Tactical analysis: Attacking style of play Manchester United Women 2021/2022

As said before, there has been a lot of talk concerning the WSL. It has been a lot about the results of the English sides in the Champions League. But, domestically we see that Manchester United is doing remarkably well, but haven’t gottent the attention as they probably deserve.

In this analysis I will take Manchester United’s performance in the first half of the season and analyse their performances. I will focus on the following things:

  • Formation
  • Build-up & attacking style of play
  • Pressing style

In this analysis I will focus on the WSL 2021/2022. Data and video are from Wyscout.


According to Wyscout, Manchester United have played in three different formations: the 4-2-3-1 (74%), the 4-4-1-1 (15%) and the 4-3-3 (6%). Now these all have different ideas and principles, but for this analysis I will look at how they set up in the last 5 games, using these formations.

In the image above you see the 4-2-3-1 as employed by Manchester United. What characterises this particular formation is that you work with two specific blocks: a defensive one and an attacking one. The defensive block consists of the four-player defence Blundell-Turner-Mannon-Batille + the low defensive midfield or double pivot of Zelem-Ladd.

The attacking unit does consist of four players. Wide midfielders/wingers Toone and Staniforth with Risa playing on the ’10’ position, behind the striker. The lone striker in this situation is Russo.

In the 4-4-1-1 formation we see a shift in the positioning. There are two lines of four player, meaning that the midfield is strengthened and can play a deep 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 in defence if needed. In this scenario the double pivot is supported by wide midfielders and the difference with the 4-2-3-1 is that they don’t act as much as wingers

The attack is mainly formed by the two strikers up top, although seems like a striker and a shadow striker, the dynamics between the two is of vital importance, and they might shift from positions and roles.

We have no looked at the two main formations which make 89% of the formations used in this particular season. In the next segment we are going to look at how they build up with these formations.

Build up

In this part of the analysis we will look at the build up. With build up is meant the following: how a team progresses from their own goalkeeper or central defenders to the middle third in preparation for the attack.

In the GIF above you Manchester United building up from the back in their game against Everton. The build up start with the central defenders and the goalkeeper passing the ball to each other. There’s a mild press from the Evertonians, but Manchester United want to play out of it and try to circulate the ball in a high tempo. In doing so they have more time and this can be seen on the right flank, as they try to pass the ball to the right back who in this case wins the 1v1 one, inverts and has options in the half space in the middle third.

In the GIF above you see Mancheste rUnited in their game against Brighton and Hove Albion. In this footage we see a different way of buiding up. Manchester United reclaim possession of the ball and start building up with their central defenders. In this case they don’t opt for the direct, shot pass to the full backs – as they are not in the position to do so.

In this game Manchester United employed a 4-2-3-1 sistuation and encouraged full backs to go high, but also needed the double pivot to drop down to cover. The wide midfielders/wingers inverted in order to provide space for the full backs. When this was done, the central defender could play the long ball to the right flank, where the right full back made a run down the line in order to continue the attack.

In the GIF above you see Manchester United in their game against Leicester City. We see the central defenders on the ball and playing out from the back. Instead of doing that what has been done against Brighton, Manchester United did something slightly different.

The full backs did progress higher into the middle third, but not as high as in a different scenario. They stay a bit more conservative giving space to the wide midfielders/wingers to go wide. They do not invert, but go as wide as possible. The wide midfielders/wingers drop down as well to be able to receive the ball and that’s what happens here – and they will carry the ball into the final third.

Attacking style of play

Manchester United does create chances via their build up, as we have seen in the examples above, but in this egment of the article we are going to focus on the attacking style of play that involves their pressing. In the attacking third they press aggressively and that leads to possession in dangerous areas of the pitch for the opposition, which makes them a threat in those areas of the pitch.

In the examples below I will illustrate how they create goalscoring opportunities through their pressing.

In the GIF above you see Manchester United against Aston Villa. Aston Villa try to play it out from the back, but due to the agressive pressing from united on the full back an dthe defensive midfielder, they are able to regain possession of the ball in the central zones of the pitch and get the ball into zone 14, where Manchester United do shot on target. In this instance they could have carried it more into the penalty are, but they had space and time to hurt Aston Villa.

In the GIF above, you can see Manchester United in their game against Everton. The pressing starts with the striker who forces the goalkeeper/central defender to play it long to the middle third. When the ball is in the middle third, the defenders press the receiving player and hope to get possession of the ball again, after which the transition is done with great pace towards the left flank. The cross from that flank isn’t optimal, but does get to the striker who can get a shot on goal. In just a few passes, Manchester United is direct and gets in the right positions to harm the opposition.

Goals scored

So how do we go from creating a goalscoring opportunity to an actual goal? In the examples below you can see how Manchester United did that in their last few games.

In the video above you see Manchester United in their game against Aston Villa, as they used their pressing to get the ball in dangerous areas. They make use of 2 players pressing the player on the ball and used that twice, which ultimately ended up in getting the ball in the penalty area. A good move from the Manchester United player and a brilliant finish to top it off.

In the video above we see Manchester United in their game against Everton, while they have the ball in the middle third to start with. This attack is not the result of pressing, but does show us how many numbers Manchester United want to have getting forward. The ball goes to the wide midfielder who moves into the half space leaving space on the right flank. The right full back makes a run down the line, and is open to receive the ball when the wide midfielder passes the ball to the middle. Even though the central areas are loaded, Manchester United keep the ball and manage to find the the combination with a run, splitting Everton’s defence open and score a good goal.

In the video above we see Manchester United in their game against Brighton. They are in the attacking third and while Brighton applies a good press on the Manchester United players, they are managing to get out of it due to their technical abilities. High ball retention, technical ability and pace – meant that Manchester United was one step ahead and the ball went to the right flank, after which the cross was provided into the six-yard box. A smart finish guided the ball into the far corner, a good goal for Manchester United

Final thoughts

In this article I’ve highlighted some elements of Manchester United’s direct approach to attacks. They make sure to press high and get the ball to have goalscoring opportunities from there. They also know how to use their build up to swithc from the calm passes in the defensive third, to the high speed, direct play in the attacking third. This approach has been quite successful in the last few games and it’s interesting to see where it leads them, come end of the season.


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