The opening set of fixtures in the FA Women’s Super League saw the league’s first-ever Manchester derby. Manchester City hosted Manchester United in front of a league-record crowd to kick off the new campaign. City were looking to grab a win to start their quest to dethrone Arsenal as champions. Newly-promoted United, on the other hand, were aiming to start their journey in the top flight with an upset.
Manchester City (4-4-1-1): Ellie Roebuck – Aoife Mannion, Stephanie Houghton, Gemma Bonner, Demi Stokes – Tessa Wullaert, Jill Scott, Keira Walsh, Caroline Weir – Georgia Stanway – Janine Beckie
Nick Cushing sent out the home side in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Aoife Mannion and Demi Stokes would be the fullbacks flanking the central-defensive pair of Stephanie Houghton and Gemma Bonner. In the midfield double-pivot was Jill Scott and Keira Walsh. Tessa Wullaert and Caroline Weir would provide the width while Georgia Stanway would support lone striker Janine Beckie. Ellie Roebuck was in goal.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Mary Alexandra Earps – Hayley Ladd, Abbie McManus, Millie Turner, Lotta Ökvist, Jackie Groenen, Katie Zelem, Ella Toone – Jessica Sigsworth, Jane Ross, Leah Galton
Their goalkeeper Mary Alexandra Earps would be protected by a backline of four. Abbie McManus and Millie Turner were at the heart of the defence. Lotta Ökvist and Hayley Ladd would be the fullbacks. Katie Zelem would take up the deep midfield role with Ella Toone and Jackie Groenen flanking her in midfield. Jane Ross would be the central striker with the wingers in support being Leah Galton and Jessica Sigsworth.
United in possession
When United were building up, they would have the fullbacks push up. Zelem would then drop to help the centre-backs during the build-up. City would defend high out of a 4-4-1-1. Beckie would apply slight pressure to Earps and centre-backs. Stanway would then mark United’s deepest midfielder, which was Zelem most times. City would then press to try to direct the ball to a United fullback.
At times, one of the City double-pivot would usually jump out of midfield to press the centre-back in possession. This forced them to play to the fullback or back to their goalkeeper. Whenever the ball was played to the fullback, City would press aggressively. They forced many long balls but this didn’t bother United as the long ball was seemingly part of their gameplan already. They played a multitude of these and often into overloaded areas where they could win the second ball.
United success out wide
The visitors found their success going forward almost exclusively from the wide areas. United accessed these areas either through the aforementioned long balls, balls in behind or through the fullbacks. The fullbacks would often play vertical balls directly to their winger. The winger would then have multiple passing options. The ball back to the fullback, the players in midfield, supporting player in the half-space or runs in behind from the more central players.
And since City had a high line, the ball in behind was available. All United needed was for a player to play the right ball while under pressure. There was about a fifteen-minute period when United managed to send in many threatening crosses. They were unfortunate not to grab the opening goal, drawing an excellent save from Roebuck and a few last-ditch blocks from the City defenders.
City on the ball
City would build up in a similar fashion to their opponents. They would have both fullbacks push up high and wide to stretch the United defensive shape. Then usually one of the double-pivot would drop to help Houghton, Bonner and Roebuck with playing it out. The other would join Stanway in searching for vertical passing lanes to receive the ball further forward.
United would also press but more out of a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape. They would apply pressure if the ball was received centrally, encouraging to City to play it to their fullbacks. Similarly to City, United would press the fullbacks more aggressively but City were better at creating passing options behind the press.
Therefore they didn’t resort to going long. Pressing City was made an even more difficult task for United as Roebuck provided another option as she is comfortable in possession. While pressing, gaps can begin to appear in a team’s defensive shape. And a result of United ineffective press was that space in between the lines could be exploited by City.
City generally struggled to create chances despite playing exploiting United’s lack of compactness. They looked threatening when they would overload the wide areas. They managed to create multiple two-vs-one and even three-vs-one situations. And got the ball there in various ways. They would either use combinations with central players or the fullbacks.
And although they may have been able to get behind the United midfield line they couldn’t create clear-cut chances with the number of bodies in and around their box.
City in the second half
In the second half, City found more joy in the final third as they started to find players in between the United lines. They made much better use of the half-spaces, consistently finding players in these areas. It was usually the wingers or Stanway who would occupy these areas to receive the ball. The City defenders and midfielders then began to play more progressive and penetrative passes between the lines.
And with United press not being particularly effective, these players would often find the time to play such passes. Houghton, in particular, was consistent in her attempts to find her teammates in these areas. And since they would overload out wide, players in the half-spaces had many options. They could lay it off for one of their midfielders centrally or combine with the advanced fullbacks. If it was Stanway she would also have the winger to play with.
The decisive moment in the game also occurred in the half-space area but more through individual brilliance than a pattern of play. A poor United clearance was collected by Weir in the half-space and she struck the ball brilliantly into the top corner, giving Earps no chance. Once City had the lead, they proceeded to dominate possession and limited United to very little going forward.
The hosts finished the game having had 62% of the ball. United’s main avenue in attack became the counter and City stifled most of those easily. The one good opportunity in the closing stages, came when United managed to beat the City press with a long ball and Groenen outwitting Bonner to go through on goal. This led to Groenen eventually hitting the post while blocking a clearance from a Mannion. Other than this moment, City were very much in control and out of danger.
In the end, the narrow City win was a fair reflection of the game. City monopolised possession and will feel that the gulf in quality showed throughout the contest. Especially when looking at the quality of the goal that they scored. And although they lost the game, United certainly made a good account of themselves.
They will look back and wonder how they didn’t manage to grab a goal from their brief spells of success in the final third. Had they grabbed the lead then, the upset would’ve been on the cards. Next up for City is an away trip to Reading, a side who finished midtable last season. While United have the tough task of hosting defending champions Arsenal in their next fixture.
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