Red vs. Blue: The WSL Manchester Derby Preview
Manchester United have won six of their last seven WSL games, while Manchester City are on a disastrous run of three successive losses. But this is a derby and we know form often goes out of the window.
The fortunes of the two Manchester teams in the Women’s Super League have taken some by surprise this season. Manchester City were thought to have had a very strong transfer window, bringing in signings like Bunny Shaw and Vicky Losada to strengthen their attack and midfield. More question marks hung over Manchester United after the departure of Casey Stoney, alongside a number of key players. The two sides face each other in the first Manchester derby of the season in what already looks like it could be a make-or-break game.
Manchester City’s poor form shows no sign of arresting itself with the side losing three consecutive games in the WSL for the first time ever. After losing 2-0 to West Ham at home last weekend, they are currently in ninth place with only three points from their opening day win against Everton.
The collapse has been spectacular – this is a team who were expected to challenge for the title but who now look well and truly out of that race. On the face of it, the losses to Tottenham and West Ham might seem like they had more to do with bad luck than what was occurring on the pitch. Yet the underlying numbers do not cover Man City in glory either.
Looking at expected goals for and against across the opening four games of the season, sides have split into three chunks, with Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham out in front. Manchester City, meanwhile, are firmly in the middle chunk alongside West Ham, Brighton and Everton. City might not deserve to be in ninth position, but they certainly are not anywhere near the top of the table either.
As shown by the interactive data table above (yes, you can click on it), City’s overall xG against stands at 4.7, with non-penalty xG faced at 1.4 – that 29% ratio is higher than any other team in the competition in 2021-22 and seven percentage points above the next most (Spurs – 22%). The only team to have conceded better chances to opponents from non-penalty shots are struggling Leicester City (1.7). With Manchester City missing three of their usual starting defence in Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton and Ellie Roebuck, it seems that Gareth Taylor’s side have struggled to organise themselves appropriately.
In fact, being without the experienced Houghton has affected Manchester City over the years and it’s not just a problem specific to 2021-22. Since she signed for the club in January 2014, Man City have recorded much better results with her in the side than without (71% win ratio vs. 53%) and have also conceded more goals per game without her playing.
It’s also been a poor season in attack, overall. Yes, they started the season with a 4-0 demolition of Everton at Goodison Park, but since then the season has been nothing short of disastrous.
Of the five seasons of xG data that we have for WSL, this is Manchester City’s worst for xG per game from non-penalty shots (1.35), shot quality (0.09xG per non-pen shot) and it’s the worst shots per game average (15.3) that City have had in a WSL season since 2014 (11.6).
Under Marc Skinner, United have looked to shed some of the direct style that was part of Casey Stoney’s game plans. Stoney’s United ranked fifth in terms of how quickly they moved the ball up the field, progressing it at 1.5 m/s. Skinner’s United, however, are now the second slowest team when it comes to ball progression, moving at 1.05 m/s.
However, there is some evidence that United’s players have not yet been able to make the most out of this style of play. Despite progressing the ball very slowly, United have only managed 28 open play passing sequences of 10+ passes. That is only the fifth most in the league, and far below that of the top four who all have 44 or above. Even though United move the ball slowly, they are not as competent at holding onto it for long periods of time.
So far, Manchester United have looked like one of the most attack-minded sides in the league. They fall only behind Chelsea in terms of the number of shots taken so far this season, with only Chelsea or Arsenal creating more big chances.
What’s interesting is that despite attempting the second-most shots (75) and having a non-penalty xG total (7) below only Chelsea (9.4), United have had the same quality shots on average as their rivals City (0.09xG per shot) – they have just attempted more of them and been slightly more clinical, converting 10.7% compared to City’s 8.2%.
There are clear signs that Skinner is making his mark on this Manchester United side, but to truly challenge at the top of the table, they will need to be more accurate with their shooting and be stronger in possession.
This will be the fourth occasion Manchester City and Manchester United have faced each other in the WSL, with United having only picked up one point from their first three meetings.
Ellen White will be hoping she can end her slow start to the season against United, who are the only WSL side that she has never scored against. White is yet to score in the WSL, and of players with no goals in the first four games, only Tottenham’s Ria Percival has a higher individual xG total than White (1.58 to White’s 1.45).
United will believe they have never been in a better position to gain a first WSL win over their rivals. With City struggling, a win for United would cement themselves as favourites to claim the third Champions League spot that eluded them last year. Meanwhile, Gareth Taylor will feel like he must win to stay in his job; a fourth consecutive loss – after an exit in the Champions League at the qualification stage – would only confirm that their season is a write off.
Want more WSL data? Visit our interactive data pages for 2021-22, here.