FAWSL 2021/22 Preview: Manchester United

The 2020/21 FA Women’s Super League kicks off on the weekend of the 3rd – 5th September. D2B is here to preview all twelve teams in the title race and assess their chances. We’re going back to an alphabetical approach this year and continue with Manchester United, who finished a single point outside the Champions League places, in fourth, last season so will be looking to go at least one better this time round…

Manchester United – Looking to fight their way into the Champions League spots…

Full Name: Manchester United Women Football Club

Nickname(s): The Red Devils

Founded: 2018

Ground: Leigh Sports Village (12,000 capacity)

Last Season, FAWSL: 4th Place

WSL Pedigree / Club History

The club has only been operational for three years, having successfully applied to join the FA Women’s Championship ahead of the 2018/19 season, winning it comfortably at the first go.

Their first foray under former manager Casey Stoney saw them finish as ‘best of the rest’ in fourth place, during the pandemic hit season where points per game were used (1.64).

They significantly improved that average in 2020/21 (by half a point per game), and with Arsenal’s dropping away the Red Devils ended the campaign just a point behind the Gunners – it had been 13 points the previous year even with only two-thirds of the fixtures completed.

Last Season

United’s ambition was evident going into their second season in the top-flight bringing World Cup winners Tobin Heath and Christen Press into the club.

They took points of each of the top three at some point which were key milestones in their improvement, setting out their intent on the opening weekend as they held champions 2019/20 Chelsea to a draw.

By the time they had beaten Bristol City 6-1 just before Christmas, they were the form team.

But their return fixture with Chelsea didn’t quite go to plan and a 2-1 defeat began a nine-game stretch where they lost five times, including the pivotal 2-0 loss at Arsenal which would effectively cost them third place.

Manager / Head Coach

“We’re at a club that wants to be successful. I’m well aware – I watch from afar – of the quality in this league and the growing quality in this league from every team. It was the challenge, I think, and I think being here, our challenge is to win things. There’s no doubt about that. I haven’t come back to just exist. I’m so pleased to be with a group of players that has the kind of foundations that we have here. We’re going to be measured on our success, of course, when you’re at a club like Manchester United.”

Marc Skinner, Head Coach, Manchester United, via sportsmole.co.uk

Casey Stoney left United over the summer to take a Head Coaching role with new NWSL franchise San Diego.  The club filled that vacancy with former Orlando Pride boss Marc Skinner.

Skinner’s appointment has not been universally welcomed, but opinions of the 38-year old seem to stem from which part of his managerial career one cares to focus on.

Ask a Birmingham fan and they will tell you about a loyal, long-serving coach who held down a range of roles at the club, eventually becoming Head Coach in late 2016 and leading his team to a very respectable 5th place finish in his first full season and then maintaining that form the following year – the Blues were 4th when he departed in early 2019.

Or you could talk an Orlando Pride fan. Skinner replaced Tom Sermanni in early 2019 and couldn’t get a win during the honeymoon period. Eventually the Pride got a victory in game 10, but they couldn’t build momentum and finished bottom of the league.

The following year was blighted by the global pandemic but the NWSL did manage to pull the Utah 2020 Challenge Cup together. Orlando revealed half a dozen COVID-19 positives and the team was removed. Later in the year they played four ‘Fall Series’ matches but didn’t win any.

When things did start to click – Orlando were unbeaten in their opening seven matches of the 2021 NWSL – Skinner took the job at Manchester United. His overall record with the Pride was 9 wins, 11 draws and 23 defeats.

Summer Recruitment

Solid full-back Hannah Blundell: Time for a new challenge after more than ten years at Chelsea…

Just five players have arrived at the Leigh Sports Village (at the time of writing).

Hannah Blundell and Aoife Mannion arrive from rivals Chelsea and Manchester City respectively. Blundell was with the Blues from 2010 and came through their youth system. She played nearly 100 league games for the club but opportunities were becoming fewer and fewer as Chelsea looked to bring in players that could bring European success. Players want to play so fingers-crossed for Hannah that United is the right choice. She can play as a full back on either flank.

Mannion joined City from Birmingham in the summer of 2019, playing in the opening day Manchester Derby in front of over 31,000 fans. But she tore her ACL in October and that kept her out of action for 16-months. By the time she returned other players had established themselves. Aoife can play at right back or as a centre half.

Former Bristol City keeper Sophie Baggaley had to pick the ball out of the net more than any other keeper in the WSL last season so she’ll enjoy working behind a defence that conceded less than a goal per game in 2020/21 – well, assuming she can oust ever-present stopper Mary Earps.

Eyebrows were raised a little at D2B Towers when United went after forward Martha Thomas given that she only netted four times in 16 appearances for West Ham last season. But three of them came in one game which suggests when it all comes together it really comes together! Thomas will always put a shift in up front but her confidence can be brittle. Perhaps Marc Skinner will have a remedy for that.

Who’s moved on?

Both the Americans that arrived to great media fanfare, which had pundits loudly declaring the WSL “the best league in the world.”

That wasn’t the players’ fault, to be fair. Tobin Heath was just starting to get going (4 goals and 2 assists in eight appearances) when she was side-lined with a knee injury for the rest of the campaign.

Centre forward Christen Press, meanwhile, showed her trademark pace and hustle but it never quite happened for her and she ended up with the same number of goals as Heath. Press will join new franchise Angel City, while Heath is keeping her registration options open – she was drafted by Racing Louisville but is unlikely to end up there.

With the American superstars out of the picture one could reasonably have expected skilful young attacker Lauren James to get more game time. James registered fewer than 450 minutes of league action last season but the thought of her reintegrating with a combination of Leah Galton, Alessia Russo, Ella Toone and Kirsty Hanson… it can’t have been the club’s idea to let her go, surely?

James has travelled back to London re-joining child hood club Chelsea and getting to see brother Reece at the Stoke D’Abernon training ground every day.

That said, a bigger miss might well be centre-back Amy Turner who had gone stateside to join the Orlando Pride – Marc Skinner’s former club. Turner had two good seasons in the WSL alongside namesake Millie and, at 30-years old, is taking a lot of experience with her with several good playing years ahead.

Forward Jess Sigsworth has opted for Leicester City. She wasn’t a shoe-in starter but brought the kind of pace off the bench that defenders do not want to see with 20 minutes left.

Key Players

Will Millie Turner (left) and Maria Thorisdottir form United’s new centre back pairing?

There’s going to be a new centre back pairing at United this season. Millie Turner should form one half of it as she’s established herself as a strong player who is particularly good aerially, but Marc Skinner might want to consider Maria Thorisottir for the other berth.

While she’s more commonly been viewed as a full-back through her time with Emma Hayes at Chelsea the Norwegian has made a half century of caps for her country at the heart of their defence, and is as good a covering defender as there is in the league.

The scarcity of ‘traditional’ gun-it-to-the-by-line wingers has perhaps left football that little bit poorer. Maybe it’s because this type of player often didn’t turn up three weeks in every four and managers couldn’t justify such a luxury anymore.

No such worries with Leah Galton, who is all kinds of trouble down United’s left and able to deliver consistently good performances. Is she a key player? Absolutely, because the team is just not quite as good when she’s not there.

The breakthrough young player of 2020/21 was intelligent, goal scoring midfielder Ella Toone. United fans had been talking her up for a couple of years. They were spot on, and one of the league’s best young players emerged last season striking nine goals in 21 league starts.

She went on to make her England debut, scoring a penalty in the 6-0 demolition of Northern Ireland and should now be central to Sarina Wiegman’s thinking as the Lionesses prepare for Euro 2021(2).

Opening Day

Manchester United host Reading on Friday 3rd September, the opening evening of the WSL season.

Pre-season

United had draws with Liverpool (2-2) and Brighton (1-1). A 2-0 win over Aston Villa was their first pre-season victory.

They also travelled North of the Border to Rangers and beat them 5-0.

Prospects for 2021/22

United’s head to head record with the other top teams in the division was central to them making up a lot of ground in the first half of last season.  Injuries hit, and the wheels fell off somewhat after the turn of the year as they lost a bit of form and struggled for goals.

Assuming the defence will remain on a par with last season, more goals are what Skinner’s team needs to find to finally break into the top three. At least ten more, fifteen to be on the safe side!

Five attackers / forwards from last year have gone, including Lauren James. Heath and Press contributed eight between them, so is it reasonable to ask whether another striker is going to be brought in before the window shuts. If not, significant weight will be placed on the shoulders of the younger players such as Toone, Alessia Russo and Ivana Fuso. That could make it tough for United to improve on their fourth place finish from the last two seasons…

Transfer Summary

 Ins

  • Vilde Bøe Risa (Midfielder)
  • Sophie Baggaley (Goalkeeper)
  • Hannah Blundell (Defender)
  • Aoife Mannion (Defender)
  • Martha Thomas (Forward)

 Outs

  • Tobin Heath (Forward)
  • Amy Turner (Defender)
  • Jane Ross (Forward)
  • Jess Sigsworth (Forward)
  • Lauren James (Midfielder)
  • Abbie McManus (Defender)
  • Fran Bentley – on loan (Goalkeeper)
  • Emily Ramsey – on loan (Goalkeeper)
  • Christen Press (Forward)
  • Tara Bourne – on loan (Defender)

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