WSL Preview: Manchester United

Club History

Manchester United Women was restarted ahead of the 2018-19 season, thirteen years after its original shocking disbandment.  While the club has long had a girl’s academy, the return of a women’s first team was a welcomed move from one of the wealthiest football clubs in the world.

United were awarded an FA Women’s Championship licence upon the FA’s 2018 restructuring of the women’s top divisions.  Choosing to field a full-time professional team, despite the second division’s semi-professional status, they won promotion in their first season.  

Building upon the momentum of their first reinstated season, their first season in the top flight was relatively successful.  They finished fourth in the 2019-20 curtailed league standings, registering seven wins, two draws and five losses. 

Last Season

4th place – 15 Wins, 3 Draws, 4 Losses, 47 Points.

The Red Devils’ second season in the top flight of women’s football started fantastically, with the team being undefeated entering into the Christmas break.  After a first season where they failed to get points against any of the top three teams, they were able to get draws against Chelsea and Manchester City and managed a win against Arsenal in their first encounters of the 2020-21 season.

The second half of the season though was a completely different affair.  Starting off with a loss to Chelsea, United lost four other matches and failed to qualify for the Champions League by one point.  Injuries to a number of key players were partially to blame, as were reports of off-field inadequacies.  

A significant issue was the mid-season move to the club’s men’s training ground at Carrington from their training base at the Leigh Sports Village.  Manchester United stated this was done after concerns about the adequacy of Leigh’s facilities in the winter and injuries to multiple players.  

Once moved, the women’s team had to fit their training schedule around the men’s teams, much to the dissatisfaction with then head coach Casey Stoney.  This factor, alongside other grievances and questions about the club’s commitment to the women’s team, lead Stoney to step down as manager after the end of the season.

Off Season Changes

The failure to replace Stoney, questions about the adequacy of training environment, about the adequacy of player accommodations and about the club’s failure to communicate it’s future intentions led the women’s team to approach the Professional Footballer’s Association during the offseason to request support.

Manchester United have since made promises to improve the women’s facilities at their Carrington training complex with the intention of fully integrating the women’s team alongside their men’s and academy structures.  They have also increased the player accommodation allocations and hired a manager.

Katie Zelem stated that after the turbulence of the end of last season, the hiring of the new manager has led to things heading in the right direction. 

The Manager

After several months of speculation, Manchester United announced the hiring of head coach Marc Skinner at the end of July. The Englishman joins the club with a history of managing in both the WSL and the American NWSL.

His first head coaching position with Birmingham City was quite successful.  After a disappointing start in his inaugural campaign, the 2017 Spring Series, Skinner managed to lead the Blues to an FA Cup final, a fifth place 2017-18 WSL season and upon departing midway through the 2018-19 season, he left the club in fourth place in the standings.

His tenure at the Orlando Pride was arguably not as successful though.  Skinner encountered a rocky first year, where he dealt with a squad missing a significant amount of starters for much of the season due to the world cup.  His 2019 NWSL campaign was unsuccessful, with the club finishing last in the standings.

His 2020 year with Orlando saw them have to withdraw from the NWSL Challenge Cup, when nearly half the squad tested positive for COVID, and then play a four-game fall series with twelve key players away on loan.  The 2021 NWSL season is where one saw the Pride make a turn for the better.  They finished halfway in the standings of the Eastern Conference for the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, and then started the 2021 NWSL regular season with a seven-game unbeaten streak which included four wins.  

Orlando was then once again hit late June with a number of players leaving for international competition, as had occurred two years prior, this time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  At the time of his resignation to take up the United job, the Pride was placed mid-way through the NWSL standings. If Skinner proved anything at Orlando it was that he can deal with overcoming tough challenges, but needs time to install his playing philosophy.  

Describing her new manager Katie Zelem highlighted how similar Skinner’s managerial style was to Stoney’s, both in his approach and attention to detail. In an offseason that has seen a number of changes, this similarity will be a positive.  Having the time to grow with his new squad, who are arguably in a rebuilding phase after Stoney’s departure, will be important.

Squad Changes

Despite being a big club, as a women’s side Manchester United are a relatively new entity.  Stoney’s gravitas helped with their recruitment in the first years of the club’s existence.  The uncertainty at United following her resignation, and the late hiring of Skinner more than two months into the offseason, led to a number of players leaving.

Jane Ross and Abbie McManus who had been at United since their promotion to the top flight, both left at the conclusion of their contract.  They went to Rangers and Leicester City respectively.  Three other departures were Jessica Sigsworth, Amy Turner and Lauren James, original members of the team at the time of its reboot.  Sigworths joined WSL rivals Leicester, Turner went to NWSL club the Orlando Pride while James, who had been shortlisted for the PFA Women’s Young Player of the Year in 2019-20, chose to sign a four year deal with rivals Chelsea.

Americans Christen Press and Tobin Heath also departed at the end of their one year contracts.  Both were instrumental in lifting United’s offensive performances last season.  While they were both heavily rumoured to join Angel City FC, where Press has recently signed, Heath is returning to the WSL to join rivals Arsenal.  

To offset these departures United have signed goalkeeper Sophie Baggaley, defenders Hannah Blundell and Aoife Mannion, midfielder Vilde Bøe Risa and forward Martha Thomas.  All are experienced players with a number of years of professional experience.  However, one could argue that these signings do not completely replace the quality that has left the club in the last few months.

Preseason

Manchester United contested four preseason friendlies ahead of their 2020-21 campaign.  They started with a 2-2 draw against Championship side Liverpool Football Club.  They then beat Aston Villa 2-0 followed by a 5-0 win against Rangers.  Their final match was a 1-1 draw against Brighton & Hove Albion.

The unbeaten preseason which saw a number players being the sources of goals is a positive start to the Skinner era.  Of the ten goals scored in their friendlies, six different players found the back of the net.

Upcoming Season

While there is quality and experience in all of Manchester United’s signings, arguably it does not replace the overall value of the players who departed the club in the offseason.  United finished fourth last season, behind Arsenal by just one point.  They managed to close the gap results wise but a closer examination could show that they failed to do so performance wise.  

Compared to the top three teams they had a markedly lower goal difference.  The Red Devils conceded twenty goals, five more than third placed Arsenal, and scored forty-four goals, nineteen less than the Gunners. While results are what matter, in a league that is becoming more difficult being able to compete on all metrics is increasingly important and increasingly difficult.

Moreover, more than a third of all goals were scored by players who have since departed the club.  The return of some players injured last year, notably Leah Galton and Alessia Russo will help further bolster the team and its offensive prowess.  

However, for United to have any chance of breaking into the top three and closing the gap they will need their defence to remain disciplined and most of their offensive players to step up goalscoring wise.  While the players they have do contain the qualities to do so, whether they can improve on their performances from last year in a league that has strengthened will be seen.  Considering the changes in the squad and their new manager, some period of adjustment is to be expected.  

United do have a mixed schedule in terms of difficulty to start their season.  They meet Reading, who have long been a mid-table contender, in the league’s opening match and then face newly promoted Leicester City the week after.  Their first real test will be at home against Chelsea upon the return from the first international break.  

Other Competitions

FA Women’s League Cup 2021-22 – Manchester United are in Group B of the League Cup and will face WSL sides Everton and Leicester City and Championship side Durham. The group stage takes place from October 13 to December 16, 2021.

FA Women’s Cup 2021-22 – Manchester United will once again enter the 2021/22 competition at the fourth round stage, along with all other WSL and FA Women’s Championship clubs.

Opening FA WSL Fixtures

September 3, 2021- Home v Reading

September 12, 2021 – Away v Leicester City

September 26, 2021 – Home v Chelsea

Expectations

After a meteoric rise from non-existence, to winning the championship in their first year and then a fourth placed finish their first year of WSL play, many thought the Red Devils could break into the top three last and try for European football last season.  However, after a near-disastrous latter half of their 2020-21 campaign, followed by the managerial change and the departure of a number of players, Manchester United are in a very different position than they were just one year ago.  

This is not to say that things are bad.  With their balanced quality squad, United are capable of competing.  Whether the players they have will be enough to compete against the top three teams, as well as an Everton, who have all strengthened their teams during this offseason will be seen.  

Arguably this year could be a rebuilding year for the Red Devils, one where they the club tries to find out whether they want to be a club capable of winning trophies.

Photo: @ManUtdWomen