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The Factors Behind United’s WSL Title Push

 

In only their second WSL season, Manchester United are well placed to challenge the league’s established sides for the title. Ahead of their visit to the defending WSL champions this weekend, we take a look at how they have pushed on in 2020/21.

 

By: Andy Cooper

The current league tables makes for pleasant reading for the red half of Manchester, with both United’s men’s and women’s teams sitting three points clear in their respective competitions.

Whilst Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men are looking to challenge for a first Premier League title in the post-Ferguson era, the exploits of Casey Stoney’s squad represent a big step forward from their inaugural WSL campaign, where they finished sixteen points adrift of champions Chelsea when the season was curtailed prematurely last March.

This weekend sees United visit Kingsmeadow to face the reigning WSL champions, in a top-of-the-table clash where the league’s two remaining unbeaten records are on the line. A win for the visitors would be a big statement in terms of validating United’s title credentials, in a competition where Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City have monopolised the top three places every year since 2015.

As they look to gate crash the WSL’s top table, we investigate some the key factors behind United’s push to the WSL summit.

Making Pressing Count

Like all of their rivals, United were very active in the transfer market ahead of the 2020/21 campaign, recruiting experienced World Cup winners Christen Press and Tobin Heath from the NWSL, together with England international Lucy Staniforth from Birmingham City. This was in additional to three emerging players aged under 21: Ivana Fuso, Ona Batlle and Alessia Russo.

Of the new arrivals, only Heath and Batlle have appeared in more than half of all available on-field league minutes so far and if we compare United’s overall approach with the ball, using Stats Perform’s sequence framework, their average number of passes per sequence, sequence time and direct speed up field all mirror their outputs from 2019/20.

WSL Sequence Comparison: Manchester United Women

2019/20Sequence Metric2020/21
2.5Passes per sequence2.6
6.7Sequence Time (seconds)7.0
1.6Direct Speed (m/s)1.6

Whilst these possession metrics indicate a level of continuity in playing style when United have the ball, the one area where United have really stepped up collectively this season has been in their effectiveness at winning the ball back high in the opposition half. United’s PPDA output has dropped from 10.4 last season to 9.6 (the third-lowest output in WSL), indicating they are regaining possession quicker and in terms of high turnovers, only Manchester City have completed more regains within 40 metres of the opposition goal so far in 2020/21.

More significantly, United are proving to be more effective than their city rivals at turning high turnovers into goal scoring opportunities. They have posted 33 shots from high turnovers, which is the most of any WSL team by some margin, and have scored seven times, which equates to nearly a quarter of their season total.

2020/21 WSL: Most Goals Scored from High Turnovers

TeamHigh TurnoversShot Ending High TurnoversGoal Ending High Turnovers
Manchester United Women133337
Chelsea Women125214
Arsenal Women90203
Manchester City Women139243
Brighton and Hove Albion Women77142
Bristol City Women5092

As illustrated by the pitch map below, United have been successful at dispossessing their opponents across the full width of the pitch in advanced areas, but in terms of goal scoring, they have been particularly strong at punishing opposition who lose the ball in central areas of the pitch.

One player who has had a big impact on United’s effectiveness at winning the ball in advanced areas is Tobin Heath. Of players to have played in at least 500 minutes this season, the 32-year-old US international ranks top in WSL for ball recoveries in the opposition half per 90 (4.7), fourth for interceptions (1.2) and sixth for tackles (1.6), with a 73% tackle success rate.

Successful Execution of Crossing, From Both Set Pieces and Open Play

Another key attribute that Heath has brought to this United team has been her delivery from set piece situations. Both she and Katie Zelem contribute 0.12 xA per 90 each from set piece deliveries, ranking them both joint-third in the competition.

Set piece situations have been another area where Stoney’s side has excelled this season. Having ranked in the bottom half of WSL for set piece xG in 2019/20, they are generating chances worth a total 0.46 xG per 90, the highest in the league, which has resulted in seven set piece goals.

2020/21 WSL: Expected Goals from Set Pieces

TeamxG per 90Goals per 90
Manchester United Women0.460.7
Chelsea Women0.450.56
Manchester City Women0.330.44
Tottenham Hotspur Women0.310.78
Arsenal Women0.230.6

As well as their set piece prowess, United are a high volume crossing team from open play, averaging 13.5 crosses per 90, which is the same output as Chelsea. Between them, Leah Galton from the left, and Kirsty Hanson from the right have created 11 chances from open play crosses this season, worth a combined 1.47 xA.

In total, United have scored four goals from open play crosses, a number which is only bettered by Arsenal (6).

Galton’s Versatility and Dual Threat

Galton’s all-round performance has been one of the big success stories for United this season, which saw her pick up the WSL Player of the Month award for December. The 26-year-old has demonstrated her versatility by playing on the left hand side of midfield, left back and in centre midfield and as well as looking to deliver the ball into the box from wide areas, the quality of her passing in attacking areas has seen her generate a total xA output of 2.3 for the season.

Only Fran Kirby (2.8) and Beth Mead (3.6) have a higher collective league total and given the quality of the chances she has created, Galton may consider herself somewhat unfortunate to have only posted two assists so far this season.

As well as providing opportunities for others, Galton has also proved to be clinical in front of goal too. She is United’s leading scorer with five goals from only 17 shots, a conversion rate of 29.4%.

Another English player who has enjoyed a strong start to 2020/21 is Ella Toone, who ranks third in WSL for total xG (4.5, including one penalty) and scored the crucial winning goal against Arsenal in November. Unlike Galton, Toone is a high volume shooter, having posted more shots than any other player in the league so far (44) and will be looking to build on her early season performance in what has been a breakthrough WSL campaign for the England Under-21 international.

Locking Horns With the Defending Champions

Coming off the back of five straight victories in all competitions, Chelsea will provide United with their biggest test of 2020/21 so far. The champions have been boosted this season with the return of Fran Kirby from injury, who in addition to leading WSL in xA per 90 (0.4), is also the Blues’ joint-leading scorer with Sam Kerr (7), following her four goal haul at Reading last weekend.

Kerr, who is in her first full campaign at Kingsmeadow, has the best xG per shot ratio in WSL of players to have attempted at least 10 shots (0.29), demonstrating her ability to find high quality goalscoring locations in the box.

As well as having to contend with a front line in a rich vein of form, United have the challenge of breaking down a team that is proving to be miserly at the other end of the field. Collectively, Emma Hayes’ side have conceded chances worth only 0.71 xG per 90, the lowest output in the league, and have conceded only five times from nine matches.

It all makes for a fascinating encounter, where we will find out if United can maintain, or even extend their lead at the top. However, no matter whether they win, lose or draw, it would appear that United are already consigning the era of the WSL big three to history.