Can Manchester United Establish Themselves As The 4th Best Team In The FAWSL?

Style Of Play

With only five games played it’s hard to make any big statements, as one weird game can warp a team’s numbers, but there are still some interesting things to be drawn from United’s first five games in the WSL.

I’m also not sure how I want to structure what I’m talking about, so there’s a good chance this piece is all over the place and I end up repeating myself a lot. Luckily, if you’ve read anything on here before, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Defence

Starting with their defensive numbers, United are a good example as to why using data after so few games isn’t always a great idea. Most numbers point towards them being a team who sit back and stands off the opposition, but watching them and digging deeper into the numbers, shows that this isn’t really true.

Overall, they allow the 4th longest average possession duration, 3rd most passes per possession and 3rd least pressure events in the final third. However, a large part of this is warped due to their game against Arsenal, where they were happier to sit back a bit and let Arsenal have the ball before looking to counter.

In their games against Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham they made almost double the number of pressures in the final third than they did against Arsenal and Reading (though there’s a different reason for that, which I’ll hopefully remember to get to).

This made a lot more sense to me, particularly after watching them against Tottenham. It felt they did a good job of stopping the North London club from playing out from the back and managed to create a few chances from high turnovers.

Considering all of this, the first thing I want to look at is whether or not United press and, if they do, how they go about it. Pressing has been looked at a fair bit lately, with @MC_of_A‘s talk at the StatsBomb conference about it, which led to this piece by @EveryTeam_Mark.

Then this tweet (coincidentally referring to United’s men’s team) from @GraceOnFootball always comes to mind when thinking about pressing and it not just being being about lots of running (or even pressure events, really). Which is also talked about well in Michael Caley’s talk when looking at things like pass prevention rather than just things like PPDA.

After reading/watching things like this in recent weeks I wanted to try a few different things when looking at how United defend, particularly high up the pitch.

The United Press

Casey Stoney’s side hasn’t been a team that has been hugely active in the final third when out of possession this season, as I’ve already mentioned (I warned you I’d be repeating myself a lot). Even taking out the games against Arsenal and Reading, their average number of pressures in the final third is around league average.

However, pressing doesn’t just have to be about having your players chase down the team in possession wherever they go. It can be about making it hard for the opposition to progress the ball up the field or winning the ball high up in order to hit the opposition in transition, which are two areas that make Manchester United look a lot more like an effective pressing team.

Looking at passes that intersect the opposition’s own defensive third and move the possession towards goal, United’s opponents have the 4th worst pass completion in the league – even including the opening two games.

In their opening two games the pass completion of these passes was huge, with both Manchester City and Arsenal having the quality to play through the press. Despite being the game where they put up the most pressure events in the final third, Manchester City completed 87.8% of the previously mentioned passes, while the league average is just 67.2%.

In United’s second game, they allowed Arsenal to complete 84.1% of these passes, despite having under half the number of pressure events in the attacking third – 21 compared to 43 in the opening game.

In the three games since, United’s numbers have been pretty incredible for these kinds of passes. Liverpool completed 53.0%, Tottenham completed 60.8% and Reading just 40.4% (again, there is a bit of a different reason behind this, I’ll get to it, I promise).

All of these figures are below league average and rather significantly so. It’s a silly thing to do, as it’s kind of like saying ‘if you take away all the games they lost they’d be unbeaten’, but, if you take away those first two games, United have allowed a completion of just 51.4%, which would put them comfortably as the best in the league – it’s currently Birmingham City with 58.9%.

While this may tell us that United are effective at stopping the opposition from moving the ball forward, I did want to look at it a few other ways too.

The first idea was to look at how successfully teams move from one end of the pitch to the other. For this I looked at possessions where the first pass was inside the opposition’s defensive third and then whether or not that possession had a player receiving the ball in the attacking third.

I could then use this to look at a few different things, like the percentage of possessions that move the ball from one end of the pitch, the time taken to do this and the number of passes it’s done in.

I feel like a lot of it is stylistic, however, as in the numbers, there’s no difference between a team who makes a lot of passes because they’re patient and like to build slowly from the back and one who is making a lot of passes because they haven’t got forward options to go to.

When looking at the percentage of possession’s that start in the defensive third and end in the attacking third, United don’t fare too well, with the 4th highest number. Again, the Arsenal game does warp this number hugely.

This season 21.1% of possessions with the first pass in the defensive third make it to the final third, while Manchester United have allowed 25.9% of possessions to reach the final third. Arsenal, however, managed to reach the final third with 48.6% of their possession’s against United.

United still allowed an above average number against Reading and Manchester City, both being around 25%, but were much better against Liverpool and Tottenham, with both of them around 15%.

It feels like now might be a good time to break off and look into the Reading game, comparing it to the Tottenham game and why United’s numbers seem odd against Reading (I fear it’s been built up too much by now though, as it really isn’t all that interesting).

The Games Against Tottenham and Reading

While the Liverpool game was United’s most dominant in xG, the game against Tottenham showcased a lot of good pressing and defensive set-up high up the pitch and offers a good contrast to the Reading game in the approach of the opposition.

Starting with the Tottenham game, just as that one was before the Reading game, I’ve already said how United did a great job of stopping Tottenham from progressing the ball forward and a lot of it was due to how they set-up for Tottenham possession that started with the ‘keeper.

The below shows what was their general set-up during them.

The wingers marked the full-backs, Jackie Groenen sat on Chloe Peplow in the middle, while Lauren James marked the one centre-back. This left the other centre-back to bring the ball forward but with little to no options, often resulting in a low probability pass forward where United could step in or look to win the second ball. (I’m sorry about the buffering too, it kept happening at that exact bit)

You can argue this example isn’t too bad for Spurs, as they gain a throw in a more advanced area, but it’s a good example of how United set-up and just how closely Groenen marked Peplow.

While it was quite scrappy with a decent amount of good fortune, this kind of sequence is eventually what led to United’s opening goal. They step in to win the ball back before it goes back to the ‘keeper, then the same happens again before some nice play from Lauren James, as she turns the defender and United get a few lucky breaks/touches before Kirsty Hanson finishes.

You can see that in the second sequence that another Tottenham midfielder drops in to try and help in the build-up, but is followed by United captain Katie Zelem. It did open up the pass the centre-back went for, but Millie Turner read that and managed to step in.

Tottenham have played from the back quite a bit this season, they have the 5th most competed passes per possession for possessions where the first pass comes within the defensive third, however, their average is brought down heavily by the United game. In their other four games this season they average 4.28 passes in these possessions, against United it was just 2.73.

Looking even more specifically, for possessions that begin with the ‘keeper, Tottenham average 5 passes per possession, but against United they managed just 2.6.

United did a great job of stopping Tottenham at playing out from the back, as Tottenham tried, but ultimately failed, to play through their press. So, what was different in the Reading game?

The difference was Reading’s approach, while Tottenham tried to play through the press Reading went long.

Reading did make fewer passes per possession where the first pass was in their own defensive third, though it wasn’t as significant as Tottenham. In Reading’s other three games they’ve averaged 3.57 passes for these possessions, while it was 2.74 against United.

To further show their directness, Reading also have the 2nd shortest time for possessions to successfully go from the defensive third to the attacking third.

Looking at Reading’s distribution from the ‘keeper, Grace Moloney went short with all but one of her goal kicks, but the defender she passed to went long (more than 20 yards) every single time, so Reading didn’t really attempt to play through the United press at all. They looked to go long then win the second balls in order to move up the pitch and sustain pressure in advanced areas.

Examples of this can be seen below. The first example the ‘keeper goes short from a goal kick, before the defender goes long, Reading dispossess Hanson and are able to get a cross in the box.

Then another example of this can be seen below, resulting in a free-kick on the edge of the area, which seems pretty dangerous when Fara Williams is on the pitch.

Finally, a passage of play where it happens twice and you can see Reading really get bodies forward to press United after the initial long ball.

It may not have worked for them on the day, but it didn’t seem like a terrible strategy from Reading. Lisa-Marie Utland seems to have the ability to hold the ball up, while United’s midfield doesn’t feel particularly physical, giving a team the chance to crowd them out and win the second balls.

No Playmaker Is As Good As A Counterpress

This should really be in the section about how they attack, but while talking about their press I thought it’d be worth having a quick mention about the attacking side of the press. The bold is the famous quote from Jurgen Klopp (well, paraphrased/butchered) and I thought it’d be interesting to see if United’s press not only allows them to stop the opposition progressing but helps them create chances in transition.

To try and look at this I looked at shots that came within 15 seconds of the team having possession while excluding those that come about due to dead-ball situations. There isn’t a distinction between those that come from a counter-attack and those that come from a counter press specifically (with StatsBomb having a counter press attribute I really should have been less lazy and tried to differentiate the two), but it still gives some kind of idea.

So far this season United have created the 2nd most xG from shot within 15 seconds of possession, only behind neighbours Manchester City – who tend to lead the way when looking at numbers to do with high pressing.

This seems to imply that not only is United’s press a way to stop the opposition from, it’s also something that benefits them in attack too. Despite this, the percentage of shots they’ve created within 15 seconds of possession is actually below league average.

23.9% of the xG in the WSL this season has come when the team has been in possession for less than 15 seconds, but only 17.2% of Manchester United’s has been. You could argue this is a good thing, however, as it means United aren’t reliant on these opportunities, it’s more a nice bonus. Having the 2nd highest xG total from these shots means they must be doing something right, but they’re still creating chances via other methods too.

EDIT: Ignore the last couple of paragraphs, I’m not sure what I did but I did it completely wrong. United have created the 2nd highest xG behind only Manchester City and the league average is 23.9%, but United’s xG from these shots accounts for 34.8% of their xG. Which is significantly above average and the 4th highest in the division.

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