Man United have lacked support and success of other WSL teams. Is that changing?
Currently in second place in the Women’s Super League , Manchester United have only lost three points this season and now look settled under Marc Skinner, who took control last season. But despite their standing, things haven’t been handed to them on a platter and have been earned in 90-minute increments.
This is a team that has struggled for years under the poor support of leaders who seem to have forgotten Man United had any women’s team. This is changing, but there are still problems on the field that have not been resolved from last season or beyond. Man United continues to find a way to achieve results — but, how far can they go?
What are United’s chances at a top-three finish or a first Super League title?
On-field progress and results to follow
Just three short matches ago, Manchester United were having their weaknesses exposed by reigning WSL champions, Chelsea. The Red Devils were unable to match a team with world-class players. Yet, when the Red Devils traveled to London two weeks later for their next league match, they appeared a side that was refocused and renewed against the Gunners. Indeed, Man United appeared unwilling to let themselves be overrun by the crushing experience of an Arsenal team that won a first domestic title 26 years before United founded the full-time in-house women’s team that plays today.
United have been far from faultless this season, and the vulnerability of previous campaigns remains. They have made similar mistakes to those they made in their previous three seasons in the WSL – the same mistakes that saw them go from potential title contenders to participation trophy holders, but unable to finish higher then fourth.
Despite looking like they were going to be struggling for Champions League placements, after their defeat to Chelsea, the Red Devils showed great character and performed well in the first half against an Arsenal team that was not at its best.
The criticism of United at Emirates was their lackluster finish. They could easily have lost all three points. United found themselves in a losing position and were forced to chase late in the game. However, they scored two late goals, one in stoppage time, to shock the league leaders.
Again, finding themselves with two weeks between games, United showed their best when they finally returned to action against Aston Villa at Old Trafford on Saturday. Although the performance was dominant, it was only improved by half-time tweaks that kept Villa closer to the ball. This allowed United to settle into a relaxed pattern of pushing and pulling the Villainesses across turf to create goal scoring opportunities.
Man United won the WSL campaign’s most complete victory, a 5-0 win over Aston Villa. Five different players scored goals. Skinner admitted that he didn’t expect so many of his players would open their accounts for the season so early, even though we are now at the halfway point of the campaign.
In fact, ten of the 13 players who’ve started for Man United in league play this season have found the back of the net at least once with the only exceptions, goalkeeper Mary Earps, defender Maria Thorisdottir and midfielder Lucy Staniforth. Factoring in goals off of the bench, a total of 12 United players of the 19 who’ve featured in the WSL have scored so far this season, which, even now, is a clear improvement on last season.
As Skinner said on Saturday: “It’s about moving the opponent, last season we faced too many blocks and they [United] just sat in front of them and they couldn’t find ways of overcoming that block but now we can play direct if we need to, we can get behind you…”
The manager also cited the six draws his team were involved in over the previous campaign, conceding that people might have been sat wondering just where the goals were going to come from in this go-round. He said that this season it’s not about having more players contributing goals, but about the different ways his teams can manipulate other teams. He cited United’s third goal in the match against Villa as an example of what had changed. “The movement, play, and manipulation of the opponent is what we want as groups,” he said. For United, it’s not only on the pitch that things look good but also off it. Following more than a light rumble about conditions not being up to muster during former manager Casey Stoney’s time, that factored into the former England captain’s decision to leave. The club’s first female head of women’s football, Polly Bancroft, was appointed in October. This highlights the positive steps United are making to improve their women’s team’s performance.
Off-the-field improvements making impact at Man United
With things looking so grim at United that players were even considering going on strike just a year and a half ago, it’s again critical to contextualise just how far the team have come in a short space of time under Skinner, with the former Orlando Pride and Birmingham City coach taking the reigns after Stoney’s departure, ahead of the 2021-22 season. It’s important to remember that United Women has existed only for 4 1/2 years.
After their defeat to Chelsea, the Red Devils felt that they needed time. Time to learn from the mistakes they made and grow. It doesn’t happen overnight in football. But we can already see how Skinner’s team is coming together. Even though we’re just talking about a change of manager, Stoney had been the one to build the squad from scratch ahead of the 2018-19 season, she had worked to grow that team organically and let them learn from their strengths as the only full-time team in the Championship.
Coach and manager, analyst, and everything in-between, the team was more Casey Stoney’s Manchester United than just Manchester United during that first season. So, when she departed to start from the ground up with San Diego Wave in the American NWSL, United were losing not just a coach or manager but a key part of their own foundation as a team.
Skinner has more resources and a better support staff than Stoney, but he still finds himself in the same pair of enormous boots that Stoney left behind. He is filling them out and finding the best way to make Manchester United a better team, as evidenced by the performances in the league.
After the narrow win over a stubborn Leicester City team Skinner stated, “We’re certainly not always going to perform brilliantly.” This message was meant for the fans who expect a certain level of performance from a team sporting the United crest. And indeed, it’s fair to have lofty standards but no team is impervious to ugly wins, to the wheezing, crawling-over-the-finish-line matches of attrition — not least for a team who are, on paper, nowhere near as stacked as the three teams who’ve finished above them in each of the last three seasons.
Despite the team’s promise, the team isn’t afraid to show their arrogance. They currently sit second in WSL, three points behind leaders Chelsea, but with a game in front. Skinner responded to ESPN’s question about not getting ahead.
“First, it helps if people are honest. But second, it’s like…you’ve done absolutely nothing, and no disrespect, but we’ve done absolutely nothing. We must earn everything: That’s my character, and I believe that your character as a coach is what you pass onto your team. When we think of it as a team, a collective, we give back more than we take. It’s a principle of ours. “
A former teacher, Skinner is reassuringly nurturing. He often fills his post-match comments praising his players, but, as the coach points, so much of how his squad works comes from his character. There is no concern that the players will lose ground, despite increased interest in the Euros and their standing in the table.
In his previous employment with the Pride, the players instantly came out to praise their coach with US veteran defender Ali Krieger even going as far as to say, “Marc is the best coach I’ve had in my career and I have that feeling that I want to win for not only us and myself and the team, but for him and the coaching staff. “
Becky Thompson and Sophie Lawson reveal the forward lines of their WSL all star teams.
Skinner remained a Marmite character with fans during his time in Orlando, with the team perpetually struggling to find form and, in his short time in Manchester, the manager is as divisive when it comes to the United fans. He is still a popular player and understands how to get the best out of the players. Skinner, like Sarina Wiegman, England boss, has a preferred starting XI, and those on the fringes are doomed to warming the bench. This is the biggest complaint.
We’ve seen the manager rotate his squad to play in league cup games. Area United has struggled the most, with two draws that turned into shootout losses from two fixtures this season. It’s not surprising that players who have been playing little or no time this season would be arriving at their cup starts with no experience and unable to rely upon undeveloped partnerships.
But if United want to climb into the top three in England next season and make their first steps in the Champions League, they will need to have a solid rotation system and thoughtful player management. This is something we will discuss later.
United looks to be growing under Skinner. However, with rotation likely for their league cup clash with Everton tomorrow ahead of a stern test at the Etihad against noisy City neighbours, the coach will have to find the right balance, not least facing a Manchester City team full of confidence on an eight-match winning run.
Man United’s dream of finishing at the top of the table seems as possible as ever. However, they know that they won’t be allowed to slip up against Chelsea or Arsenal later in the year.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.