In the FA Women’s Super League on Sunday, January 5, 2020, Manchester United Women played hosts to Bristol City Women at the Leigh Sports Village Stadium. United come into the game with a four-game home unbeaten streak. They sit in the top four of the league and look to continue to the form that they left off in 2019. Bristol is on the opposite side of this battle and continued to look for the first win of their season. Bristol’s coach Tanya Oxtoby points to injuries and the unavailability of players as to the reasons for the poor results as of late. Both teams look to start the new year off on the front foot.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at how each team’s tactics matched up and provide an analysis of how each team progressed through the game in a 0-1 match where Bristol upset Manchester United.
United played with a 4-3-3. In this formation, the midfield of Katie Zelem, Hayley Ladd and Leah Galton had to really control the rhythm of the game. United looked to spread the City defensive line with the play of Jackie Groenen and Kristy Hanson while Lauren James pushed forward to find space in behind the backline. The back four of United, Martha Harris, Millie Turner, Abbie McManus, and Amy Turner looked to hold a high line while being wary of the counter-attacking ability of the visiting team.
City played a very counter-attacking lineup in the 4-1-4-1. They looked to overload the midfield and push the ball high up the pitch to Ebony Salmon in order for her to use her pace against United’s back four. The five in City’s midfield played right in front of the backline. They moved to mark United’s midfield and take up space in the channels. This helped to reduce the options for United’s play and keep them in front of the City defence.
City’s defensive wall
Bristol City came prepared for this match. You can see from the start of the game that City would stay compact on defence and look to counter-attack. They started their pressuring line in the Middle third of the field. City rarely puts pressure on United backs in United’s defensive third. They conceded their backs bringing the ball out instead of risking stretching the team and putting space in between their own defensive lines. City looked to put numbers around and behind the ball in order to slow down the United Midfield. You can see below that City are man tight on United and pulling their outside midfielders in to limit United playing through the middle of the field.
One of City’s qualities in the game was the work rate that the midfield group showed. The ability to close down players while forcing them to playback or into defensive support was what stunted United’s attacks. Each United midfielder always found pressure being applied when showing for the ball or moving into space to receive the ball. The City players were committed to being within a yard or two of their midfield counterparts. This made it easier for the supporting City players to win the ball off of a bad touch or intercept the pass due to the limited options given by the City lines.
The buildup play for City was poor and resulted in a counter-attacking style of game. Many times City would win the ball due to the numerical overloads but could not play out of the small compact spaces. They would immediately push it wide or back and then long. The long passes were not into City players running into space, but merely into space hoping for the run. The City players did not give themselves enough time to move forward before trying to connect with a long pass. This would often isolate City players in the attack. This played to United’s advantage and won the ball back before any real danger could occur as seen below.
United’s midfield engine
United showed good possession through controlled tempo and quality of passes. Ladd kept control of the game playing the defensive midfielder for United. She was always available to her teammates with the ball. She found more space during the second half due to United pushing Zelem in a more advanced position up the field to support the attack. With City covering man for man in the middle, this made her defensive counter park drop deeper into the City half. Ladd did not have a lot more time on the ball but it did allow more space to work in. In the images below you can see how her running drags her defenders away from space for her teammates to receive the ball.
Another tactical move that manager Casey Jean Stoney made at half time was to move United’s two defensive backs further up the field. This again spread the defensive shape of City in order to gain more room in the middle and channels for her attacking players to work in. As the forwards engaged the backs this left her defensive backs free to move up the field and deliver crosses from behind the City backline.
United moved the ball very well but would have really opened up City’s defence if they were able to switch the ball more. City was staying very compact and putting numbers around the ball, but United did not take full advantage of this. When United was able to switch the ball with pace through the midfield they were able to bypass City’s midfield and access the backline with numbers. This did not happen often, but when it did United would register a shot or a dangerous ball into City’s box. Below a switch by United allowed a diagonal run behind the defence and resulted in a shot on goal.
The difference-maker for both sides
United did have its opportunities but would have surely taken the three points if they would have had better running in the box and quality service. City would drop four or five into their own six-yard box leaving space around the penalty spot to top of the 18 free. A late run from the backside or a midfielder arriving late would have earned a couple of goals during the second half alone.
City only registered one shot during the game and it was the only one that they needed to take the three points from United. The next three images show the attacking sequence. The ball was put forward from a goal kick and City won the second effort. As the ball popped out to the wing it was put forward into the channel and Salmon was isolated against one of the centre-halves. United’s only defensive breakdown of the game cost them. Instead of the other centre-half stepping across to provide cover she stayed central. The right-back did not recover inside of the play, but instead followed the ball down the line and put her chasing the play. The City movement would not have progressed if the pressing centre-half would have not allowed Salmon to turn and face her up. If any of these things would have taken place United would have not conceded the goal.
Bristol City had the right tactics and executed very well. They came out with the three points, but to survive the league will need to continue to do more. United played well and controlled the game. This is why they sit inside the top four but will need to be able to have better quality in the attacking third of the field to challenge for that top spot.