With the early conclusion of the FA Women’s Super League season, it’s an opportune time to examine how Casey Stoney’s Manchester United side have performed in their first campaign after promotion from the Championship with this tactical season review.
With a fourth-place finish in 2019/20, United have established themselves as the ‘best of the rest’ in the FAWSL. Stoney has rightly pointed out that this should be considered an achievement in their debut season. In this tactical analysis we will look to see how this was achieved and what Manchester United might need to do if they are to challenge the ‘big-three’ of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal.
Manchester United have typically set-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This is very easy to see in the out of possession phase, where United look to fill the middle of the pitch in a compact shape, with a lone striker, the ‘7,10 and 11’ positions behind, two pivot players and then a compact back four.
The picture against Everton, below, shows this tactical approach very clearly, with a single striker in front of the three attacking midfielders who are shifting right to left with the ball, with two holding midfielders behind.
In possession, the right and left-hand side forwards are used to stretch the pitch horizontally. Leah Galton has made the position on the left her own with strong displays, but Stoney has yet to settle on a favoured choice on the right, alternating between Kirsty Hanson and Jess Sigsworth.
Of the two pivot players, usually captain Katie Zelem and Hayley Ladd, Zelem looks to get up field and link up with Jackie Groenen who occupies the ‘10’ role as the attack is built, with Ladd looking to drop into the ‘pocket’ as a receiving option from the centre-backs and goalkeeper. However, Zelem will rarely play between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines: so it is still very much a ‘double pivot’ system.
This image below against West Ham shows this, with Gorton on the left and Hanson on the right providing the width, with Jane Ross as the central striker (all circled red). Groenen can be seen as the highest midfielder, with Zelem and Ladd providing the double pivot behind (central midfielders circled in black).
The picture also demonstrates how Manchester United’s full-backs do not tend to aggressively support the attack: you can see left-back Martha Harris (number 2), tucked infield and playing close to the centre-halves despite United having possession high up on the field. We will revisit this theme later in this piece. In all though, it gives the impression of a disciplined and functional 4-2-3-1 shape.
Defensive strength and organisation
A statistical analysis shows Manchester United’s out of possession play was a huge strength in the 2019/20 FAWSL season: they were outstanding defensively and compared favourably with the best teams in the country.
Data from FBref/Statsbomb reveals they conceded just 12.3xGA (expected goals against) during the season. They rate third in the league for this metric, ahead of Manchester City (14.7xGA) and comparatively not far away from Arsenal who rank second (11xGA). Of their five defeats, none were by more than a single goal margin and their results against Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal were three one-nil losses: simply put, any goal against them is hard-earned.
A team’s defensive qualities can be quite difficult to show with data alone, but a look at the video evidence demonstrates why Manchester United under Stoney concede few goals.
First and foremost, Manchester United pride themselves on their defensive solidity and hard work. They would not be generally regarded as a high pressing or counter-pressing team. As we have already seen, they typically hold their compact shape in a mid-block with the two wide players tucking in to form a close three behind the central striker, with the two pivot players screening the passing lanes through to the opposition forwards. These tactics make it difficult for opponents to play through the compact Manchester United shape and there is little scope for playing between the lines of this ‘layered’ system.
Manchester United’s full-backs will also tuck in when the ball is central and even more so when the ball is on the opposite flank: a notable feature of the side is its very disciplined back four and how the spaces between them stay extremely consistent. This makes it hard for the opposition to pull them out of shape or exploit any spaces between them.
The picture below, from the fixture against Bristol, shows how Manchester United look to keep consistent spaces between their back four, marshalled by Abbie McManus and Millie Turner as the centre-backs, with an organised midfield in front.
Manchester United are comfortable keeping the play in front of them and making it very clear to opponents that, at worst, they will have to play around them, but will be denied balls through or over their block. However, if they do decide to play quickly around, Manchester United’s full-backs are well supported by their wide players who will always track back to ensure they are not having to defend overloads in wide areas: this hard graft is a feature of Stoney’s team.
We can see this from the footage below against Reading: the left-back has been drawn inside, but James has tracked the full back’s run all the way back to support her defence.
Stoney’s side are also very difficult to expose in transition. As the full-backs rarely get forward to support the attack by overlapping or underlapping beyond the wide players, and with the two pivot players typically not moving ahead of the ball when it’s in the opponent’s half, United are rarely caught out with space behind or in front of their defence should they give the ball away. They always keep one eye on what might happen if the ball is lost and typically keep five, and sometimes six players, behind the ball ready to defend.
The image below highlights this cautious approach. Despite having good possession near the halfway line and time on the ball, neither full-back has pushed upfield to create an overload in the wide areas against West Ham. Zelem has moved out of shot, with Ladd as the holding player, but both will remain ‘ball side’ as the attack enters the attacking third.
Building the attack
In possession, Manchester United recorded an expected goals total of 20.1xG for the season according to FBref/StatsBomb. While still strong, this is not as impressive at their defensive record, ranking fifth in the league, behind Reading in fourth with 21.8xG and substantially behind league champions Chelsea with 38.1xG. United actually over-performed against this expectation, scoring 24 times in the league overall, ranking in fourth place, but 15 goals behind Manchester City in third.
These are still good numbers when taken across the league as whole but does not place the team among the elite sides in the FAWSL as an attacking force.
Manchester United have a mixed approach to building the attack. They will usually ‘take what the opposition gives them’ as they look to build from the back. United will set up with the centre-backs splitting to the corners of the box and the full-backs moving higher and wider. If the opponent sits off, United will look to play short into this space, often with the goalkeeper and centre-backs looking to play to Ladd who will drop late into the pocket in front of the back four and attempt to get on the half turn to play forward, with Zelem moving away to free up this space and link the midfield to the forward players. Ladd was a strong addition to the team for 2019/20 and is excellent at scanning the field and receiving the ball to play forward on the half turn.
The image below, from the game against Brighton, demonstrates how they set up when the defence is on the ball, with Zelem moving up the pitch and taking opponents with her, and Ladd dropping into the space vacated. On this occasion, Zelem has made a second move back to receive the penetrating pass.
However, should the opponent press high, Manchester United will look to play over them and into their number 9 where possible, with either James or Ross as the striker looking to hold up the ball and then set it back to Groenen or Zelem, or look to play Galton behind with a turn around the corner.
The image below versus West Ham shows this, with Ross initially moving high to occupy the opposition’s defence, then coming short to receive the goal kick from Mary Earps. Galton has seen this opportunity and is running in behind for the flick on or for the ball to be set back to Groenen. Galton is the main Manchester United player who consistently looks to run in behind off the shoulders of defenders.
Stoney’s team rarely drop deeper into their penalty area against a high press and entice the opponent on to them in an effort to play around or through their press under pressure.
Progressing the ball
As we have already seen from our scout report, Galton on the left and the right-hand side attacking player, usually Hanson or Sigsworth, although the adaptable Ella Toone has featured, are encouraged to stay high and wide, rather than play close to the central striker. With the United full-backs not known for their attacking tendencies, and preferring to stay connected to their centre-backs, this positioning is key for Stoney’s team to take up the full width of the pitch and open lanes for penetrating passes.
United will look to progress the ball chiefly through Ladd and Zelem at the base of midfield. Their primary targets, if the opponent stays compact and won’t allow them to play through, are the left and right flanks, trying to give the wide players early 1v1 opportunities. Zelem, in particular, has a fine range of passing and is able to play these balls into space with pace and accuracy.
The picture from the game against Tottenham demonstrates this and the relationship between the pivots. Ladd has escaped pressure on the left-hand side of central midfield to play forwards and the ball has now been worked to Zelem in space, who uses her mid to long-range passing game to play to the right-hand forward who is 1v1 with the full-back.
If the passing lanes open up as a result of the defence being stretched horizontally, they will look to play the ball to the feet of Groenen playing between the midfield and defensive lines or into the central striker, Ross or James, who will look to come short as either Ladd or Zelem take a positive first touch and get their head up. Ross often sets the ball back into midfield when playing as the centre-forward, whereas James is keen to get half-turned and run at defenders where possible, as well as roam from a central position and carry the ball.
Counter attacking threat
Manchester United are also a strong proposition on the counter-attack, especially down the left-hand side of the pitch. By keeping an organised mid-block, United will invite opponents on to them, leaving space for them to counter-attack behind should they win back possession on the edge of their own penalty area: Galton, in particular, is adept at this and will quickly go from supporting the defence on United’s left-hand side to reacting immediately on the turnover and looking for teammates to play the ball into space ahead of her.
The footage from the game against Everton below shows this: Galton has immediately set off upon United winning the ball back on the opposite side of the field and is asking for the ball to be played ahead of her into space.
Areas of improvement
With a strong fourth placed finished now secured, thoughts turn to what Manchester United will need to do to break into the top three FAWSL teams. It needs making clear that the high league finish in only their first FAWSL season is impressive, but nevertheless, the data would suggest they are probably closer to Reading in fifth than they are to the teams above them. An analysis of the numbers bears this out, as the chart below using FBRef/Statsbomb data looking at the expected goals difference (based on xG for and xG against) for the top five teams demonstrates.
We have already seen they are defensively strong, but there is a trade-off. By making Manchester United difficult to beat it could be argued that Stoney has sacrificed some of the attacking potency.
The scatter graph below shows United’s lack of attacking threat compared to the top teams (top right-hand side of graph) when viewing their shots per 90 and expected goals per 90.
Goal creation and dribbling
The stats also suggest this on an individual level. Galton ranks a very impressive fourth in the FAWSL for Goal Creating Actions per 90 (the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal, such as a dribble, pass or drawing a foul), but their next highest-placed player in this metric, Sigsworth, is in 12th place, with no other players featuring until James in 24th. Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have many more players in the top 25. Manchester United lack goal creating players when compared to the sides above them.
Galton is clearly United’s key player when it comes to breaking down opponents through individual technique and ability, but United require more creative players like her or the tactical ability to overload opponents and circulate the ball quickly to overcome organised defences more effectively
This lack of creativity can be traced to the way they play as a collective. We have already seen that Manchester United prefer to keep their full-backs connected to the defence, along with playing two pivot players. This means they are unlikely to concede opportunities on the counterattack should they lose the ball, but conversely, it can be more of a challenge for them to create chances.
United also possess few players who look to offer a threat with runs in behind. The central strikers, James and Ross, prefer to come short to receive the ball: in theory, this should create gaps behind them, but only Galton routinely looks run in behind the opposition defence to exploit this space.
A lack of dribblers, forward runners and a system that does not provide attacking overloads means United can struggle against teams playing with a mid to deep block.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the match against Bristol City. Manchester United were the only team, apart from Birmingham, to lose to Bristol this season and, despite dominating territory and possession, could not break Bristol’s low block.
The image below was taken from that game. Despite approaching the attacking third, we can see the full-backs (circled black) have not moved forward to create an overload in wide areas, with Harris at left-back tucked inside, and the three central midfielders (circled red) are in close proximity and not threatening either the backline or between the defensive and midfield lines.
Manchester United enjoyed a hugely impressive debut FAWSL season. They are tactically disciplined and very difficult to beat. Their back four, led by centre-half duo of Turner and McManus, is extremely well organised without the ball, and they are ably supported by the hard work of the rest of the team. They can also trouble teams in attack, especially on the counter-attack with the direct running of Galton. The receiving and forward passing skills of Groenen, Zelem and Ladd are also noteworthy, and they are never less than competitive in the centre of the field where they have recruited well and all three players complement each other.
However, if they want to take the next step and challenge for the top three, they need to make themselves a more penetrative attacking force, without sacrificing too much of the defensive solidity Stoney has instilled in them.
Their recruitment plans should include more attack minded full-backs who are not only capable of defending but can also operate effectively in the attacking third, allowing Manchester United to overload opposition defences. With Stoney not settling on a preferred right-hand side forward, alternating between Hanson, Sigsworth and Toone, she might look to sign someone on this flank to complement Dalton’s outstanding efforts on the left: this would give United greater balance and make them less predictable, although Sigsworth is arguably deserving of more game time due to some of her underlying numbers.
It will be interesting to see if their current tactical approach was designed to establish them in the FAWSL given the players they possess and if ‘the handbrake’ comes off in 2020/21. As competitive as they were in matches against the top three, they lost all of those games and will hope to score more victories against those rivals in 2020/21, as well as become more effective at breaking down opponents in a low block.