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Best of Three: Why do Manchester United struggle to play out from the back?
Plus Lauren James' best position and an early look at the relegation battle
Manchester United ended up being pretty thoroughly outplayed in the Manchester derby with Manchester City coming from behind to win 3-1. Manager Marc Skinner is clearly still trying to put his finger on what his best starting XI is, and as a result they continue to look unsettled in possession compared to last season. City capitalised on those issues with Bunny Shaw leading an intense press that caused United’s defence big problems, as two of City’s goals came from turnovers.
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“What we need to do is, if teams press us high, find the out ball quicker,” said Marc Skinner after the game. “We don't build from the back because it's an egotistical thing. It's because if the opponent pressure high, the space is higher up. So we need to make sure we maximise that. It's about what spaces the opponent give us.”
Yet United are missing a player who can strongly hold the ball up higher up the pitch. Alessia Russo won more aerial duels than any other United player last season. It is notable how the completion percentages of Mary Earps’ ‘launched’ balls (passes longer than 40 yards) have declined from 41.1% and 43.9% in the previous two seasons to just 25.4%.
United do not currently have the relationships on the pitch to successfully play out from the back, but nor do they have players who can win the ball for them if they do go long. That is increasing the pressure on them.
What is Lauren James’ best position?
Chelsea made light work of Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on Saturday lunchtime despite having travelled back late from Madrid on Wednesday evening. They finished 5-1 winners thanks predominantly to Lauren James who ended up with a hat-trick, an assist and a pre-assist. James did not start during the midweek Champions League fixture against Real Madrid and looked all the fresher for it as she played potentially her best game yet in a Chelsea shirt.
James has always said that she prefers playing as a number 10, and in the past she has often looked more involved in the game when she has been in those kinds of central areas. However, this was a fantastic example of how deadly she can be on the wing. Interestingly, she played on the left with Aggie Beever-Jones used on the right. Whether that was because Emma Hayes felt like having Niamh Charles behind her would give more defensive security is unclear; the goal Chelsea actually conceded from Liverpool came down that side regardless.
As a very two-footed player, James is the perfect threat on the wing, able to go round the outside or cut in. In her WSL career, she has scored eight times with her left foot and nine times with her right. Her first two goals against Liverpool came from her precisely placing the ball beyond Rachel Laws with her finishing technique which is quickly becoming iconic whereby she seems to barely move her foot to generate enormous power. In less congested areas out wide, James creates space more efficiently with her take-ons too.
James is clearly supremely talented, and the addition of more goals to her game will only increase her threat. Whether she is playing centrally or out wide, this is a player that opposition will fear. But currently, she does seem to be at her best when she is out on the wing.
Who is in the relegation battle?
With close to a third of the season already played, the way things are shaking out at the bottom of the WSL is not looking quite as clear cut as some might have expected. The general consensus ahead of the year was that Bristol City were obvious favourites to be relegated with a squad mostly still relying on players from their Championship victory and without a strong Premier League team behind them. However, with four points on the board already, Everton, West Ham and Aston Villa all might be starting to feel a little bit nervous.
If we actually take a look at the underlying numbers, Brighton are currently bottom on expected goal difference per 90, averaging -1.38. They have now played all of the top four already though and it seems likely that that will improve over their next couple of matches as we get to the halfway point of the season. Leicester City are similarly poor but recently conceded almost half of their expected goals against all season in last week’s match against Arsenal.
Aston Villa are currently the fourth worst team with a -0.98 expected goal difference per 90. Their two recent wins over Bristol City and West Ham have finally helped them get some points on the board, and it does feel like the fact that their players are of a high enough quality to regularly score goals will be enough to keep them safe. It is a separate question as to whether they can kick on enough to head back up the table.
One side to keep an eye on might be West Ham. Their underlying numbers are pretty reasonable (-0.4/90) but they are struggling due to conceding close to double the amount of goals that they would be expected to. On the basis of the numbers, they should be around the same sort of level as Liverpool and Tottenham, but instead they currently find themselves joint bottom.