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

Attack And Individuals

After briefly touching on it above, it’s time to talk about what United are like with the ball. Just from looking at possession numbers on BBC Sport, it seems United aren’t too concerned with keeping possession for the sake of it, with the game against Liverpool the only one in which they had over 50%.

This is supported by the fact that only 4.3% of United’s possessions this season have contained 10 or more passes (an idea I stole from @EveryTeam_Mark in their recent round-up of the opening five game weeks in the WSL on StatsBomb), compared to the league average of 8.2%. For further reference, looking at how United compare to the current top three, 12.0% of Chelsea’s possessions contain 10 or more passes, 19.2% of Manchester City’s and 23.9% of Arsenal’s.

I’ve decided to try and break this down and try and look at different individual’s roles in the team at the same time. It means there’ll likely be a lot of overlap in the following sections.

Building From The Back

Manchester United don’t mind being direct when playing out from the back, having the 2nd lowest percentage for forward passes from the defensive third being ground passes, as well as the 4th longest average length for these passes.

Looking at progression, they have the fewest passes per unit of progression and the lowest number of passes that both start and end in the defensive third per game, suggesting they look to move the ball forward quickly, rather than spending time to build in the defensive third.

Their possessions starting in the defensive third average 3.1 passes, the 3rd lowest in the league. Even then it’s unsure as to whether this is a fair reflection of how they look to play, with three of their games being within the range of 2.72 and 2.74, while their game against Arsenal saw them average 6.1 and the game against Liverpool 7.1.

The Liverpool game was the only game in which they had more of the ball and, while they like to move the ball forward quickly, this game showed they are capable of building from the back if required.

Centre-backs Abbie McManus – who has the 2nd most progression via passes per 90 for United – and Millie Turner both look fairly comfortable on the ball, while they have midfielders who can both drop and collect the ball or look to get between the lines and offer a progressive option.

While Liverpool haven’t had a great start to the season, their shape in the below clips is pretty much the same as what United had against Tottenham, with Melissa Lawley stopping the supply to Katie Zelem. I was hoping to save this clip for a bit later on, as it shows how good Lauren James is for them when dropping deep, but this is a good example of them playing through Liverpool.

Zelem is being marked, but Ladd drops in to help with the build-up, before McManus plays an incisive pass into James, who has a great turn, one-two and then ball out wide.

It wasn’t always successful, in the below clip McManus tries a similar pass but this time inside to Ladd, which gets cut out before Turner finds a nice pass through to Ellie Toone and a similar ball playing the winger, this time Leah Galton on the left, in behind is played.

Then the next example has a few nice ideas, but is executed poorly.

Zelem drags Lawley to the left opening up space ahead of McManus. Ladd drifts to the right and Jessica Sigsworth comes inside, which just seems to create a bit of confusion in the Liverpool midfield (you can see #19 Amy Rogers look like she isn’t sure whether to follow Ladd outside or Sigsowrth inside for a split second). However, the pass is slightly off and Liverpool get a chance to run at the United defence, before Toone brings the ball out of defence and starts a United break.

United did still manage to move the ball quickly on occasion, with this passage of play down the right hand being a good example of it.

I feel like United can be fairly adaptive when playing out from the back this season. While they’ve been direct, I wouldn’t say they’re a long-ball team – just hitting it long and hoping for the best – but I don’t think they’re going to play out from the back at all costs like Tottenham did against them.

For instance, in the game against Reading they had to be more direct due to the pressing and physicality of the opposition. In her post-match interview on the Women’s Football Show, Casey Stoney admitted her side had to play a bit ugly due to Reading’s approach, but United knew they could hurt them in the transition.

They have the personnel to play out from the back, while also having the personnel able to move the ball forward quickly, attacking players who can offer a focal point and wingers who can look to turn defences and be dangerous in transition. It should be interesting to see how they play over the course of the season and against different oppositions.

Progression From Midfield Or The Katie Zelem Appreciation Section

With United not having a huge amount of possession, none of their players put up huge progression numbers, but that shouldn’t take away from the influence Katie Zelem has on this team.

She may not be leading the league, but she has been United’s main source of progression this season when it comes to passing. She keeps them ticking in the middle and her ability, with both feet, to spread the play and move her side forward is great.

Looking at a map of some of her most progressive passes (the ones with the lines move the possession at least 20% closer to goal, the dots move the possession at least 10% closer to goal) she seems to love a diagonal pass to the left flank.

The below clip, from the opening day against Manchester City leading to the Jane Ross chance, shows her hit a great left-footed pass to Leah Galton on the left flank.

Then, from the same game, a nice pass in between the lines to allow Jackie Groenen to turn and face the City defence.

She seemed to have a lot of joy in the opening stages of the Tottenham game, particularly with the ball looking for Leah Galton out on the left. With one example being seen below.

And then another.

Then against Reading there’s this clip of her resisting pressure on the edge of the box, before finding James. She then gets the ball back before making a pass out to Galton.

One criticism of her game would be the fact she likes a long shot. She’s had 8 shots this season with an xG per shot of 0.04. She’s not the worst offender in the league for it, she’s not taking a huge number of shots and they tend to be around the edge of the area rather than ridiculous long shots, but it is worth pointing out.

She also doesn’t put up huge defensive numbers, though as we’ve talked about and will talk about a bit more in a moment, this is likely due to the system and the front footedness of their defending so far.

Moving on from Zelem, United have other midfielders that can progress the ball or collect it from the defence if necessary. Hayley Ladd and Ella Toone don’t progress the ball as much as Zelem, which isn’t too surprising as Zelem attempts 41.6 passes per game while they attempt just under 30, but looking at how many passes they attempt per unit of progression and how much progression they have per second on the ball, they all have almost identical numbers.

Ladd’s progressive passes can be seen below and there does look to be a bit less of a pattern than Zelem’s (though that could be down to her also playing right-back). It seems she progresses less often but can pull out a good long pass.

One example of this and another example of how much joy United had finding that long ball to Galton against Tottenham can be seen below.

Then another long ball, this time against Reading. She wins the ball back and sends it, with her left foot this time, over the top for Lauren James.

Moving on to Ella Toone, most of her progressive passes come from a deeper left half space kind of area.

One of these has already been seen in the clips against Liverpool where she picks out Galton out wide, then there’s another pass she made against Liverpool to find Galton below.

What’s also impressive is the fact all three of Zelem, Ladd and Toone seem pretty comfortable with both feet. While I should probably look into pass footedness like @jair1970 did on StatsBomb before making a statement like that, they all have progressive passes with both feet, with Toone sending a nice cross field ball with her right foot against Arsenal.

While these three players look as though they could form a nice midfield three, with Zelem sitting in front of the defence and being the main distributor while Ladd and Toone play ahead of her, United also have Dutch international Jackie Groenen.

Groenen has played more advanced to create more of a 4-2-3-1 however, so I’ve opted to lump her in with the attackers to talk about the four most advanced players together.

The Front Four

Starting with Jackie Groenen, as she’s the least advanced of the four, the 24-year-old midfielder has made a strong start to her United career.

She’s United’s 3rd most progressive player via passes per 90 and 5th most for carries per 90. Combining the two, she’s been United’s 4th most progressive player so far.

However, she’s playing more advanced and sees less of the ball than the players previously mentioned. Looking at her attempted passes per unit of progression, she’s been the 2nd most progressive player in the league. Then, looking at how much progression she completes per second on the ball (which heavily favours attacking players) she’s the 6th most progressive in the league.

If you haven’t seen enough examples of how much Tottenham enjoyed finding Leah Galton out wide against Tottenham, here’s Jackie Groenen’s take on it.

It’s not just progression for Groenen though, as she’s also been United’s main creator, having their highest xG Assisted per 90 and the 5th highest in the division.

Her xG Assisted numbers are heavily helped by her sending Jessica Sigsworth through on goal late in the game against Reading. While Reading were high up looking to get an equalizer, leaving lots of space for the pass, it’s still an aesthetically pleasing and nicely weighted pass from Groenen.

Showing that United tend to defend from the front, their players with the most pressures are all advanced players (with the exception of Ella Toone). Groenen did a good job stopping the supply to Chloe Peplow against Tottenham and has United’s 5th most pressures per 90 this season, behind Kirsty Hanson (1st), Ella Toone, Jess Sigsworth and Lauren James.

It adds to just how impressive their front four has been this season. Not only have they been strong going forward, they’ve worked hard when out of possession too. Given winger Kirsty Hanson has been their player with the most pressures per 90, it seems a good time to break off and talk about the wide players.

As you’ve seen through the clips of some of their possessions, United place a heavy emphasis on the flanks. They seem to like looking to find their wingers in behind and getting the ball wide. Their wide players are hugely important to their system as they’re one of the most cross heavy sides in the division. Only Bristol City have a higher number for cross percentage this season (the number of crosses divided by the number of all passes in the final third).

Looking at United’s key passes, with the ones with the line showing chances with an xG greater than or equal to 0.1, most of them come from wide areas. (There’s also a few where you can see why it isn’t always great to use xG assisted as the end location of the pass is some way from the shot location).

21-year-old Hanson has been their most impressive wide player in the opening games when it comes to goal scoring. She has United’s highest xG per 90 and the 3rd highest in the league. However, it’s still early and hugely inflated by two high value chances.

She also excels in progression via carries, having the highest figure for United and the 5th highest in the league.

Despite the good xG and carry figures though, she’s assisted just 0.04 xG per 90, which seems a bit of a concern considering she’s attempting the 8th most crosses per 90 in the league and 2nd most for her team.

With Leah Galton offering an outlet on the left, it may not be too bad if Hanson is more of scoring threat than a creative one, arriving at the back post similar to her goal against Reading.

Or her chance in the flurry of shots against Liverpool.

And then her chance in another flurry of shots, this time against Tottenham.

She makes a good run into a central area looking for a cutback from James in the above clip which is encouraging too.

Hanson has only started the two most recent games, however, with last season’s top scorer Jess Sigsworth starting there in the opening three games. Their goal contribution has been fairly similar, but Sigsworth has a more even split with xG and xG Assisted, contributing 0.22 xG per 90 and 0.29 xG Assisted per 90.

With it being so early in the season, their xG numbers are heavily warped due to a couple of good chances, but it’s been an encouraging start for United’s right flank. They’ve got two strong options who both offer goal threat and can likely be rotated depending on the opposition.

On the left hand side, Leah Galton has started every game and, as we’ve already seen in a lot of the clips used, has offered United a good outlet out wide. This can be seen when looking at her progressive passes received so far this season.

Her xG contribution hasn’t been as high as a lot of her teammates, though an xG of 0.19 per 90 and an xG Assisted of 0.18 per 90 isn’t terrible, it is something you’d like to see grow further.

With how often she gets in behind and into good positions on the left, you would imagine it isn’t going to be long before she does start contributing more xG. In some of the clips above she gets in behind but sometimes her touch might let her down slightly or there’s been situations where the pass is slightly behind her, but over the course of the season you’d imagine this won’t happen so much and will lead to her putting up some stronger numbers.

For instance, she makes a great run (and is found well by Zelem) below, but the ball just runs away from her so she can’t get a proper shot in.

Then after a high turnover against Tottenham, Groenen’s ball is just behind her, otherwise it could have been a great chance for her.

Her xG Assisted is inflated slightly due to the cross she played to Jane Ross in the Manchester Derby, as she’s only created 2 chances above 0.1 xG so far this season, with that Ross chance being worth ~0.5 xG and the next most valuable one being the below one against Tottenham – again to Ross and featuring a nice touch to beat her marker after the sliced pass from Zelem.

It’s also worth pointing out that Hanson’s goal against Reading came from her cross and the flurry of shots against Tottenham came from her recovering the ball high up. She also won the penalty against Liverpool with some strong dribbling into the box.

This kind of carry shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise given she has the 2nd highest number for progression via carries per 90 for United this season. Looking at more clips of her carrying the ball, it does make it feel like only a matter of time before she starts to produce more xG, like with this run and low cross against Liverpool.

Despite the not huge xG contribution, she’s still a hugely important part of United’s attack and provides a great outlet for them out wide.

The last part of United’s attack is the striker, which has been alternated between Jane Ross and Lauren James this season, with 18-year-old James starting the last two games.

They’re both talented and offer different things. Jane Ross offers more of a focal point and had some strong xG numbers for West Ham last season as well as some decent xG numbers in her small number of minutes of this season. However, it’s been Lauren James that I’ve been impressed by more in United’s opening five games.

James offers United something different to Ross as she drops or drifts wide to pick up the ball and can use her dribbling ability to carry it towards goal.

Looking at Jane Ross’ received progressive passes, it’s mostly long balls from within United’s own half, with a lot looking as though they probably came from ‘keeper Mary Earps.

However, when you look at James’, she seems to pop up deep and wide a bit more.

Which is also mirrored when looking at her progressive carries. She can pick the ball up deep and wide and help move her team towards goal. The forward has United’s 3rd highest progression via carries per 90 this season, behind the previously mentioned Hanson and Galton. (I am a bit iffy on how I’m doing progressive carries and you can see some weird arrows below which help show why)

She’s also pulled off some nice passes in the games I’ve seen. Looking back at the progression via passes per second of possession, she has the 4th best value in the league and I’d imagine her number for carries would be equally (if not more) impressive.

In build-up she seems to offer everything you want a modern forward to, with her ability to drift, hold the ball up, resist pressure, carry the ball and also pick a pass. The clip below shows some great skill as she holds up the ball against Tottenham.

In the same game, there’s this clip where she picks up the ball deep, carries it forward and plays a nice outside of the boot pass to Sigsworth, who puts Groenen in on goal.

Against Reading she had a nice bit of hold up play before spreading it wide with her left foot (it feels like yet another United play comfortable with both feet) to Galton.

Moving on to her xG contribution, she doesn’t have as high a number as Ross for xG per 90. Ross has 0.53 per 90, while James has 0.30 per 90, but James’ all round game seems to offer a bit more than the Scottish international’s does.

James also takes a lot of shots, leading to a fairly low xG per shot, as she tends to work a yard of space for herself before taking a shot from outside the area or a tight angle. Like the one below against Liverpool.

But anything like this can just be replied with by saying she’s still only 18-years-old, there’s going to be times where she might make the wrong decision or keep hold of the ball a bit too long as she develops (I mean, there’s plenty of times when players who aren’t as young do that too).

Like Hanson, she’s only had 2 shots with an xG of more than 0.1, with the lesser value one being one of the shots in the flurry against Tottenham in the first minute while the second is her goal against Liverpool, where she shows some great composure in the box to fool the defender and make the angle better for herself.

The situation is similar to the one United have on the right. Ross and James both offer different things and can be rotated depending on what’s required in the upcoming game.

Personally, I do love the fluidity of Hanson, Groenen, Galton and James playing as the front four, but Ross and Sigsworth bring a huge amount of quality too. You could also argue someone like Ross is more beneficial for United’s crossing game. It may just be a coincidence or case of correlation not causation, but Galton’s two most valuable chances created have been crosses to Ross, who seems more likely to take up a typical #9 position in the box than James.

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