The FAWSL returns after the second international break of the season. Tottenham Hotspur Women and Manchester United Women come into this match with indifferent starts. The two promoted clubs are still finding their feet in the top division. United were given the worst welcome to any club, with opening matches against Manchester City and Arsenal. However, despite losing both, the made a good account of themselves and followed up with an impressive 2-0 win over Liverpool. Spurs lost to London rivals Chelsea on opening day, but have won both games since against Liverpool and West Ham United.
In this tactical analysis, we will take a look at how Manchester United came away with their second win of the season. The Red Devils were wasteful in front of goal, but their tactics were executed perfectly. On the other hand, Spurs set up very poor. They struggled for large portions of the match and were put out of their misery by an own goal just as they were getting a foothold in the game. This analysis will focus on how United created mistakes from Spurs that led to their victory.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Mary Earps; Kirsty Smith, Millie Turner, Amy Turner, Martha Harris; Katie Zelem, Hayley Ladd; Kirsty Hanson, Jackie Groenen, Leah Galton; Lauren James
Casey Stone continued to rotate her side for this match, as she tries to figure out her best starting eleven. The Manchester side lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This varied throughout the match though, and we often saw a 4-1-2-3 from the visitors.
Millie Turner and Martha Harris were brought into defence for this match. In midfield, Ella Toone was given a rest after starting the first three matches and was replaced by new summer signing Jackie Groenen from FFC Frankfurt. Kirsty Hanson was given the start over Jessica Sigsworth on the right side, with Lauren James and Leah Galton retaining their places at striker and left-wing, respectively.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-3-3): Rebecca Spencer; Ria Percival, Anna Filbey, Hannah Godfrey, Ashleigh Neville; Josie Green, Chloe Peplow, Rachel Furness; Rosella Ayane, Kit Graham, Rianna Dean
Spurs, on the other hand, only made one change to their team that beat West Ham 2-0 before the international break. Ashleigh Neville was given the start over Siri Worm at left-back. Manager Karen Hills looked to keep the momentum going into this match and is largely confident with who her best eleven is for the season to come.
Manchester United Women’s pressing scheme
Heading into this match, United identified the midfield as the area they needed to control to win this match. When Spurs gain possession, they look to play through their midfield. When one of the midfielders receive the ball, the striker and wingers will make runs in behind the defence. This creates space for the midfielders, specifically Rachel Furness, to operate in. The English international is the heartbeat of this Spurs side. She has a great ability to pick a pass but also is a very dangerous threat towards goal. On two occasions in this match, she created enough space for herself twenty or more yards away from goal and hit the woodwork with an effort.
United encouraged possession to be held by the centre-halves and goalkeeper. When one of these players were on the ball, the Red Devils set up their press. The wingers pressed forward to take away the passing options to the full-backs. Lauren James pressed in an attempt to take away the backwards options while encouraging the player in possession to look forward.
When the centre-half makes a forward pass, the central midfielders of United jump up.
Above you can see the United press baiting the pass into the central area. When it is made the pass is jumped on quickly. When possession was won back, United looked to break forward with numbers. After some sloppy defending, this move provided United with a much-deserved opening goal.
This tactic was evident throughout the first half specifically. United continued to chase for a second goal and created numerous opportunities to get it. In the second half, an early own goal from Spurs gave United the breathing space they needed, and their press dropped deeper. They became more willing to soak up pressure from the hosts and look to get out on the break at speed when the opportunity presented itself.
Tottenham Women’s difficulty getting forward
When the Tottenham Hotspur Women’s team came to terms with United’s pressing tactics, they were forced to abandon their normal build-up methods and look at different areas. United tried to create numerical advantages in midfield and took this part of the field largely out of the game for the home side. With Zelem and Ladd both playing deep, they covered both of Spurs attacking midfielders, in addition to covering passing lanes into Dean.
As they tried to get back into the game, Spurs were forced to look for two different outlets: out wide or over the top.
United were able to deal with the long passes over the top. With two centre-halves and the double pivot that could adjust as needed, the visitors were able to deal with Rianna Dean up top as the lone striker with relative ease. Below is an example of United’s defensive shape. They maintain compact spacing between the lines, and the defence remains very high. When the Spurs defender decides to pass long, like in this example, United are well-positioned to win the first or second ball and regain possession.
Out wide is where Spurs were able to find any consistent forms of attack. Because of the emphasis, United put on the middle area, Tottenham looked to isolate their wingers with the opposition full-back. Below is an example of an opportunity Spurs created in this area.
In the first image, the Spurs centre-half decides to step forward with possession, as United’s press takes away her passing options. This was one of the only effective ways Spurs were able to bypass the press keeping the ball on the ground. When the centre-half made this move, it forced the United defence to shift and move towards her, which opened up passing lanes further up the pitch. However, the Spurs centre-halves were not confident enough on the ball to do this consistently throughout the match.
With the first line of press beaten, Dean has the time to receive possession and turn forward. Zelem has stepped forward to block off space due to the centre-halves movement, and Ladd has not reacted quick enough. Above you can see the space left open due to this miscommunication. Dean quickly looks wide and finds the winger. They now have a one-on-one opportunity down the left-hand side. The winger beats her fullback but is unable to put in a dangerous cross for one of her teammates.
United look to isolate full-backs
When Manchester United Women were in possession, they looked to find situations for their wingers to attack Spurs’ fullbacks one-on-one. The central midfield players of United constantly found the area between Tottenham’s fullback and centre-half to play a ball into the channel for Hanson or Galton. The latter in particular enjoyed a lot of success getting down the left side.
The spacing between United’s attacking players was key in this tactic. When in possession, the wingers hugged the touchline. This prevented Spurs’ full-backs from keeping a tight defensive line with their centre-halves. James’ out of possession movement was essential to this plan. She sat right in front of the central defenders to force them to stay central and not close this gap United looked to exploit.
In midfield, Groenen was joined by either Zelem or Ladd higher up the pitch. When in possession, they would look to combine with the other midfielder or James to create an angle to release this pass into the channel.
In the image above you can see Galton in possession following a Spurs attack. She holds up play to allow her teammates to join her higher up the pitch. Zelem shows for a drop pass, and Galton immediately makes a run into the channel.
Zelem acknowledges the opportunity and finds Groenen in the centre of the pitch. The attacking midfielder puts an inch-perfect pass into the gap between the centre-half and fullback.
Coming into this match, Galton averaged 5.48 dribbles per match, with a very impressive 69.1% success rate. She is a constant threat down the left side of the field and United used her as an outlet numerous times.
United were dominant throughout the match. They continuously generated chances over the whole 90 minutes, while remaining defensively disciplined. A huge contributor on both of those sides was Zelem. The 23-year-old was a key part of United’s dynamic midfield. Out of possession, she sat deep alongside Ladd in a double pivot to crowd Spurs out of the centre of the pitch. Below you can see Zelem in a deep position with her side having just won a throw-in.
In attack, however, she was given the freedom to move forward. In the example above, possession is played into her. She takes the acres of space she has moving forward before finding Galton on the left side. Below you are able to see her joining the attack with Galton and Smith. Throughout the match, Zelem was an integral piece in finding opportunities for Galton to attack from wide.
The former Juventus midfielder has been essential to Stones’ side early on in this campaign. The relationship and understanding she has built with Ladd in a short amount of time has given United a great amount of flexibility in their midfield. Each of the two are comfortable playing deep and high up the pitch, making it difficult for oppositions to effectively mark them.
Manchester United Women leave London with the three points up for grabs, and despite some poor finishing, were very much value for the result. Casey Stoney set up her side perfectly on the day, and Spurs had no answer for United’s tactics. Despite only having two wins from four to begin the campaign, United have looked very strong in the opening weeks. Narrow losses to both Manchester City and Arsenal will have been great learning experiences early on for this young squad. They have shown they are learning quickly as well, and this 3-0 win is a perfect example of that.
Tottenham Hotspur Women come back down to Earth after their successive wins leading up to this encounter. They have had promising signs early on, but this convincing defeat will remind Karen Hills and her side there is still much work to be done. United’s tactics of forcing the London side away from their preferred central build-up will be looked at by other clubs. Working on finding a solution for this will be essential for the remainder of the campaign.
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