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Best of Three: Are Manchester United too defensively open?
Plus Brighton’s tactical tweak and Manchester City playing all their cards
Are Manchester United too defensively open?
Manchester United are one of only two teams to remain unbeaten in the Women’s Super League this season but their trip to Crawley on Sunday night saw them fortunate to walk away with a point. The 2-2 draw with Brighton was their third draw of the season having already dropped points against Arsenal and Leicester. That leaves them in sixth place, already four points behind league leaders Chelsea.
United had to come from behind twice here to get the draw and conceding two goals against Brighton continued a worrying trend of being defensively vulnerable. They have now conceded half as many goals as they did across the entirety of last season, despite only being five games in. Their expected goals allowed is currently sitting at 0.92 per 90 compared to 0.59 per 90 last year. This run is not an unlucky fluke - United are conceding far more chances than they did in 2022/23.
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Manager Marc Skinner probably added a bit of fuel to the fire in this match, dropping Hayley Ladd out of the side. Ladd featured in 21 of United’s WSL matches last season and started their first three this year. However, she did not play a single minute in their Champions League qualifying fixtures against Paris Saint-Germain and hasn’t featured in the last two WSL games either. That has enabled Skinner to play Katie Zelem at the base of midfield with Hinata Miyazawa and Ella Toone ahead of her. But it was far too easy for Brighton to break through the midfield as a result. Losing Ona Batlle over the summer was a big blow to United’s defence, and dropping your long-term holding midfielder does not seem like the best way to fix it.
How did Brighton’s half-time switch limit Manchester United?
For all that Manchester United’s own set-up enabled Brighton to attack, they also made their own tweaks at half-time to help preserve their 1-0 lead. Brighton’s recruitment this summer drew a lot of attention but Melissa Phillips has yet to truly make an impression in charge of the side. Sunday night’s performance was their most accomplished under her yet thanks predominantly to how she identified and solved the problems that Brighton were facing.
Brighton had set up in back 5 with Jocelyn Carabali, Maria Thorisdottir and Guro Bergsvand as the centre-backs. Katie Robinson played as a left wing-back with Emma Kullberg as a right wing-back (who stayed a lot deeper than Robinson). However with United putting on a lot of pressure attacking down their left side in the first half and exploiting the gaps in Brighton’s shape, Phillips made formation and personnel changes. Carabali moved out to right-back to deal with Leah Galton with Brighton moving back to a four. Lee Geum-Min replaced Madison Haley and went into midfield, with a strong 45 minutes which helped Brighton interrupt Manchester United’s pressure.
It was not a perfect switch - Carabali was tackled by Galton in the lead up to Ella Toone’s original equaliser - but it certainly kept Brighton even in the game rather than having them capitulate. That is a big platform to build on, even if next week’s away fixture against Manchester City will be an even trickier challenge.
Did Manchester City go too big too soon?
Manchester City’s 2-1 loss to Arsenal was their first defeat in the season, and a blow to a team who had looked to be in the best form in the league so far. It was a very attacking line up from City who played their preferred front three of Chloe Kelly, Bunny Shaw and Lauren Hemp with a midfield three of Jill Roord, Mary Fowler, and Yui Hasegawa. Fowler had been used so far this season the left wing, and her inclusion in the midfield (a position she is familiar with) felt like an attempt to deal with the technical ability of Arsenal’s midfield.
Despite a strong start from City, a poor goal kick from Khiara Keating lead to Arsenal’s opener with the Manchester team looking shell shocked from conceding against the run of play. Keating saved a penalty shortly afterwards but it was not until the second half that City actually began to put Arsenal under pressure. Arsenal only had one shot in the second half until Keating’s error allowed them to score their second but City struggled to change up their team. Manager Gareth Taylor brought on two fullbacks in Julie Blakstad and Kerstin Casparij but seemed reluctant to make attacking changes. In a game which was ultimately decided by errors, it is hard to say whether being able to bring someone on like Fowler later on could have made a difference, and Taylor did have players like Jess Park and Fillipa Angeldahl available to him. But ultimately it felt like he had backed his team to go big early on, and they were not able to.