This weekend saw an FAWSL matchday 2 clash between Reading and Manchester City. After analysis, we see that with both teams engaged in a duel of tactics, counter-pressing was the true playmaker. Reading’s composed defensive block provided stiff opposition, but could not hold off the visitors for the entire match.
With a 2-0 win and three points gained, Manchester City remains in a three-way tie at the top of the table with Everton and Arsenal. This tactical analysis will examine exactly how they did it.
Manchester City kicked off Champions League round of 32 play three days earlier with a 7-1 win against Swiss club Lugano. City is captained by Steph Houghton who also serves as captain for the English Women’s National Team.
Reading are missing veteran defender Jo Potter due to a combination of injury and a red card. Reading manager Kelly Chambers gave a starting debut to twenty-one-year-old Mayumi Pacheco to fill the hole left by Jo Potter. Chambers also gave a starting debut to Norwegian International Amalie Eikeland.
Reading vulnerable at left-back
Aware that Reading were missing a valued defender, City’s attacking tactics revolved around targeting newcomer Pacheco at left-back. Initially, this began with City building play up their right flank. By focusing play on the right flank, Pacheco would be put under constant direct pressure.
Anticipating this, Reading’s horizontal compactness nullified City’s attempted progression down the right flank. Reading’s defensive block shifted horizontally as a unit to cut off any vertical passing lanes. This made clear that Reading’s defensive priority was to cut off any vertical avenues for attack. Although, by shifting horizontally, Reading conceded a vast amount of open space on the far side of the field.
Manchester City focused on playing vertically up the right flank for the first fifteen minutes of the match. This brought City very little success and so they chose to alter their plan of attack.
With Reading remaining compact and disciplined, City then took the initiative to shift the unit across the field to open up space near Pacheco. By progressing up the left flank as opposed to the right flank, City drew Reading to the left side of the field. This opened up space around Pacheco and allowed City to set up eventual 1v1 and 2v1 situations against Pacheco.
Once City advanced to the beginning of the attacking third of the field, they held their shape and played a series of short passes. These passes served to draw the Reading defensive block in even more before releasing the ball to the far side of the field. This tactic was attempted many times and helped to create chances on goal. Unfortunately, City could not capitalize on any of these chances.
Reading press opens space for City progression
Reading’s compact and disciplined defensive unit prevented many of Manchester City’s attacks from ending up in the back of the net. Although, City did uncover one quirk in Reading’s defensive tactics that created a platform to attack from.
Reading remained compact as a unit unless a Manchester City defender played a pass backwards. The backwards pass acted as a pressing trigger for the Reading defensive unit. This specific type of pass would initiate a forward movement by the Reading midfield and attacking lines. Near the half-hour mark, Manchester City began to weaponize this pressing trigger.
By keeping their forward line pressed high, City knew that initiating a Reading press would move the Reading midfield and attacking line forward. The City defending unit would play the ball out wide to an outside back. The outside back would then pass back to the centre-back and initiate the Reading press.
As the press was occurring, the City forward line stayed as high as possible. By staying high, the Reading defensive line was forced to stay back and protect against the presence of the City forward players.
With the Reading defensive line pinned back and the midfield and forward lines pressing forward, the City attacking midfielders (Scott and Caroline Weir) then had space to receive the ball.
This sequence played out multiple times throughout the rest of the game. Despite the scoring chances created, City could not capitalize on this attacking tactic.
Manchester City counter-press creates both goals
In the end, both goals of the game were created through the Manchester City counter-press. By pressing the ball as soon as possession is lost, City aimed to conserve energy by winning the ball back quickly and not having to retract into a defensive shape. Additionally, with the counter-press occurring near or in the Reading box, dangerous counter-attacks were created.
In the 31st minute, we saw Manchester City lose possession in the attacking third. Immediately, nearby City players either marked a Reading passing option or pressured the ball carrier.
As the direct Reading passing options were cut off, the City right-winger (Beckie) pressured the ball carrier from behind. The Reading centre-back, Sophie Howard, was completely oblivious to the pressure coming from behind. As she turned to find a pass away from pressure, she turned directly into the incoming Beckie. Beckie quickly toe-poked the ball away from Howard, and suddenly the ball was loose in a dangerous area.
As Howard was dispossessed, the ball spilt directly in front of an incoming Pauline Bremer. Bremer quickly took the ball and attacked the large gap between the Reading centre-backs. With a narrow and quickly shutting window of opportunity, Bremer fired home the first goal of the game.
A similar sequence played out in the 59th minute when Reading attempted to clear the ball out of their box to avoid a City counter-press. The clearance was deflected once again into the path of Bremer. Bremer fired a shot directly at the Reading keeper and then collected the follow-up shot to put Manchester City up 2-0.
In the end, Manchester City created many attacking chances by applying pressure to Reading weak points. Although many chances were created, it was the use of counter-pressing that turned out to be the ultimate playmaker. Reading remained resolute throughout the entire match but were only able to create one shot on target.