It is probably fair to say the expectations of Manchester United fans as the team head into their third Women’s Super League season are markedly different to last summer.
Then, Casey Stoney had guided the team to a fourth-place finish in a curtailed first top-flight campaign and recruited the USA women’s national team stars Christen Press and Tobin Heath as they looked to upset the established order at the top of the table and vie for a place in the Champions League. Confidence was high.
They got off to a blistering start and finished the year top and a win against Arsenal and a 2-2 draw with Manchester City (in which they came from two goals down) demonstrated the progression of the side. Then things unravelled. Five defeats in their last 12 games of the season, starting with a 2-1 defeat to eventual champions Chelsea, saw their title challenge melt away, and they subsequently lost their advantage over Arsenal in the race for third place too. Injuries took their toll and three back-to-back wins to finish the campaign, for the first time in 2021, were not enough to overturn the Gunners as United finished one point behind them.
Shortly after the league campaign ended – with one FA Cup game still to play – Stoney, who had been critical to attracting players to the red side of Manchester, announced her resignation. “After a difficult season with disruption caused by the pandemic, I now feel the time is right to take some time away and for someone else to come in and lead the team on the next stage of its journey,” she said. However, sources said that the manager had tried to quit weeks before the announcement and was frustrated with training facilities and mounting injuries.
They were managerless and without Champions League football as some semblance of normality returned to the footballing calendar internationally. Heath and Press both left the club, with the latter joining new club Angel City in the NWSL in the US and the former remaining unsigned.
The announcements kept coming, the much-loved defender Amy Turner departed for Orlando, the former Manchester City defender Abbie McManus joined Leicester and the lesser-used forwards Jess Sigsworth and Jane Ross moved to Leicester and Rangers respectively. The loss of their star 19-year-old midfielder Lauren James was somewhat inevitable given Chelsea were interested in re-signing their former academy player and with her brother Reece is shining for the men’s team, but it was still a blow to those who felt she was the future of Stoney’s United.
The full-back Hannah Blundell moved in the opposite direction as part of the cash-plus-player deal but the calibre of the two cannot be compared. United’s recruitment since has been good, with the exciting midfielder Vilde Bøe Risa joining from Norway’s Sandviken, the England goalkeeper Sophie Baggaley coming in from Bristol City, Aoife Mannion moving across Manchester to rebuild after an ACL injury and the forward Martha Thomas joining from West Ham. However, while the quality of the new recruits is good, they are not yet close to the level of some of those they have lost. Meanwhile those teams nearest them, Arsenal and Everton, have strengthened their squads significantly.
The new manager, Marc Skinner, has his work cut out and he returns to the WSL with his reputation tarnished. Those who remember what he was able to do with threadbare resources at Birmingham City – leading them to an FA Cup final in 2017, and leaving with the club fourth in the league in 2019 – know he is a catch, but his time in Orlando was not popular with NWSL fans. In his first season Orlando Pride slumped to a franchise record-low finish, bottom with just 16 points. The Falls Series and Challenge Cup (mini tournaments played in lieu of a full season during the pandemic) yielded mixed results with no wins in the former and a third-place finish of five teams in the latter. However this season things looked to be turning – they had 15 points and had put together the longest unbeaten run in the club’s history to start the season. Some of the the manager’s belief in himself would likely have been restored before his departure for United.
Marc Skinner He has his work cut out for him as United have had a troubled summer. Reports suggest the players were writing to the PFA to complain about how the team was being run. Skinner will use his management experience from Orlando Pride and Birmingham City to take the team forward this season.
Leah Galton Leah Galton? More like Leah Goalton. The midfielder scored six times in the league in 2020-21 but the shine was taken off her last season at United due to the arrivals of Tobin Heath and Christen Press. She lights up the pitch and her dedication to the club is why she is critical for the future of United.
Mary Earps Has saved her team on many occasions with sensational saves to become their first-choice keeper. Earps says she lives and breathes football which will help her as she will have healthy competition from the loanee Sophie Baggaley this season. This could push her to challenge Ellie Roebuck for the starting England shirt.
Ona Batlle It’s clear to see why the defender Ona Batlle was named United’s player of the year after she made 19 WSL appearances, made 94 tackles and had a pass completion rate of 74%. United now face a lot of change and Batlle is exactly the player needed to steady the ship with her reliability.