“Fast as the wind, the invasion has begun.”
– Sabaton – Ghost Division.
The Women’s Super League is bound to start this weekend, with Manchester United getting their season started by visiting Tottenham Hotspurs on Saturday. For a lot of people, this might be another season in the English league, but if you ask any supporter of United’s women team, they will tell you that is make it or break it for this group of players–there is an air of finality to this season.
To put things into context, United have finished in fourth place in their three seasons in the Women’s Super League. For a team that was founded back in 2018 and has been in this division since 2019, these results are positive in the grand scheme of things, but when in both 2021 and 2022 the team pretty much self-destructed in the second part of the season, the frustration started to creep in and now the pressure is on for this group of players and manager Marc Skinner to deliver the goods and qualify to the Champions League for the first time in their history.
It’s also important to keep a strong core of players. Without Champions League football, it’s only going to become harder to keep great players such as Alessia Russo, Ona Batlle and Jackie Groenen, all who had rumours of leaving this summer and whose contracts end in June of 2023. It’s paramount to prove with tangible results that the club is moving in an upwards direction and that the team can challenge for trophies and play in the best competitions.
So, what are the expectations for Manchester United? Let’s get started.
The manager: Marc Skinner
Skinner has been a bit of a divisive figure among United supporters. While some think he needed time to adjust the players and the squad to his vision, others think he is the one holding the team back. As it tends to happen in football, truth lies in the middle.
There have been key points in United’s previous season where Skinner’s decision-making and tactical approaches left a lot to be desired. For example, his willingness to give away the ball when the team was holding a minimal lead or sometimes not giving certain players a proper chance, such as Kirsty Hanson, Hayley Ladd or even Ivana Fuso (now on loan at Bayer Leverkusen). Considering that United ended up five points away from Champions League football, the criticism is valid.
On the other hand, there have been periods during his tenure where the team was capable of playing some good stuff, with the December-January stretch of last season being a particular highlight. The team was playing great attacking football, scoring goals and getting results. But this is when the injuries started to creep in and screw everything up.
Be that as it may, Skinner is a manager that certainly needs to prove his worth this season. It’s true that the previous manager, Casey Stoney, didn’t qualify for the Champions League either, but she built this squad and the core players still remain–she had some credit in the bank. Skinner doesn’t. I personally support and want him to succeed, but another finishing outside the top three is not going to cut it.
From my perspective, Marc needs to make a better use of his bench, especially considering the options at his disposal after this transfer window and the fact he didn’t lose any key players. He also needs to offer a more proactive approach when winning games–he has proven that he can coach an attacking team when push comes to shove and he has the quality in the squad to execute it. Being conservative and pragmatic can be useful from time to time, but this is where he needs to pick his battles.
He also needs to mix it up more when it comes to his substitutions. His subs started out well last season, but by the time we reached 2022, his decision-making in this front started to suffer. Perhaps it was due to injuries and not having all the profiles he would like, but this is an area where he needs to step up his game a bit–in-game management is where football matches are won, drawn and lost.
Much like with the rest of the squad, it’s do or die for Marc Skinner this season at United. The main focus should be Champions League qualification; a cup victory would be nice, but every United fan wants that top three finish.
The new signings
United were certainly active during the transfer window. While the loss of seasoned veterans such as Kirsty Smith, Martha Harris and Diane Caldwell is certainly going to be felt in the dressing room, especially when we consider that the three of them were defenders, the club has made a lot of signings in several areas of the pitch and here we are going to analyse what they can bring to the table:
The 29-year-old Canadian winger has a ton of experience in the game, having performed in a wide variety of leagues and coming off a three year stint with West Ham United in the WSL. She has the capacity of playing in any position of the front three, plus effort and work-rate. Leon would also have no big issue as a squad player, so you have someone with experience in the league that can provide much needed depth in the attack.
Certainly one of the most divisive signings this summer and one that has Skinner’s input all over the place. The 35-year-old striker knows the United coach from their time working together at Birmingham Ladies and while I can understand bringing in a player that you’re familiar with, Williams hasn’t set the WSL on fire for quite some time now and is hard to see what she can do that, say, Martha Thomas cannot do from the current attacking options. She probably understands her role as a backup and she is also a signing meant to add experience to the dressing room, but is a signing I can’t wrap my head around beyond that.
This might be one of the most unexpected and most interesting signings out of the whole transfer window made by United. Clinton was a promising talent from the Everton academy and already featured with the first team last season, but she hadn’t made her impact felt in professional football yet and United quickly swoop in to get her. It was a smart move as preseason showed Grace being a capable asset for the team at just 19-years-old and a valuable alternative to Ella Toone. Definitely one to watch for the coming season.
Maya Le Tissier
Probably the most celebrated signing by United supporters this transfer window. Maya Le Tissier took the WSL by storm last season, constantly performing at a great level as a fullback and providing a great combination of defensive solidity, quality passing and overall a good understanding of the game. And at just 20 years old she already has almost 60 games in professional football and would add a lot of quality to the defense as she can play in any position in the back four. United supporters were positively surprised by this deal as it was done in a couple of days without much drama and she has the potential to be a top player for both club and country in the next couple of years.
If Rachel Williams was controversial, Nikita Parris is the next level to that. Anyone that follows women’s football knows that the English attacker enjoyed a great period of form back at Manchester City a few years ago and has won a lot in that club, with Lyon and a recent Euros champion with England. But in terms of actual performances, Parris hasn’t delivered for a few years now. I can understand Skinner wanting to take a gamble, but this is the kind of risk you take from a position of strength, not as a club wanting to break in the top three. Who knows, perhaps Nikita can find her form back at United, but as of this writing, this is a signing that generates a lot of valid doubts from supporters.
One of the first players to be signed this summer, although she wasn’t announced until after the Euros. The Spanish attacker might be just 24 years old, but she has a wealth of experience by playing with Oviedo Moderno and Athletic Club Bilbao for almost ten years now, which goes to show how fast her ascent was in Spanish football. She can play across the front three, she has experience with her national team in both the recent World Cup and Euros and adds much more quality to the wings, which looked a bit poor when Leah Galton wasn’t on song and without Kirsty Hanson getting much playing time. Definitely a very good signing who might need some time to adjust to English football and culture, but also one to watch.
Considering the loss of so many experienced defenders this summer, regardless of how much playing time they were getting, it was important for United to get some quality there and the French centre-back was exactly that. Tounkara made a name for herself during her recent four years with Atletico Madrid, winning a league title and also cementing a regular place with the French national team. At 27 years old she is at the peak of her powers and would add much needed passing, height and quality to a back four that needed more options.
Manchester United Women players to look out for this season
There are some players that are always going to be a constant in this discussion when it comes to this United side. You can expect players such as Ella Toone and Alessia Russo to rack up goal contributions and be as key to their club as they were to England during their legendary Euros run–perhaps even more so. But there are other players worth talking about.
Ona Batlle in this point of her career has proven to be one of the best full backs in the world and there is no reason why she wouldn’t continue that path in this coming season. Leah Galton went on an upward trajectory with Skinner last season, scoring lots of goals in the last couple of months and I think she is going to remain that way. The return of Millie Turner in the backline is going to be key as she is going to provide ball-playing abilities and allow the team to play a higher line. Of course, you always have to count Mary Earps as the modern goalkeeper that she is.
In terms of surprises, I think Maya Le Tissier is going to settle quite well with the team and be one of their most consistent performers. Grace Clinton and Adriana Leon might not be regular starters, but I can see them delivering as rotation options. And Lucia Garcia has all the tools to complement Galton and Russo as a trident as the months go by. Of course, I would like to see Hayley Ladd playing much more regularly as well.
The key aspect of this season is the fact that United managed to add more quality without losing important players, thus giving a lot more options to play with. If Skinner manages to get his rotation and subs right, United have a very legitimate chance of breaking in the top three this season.