“Follow your steps and you will find
The unknown ways are on your mind
Need nothing else than just your pride to get there”
– Angra – Carry On
For those following women’s football, it is very clear that Manchester United are having a very good season. After years of not reaching the finishing line for their first-ever Champions League qualification, now things seem to be taking a turn for the better, and now the final matches could be some of the most important in the women’s team’s short history.
Manchester United’s women’s team was formed back in the summer of 2018 with manager Casey Stoney at the helm. After the Glazers had disbanded the team back in 2005, Stoney, with her vision and commitment to build a good team, added credibility to this project and the results were there to see: the team got promotion to the Women’s Super League from the Championship in their first try in the 2018/19 while playing great football and scoring loads of goals.
Stoney’s time in the club would serve to build the core that has been thriving so far this season. Players such as Ella Toone, Millie Turner, Leah Galton and Katie Zelem have been part of United since 2018, and others equally important like Mary Earps, Haley Ladd, Ona Battle, and Alessia Russo were added in the next two summers.
Sadly, after finishing fourth two seasons in a row in the WSL, right at the gate of Champions League qualification, Stoney decided to quit due to the club not fulfilling promises to improve the conditions the squad was training in, and this led the project to a lot of disarray. New manager Marc Skinner, coming after a disappointing spell at Orlando Pride in the United States, didn’t excite fans at first, and there were a lot of worries about the future.
Once again, United finished fourth in the 2021/22 season, this time dealing with a massive amount of injuries and not having enough squad depth. The frustration was palpable amongst United fans, but it was common knowledge that this team had a lot of talent, and this season was do-or-die for a lot of players involved.
The season so far
As the time of writing, Manchester United are sitting at the top of the Women’s Super League and in the FA Cup final against Chelsea. The Blues are also catching up to the Red Devils since the former still have two matches pending, which could see them take over first place.
However, this is just the results itself.
In terms of the development of the season, United have proven that they can compete with the best in England and come out on top. This has been shown not only in terms of results, but also in other metrics and factors that have cemented the team with a lot of confidence.
For example, this United side is the team that has scored the most goals in the league so far (50 goals in 19 matches) and the one that has received the less along with Arsenal (11). This has allowed the team to jump into first place, and have a lot of important victories across the season.
The League Cup was a disappointment, having exited in the group stage, mainly because of massive rotation in each game, but it has been compensated with a run in the FA Cup, reaching the final for the first time in their history. To see the Red Devils playing for a trophy in Wembley is certainly a reward for the supporters that have backed the team since its formation in 2018.
Of course, when looking back at the expectations for the season, Champions League qualification was the most important and still is, but now there is a big chance for United to get that and a lot more. Yes, they are not 100% in control of winning the title since Chelsea would have to drop points at least once for that to happen, but being three matches away from winning the league and in a cup final is something that has exceeded the expectations of the fans.
Now, is it that warranted? Were United “lucky” to be here? Was the other teams’ decline so noticeable that they managed to slot in for the title? Let’s find out.
The keys so far this season
One of the reasons United have been able to compete until the final fixtures of the season is that they have been able to avoid major injuries.
While full-backs Ona Batlle and Hannah Blundell were sidelined a bit in the early stages of the season, United’s starting eleven has been very consistent, which is something that they couldn’t have said the previous year.
To add a bit of context, there was a point near the end of last season where captain Katie Zelem, a midfielder by trade, had to play as a centre-back along with veteran Diane Caldwell because most defenders were injured at the time.
Marc Skinner’s starting eleven — barring the right-wing position that has been rotated between Lucia Garcia, Nikita Parris, and Martha Thomas — has been consistent for the vast majority of the season, and they have managed to perform at their expected level for the most part. This degree of consistency has been much appreciated to challenge for honours.
There is also the element of having a lot more squad depth than previous seasons. Due to the return of Millie Turner from injury and the signing of Maya Le Tissier, Aoife Mannion, who has also returned from a serious ACL injury, has now been performing as a backup option, adding a lot more quality to the defense. New players such as Lucia Garcia and Rachel Williams have added more variety to Skinner’s attacking options, which has been very useful in key moments.
The element of functionality cannot be understated. Last season there were a lot of debates about who should start in midfield between Zelem, Ladd, Vilde Bøe Risa, and Jackie Groenen, who departed to Paris Saint Germain last summer. Now Skinner has been very adamant of playing the Zelem-Ladd double pivot, which has worked for the most part this season.
Skinner, while still reasonably criticised for his in-game management, has also improved when making subs. Yes, still makes some mistakes, and there are times when he makes chances too late, but there are also moments where his substitutions have won games for United, like Bøe Risa and Turner in their recent 3-2 dramatic win over Aston Villa: the Norwegian midfielder gained the foul that eventually led to the defender’s winner in the final minute of the game.
Games like that one or the 3-2 win in the Emirates against Arsenal in the league and the 3-2 victory over Brighton in the FA Cup semifinals have also shown an increase in mentality and tenacity by the squad, being able to win when it matters and push harder than ever before. Mentality was something they were criticised for in the past, and there have been a lot of improvements in that area.
What’s to come
A lot of perspectives can change depending on what United do in the last few weeks of the season. While Champions League qualification seems almost impossible to mess up at this point, the supporters are understandably excited of seeing their team challenge for trophies and it can be a major statement for the foreseeable future.
When is considered that the club is in the process of being sold, and with a lot of uncertainty regarding pretty much everything in the institution, the women’s team have been a beacon of consistency, hard work, and union for those that have followed them in recent times, often without the media’s toxicity and vitriol that often covers the men’s team.
It’s the business’ end of the season for United and it’s to kill or be killed.
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