Manchester United Women: Analysing their new attackers – scout report
Manchester United Women have had a quiet but definite impact on the WSL, following their promotion to the top flight back in 2019. Being one of the four best teams in the league, along with Arsenal Women, Chelsea Women and Manchester City Women, they attract some big names to the club. Two players who have joined the team are Tobin Heath and Alessia Russo. Heath is an experienced striker and World Cup winner with the United States, whereas Russo is a promising English 21-year-old who has spent the last years in the US college game, and can play as a midfielder or a striker.
This tactical analysis will look at both players’ individual games, as well as how they can fit into Manchester United’s tactics this season. The analysis will also look at Heath’s statistics compared to Manchester United’s (there are no statistics available for Russo), to look in even more detail what she can bring to the team.
The scout report will start by looking at what Alessia Russo can add to Manchester United Women’s attack. Given that she has been in the college game, there isn’t much footage of her playing, but we will look at her performance in England’s game against Spain in the SheBelieves Cup last year. From this, we can make some interesting observations about her general play.
Firstly, Russo is a player with plenty of pace, and this means that she can move from one half of the pitch to the other relatively quickly. We can see this in the image above, with England in possession of the ball on the nearside of the pitch, and Russo running to offer the passing option in the space, as the red arrow shows. Therefore, this is useful for her team, because it means that the attack is spread out across the pitch, covering more ground. This in turn means that the defenders have to stretch across the pitch too, and can’t surround the ball, leaving the player in possession with a little more space and time on the ball than they might have ordinarily had.
The other thing that Russo offers to her team is that she can close players down quickly, which she does here. The ball has become stuck, with England defending with two lines in front of their goal, and Russo runs forward to force her Spanish opponent to make a decision quickly. Therefore, we can see how this is something that Manchester United will value this season, with Russo able to run forwards and happy to get tight to opponents, meaning that teams will have to be quicker on the ball against Manchester United this season.
Spain eventually give the ball away in this situation, and England take the ball up the other end of the pitch, as you can see in the next image.
Here, Lyon forward Nikita Parris, in the yellow circle, has the ball, but she can’t get it into the box with any ease, due to Spain’s organised defensive line. However, Russo has made the run forwards, using the pace that we have already mentioned, and is now in the red circle. This means that Parris now has a passing option outside the box. Therefore, we can see how Russo can be useful to her team. Her versatility, operating as either a midfielder or a striker means that she can play anywhere on the pitch, and is as able as protecting her defence as she is at getting forward and supporting the attack.
From these three images, we have a good idea of what Alessia Russo can bring to the team this season; pace and an ability to close down the ball and force opponents into making errors. She did score 28 goals in her 57 appearances in the college game over the last three seasons, so there is no doubt that she will bring a goal threat to Manchester United this season.
The more experienced signing that Manchester United Women have made to help their attack is USA international and World Cup winner Tobin Heath. The 32-year-old has spent the last seven years with Portland Thorns in the NWSL, the women’s equivalent of the MLS, and is a player that fans can really get excited about. The qualities that she will bring to Manchester United Women and to the WSL in general are what we will go into now.
The first thing to mention is that she likes to play on the shoulder of the last defender, and this means that she can constantly get in behind the defence, offering a passing option for her team and causing problems for her opponents. The white line shows the position of the Houston Dash defensive line, and you can see how Heath’s run behind ensures that her team always have a target to pass to behind the defence. Without this, the ball would be passed through but intercepted easily, or wouldn’t go through at all.
However, the other thing that we can see in this image is that Heath plays on the wide left of the attack, and this is something that we will build on now.
Here, we can see the Thorns’ attacking structure. They are spread across the pitch, making the Dash defence stretch across to match them, but leaving gaps in between them as a result. Heath is on the far side of the pitch, in possession of the ball, and this shows us how she works with her teammates to force gaps in the opposing defence.
There is something else that comes from her wide positioning though, as we can see in this image. Here, Heath has the ball on the nearside of the pitch, against North Carolina Courage, and she has space ahead of her.
This gives her two options. Firstly, she can dribble forwards, as the red arrow shows, and take a shot at goal. Secondly, she can dribble the ball sideways, getting herself into a more central position, and then can shoot at goal from a better angle.
The second option is the one she takes, because the opposing Courage defender runs across towards her, as the green arrow shows, and Heath therefore moves across to get into the space that the defender’s movement opened up. Her shot eventually goes over the bar, but this just shows how her wide positioning opens up many possibilities both for her and her team.
However, Heath is not just able to play as a wide forward; she can operate centrally too, as we can see in this image, against Houston Dash again. Her teammate in the yellow circle has taken the ball to the goal line, before pulling it back into the box. You can see how there is space open in the middle of the Dash defence, which Heath slots into, meeting the ball, and, as the second green arrow shows, scoring the goal. Therefore, we can see how much of a threat she poses, because she can see where the space is, and ensure that her team don’t waste chances like these. These are crucial qualities to have in a league like the WSL, where teams will punish missed chances from these areas. Therefore, Heath will be a good option for Manchester United Women to have, because she will ensure that they pose a constant threat in the final third.
In this image, we can see another example of Heath playing in a central position. This time, the ball is on the nearside of the pitch, and the Thorns attacker in the yellow circle is looking to cross the ball into the box. Heath, in the red circle, is making the run forwards, behind the Courage defence, aiming to meet the ball in a good shooting position. You can see from Heath’s body angle that she has the ability to turn in different directions quickly, and this means that she can give her team whatever option they need in different situations.
If we look at a final image in this section, we can see another aspect of Heath’s versatility on the pitch. Here, she had pulled back into the midfield, and is looking to help move the ball forwards to the Thorns’ attackers. From these positions, she has the ability to move the ball wherever it needs to go, and this is another thing she will bring to Manchester United Women. This particular example is again against Dash, who had England winger Rachel Daly, currently on loan at West Ham United Women, in their ranks, and so they had plenty of pace, but Heath has the experience to get the ball around them and into good attacking positions, and this is what she will bring to Manchester United.
Improving Manchester United Women’s attack
We have analysed both Alessia Russo and Tobin Heath individually, to see what each can bring to Manchester United Women this season. Now, we will look at Manchester United last season, seeing how they play, and where Russo and Heath can fit in and improve them in this campaign.
In this image, we can see how Manchester United are attacking with a front three against Tottenham Hotspur Women, which will suit both Tobin Heath and Alessia Russo. We saw how Heath can play on the shoulder of the last defender, and on the left of the attack, and both of those can be done in this formation. The only difference is that the Manchester United attacker on the left here is behind the defensive line, meaning that there is no passing option forward for the ball to go to. Therefore, these are the small things that Heath can help with, as she would help Manchester United to get the ball behind the defensive line quicker in these situations. For Russo, she would add the pace in this structure, as we saw her do when running to create passing options in space. It sounds like a really small adjustment to make, but it is the little things that can make all the difference when teams are chasing places at the top of the league.
In both of these images, we can see the same thing happening. Manchester United are in attack, but there are spaces between the two groups of attackers, with open spaces where the ball could go, but can’t because there are no players there.
In the first image, Lauren James, brother of Chelsea defender Reece, has got the ball close to the goal line, and has to shoot at goal. She would have been better passing the ball into the area marked by the yellow circle, but she can’t, because there are no players there. If we look back at our Tobin Heath analysis, we remember that she got into these areas, and scored goals from pullbacks from her teammates. Therefore, this is a clear way that Heath can come in and improve her new team, helping them to convert more chances, which is another thing that could be the difference in their fortunes this season.
The second image shows a similar setup. However, this time, there are two lines of Manchester United attackers, both marked by the red lines. The yellow box marks the space between the two lines, where Chelsea Women’s defenders have taken up positions in that space, splitting Manchester United’s attack. It now becomes very difficult for Manchester United to get the ball into a good position to score from, because one line is too close to the goal, and the second is too far away. Again, this is where Heath can come in and offer the option in the space between, as she did for Portland Thorns last season.
The final image in this section shows us how Alessia Russo can improve Manchester United Women’s attack.
In this image, the front three that we saw at the start of this image is not there. Instead, there are two players, marked by the red line, but when they look to move the ball into the space marked by the yellow box, there are no players there. If we remember, Russo likes to get up and support her team’s attack, especially when the ball is on the other side of the pitch. Therefore, her pace and ability to get into space would help Manchester United here, as she would offer the passing option in the space that they are looking for here.
We will now look at Tobin Heath’s heatmap and statistics from last season, allowing us to see even more clearly how she will help Manchester United Women this season. There are no statistics available for Alessia Russo.
We can see from her heatmap how Heath mainly occupies the left-hand side of the pitch, and tends to play on the left of her team’s attacking structure. This confirms what we have already seen in this analysis, and therefore it is highly likely that this is where manager Casey Stoney will look to play her, offering quality in attack, getting behind the defence, and having the license to cut inside and shoot from central positions too.
If we now look at Heath’s statistics from last season, compared to Manchester United Women’s, we can see that she has lower values in most areas. This is to be expected, given that she is an individual and they are a team. However, what is interesting is that Heath was more accurate with her passing than they were altogether, albeit only just. Therefore, this might be what made Stoney sign her, because if passing is more accurate, even if only slightly, then it might mean one or two more chances are created each game, which might lead to a goal this season, when last season it wouldn’t have. With Heath having not met her expected goals (xG) of 0.34, whereas Manchester United did meet theirs (1.64), it seems likely that she has been signed to add more accuracy and options in the build-up, rather than to be a 10-goal striker for them.
In conclusion, Alessia Russo and Tobin Heath might be at opposite ends of their careers, but both will add important qualities to Manchester United Women this season. We have analysed in detail the individual games of both players, and then looked at how they will fit in to Manchester United’s system, and how they can improve them. Both will likely be involved in goals, and will score some too, and what is clear is that Manchester United Women have made a statement by bringing both to the club this summer, and will now be widely expected to fight at the top of the league again.