WSL newcomers Manchester United will be a major challenge for league leaders Chelsea
After the dismal showing by The Lionesses in front of a record crowd of 77,768 at Wembley, we can all breathe a big sigh of relief and get back to some Women’s Super League this weekend.
There are several tasty looking fixtures too. It’s derby day on Merseyside and also in North London, but not to be outdone, league leaders Chelsea host new kids on the block Manchester United at The Cherry Red Records Stadium (the artistic ground formerly known as Kingsmeadow).
According to expected goals, Emma Hayes’ Chelsea thoroughly deserve their top spot. Their non-penalty xG per game stands at 2.08, easily the best in the league, while the against figure is 0.65, narrowly second-best behind Arsenal’s. A goal and a half per game better off than opposition is impressive even if the opening fixtures have been fairly kind.
Hayes has settled on a fairly robust 4-4-2-ish set up in recent weeks with either Fran Kirby or Ramona Bachmann playing slightly off the ever-ready Bethany England up front.
With Chelsea putting teams on the back foot with their possession through a mix of both buildup from the back and direct balls into the channels, a lot of good attacking work comes from quick turnovers. Erin Cuthbert and Ji So-yun stand out in winning the ball back and Chelsea lead the way in high press shots. Here those two are combining for one of those:
Ji is basically Chelsea’s go-to player. Dominant in so many metrics, the South Korean’s closest player match-ups in the Statsbomb database include Barcelona version Andres Iniesta, Liverpool version Philippe Coutinho and Manchester City’s David Silva. Enough said:
Even against champions Arsenal, playing in a two v three in the middle of the park, she’s bossing it:
What of Casey Stoney’s Red Devils, then?
United currently sit fourth in the non-penalty xG difference table at 0.51 per game and sit fourth in the actual table too, leaders of the ‘best of the rest' group. That’s pretty impressive for a newly promoted side, no?
With impossibly horrific opening fixtures against Manchester City and Arsenal, followed by Liverpool, Reading and Spurs, Stoney has tinkered about with the side, setting them up differently almost every time.
Consequently, the squad has been well rotated already. Whoever is picked, though, it’s fair to say United like to defend deep and bring the opposition on:
The team wallow at the bottom of the passes per defensive action (PPDA) table, allowing over 12 passes before making a defensive action. Even perennial bus parkers Bristol City get stuck in quicker than that. On average, United make their defensive moves well over 10 yards further back than upcoming opponents Chelsea.
In goal, England No.1 Mary Earps is fairly well protected, as United are pretty good at preventing high-value shots, second only to Arsenal. She's having a good season so far, conceding only 2 goals when post-shot xG would expect nearly 5.
While for England, Phil Neville has her playing out from the back, at United, she goes longer than any other keeper in the league. This showed while watching the England match live last Saturday. Earps didn’t appear switched on enough to doing things quickly and looked slow and deliberate with the ball at her feet. To be fair, however, Steph Houghton and Leah Williamson were also in a daze too.
Left-sided midfielder, Katie Zelem is generally the hub of the team. That considered, you can see from her radar that perhaps United aren’t a run of the mill side:
The pass sonar for Zelem also reveals how United might want to play Chelsea. Zelem’s pass completion is perhaps represented by how often the vertical ball is chosen over merely recycling possession.
Looking back at the defensive viz for United we can see defensive pressure being applied into the far corners. In the opener against City, United repeatedly sent the ball down the sides and chased the superior footballing team backwards. United hunted in packs of 3s and 4s, bombing on to put City under pressure. This accomplished two things: it made them a threat on the counter, and forced City as far away from goal as possible, having to build moves from their own box while having opposition players cutting off passing lanes. Ultimately it didn’t work, but United did create good chances and were really unlucky not to score.
It is almost written in stone that Chelsea will dominate the ball in this fixture, and it will be a fascinating cat and mouse game if United can prevent Chelsea from scoring early on. That's a big if, however. United are a physical team but so are Chelsea. United look like they can run all day at times, but if there’s one side that will stand up and fight it’s Chelsea.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Chelsea make United pay at corners. I’m not convinced by Earps’ ability to relieve the pressure there. Chelsea have good routines and good aerial ability while United have the worst numbers in the league when it comes to conceding chances at corners.
United do have a wildcard in youngster Lauren James. I first saw James properly last season running rings around older players and generally making things look too easy. Therein also lies James’ problem. All too often it seems so easy for her that she can’t be bothered. It would be brilliant if she turned up and shone in a big game like this. As it is, I’m not even sure she’ll make the starting line-up. Which is a shame because she can do this: