Tactics Watch: United Women's midfield options

Wednesday 23 March 2022 11:50

Such is the rich array of options in the Manchester United Women squad this season, boss Marc Skinner is spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a tactical plan in midfield.

Skinner favours the 4-2-3-1 formation but within that framework the head coach regularly seeks the perfect combination of players and different game plans to get positive results.

“We work on the connection of the full team,” he said recently. “We now have other variants where we can hit the counterattack because we have good wingers in our game, but we also have midfielders who can rotate throughout those systems.”

One player never up for rotation is captain Katie Zelem. The 26-year-old has started every WSL game this season, usually as part of the double pivot in front of the back four, and her passing range and desire to get forward helps her control games. That ability to dictate is highly prized by Skinner.

“It’s the genius of Katie,” Skinner said after she scored two goals in four minutes in the 4-0 defeat of Leicester at the beginning of March. “She has the wonderful ability to put the ball wherever she needs to put it. It’s a really brilliant trait that she can work on as she can be one of the best in the league – if not, the best. It was, in my opinion, a dominant performance.”

Alongside Zelem, Skinner tends to favour Hayley Ladd in the more defensive no.6 role, especially when looking for extra solidity against the WSL top sides. “Big games bring out the best in big players,” he said earlier this season. “Hayley is super competitive. You’ve only got to say the right words and she’s just ready to go.” Still on her way back from injury, the Welsh international has been missed.

When Skinner looks for more creative threat from deep, however, he tends to favour Dutch midfielder Jackie Groenen, whose smooth technique and supreme eye for a pass help unpick deep-lying low-block defences intent on frustrating loftier opponents. In the recent defeats of Leicester and Reading, Groenen excelled as the midfield metronome alongside skipper Zelem.

After making her debut against West Ham this month, winter deadline-day recruit Jade Moore will get some minutes at the base of the midfield, too. This is the third time the 50-time England international and Skinner have teamed up after spells together at Birmingham and Orland Pride and the 31-year-old’s experience to manage games late-on could be vital in the run-in to secure Champions League qualification. “Jade is a brilliant midfielder,” Skinner said recently. “She’s an intelligent player with a great football mind, who has the ability to read and control games.”
Moore's insight into injury recovery Video

Moore's insight into injury recovery

"It's been a long process," says Jade, who describes the bittersweet feeling of making her debut in Wednesday's draw...

Further forward, Vilde Boe Risa has been competing with Ella Toone and Lucy Staniforth for the playmaker berth behind a centre-forward. Toone’s versatility means she can play in any of the four attacking positions in Skinner’s 4-2-3-1 system, meaning Boe Risa and Staniforth - before the latter picked up a knee injury just prior to Christmas – alternated in the position behind a striker. The Norwegian provides non-stop work ethic and a rapidly improving eye for goal, while Staniforth is a real threat with the ball at her feet.
Skinner recently said that Staniforth was "progressing nicely" with her recovery from the knee surgery that she underwent last month.
Without the ball, wide players are expected to show the opposition the line, especially full-backs, so they can’t drift inside to create numerical superiority. If opposition wingers can be kept out wide, they become more predictable to face. “I probably do more defending than attacking!” says right-winger Kirsty Hanson. “Even if I lose the ball, I’m just so frustrated that I want to win the ball back for the team. I think that’s what I’ve got really good at.” Hanson’s electric pace has meant she has regularly been used as an impact substitute in recent weeks.

When in possession, the Reds wingers are encouraged to move inside, allowing full-backs Ona Batlle and Hannah Blundell space to overlap. It also means our wingers can affect the game more with goals and assists, which left-winger Leah Galton, a near ever-present this term, took great advantage of particularly in January, when she was voted WSL Player of the Month having contributed three goals and an assist from two games. 

Galton named WSL Player of the Month


Leah’s fine performances in January have seen her claim the league’s first monthly award of the new year!