FAWSL 2019/20: Reading FC Women vs. Manchester United Women – tactical analysis

FAWSL 2020 Reading Vs. Manchester United

This tactical analysis of the Reading FC Women vs. Manchester United Women FAWSL match-up pits two teams competing to move into the upper echelons of the league table. The tactics of both teams’ pressing and build-out structures will be discussed in depth.

Reading FC Women entered the game vs. Manchester United Women in 6th position of the FAWSL with a total of 17 points from their opening 12 games. Manchester United Women entered the match at Adams Park in 4th place with a total of 18 points from the opening 11 games. Both teams were in mixed form having won two and lost two of the previous four FAWSL games.


Reading FC Women began the game in a 4-4-2 (altered second half to 4-1-2-3) formation: Laws, Leine, Bartrip, Potter, Harding, A.James, Allen, Moore, Rowe, Williams, Eikeland.

Manchester United Women opted to start in a 4-1-2-3 (4-3-3) formation: Earps, Harris, A.Turner, M.Turner, Smith, Ladd, Groenen, Zelem, Ross, L.James, Sigsworth.

The opening 15 minutes provided a disjointed start with neither team developing patterns and consistency in play. More consistent, clear and interesting structures developed through the remainder of the game. Reading controlled more possession as the game progressed and were effective in entering the final third during the second half after positional and system alternations, ultimately able to tie the game in the 80th minute, finishing 1-1.

FAWSL 2019/20 Reading Vs. Manchester United tactical analysis tactics
FAWSL 2019/20 Reading Vs. Manchester United lineups

Manchester United pressing structure vs. Reading build-out play

Reading initially attacked from the defensive third with short passing using the split centre-backs of Potter and Bartrip. United’s single central forward, Sigsworth, was responsible for pressing both central defenders with United in a 4-1-4-1 defensive shape. This provided an easy 3 v 1 and initial entry pass from the Reading goalkeeper. Reading consistently played short from Laws into either Potter or Bartrip.

Sigsworth attempted to half the field and force play into wide zones. On situations when she was unable to transition across due Reading changing the angle of attack, Groenen would release from the midfield line of four in order to press the central defender in possession. In the diagram example, Groenen has applied pressure and is attempting to force Potter to pass into the wide channel in which Manchester United could then apply pressure. Both United’s wide forwards would track the wide defenders of Reading with neither Leine nor Harding able to receive behind their counterpart on a regular basis during the first half.

United attempted to limit the ease of which the central defenders could build possession during the second half by pushing L. James infield on the left side with responsibility for both the right central defender and right defender in an asymmetrical pressing structure.

FAWSL 2019/20 Reading Vs. Manchester United tactical analysis tactics
Rotation out of Groenen in order to pressure the central defender of Reading, forcing play into the wide zone

When attacking into and through the middle third during the first half, Reading implemented a double pivot midfield, and this created space for the wide midfielders James and here in the picture example Rowe was to move into the half-spaces, provide a vertical passing option for the CBs/HMs and look to receive facing forward and behind the midfield line of Manchester United. Width moving through the middle third was provided by the wide defenders of Reading. If the opposition wide defenders from Manchester United tracked Reading’s wide midfielders into the middle or defensive thirds, then Reading would play longer, more direct passes in the air into the central forwards, attempting to take advantage of the 2 v 2 situation. However, United defended this well by having the central midfielders deny the passing lane, thus allowing the wide defender to remain deep and keep numerical superiority in the defensive zone.

FAWSL 2019/20 Reading Vs. Manchester United tactical analysis tactics
Diamond structure of build-out play demonstrating high wide defenders, double central midfield pivot and wide forward checking into the half-space

Reading pressing structure vs the buildout play of Manchester United

Manchester United split their central defenders and dropped holding midfielder Ladd in order to create passing options for Earps when in possession and initiate attacks from the defensive third. Reading countered this by creating a 3 v 3 utilising two split forwards, Eikeland and Williams, and pushing one of the central midfielders higher. This forced United’s goalkeeper to play longer passes, as in the diagram example you can see that the pass has been played into the left defender Harding, skipping the first line of pressure. United, therefore, had numerical superiority in this second line of pressure (4 v 3), however, Reading could easily counter by shifting over the deeper lying central midfielder and moving the weak side wide midfielder into a more central zone. When Manchester United did play into the wide zones of the middle third, Reading were very narrow defensively in a 4-4-1-1 shape and forced Manchester United to play vertical and longer passes.

FAWSL 2019/20 Reading Vs. Manchester United tactical analysis tactics
Pressing structure in the attacking third. Central 3 v 3 created, forcing GK to play longer & into the wide zone

United occupied the wide spaces when entering the middle and final thirds with the strong side full-back and wide forward maintaining width. This opened space centrally for the two attacking central midfielders to receive between the lines of Readings defensive midfield and back four. In the example here, it is evident that the weak side attacking midfielder Groenen has been left free, with the strong side attacking midfielder, Zelem, positioned on the back shoulder of Readings midfield. Rather than play through the lines however, United often played vertically into the space behind Readings wide defenders for L. James, Ross, or Sigsworth to run onto.

In the example, you can also see the wide forward L. James is looking to stretch high as well as wide when Manchester United could progress the ball with space. By having L. James stretching, this pinned the right defender back and United could potentially exploit a 3 v 2 overload using centre defender, left defender, and attacking midfielder. Manchester United’s goal originated in the defensive/middle third & with a diagonal ball into L. James stretching behind Readings defensive line.

FAWSL 2019/20 Reading Vs. Manchester United tactical analysis tactics
Overload in the wide zone when central defender able to progress the ball. When the player in possession was not under pressure, wide forward looks to stretch behind opposition defensive line

L. James was consistently United’s most dangerous threat to Reading when Manchester United were able to find her and isolate 1 v 1 vs. the opposition right defender either underneath and able to face forward or by passing in behind using through balls.

Reading adjustments and second-half counter

After trailing 0-1 at half time, Reading introduced Karlseng Utland for A. James and this proved pivotal in dictating the outcome of the game.

Reading also altered both their attacking and defensive tactical structures. Eikeland moved from central to right forward positions, Karlseng Utland occupied the central forward position and Fara Williams dropped into the defensive midfield role creating a 4-1-2-3 attacking shape in possession.

Reading’s attacking structure remained somewhat similar with the now attacking central midfielder moving inside to open space for the wide forward to move deeper, inside and into the half-space. In the example here, you can see the wide diamond structure evident. Leine has a higher position in comparison to opponent L. James, the wide forward Eikeland has provoked pressure from the left defender of Manchester United. This opens space higher and behind.

FAWSL 2019/20 Reading vs. Manchester United tactical analysis tactics
Wide diamond structure in middle third after second-half adjustments


Manchester United implemented compact defensive principles and restricted Reading’s possession during the first half to the defensive and middle zones. During the second half, Reading were able to enter the final third with more regularity and cause the defensive four of United more problems.

Ultimately, a story of two set-piece penalty kicks, one missed and one scored, allowed Reading to tie the game. The second was a very contentious decision with the ball appearing to come directly off the United defender’s head and not hand.

The game provided an interesting example of Reading altering the system during a game but maintaining consistent principals of play. It also demonstrated the flexibility of head coach Kelly Chambers in pushing more players higher and into attacking areas of the field.

Next week Manchester United Women will face off against Chelsea FC Women and Reading FC Women are matched up against Liverpool FC Women.