The Reinvention of Ella Toone at Manchester United

Abdullah Abdullah takes a look at Ella Toone’s reinvention at Manchester United to see what’s gone right for her this season.

For fans of Manchester United, this season could have been going much worse than it has. The summer represented what felt like a pivotal moment in their short history. Casey Stoney resigned because of the club’s apparent lack of investment in infrastructure and much of the progress made during her tenure looked to have been undone.

With Everton investing, and Manchester City and Arsenal strengthening already strong squads, Manchester United were predicted to drop out of the race for the top four.

In the hunt for a new manager, the club searched eventually settled on Marc Skinner who was coaching at Orlando Pride in the NWSL. The former Birmingham manager came in with heavy expectations given the perceived rebuilding job he would have to undertake. There was some scepticism at first, but after the first five games of Manchester United’s season, there is reason for hope and optimism with some promising moments. 

Skinner’s new recruits have been largely successful and there seems to be a settled team. One sure-fire success has been the progress Ella Toone has made as Manchester United’s number 10.

Toone started the season brightly as a false nine but against Manchester City was reassigned to the attacking midfielder role and excelled again. To some extent, she performed better than she did as a striker.

Using Analytics FC’s TransferLab tool, I’ll spend some time exploring Toone’s new role at Manchester United:

Moving On Up

Ella Toone’s recent upward trajectory comes down to a tweak in her playing position. Last season, she played as both a right winger and number 10, but was mainly used on the right. From here, she would look to drift inside or take on defenders on the outside. But even though she was afforded space to operate, her positioning there felt isolated. 

This season fans have witnessed a transformation of sorts with Skinner opting to field the midfielder in a more central position either as an attacking midfielder or striker.

Looking at her numbers in TransferLab, Toone ranks highly as an attacking midfielder when compared against other forwards in the Women’s Super League (WSL) both in the Shadow Striker profile and the All Around Striker profile:

Attacking Midfielder – Shadow Striker: 98
Striker – All Round: 98

As you can see, Toone is naturally a very adept ball player with excellent dribbling abilities and an intelligent interpreter of space. The main difference we’re seeing this season is that she is getting the freedom to roam from her position and dictate play from the middle.

Toone’s profile reveals much about her skillset with several metrics near the 80s and 90s including Expected goals (shots – open play), Expected assists (key passes), progressive short passing, key passes, and passes into the box. These traits are imperative for an attacking midfielder, especially one looking to be both an attacking box threat and creator. Though Toone has been much more attacking this season, her ability to dictate play from the hole has been a revelation.

This graphic depicts a comparison between Toone’s average positioning across the last two seasons:

Ella Toone heat maps for 20/21 season (left) and 21/22 season (right)

Looking at these two heat maps closely, we can see that last season, Toone was playing deeper on the right more so than she did before making forward movements both inside and down the right. This season’s heat map sees the forward take up much more central positions outside of the box but with the ability to drift into either half-space. 

Exploiting Space

With Toone in these areas, she’s able to dictate Manchester United’s game much more and manufacture space to either shoot or find a line-threatening pass. This clip from Manchester United’s game against Leicester City offers a great example of this sort of movement:

Midfielder Katie Zelem progressing the ball and finding a forward passing option. Toone is pictured just behind the left central midfielder and makes a quick, dropping movement to find space just in front of the Leicester midfielder.

Combined with Zelem’s run, Toone is left in ample amounts of space to make a decisive move. She receives the pass and immediately gets the ball out to shoot. The short backlift and shot meant she wasted no time in taking the shot though she had space. Her freer role meant she’s able to anticipate and understand her next move and once she made the short, deep move, she knew she had the space to shoot.

Currently, Toone ranks sixth for shots taken per 90 minutes this season (3.13) with the likes of Pernille Harder, Sam Kerr, and Vivianne Miedema ahead of her. She’s already two places higher than what she ranked last season which can be attributed to her change of position.

Though this has resulted in three goals, she’s been doing this against an Expected Goals (xG) of 0.23 which is an extreme overperformance. This should taper off and level out but she can perform with a slightly higher output if she can continue to find pockets of space and intelligent movements.

Creativity

Not just someone who can identify space to receive and shoot higher up, Toone has been visibly more creative so far this season.

The areas she’s taking up are indicative of a player with the freedom to roam and create goal-scoring opportunities. Even when Toone played as a false nine in the first game of the season against Reading, she was instrumental to their good performance.

This sequence from the 39th minute against Reading shows this nicely:

Toone picks up possession in a congested area but has Kirsty Hanson perfectly placed ahead of her. She manages to thread Reading’s defence which opens up United’s account.

Toone currently ranks ninth for Expected assists against a total assist tally of four which shows an overperformance. There’s an intelligence in understanding space and how to use it efficiently. She is displaying the sort of intelligence that she showed in flashes last season and her capacity to control the game from a central position has shifted her to another level

Part of Toone’s improvements have been a result of United’s use of a focal point in Alessia Russo. The striker has given the team a target for defenders to mark which affords Toone an extra yard of space to manoeuvre the ball.

A good example of this came against Chelsea, where Toone was able to exploit the space she’s in to feign a shot and play in Alessia Russo:

Toone plays in the striker who is able to finish but could have easily have picked out Hanson on the right, instead she opts for the riskier pass that comes off.

How does she compare?

When you compare Toone to some of the world’s best attacking midfielders, there is a reason to be excited given that she has comparable statistics to them.

As this comparison viz from TransferLab shows, although Toone’s through balls statistics are second best to Crystal Dunn, she ranks highly for touches in the final third, expected goals, and progressive short passing. All of these metrics indicate that Toone is one of the best creative number 10s in world football.

Given the position Toone is playing in now, there is little need to change anything. She’s getting into smart positions and is creating more along with scoring goals.

If Skinner can leverage Toone’s form and find a balanced pendulum at the base of midfield, then there is every chance Manchester United can be contesting for a top-four (or even three) position this season.

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