• Kristian Moe

Jackie Groenen: The most important piece in Stoney's puzzle




Following a successful first season back after their 13-year absence from the women's football circuit, ending with a masterful promotion to the WSL, it was clear that Manchester United and manager Casey Stoney needed to bolster the squad before taking the step up from the Championship to the WSL. Stoney added more experience and quality to the squad by signing the likes of Hayley Ladd, Abbie McManus and Mary Earps, all experienced internationals with plenty of WSL games under their belt. However, the biggest, most notable and maybe most surprising acquisition Manchester United made in the summer of 2019 was Dutch star midfielder Jackie Groenen. Being a winner of the Euros in 2017 with the Netherlands and such a big name within the women's game, it was maybe a little surprising that Groenen chose a newly promoted Manchester United side over more established, accomplished clubs, but Groenen was attracted to the prospect of working with manager Casey Stoney and win trophies at the club.


“Casey was one of the main factors about coming here. “I like how Casey thinks, I like how she likes to win everything and plan everything. - Jackie Groenen to MUTV

One and a half seasons into her Manchester United career, Groenen has shown her qualities and become one of, if not the most important player of Stoney's side. Whilst her first season was consistently solid, it wasn't her greatest and Groenen didn't get to show her best before the season was abruptly cancelled. However, in this current campaign, she has really kicked on and been United's best performer so far this season. With that in mind, it's interesting to analyse the differences between Groenen's (almost) two seasons at United and how she has become the team's most important player.



A playmaking box-to-box midfielder


Jackie Groenen is a very fascinating and unique midfielder. Whilst other midfielders are often specialised in one of the midfield roles; playmaker, box-to-box, deep-lying playmaker (regista) or destroyer, Groenen combines playmaking with box-to-box play. The combination of these two midfield roles makes Groenen a very all-rounded player and the perfect number 8 in 4-3-3.


She has a lot of qualities which suits the role brilliantly and allows her to fulfil it to perfection. Groenen is a very hard-working midfielder with a lot of intensity and tenacity in her play. This is very important to the defensive side of her game and helps her to make interceptions and recoveries. She always runs her socks off and combines the intensity with decent pace, something which is crucial to Manchester United's high press. Groenen is also strong in her tackling and positioning, and whilst she isn't physically imposing she uses her physicality very smartly in duels. Despite this, she can get bullied sometimes and her aerial game is basically non-existent. However, Groenen's defensive game is fantastic and is a big reason why she is so important to the teams she plays for. She mops up and wins the ball back when her teammates lose the ball and holds the midfield together.


In addition to her brilliant defensive game, Groenen's attacking game is also phenomenal. Whilst she isn't a prolific goal-scoring midfielder, her offensive contributions are still many and very important. In her preferred no.8 role, Groenen often works as the link between the defence and the attack. It's not uncommon to see her drop deep to receive the ball and then use her incredible vision and passing range to start attacks. She is comfortable and calm on the ball due to her great technique and is also a very good ball-carrier. This allows her to receive the ball, turn and then run with it effectively at a high tempo before releasing a trademark through ball or start combination play. Another aspect of Groenen's game is her ability to move out wide when needed, usually to the right. She is very capable in wide areas, where she can be an option for the full-back and winger to combine with or provide crosses herself. However, Groenen is at her best when she's allowed to dictate play or receive the ball while facing the goal so she can use her vision and accurate passing to pick out teammates in advanced areas, but she is also good at setting up and being involved in combination play as she's quick on the ball and her decision making is spot on. Finally, Groenen's off-the-ball movement is great as well. She gets into positions where she is available for passes and is no stranger to making runs into the box either. All of these qualities make Groenen crucial to her teams and a world-class midfielder overall.




Thriving for the national team


Manchester United announced the signing of Groenen on a pre-contract on May 19th 2019. This was before that year's World Cup started and gave those who hadn't seen her in the 2017 Euros the chance to get an idea of what she could bring to United's midfield. Groenen was named in the team of the tournament in 2017 and she followed up in the 2019 World Cup by being very influential in Netherlands' run to the final, which included scoring the winning goal in extra-time in the semifinal against Sweden. However, for Dutch fans, seeing Groenen perform brilliantly for the national team was hardly surprising. The way Sarina Wiegman sets up the team suits Groenen perfectly. Wiegman's tactics and the role she has given Groenen is very well-suited to Groenen's qualities and allows her to perform at her highest level in almost every game.


Wiegman's set up which has won them the Euros and gotten them to a World Cup final is a traditional 4-3-3. In this case, the midfield constellation and Groenen's role is the most relevant. Wiegman has been pretty consistent when picking her midfield. It very often consists of Sherida Spitse in the no.6 role with Danielle van de Donk and Jackie Groenen as the two no.8's. Van de Donk's starting position is to the left of Spitse with Groenen to the right. The thing to note about the Dutch midfield is that all three midfielders have very defined roles which complement each other. Spitse in the no.6 role is a deep-lying playmaker/regista, a player which sits in front of the defence dictating play and the tempo of the team's play by using great vision and passing range/passing ability. Danielle van de Donk is the most advanced player in the midfield. Despite starting as the left-sided no.8 in 4-3-3, she moves into the no.10 role and works as an advanced playmaker. This role requires great technical ability in terms of passing and dribbling, creativity to play defence-splitting passes and spacial awareness/movement to roam into space to be available for passes and receive the ball in dangerous areas. Ability to get into scoring positions is also a good quality to have when playing in the no.10 role. Van de Donk is good at all of these things which makes her very suited for the role.


However, Groenen's role is the most important one. Her role at the national team allows her to use all of her qualities as a playmaking box-to-box midfielder. This includes her both dropping deep to receive the ball and then advance with it before picking out a pass, and doing a lot of defensive work. Neither Spitse nor van de Donk is particularly strong defensively which leaves Groenen to do a lot of the defensive work to keep the balance in midfield. Due to this, Groenen has to run relentlessly and cover huge parts of the pitch to mop up and win the ball back if and when the team loses the ball in attack. When the team is in balance defensively, Groenen is also crucial in putting pressure on the ball-carrier trying to force a misplaced pass, make a tackle, an interception or block the intended pass. This is where Groenen excels and she executes her defensive role exquisitely. Groenen isn't any less important or any worse offensively. She is perfectly capable of helping Spitse to dictate the play and get attacks going, and play incisive forward passes/through balls. Besides, she is very good at making runs into space to create overloads in certain areas which again leads to an imbalance in the opposition team. These runs can be into the box or she can just move into space in the middle or out wide. The combination of her responsibilities offensively and defensively suits Groenen perfectly hence why she executes her role for the national team so well and ultimately thrives when she plays for the Oranje Leeuwinnen.




A consistently solid first season


Groenen's performances at the 2019 World Cup led to great expectations of what she could deliver for Manchester United in their first season in the WSL. In her debut game for United at the Etihad Stadium against city rivals Manchester City, Groenen didn't show any signs of a World Cup hangover. Casey Stoney set the team up in a 4-3-3 with captain Katie Zelem in the no.6 role with Ella Toone as the left-sided no.8 and Groenen in her natural right-sided no.8 role; a very similar set up to the Dutch national team with a regista in Zelem and a free-roaming advanced playmaker in Toone alongside Groenen. Whilst the result didn't go in favour of the Red Devils, ultimately losing 1-0, Groenen put in a star performance and was arguably the best player on the pitch. The expectations after that were that Groenen could continue that performance level and maybe even kick on even further when settled more into the system.


However, after the Manchester City game, Groenen got a small knock which ruled her out for a couple of games. When she returned from injury, Casey Stoney had weirdly changed her preferred system from 4-3-3 to a more defensive 4-2-3-1. This change meant that Groenen's role changed as well. For the rest of the season, Groenen was made to play as the no.10 in 4-2-3-1, a role which doesn't suit her and doesn't get the best out of her as a player. For most of the remaining games, Groenen got isolated in the no.10 role and didn't get as much involved in the play as one wants her to be. United's midfield got flat with the double pivot of Ladd and Zelem due to both wanting to dictate play from deep and neither of them wanting to move much forward into space to create more passing options and fluidity in the build-up play. This again led to Groenen struggling to get ball contact while facing the goal to drive forward and then pick a pass, a situation she thrives in. When she did receive the ball, it was often with her back to goal and with a defender close to her putting pressure on her from behind. With Groenen not being the most physical player, she struggled a fair bit to influence the games as much as she normally does. Another problem which didn't help Groenen in the no.10 role was United's build-up play. The principle of playing out from the back was something United tried to utilise last season too, but they weren't very effective due to some players' limitations on the ball. This resulted in too many long balls forward instead of quick, short passes or progressive passes through lines finding players like Groenen in the no.10 role. Once again, Groenen struggled to get involved due to not being set up in ideal positions. Finally, the last problem was the cooperation between Groenen in the no.10 role and more often than not, young superstar Lauren James at striker. This connection didn't work out too greatly due to James preferring to drop deep from her striker position to receive the ball before driving forward with it, taking on defenders and then shoot from range or pass. By doing this often, James ended up moving into the same space Groenen occupied which led to it being very congested, which again resulted in Groenen having to move into a different space, further away from the ball and less ideal to get involved.


Despite the problems which came with playing out of position, Groenen still tried to make the best out of it and put the team before herself. She was still a very important player for the team due to her relentless work-rate and she was crucial when United deployed a high press. Groenen was the focal point of that press and did an amazing job for the team, often holding the midfield together with that work-rate. She was also influential in terms of being smart with the ball when she got it, keeping possession, making good decisions with it, and maintaining tempo and fluidity in attacks. Offensively, she also managed to create chances and get somewhat involved. Groenen's first season was consistently solid, but for her standards and talent it was sub-par, and whilst she showed a fair bit of glimpses of what she was capable of, she didn't hit her heights as often as she can.


Jackie Groenen's stats from the 2019/20 season


12 games played (1024 mins)

1 assist

15 shots, 6 on target

272/391 passes completed (69,6% completion rate)

24 key passes

36 shot-creating actions

4 goal creating actions

11/18 tackles won

21/33 dribbles completed

Applied pressure 248 times

24 blocks

4 interceptions

4 clearances

112 recoveries

(stats from fbref.com)



Showing her class


Going into a new season, some question marks were surrounding Groenen and her role within the regularly deployed 4-2-3-1 system. Being United's first overseas signing, she was the biggest star, and whilst being one of Stoney's most trusted players in the 2019/20 campaign, playing her out of position didn't get the best out of her something you usually want to do with your best players. It was therefore going to be interesting to see if Stoney would change formation to accommodate Groenen and utilise her qualities to a better degree, or if she would stick with the same formation which got the team to an impressive 4th place finish.


The 2020/21 season started with the biggest challenge of them all, reigning WSL champions Chelsea at home at Leigh Sports Village. For that game, Stoney decided to stick with the 4-2-3-1 but gambled by surprisingly starting with Groenen on the bench. United went into the break being 0-1 down and benching Groenen from the start looked like a tactical blunder with United's midfield of Hayley Ladd, Katie Zelem and Ella Toone not working out too well against Chelsea's strong midfield. Stoney realised that things weren't working ideally and looked to Groenen on the bench to change the game. After 53 minutes, Groenen entered the pitch at right-wing. A big surprise, but Groenen completely changed the game in favour of United and topped it off by assisting Leah Galton's equaliser in the 79th minute. The game ended 1-1 and despite starting the game on the bench, Groenen came on, changed the game and showed her class and importance to the team.


After the Chelsea game, Stoney changed the set-up of the team to something which looks like a hybrid between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3. This change also means a small tweak to Groenen's role, a role which suits her a lot better. When United are organised defensively, it might look more like a 4-2-3-1 with Ladd/Zelem and Groenen in the double pivot with Toone in the no.10 role. However, offensively and with the ball, it's more like a 4-3-3 or even a 4-1-1-1-3, a set-up which is very reminiscent of Dutch national team's set-up. Ladd or Zelem rotates by playing in the deepest midfield role and Toone plays as the most advanced midfielder. Groenen plays in between with more freedom to move to receive the ball and to both do work offensively and defensively. Playing in this role allows Groenen to use her qualities in the same way she does for the national team, a role she thrives in. During the first half of the season, it's become evident that she is the most important player in United's team. She is the engine of the team and the glue that holds the midfield together. Without Groenen, United's midfield is struggling to keep the shape and cover all the space necessary. The same aggression and intensity in the defensive work are lacking too without Groenen on the pitch. Finally, the composure and quality on the ball go down a fair few notches in her absence. United's play looks more frantic, panicky and sloppy whenever Groenen is missing. All of this is evident when Groenen hasn't been on the pitch; the first half against Chelsea, after she went off against Liverpool in the Conti Cup, and finally against Aston Villa when she was forced off due to an early head injury. The midfield has struggled in all of these games and the performance level of the team hasn't been at its best. Groenen's work and contributions to the team might go under the radar because she doesn't score goals, but she's invaluable to this Manchester United team. She's thriving this season in her best position and is showing her class week in week out.



Jackie Groenen's 2020/21 season stats so far


10 games played (741 mins)

2 assists

5 shots, 1 on target

227/305 passes completed (74,4% completion rate)

11 key passes

23 shot-creating actions

6 goal creating actions

20/26 tackles won

5/9 dribbles completed

Applied pressure 176 times

22 blocks

6 interceptions

7 clearances

91 recoveries

(stats from fbref.com)


Conclusion


Jackie Groenen is without a doubt a class midfielder and a big star within the women's game. When she signed for Manchester United in the summer of 2019, it came with surprise and also with a lot of expectations due to her brilliant performances for the Dutch national team. Groenen is a playmaking box-to-box midfielder which thrives in the no.8 role in a 4-3-3, a position she has played in a lot and a role she has executed to perfection for the Netherlands. However, in her first season for Manchester United, she was used in a more advanced midfield role as a no.10 in a 4-2-3-1, a position she isn't too familiar with and one where she doesn't get to use all her qualities properly. This led to a season in which she was solid, but didn't really hit her highest level enough. A consistently solid first season for Manchester United, but subpar for her standards. In this current campaign though, she has been used in her natural role which has led to Groenen showing her class. She has become invaluable to this Manchester United team and a massive reason to why they are unbeaten and top of the league. Groenen has really proven that she is a world-class midfielder by arguably being United's best player so far. Her influence on the team is astonishing and without her, United are struggling. She has been consistently world-class this season and has become the most important piece in Casey Stoney's puzzle.