Manchester United: From unbeaten league leaders to a vulnerable side
Before its start, the 2020/21 WSL season had the promise to become one of the most competitive and most exciting seasons since the competition got renamed in 2011. A little over halfway through the season, it certainly hasn't disappointed. Shocking results, postponed games, Dubaigate, multiple manager departures and FA controversy are just some of the things the current WSL campaign has given its viewers so far. Amongst these surprises was the unexpected rise of Manchester United. The team is in just its second season in England's top league, but are already looking to break the dominance of the regular top 3; Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. They went into the Christmas break as unbeaten league leaders, but something has gone wrong post-break, evident by their performance levels and decreased point accumulation.
Manchester United started the season by doing something they had never done before; take points off one of the top 3 teams by drawing 1-1 at home against reigning league champions Chelsea. After that, they went into dominance mode and going unbeaten until the Christmas break, which marked the halfway point of the season. Remarkably, they only dropped points in one more game before the break, a 2-2 draw at home to local rivals Manchester City. To most people's surprise, this meant that Casey Stoney's side celebrated Christmas at the top of the WSL table. Whilst Stoney herself tried to downplay her team's participation in the title race by continuously stating that a top 3 finish was always the goal, one couldn't rule out the table-toppers from the title race at the halfway point of the season. Manchester United built momentum, kept the momentum, played like winners and looked like winners by refusing to lose and managing to grind out wins in tight games. They showed real signs and characteristics of champions.
However, in the second half of the season, something has changed for Manchester United. In their five games after the Christmas break, they have only managed to win two games, losing the other three. That accumulates to only 6 points taken from a possible 15 points. For a team that went unbeaten throughout the first half of the season, taking 26 points from a possible 30 points, this turnaround has been a huge change for the worse. United's poor run of form, combined with Chelsea's ridiculous consistency and Manchester City's resurgence has led to them dropping to 3rd in the table, 6 points behind league leaders Chelsea. Their point tally has reduced dramatically, and so has their performance level. It's relatively clear that The Red Devils have lost their momentum from pre-Christmas break, so the question is this; How can this complete switch in form be explained? Some factors have played a big part in this, so let's take a look at them more closely.
One of the things that has impacted Manchester United negatively in the second half of the season are injuries. Injuries are a common occurrence for any team throughout a season, but in United's case, they have been quite unfortunate with who have suffered injuries and to what extent. Key players such as Lauren James, Alessia Russo and Tobin Heath have all suffered pretty severe injuries causing them to miss a lengthy period during the season. This injury streak already started before the break, but as the season has progressed, it has affected United more and more due to a lack of depth. It hasn't helped that some of the injuries have overlapped with each other as well, resulting in key players being out at the same time. It's also worth mentioning that Leah Galton suffered an ankle injury in the most recent league game against Manchester City, ruling her out for two months, which will undoubtedly impact United's bid for a Champions League spot.
Before her thigh injury which required surgery, Alessia Russo scored three goals and provided two assists in four games. She was also behind six goal-creating actions and 17 shot-creating actions from her striker position. Russo really proved her talent in the few games she played by scoring goals, providing assists, creating chances and overall looking like a perfect fit for the striker position at Manchester United. She showed great hold-up play, pace, strength and was a constant threat for opposition defenders. Losing Russo meant that United lost their first-choice striker and someone who proved that she will be a consistent goal-scorer for the team. The injury to Russo was a big blow at the time, but United still managed to pick up wins and play relatively well, although the absence of a proper no. 9 was noticeable at times.
Statement from Manchester United on Alessia Russo's injury (manutd.com).
Replacing Russo at striker was always going be to a difficult task as United didn't (and still don't) have anyone that fits the role as well as Russo or provides the same qualities as her. However, the most natural replacement would've been last season's top scorer Lauren James. Unfortunately, James' season has also been hampered by injuries. It's been a stop-start, stop-start season for James, which has led to her not being able to stake her claim of a regular spot in the starting XI. Whenever she has been fit, she has been given minutes, but unluckily picked up a new injury relatively quickly. This has meant that whilst Russo has been injured, the same has been the case for James, and United have missed their two main strikers simultaneously. American star Christen Press has occupied the striker position in Russo and James' absence but is more comfortable out wide on the wing. The lack of a true, outright no. 9 has proved to be difficult for United and is something that has negatively affected their goal-scoring threat.
Whilst losing both Russo and James has been a huge blow for Manchester United, the biggest blow has been the loss of US star Tobin Heath. Heath suffered a severe ankle injury before United's first game back after the Christmas break against Chelsea, which has ruled her out for 10-12 weeks. This injury has had a massive impact on United, and can be considered as a catalyst for their poor run of form after Christmas. Four goals, two assists, 43 shot-creating actions, 4 goal-creating actions and 27 key passes in eight games are just some of the attacking numbers Heath produced before getting injured. She was one of United's main creative, attacking outlets whilst being fit, and brought quality to the team's attacking play in the final third, which has been missing for United after the break. Heath's dazzling dribbling, creativity and overall quality as a player have been a massive loss, but also her leadership on the pitch has been missing. United have looked a lot less dangerous going forward in the second half of the season because of it.
All of these injuries have played a big part in United's poor run of form, and whilst injuries can't be solely blamed for it, United have been massively unlucky to be hit by so many big injuries in one part of the squad. Their attacking options and depth were praised before the season, but getting so many injuries to attacking players, most recently Leah Galton as well, has really cut down the options in that department of the squad.
The double-pivot problem
The injury crisis which primarily has affected United's front line has clearly been an issue post-break. However, there has been a different issue that is more deep-lying than just injuries. After the Christmas break, Casey Stoney has resorted to making a pretty drastic change to the team and set-up. Pre-break, United (except for the first game against Chelsea), mainly set-up in a 4-3-3, which offensively became a 4-1-1-1-3 and defensively became a 4-2-3-1. The midfield three consisted of Hayley Ladd in the no. 6 role, with Jackie Groenen and Ella Toone in the two no. 8 roles. Offensively, Toone moved into the advanced playmaker role as a no. 10, with Ladd being the deepest and Groenen operating in the half-spaces between them as a no. 8. Defensively, Groenen dropped deeper alongside Ladd, forming something which resembled a 4-2-3-1 set-up with those two as the double pivot, and Toone right in front of them. This set-up worked wonders for Manchester United, both offensively and defensively. The attacking play was flowing well, resulting in a high chance-creation, good rhythm, goals and players moving into ideal attacking positions. It also worked defensively as United managed to maintain a good defensive structure when organised, but also deploying a well-functioning high and intense press forcing mistakes and turnovers high up the pitch from the opposition. This resulted in getting the best out of key players like Jackie Groenen, who arguably was United's best player pre-Christmas and Ella Toone, who thrived in her role, chipping in with goal contributions regularly and playing a crucial role for the team.
Surprisingly, post-break, Stoney has decided to move away from the successful set-up from pre-break and revert to 4-2-3-1 as the starting formation, a set-up she stubbornly used throughout the whole of last season. However, the 4-2-3-1 set-up can't be considered a success when it's been deployed. It was somewhat understandable why Stoney went with it last season, which was United's first season at the top level, but changing from the very successful set-up from pre-Christmas to an almost dysfunctional set-up post-Christmas is quite incomprehensible. The phrase "never change a winning team" is very fitting in this case, but as mentioned, Stoney has changed it and it hasn't paid off. The aforementioned injuries to attacking players could've played a part in this decision, but even then United have attackers capable of fulfilling the roles required in the 4-3-3 set-up. The 4-2-3-1 simply causes more problems than what you gain compared to the 4-3-3.
How Manchester United mainly set-up pre-Christmas (left) vs post-Christmas (right).
One of the things which makes the 4-3-3 more suited to this Manchester United team is that it gets the best out of the team, particularly the midfield. It allows freedom, lets players drift into ideal positions and even switch positions if needed. This again causes a much better flow to United's play. More importantly, however, is the fact that key players like Jackie Groenen and Ella Toone are allowed to play in their natural positions, as a no. 8 and a no. 10 respectively. It was obvious how both of them excelled in the team during the first half of the season, putting up brilliant performances week in, week out. The 4-2-3-1 doesn't allow for the same to happen as both Groenen and Toone have been forced to play out of positions to accommodate bringing Katie Zelem into the team. By bringing Zelem into the starting lineup as part of the double pivot alongside Ladd, it forces Groenen into the no. 10 role, something which evidently doesn't work at all due to her getting isolated and less involved on the ball. Stoney knows that dropping Groenen simply isn't an option due to her importance to the team, and due to the midfield usually struggling without her. She has also stated that Toone has become undroppable due to her attacking output and the great development she has shown this season. This means that Toone also has to play. Putting Zelem into Groenen's position forces Groenen further forward into Toone's position, which proven by the games after Christmas, has forced Toone to play out wide on the right-wing. Playing on the right is something Toone is uncomfortable with as she isn't a natural winger who holds the width. In attack, she almost always drifts inside to occupy her natural position as a no. 10 where she is very comfortable. However, there are two problems with that.
First of all, it leaves the right-back very alone in attack as there isn't anyone in front to hold the width or combine with to create 2 vs 1 situations. This makes United's attacking play very predictable as they are a team that likes to attack out wide. With no width on the right, a majority of United's attacks ends up down the left, making it more predictable and less difficult to defend against as there are fewer threats to worry about for the opposition. Second, with Toone drifting inside, she ends up occupying the same space as Groenen, who in this set-up is the no. 10. This leads to a very congested area through the middle, resulting in less space to play in and therefore more difficult to create chances in that area, again leading to the attacking play being predictable. Playing the 4-2-3-1 and bringing Zelem into the starting lineup causes a domino effect with key players being forced to play out of position to accommodate that, resulting in a far from an ideal solution, with both Groenen and Toone out of position, predictable attacking play and a flat double pivot of Ladd and Zelem.
Another thing that relates to the domino effect which occurs due to playing the double-pivot, is the lack of service to the striker. In general, the striker in United's 4-2-3-1 set-up has tended to get isolated which again is the case. The striker doesn't get much involved and relies on service from the midfield and the wingers. However, as previously stated, the double pivot causes United's attacking play to be heavily left-sided which ends up being very predictable. With no attacking output on the right due to Toone drifting inside and a very congested area in the middle, also caused by Toone drifting inside, there are very few areas the striker can get service from. Since there isn't much chance-creation from the right or through the middle, the only options that remain are from the left-hand side or balls in behind. However, this makes it very easy to defend as teams can sit in a low defensive block and not allow any space in behind. Simultaneously, the defensive block can easily shuffle towards the left and deny space there too. By doing that, they have nullified all of United's attacking threats, as they know United don't have much width on the right, it's too congested through the middle, and they can focus on dealing with space behind and shuffling to the left to deny space there. This makes it very difficult for United to create chances, resulting in less service to the striker and obviously fewer goals.
Finally, a big part of Manchester United's success in the first half of the season was Ella Toone and her role within the team. Not only did Toone thrive offensively by providing goals and assists, and being a great attacking outlet for United, she also contributed massively defensively. Toone's role defensively was very interesting, but also very important. During the first half of the season, she was crucial to United's collective high, intense press. Toone's role in that press was vital, as she occupied the no. 10 role and was brilliant at disrupting the opponent's build-up play, forcing turnovers high up the pitch. This allowed United to start attacks a lot closer to the opponent's goal, whilst the defence was unorganised as they were just caught in transition due to Toone forcing mistakes and winning the ball. This high-intensity press was very well utilised by United, and whilst Toone had a key role in that press, she didn't do everything alone. What's really important when deploying such a high press as United did, is that the pressing team does it cohesively, or else it's very easy to play through it. United's execution of the high press was as close to perfect as one can get and their set-up allowed for it to be cohesive and intense. The front three started the press by harassing the opposition backline, Toone in the no. 10 role chased down the defensive midfielder, and finally, Jackie Groenen pushed forward from her deeper role to join Toone and press alongside her. The full-backs also pushed up when needed too, and this whole press resulted in United catching their opponents in pressing traps leading to them winning the ball and start attacks in their opponent's half.
Ella Toone was very important to Manchester United's attacking play and press from her no. 10 role before Christmas.
However, changing to the double-pivot, bringing Zelem into the set-up and forcing Toone and Groenen into different positions, doesn't allow for the press to be as effective as it was pre-Christmas. Groenen is one of the best press-players in the world and is perfectly capable of leading the press from the no. 10 role. However, the same connection between Groenen and Toone in the press isn't as good with Toone playing out wide. In the other set-up when the press was effective, Groenen pushed forward to pressure the opposition midfielders causing the midfielders to turn into Toone close nearby and losing the ball to Toone. The same doesn't work now and a big reason for that is the lack of cohesiveness. Katie Zelem doesn't have the same intensity, work-rate or willingness to push forward in the press as Groenen. As previously mentioned, it's crucial to have a cohesive press, but when Groenen starts the press from the no. 10 role in the double-pivot set-up, Zelem doesn't push forward to press alongside Groenen, in the same way, Groenen did with Toone. United's press then becomes a lot less cohesive, resulting in a lot of space between Groenen and the rest of the midfield. Groenen ends up pressing alone, which is very easy to bypass for the opposition, who can then utilise the space between United's midfield by moving players into that space and create overloads. All of this makes United a lot more vulnerable defensively and easier to exploit, something which wasn't the case with their pre-Christmas set-up but has become the case post-Christmas after the change to the double-pivot.
Manchester United enjoyed an unbeaten first half of the season resulting in them being league leaders at the halfway point. Unfortunately, they have been far away from replicating a similar record after the Christmas break. They have dropped to 3rd and their performance level has suffered along with their point tally. This downward spiral could be seen as surprising, but given the circumstances, it all makes sense. Injuries to key players like Alessia Russo, Lauren James, and Tobin Heath have proved to be the start of their poor run of form. Additionally, Leah Galton suffering a bad injury during the derby against Manchester City means that United are currently missing quite a few of their attacking players simultaneously. Whilst injuries in some way can explain the team's recent troubles, the biggest difference between the two halves of the season is the system and set-up. This change has forced key players to be played out of position to accommodate others, which has had negative effects on United's attacking returns, their build-up play and their defensive organisation. Manager Casey Stoney made a change that hasn't paid off and she needs to change back to what was working so well in the first half of the season. In order for United to regain their form, win games, perform better and re-establish themselves at the very top, all these aforementioned issues need to be addressed, especially the double-pivot. Otherwise, United will continue to lag behind the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City.