, Abbie McManus and Millie Turner occupy the centre-half positions normally. This is a big focus for the side as we will discuss later on. Out wide, Stoney deploys full-backs who most often think about defending first, rather than about the attacking parts of the game full-backs have become attached with. Kirsty Smith occupies the left-back position for United, often providing a link to Galton down this side. However, Stoney is still looking for her best pairing in these positions – against Reading, Martha Harris started in this position. On the other side, Harris and Amy Turner have been sharing time at right-back in the majority of matches.
Manchester United Women normally set up to defend first and look to catch opponents out on the counter. As we will discuss in this scout report, defensive duties are shared by the entire team, with the initial line of defence proving equally important as the last. This analysis will look at the key features of Manchester United Women’s set-up.
Pressing and defensive structure
One of the foundations of the early success Manchester United Women have had is down to their defensive structure. Conceding one goal to each of the top two teams in their opening matches showed this strength early on, with three consecutive clean sheets to follow it up to emphasise this fact.
Stoney sets her side up to defend from the front. United look to set up pressing traps in the centre of the pitch to win possession high and create counter attacks with the opposition out of position. United have the technical ability to dominate matches. However, at their best, they defend as a unit and look to counter at speed. Manchester United Women are averaging 43.95% possession in the league so far, which shows their preferred style in waiting to counter.
In the image above you see a perfect example of this. United’s forward line set up to mark the close passing options, allowing the Tottenham defender to look for a central pass. Groenen anticipates this brilliantly as she shadows the player in the middle. Once the pass is made, she jumps in front to intercept this pass. Zelem is given the freedom to step up into these positions as well. As we will talk about later, Ladd is equally adept at playing in a double-pivot as well as holding a single-pivot in these circumstances.
If pressing traps are beaten in the initial phase, United fall into their deep block. Ladd and Zelem sit directly in front of the back 4. Out wide, the wingers do an excellent job of tracking back and dropping into wide midfielder positions. This creates a 4-5-1 shape for Stoney’s side oftentimes in defence.
United’s strength in defending is through the middle. McManus and Turner at centre-half are very reliable holding the side’s defensive shape. The double-pivot just ahead of them ensures that Stoney’s side will keep a numerical advantage against the opposition’s attacking players for the majority of the match. Because of this, it is very important for the wingers to drop into these shapes. Teams often look for wide areas to beat this United defensive block, which emphasises the need of cover for the full-backs. In Manchester United Women’s match against Tottenham, the only success going forward the London club found was getting their wingers into one-v-one situations with the United full-backs. This is an area for Stoney to continue to improve upon in the coming weeks, as a constant shift of personnel in these roles shows she is still looking for the right combination.
The most crucial part to Manchester United in all phases of their game is the midfield. In Zelem and Ladd, Stoney has two players comfortable in almost all facets of this area. Ahead of them, Groenen provides the attacking threat from any part of the pitch.
Defensively, we discussed in the previous section the importance of the double pivot in taking away space in the middle of the field. This was a massive source of frustration for Arsenal in their early-season fixture. The titleholders grew frustrated throughout the match with their inability to beak United down, and Stoney’s side should have capitalised on this by finishing on of their own chances. Below you are able to see United’s deep block, often taking up a 4-5-1 formation. Notice Zelem and Ladd occupying a deep position in a double pivot right in front of the defence.
Going forward, Stoney gives both Ladd and Zelem the freedom to get forward when the opportunity presents itself. Zelem is often the centre-piece to United’s passing game. As you can see below by a pass map from the United match against Arsenal, she provided the main central connection between United’s attack and defence.
Zelem is normally the one to push forward in possession and on the counter. Her ability at making progressive runs from deep positions give oppositions massive problems in their defensive set-up. She forces an opponent to abandon their shape to press her, with the 23-year-old equally capable of finding a pass to get by her marker as she is at dribbling past them.
Ladd is essential in keeping the balance of the side, primarily defensively. She has shown her versatility during the early stages of this season. She is able to occupy a single pivot role as Zelem gets forward, and filled in at right-back in United’s first match against Manchester City Women. Her comfort in transitioning throughout matches from a right defensive midfielder to a lone role while continuing to maintain a constant hold of all of her defensive duties is imperative for Stoney’s side.
Groenen is Manchester United’s creative genius. The double-pivot behind her gives the Dutch international the freedom to move around the pitch. Her preferred area to operate in is higher on the right side, but she is equally adept at playing down the left.
Her eye for a pass is a huge asset to Manchester United Women. In the image below, you can see United’s deep positioning following a Reading attack as they are 1-0 up with a few minutes to go. Possession falls to United, and once Groenen receives possession, she is calm enough to get her head up and pick out an inch-perfect pass into Siggsworth who puts the finishing touches on their victory.
Attacking the channels
Looking forward, Stoney aims to get her side into opportunities to get down the outside channels. This is achieved using a variety of ways. Each has a similar goal, however: find a pass down the line for one of the wingers to get on the end of, or find their feet in the final third in situations where the full-backs are isolated in one-v-one situations.
Galton is the main focus of this approach. Her speed and ability with the ball at her feet are a constant threat United possess at any stage of a match. Her intelligence allows her to time her runs brilliantly, often into the half-space between the opposition’s centre-half and right-back. Below you can see this idea in the build-up to United’s opener against Reading. Once possession is shifted wide to the full-back, Galton makes a run from the inside positioning she held into this space in the channel. A perfect pass and run leaves the defence with no opportunity to stop the attack.
On the right-hand side, Hanson has established herself in recent weeks. Starting the past three games, she has already scored twice for Stoney’s side. Hanson has the ability to expose these areas like Galton, however, one of her best qualities is her ability to time runs perfectly into the box. Both of her goals have come from late runs into the box following left-sided attacks from United. When Galton receives the pass from Harris in the image above, she looks for a cross into the middle. The initial effort is headed by a Reading defender but not fully cleared. Hanson uses her timing to make a perfect late run into the box to volley this second ball in to give United the lead.
James has worked her way into Stoney’s first-team plans this season by fitting her tactics perfectly. The 18-year-old is clinical in front of goal as every manager wants their number nine to be, but it is often her work away from goal that is so crucial for Manchester United Women.
Off the ball, the youngster leads the press from the front. Her role is normally to block off passing options to the other centre-half, closing down the player in possession in the process to create a turnover or force a clearance. We saw an example of this in the earlier section, where James encourages a central pass, by blocking the passing lane to the other Tottenham centre-back.
Going forward, James suits United’s style brilliantly. In a mix of her strength and ability on the ball, she is able to hold possession up against more experienced players in the opposition’s defence and allow her teammates to get forward. Below you can see James dropping very deep into her own half to receive possession to allow her side the chance to get forward.
From here she has multiple options. She looks to beat the defender herself and break with speed, as she has shown able to do so often. United’s midfield, most notably Groenen and Zelem, will look for positions where they can offer support for a drop pass before looking beyond the defence into James or a winger making a run in the channels. Lastly, James has the passing abilities to find these defence-splitting passes herself. In the example shown above and below, James beats her defender before expanding the play out wide into Galton. As this play progresses, United work well down the left-hand side and force a Tottenham defender into scoring an own-goal from a cross.
Need for improvement
As we look ahead, there is one obvious area Manchester United Women need to improve on – finishing. Both losses to the league’s leaders last season came down to United’s inability to finish quality opportunities they were able to create. And while they have won three games in a row since, the issue is still relevant.
A specific instance comes in the opening minutes of United’s matches. Stoney has put an emphasis on trying to jump out onto the front foot. In both the Reading and Tottenham matches, United found themselves with a high xG opportunity chance. Against Reading, Galton put her effort straight at the goalkeeper, and against Tottenham, as you can see above, James put her effort from a similar position onto the post. In the first 5 matches this season, United have averaged an xG of 1.7. Their average of 1.4 shows the room for improvement in this department. Better finishing could be the difference between finishing in the Champions League spots or just outside.
The full-back positions are another area that requires work. Alex Greenwood’s departure in the summer to Olympique Lyonnais has left a massive gap in the left-back position that Stoney has not been able to fill yet. Her ability to get up and down the pitch is not matched by anyone in the current United side, and this has affected them negatively in an attacking sense. Finding a full-back who has this skillset could give United a different dynamic and create a greater balance in the side. It could also help create a system where the opposite side’s full-back tuck in with the centre-halves which could give Manchester United Women more solidity at the back in their defence against counters when in possession.
Manchester United Women have made a bright start to life in the FAWSL. They head into this international break on the back of three wins in a row in the league, in addition to two Continental Cup victories, one against rivals Manchester City Women. Up next is a big test against Chelsea. The league leaders stunned Arsenal Women earlier this season and some tactical alterations to that of last season have them making a serious push for the title.
Stoney will be delighted with her side’s start to the season. As good as they have been, what will please her most is knowing there is still more to come from her young side. Many players, such as James, will continue to improve as this season progresses as Manchester United Women look to make themselves a top contender for the Champions League qualification places.
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