FA WSL Preview – Manchester United

The 2020/21 FA Women’s Super League kicks off on the weekend of the 5th / 6th September. D2B is here to preview all twelve teams in the title race and assess their chances. Last year we went alphabetical in presenting the teams, but this year we’ve plumped for reverse order of where each club was placed when the league was finally abandoned due to the COVID-19 crisis. Having looked at Reading in the previous article now we turn our attention to Manchester United who, in their first top flight season, finished in fourth spot…

Manchester United Women Football Club

Manager Casey Stoney – Already being talked about for the Lionesses job, but she’s not going anywhere right now…

Last Season: 4th of 12

Nickname: The Red Devils

Founded: 2018

Home Ground: Leigh Sports Village (capacity 12,000)

Manchester United were expected to do well in their first WSL season. They’d cleaned up in the Championship in 2018/19, were investing in the women’s team, had a highly respected former England captain for a manager and had brought in good players to supplement an already talented group. But what would ‘do well’ look like?

Well, they couldn’t realistically be expected to challenge Arsenal, Manchester City or Chelsea at the first time of asking, could they? A fourth place finish, then, to the neutral observer represented a good marker for the club.

It was as good an inaugural WSL season as any; better in fact than their sky blue cross-city rivals managed in their 2014 campaign and equal to Sunderland’s effort a year later. The Black Cats weren’t able to repeat their first season success and were out of the top flight within two years. City, of course, would push on to form one of the ‘Big 3’ women’s football clubs so dominant now in England.

And it is right in the thick of this dominant group that Manchester United wants to be.

First there’s some work to do. They didn’t get a point from any of the top three, although they ran all of them close (0-1) and were beaten at Chelsea on the back of a pretty contentious penalty decision – as an impartial observer it genuinely could have been given either way!

United finished 13 points behind Arsenal by the suspension of matches – albeit with one game in hand. That put the Red Devils in that ‘best-of-the-rest’ spot. While that’s fine for their first go, fourth is unlikely to feel nearly as good at the end of next season, unless they’ve closed that points gap significantly.

They have a sizeable squad on paper – 24 players at the time of writing – but manager Casey Stoney hasn’t tinkered too much with it over the summer, bringing in just three, while four have left for pastures new and one has been loaned out.

Lucy Staniforth on England duty.

Midfielder Lucy Staniforth has switched from Birmingham City. A fully-fledged Lionesses squad member, she’s an excellent box-to-box player who is also very good on the dead ball. She looks like the right kind of player to improve what has been a settled and competitive midfield, adding quality, bringing a willingness to graft and offering tactical options for the manager.

Put her alongside Jackie Groenen and here are two of the better midfield engines in the WSL. Add in ball-winner Hayley Ladd and now there may be more opportunities to give team captain Katie Zelem licence to push on and be creative without worrying so much about leaving holes.  And it’s handy, if Zelem needs resting, that Staniforth can get on free-kicks and corners without the quality diminishing.

Defensively, United look solid which probably isn’t surprising given that Stoney was an international defender. Only West Ham put three goals past them in the league – in a bizarre and utterly absorbing 3-2 at Rush Green – and no one beat them by more than a one-goal margin so there hasn’t been the need to do much in the way of reconstruction.

Full-back Ona Batlle has arrived, though. She may have stuck in the minds of a few England fans following her impressive performances at the She Believes Cup earlier this year. Just 21-years old, she missed the 2019 World Cup Spain but has since staked her claim with Head Coach Jorge Vilda for an international squad place. Ona made 67 senior appearances in the Spanish league for Madrid CFF and Levante.

Ona Batlle – Enjoying training with Manchester United

Brazilian-born forward Ivana Fuso completes the modest list of new acquisitions. At just 19-years old Fuso averaged a goal every other game for Basel last season and has represented Germany at all youth levels having started her senior career in the Bundesliga.

United will certainly need to score a lot more goals than last season having finished a good 15 strikes behind the top sides. Fuso doesn’t represent a marquee signing in the same way that, say, Valerie Gauvin does at Everton but it’s not wise to assume that younger forwards can’t make an impression in the Super League. You only have to look at Lauren James for evidence of that.

James doesn’t turn 19 until the end of September but didn’t look in the least bit intimidated by Super League defenders throughout her first topflight campaign. She was a top ten striker in the league last season equalling, for instance, Ellen White’s tally over at City. United fans are fiercely supportive of their prodigious young star who’s powerful, has deceptively quick feet in the box and a healthy strain of needle in her game as well.

Lauren James – If you’re making a list of the WSL’s most exciting young players, here’s a tip…

James will look to Leah Galton to create as many chances as possible. Galton – a good old-fashioned gun-it-to-the-by-line winger – is one of the division’s most exciting players running with the ball. She chipped in with 4 goals last season, which is tidy, but may want to improve on her 3 assists (a figure that was matched by forward Jess Sigsworth).

Local girl Ella Toone will also hope to get more match minutes. Some supporters have stated that the (literally just) 21-year old attacker is underrated and believe she will become a top player in the league. Toone only scored once in the league last year, but six cup strikes suggest there is an eye for goal there and plenty of WSL potential.

As a manager, Stoney has already sufficiently impressed enough people to be linked with vacant head coaching roles for Team GB (2021 Olympics) and the Lionesses – the latter of which recently ended up being accepted by Sarina Wiegman. But it’s easy to see that Stoney has all the attributes that could make her an excellent national team manager at some point in the future. She’s also a very decent BBC pundit when England have international fixtures.

The Red Devils start their league campaign against Champions Chelsea so there’s a good opportunity to get a measure of where they are right from the get-go.

Rumours have been circulating for a few weeks now that US Women’s National Team stars Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns) and Christen Press (Utah Royals) are bound for the Leigh Sports Village on loan but no firm deal has yet been reported. Plus the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has recently announced that they will be holding a Fall Series competition starting next weekend to further compensate for the lack of a full league programme. This may have thrown a spanner in the works, assuming any discussions were ongoing. A watch and wait brief then… (These loans have now been confirmed – Ed 10/09/2020)

“To move into the top three we need to be more consistent – even maintaining fourth is going to be difficult because everybody has strengthened – but it has to be our aim. We might not necessarily achieve it but it can be our aim. I think we have got enough in our squad now, we are developing all the time. We’ve got exciting young players and experience in our team.”

Casey Stoney, Manager, via bt.com/sport Website

Like every team, United didn’t get a chance to assess their season on the back of a completed fixture programme to really get real sense of the gap between them and the top three, and indeed those below them. Some of their closest rivals have strengthened significantly, while Stoney appears to have used this transfer window to ensure the squad is more balanced, focusing on increasing the depth of quality rather than gambling on star names. Could there be more acquisitions before the window shuts? More goals will be key to their success. If they can do this, fourth spot looks assured, but it may still be a season too soon to reel the title contenders in.

Departures

  • Aimee Palmer, Midfielder
  • Siobhan Chamberlain, Goalkeeper
  • Aurora Mikalsen, Goalkeeper
  • Lizzie Arnot, Forward
  • Fran Bentley, Goalkeeper [loan]
  • Mollie Green, Midfielder (after original article)

Arrivals          

  • Lucy Staniforth, Midfielder
  • Ona Batlle, Defender
  • Ivana Fuso, Forward
  • Tobin Heath, Forward (after initial article)
  • Christen Press, Forward (after original article)
  • Alessia Russo, Forward (after original article)

Earlier this year, we charted on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link above, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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