Manchester United fall short again: No UEFA Women’s Champions League

Manchester United
LEIGH, ENGLAND - MAY 01: Katie Zelem and Ona Batlle of Manchester United react during the Barclays FA Women's Super League match between Manchester United Women and West Ham United Women at Leigh Sports Village on May 01, 2022 in Leigh, England. (Photo by Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images)

With their third season in the Women’s Super League over and done, Manchester United once again failed to reach the top three. It’s hard to remember that United haven’t been a part of the WSL for many years. Because to those who follow the league seems like they always have been ‘up there.’

Playing for a club like Manchester United comes with expectations and pressure to perform and compete for trophies. It’s the heritage and the brand behind the club’s name. When the women’s team was founded in May 2018, no one expected less than success. And it was. And it is.

Manchester United and the fourth place

After coming fourth after United’s first two spells in the WSL, things started to come to the front. It has been clear that the club’s ambition and the demands from the fans have been to reach the UWCL. Chelsea, Arsenal, and local rivals Manchester City are the teams for United to beat to achieve that desirable top three spot.

When former head coach, Casey Stoney, managed to get United to a fourth place on the table after the first WSL season, that was successful. There were clear signs of disappointment when they ended up fourth in the second season. When Stoney, shortly after that, declared she was about to leave the club, the expectations of the new manager instantly became high. Stoney explained her departure with a clear message; the club and the board did not show genuine commitment to the women’s team.

Last summer, Marc Skinner was announced as the new head coach. After making progress with Birmingham in England, he was appointed as the head coach of NWSL club Orlando Pride in the US. He got the job for the Red Devils and returned to England. He took United to another fourth place in the WSL.

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Manchester United: change of playing style

Stoney liked to play wide. Make the pitch as wide as possible to give players like Leah Galton, Tobin Heath (who played at United back then), and Kirsty Hanson time to shine as wingers. Christen Press and Lauren James often were Stoney’s alternated options as top strikers. Whereas Ella Toone operated behind in the role of a number 10.

Results such as winning against Arsenal with 1-0 and playing 2-2 against Manchester City in the first half of the season gave United confidence. And, the fans hoped they could do it. When the new year started, and the league kicked off again, expectations were no other than that a Champions League spot was in reach. Tobin Heath and Leah Galton, two vital players, became injured. It was clear that the absence of players that had played big roles in Stoney’s way of playing the game showed.

On to Marc Skinner. He has held onto the 4-2-3-1 formation. But the wide play, close to Stoney’s heart, has not been the main thing. The style under Skinner has been more direct, and the involvement of several attackers.

Manchester United’s signings

Aoife Mannion joined from Manchester City and was one of the more significant signings United did announce during the window last summer. Mannion started together with Mille Turner as the anchor at the back at the beginning of the season. Other signings during the summer were former Chelsea defender Hannah Blundell. She was rumoured to be a part of a deal when the Blues bought Lauren James from Manchester. One player that has to be considered a big signing for the Red Devils was Norway’s national team player and midfielder Vilde Bøe Risa. After months of being heavily linked to the club, it was announced last summer. Scottish striker Martha Thomas also joined from West Ham.

Come January and the winter window, Danish striker Signe Bruun was brought in on loan from Lyon, and midfielder Jade Moore and defender Diane Caldwell signed. Bruun pretty much walked straight into the team but along with both Moore and Caldwell, she has been on the sideline due to injury.

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Risa started by being used as a midfielder in United’s double pivot, where they play with two 6’s. Katie Zelem, Hayley Ladd, and Jackie Groenen compete to start in that position. You could see a slight difference in the Red Devils’ playing style before Christmas when they smashed Aston Villa in a 5-0 win. Risa played as a number 10 alongside Ella Toone and Lucy Staniforth behind Alessia Russo in that match. This must be considered as one of the best matches of the season. Toone and Staniforth could use their abilities to cut inside, even though they operated as wingers, and for parts of that game, the attacks from United were brutal on Villa’s defence.

Manchester United’s highs and lows

One of the lows for United this season must have been their 6-1 loss against what would come to be the WSL Champions, Chelsea. But one of the highs, was also vs the Blues. In the season’s final match at Kingsmeadow, Skinner’s tactics in the first half were spot on. Chelsea struggled massively, and Emma Hayes was forced into changes when the second half started. You could easily compare this performance from United with Real Madrid’s when they were up against FC Barcelona in the Champions League in the first leg of the quarter-final. You have the tactics to win, but player-wise, it’s not enough in the end.

And that is what seems to be the destiny of Manchester United when they play the big three in the WSL. On February 13, United fell short in a 1-0 loss vs City in the league, but two weeks later, they got smashed vs City with 4-1 in the FA Cup on Sunday, February 27. United clearly showed two weeks earlier that the tactics to beat their biggest rival were in place, but, in the Cup game, some United players looked ‘scared’ to try. There was not enough effort in the duels, not enough desire to win the second balls. Maybe the experience of winning the big matches also made them fall short?

Important players

This section of the article collaborates with PlayMaker AI, a Football Analytics web platform powered by AI. All graphics come from by Jesper Haglöf, the data analyst at PlayMaker.

The goalkeeper, Mary Earps, has had a good season. This is the United keeper’s spider graph, where the red area marks her metrics in different areas compared to the average goalkeeper in the WSL, marked by the shadowed area.

Plot and graphic made by @jesperhaglof – data analyst at @PlayMakerAI

Ella Toone (9 goals + 8 assists according to Wyscout across all competitions) and Alessia Russo (11 goals + 4 assists) have been standing out to provide wins for United.

Someone who started as what looked to be a first-choice starter for the Red Devils is Kirsty Hanson. When the season progressed, she was on the beck and made appearances from there. Now, here we will take a look at something exciting. The following plots are not about how many minutes each player has played; they are all based on actions per 90 minutes. Kirsty Hanson stands out.

Let’s start with xG/90 and xT/90: expected goals and expected threats. Expected goals measures the likelihood of a shot ending up in a goal. Expected threat measures the likelihood of a player contributing to attacking threat.

The best is to end up as high up in the right corner as possible.

Plot and graphic made by @jesperhaglof – data analyst at @PlayMakerAI

Next one; xT passes per 90 and xT carries per 90.

Plot and graphic made by @jesperhaglof – data analyst at @PlayMakerAI

The last one; xT/90 and xT prevented per 90.

Plot and graphic made by @jesperhaglof – data analyst at @PlayMakerAI

Maria Thorisdottir has been doing a great job at the back. The defender at United that has prevented opponents from making threats in the short term. But, Kirsty Hanson? Let’s just say that she is worth keeping an eye on, and maybe Marc Skinner should re-think about benching her?

What’s next for Manchester United?

Next for Manchester United women’s team, the only thing is to reach that desirable top three spot in the league. Champions League football should be a priority for the Red Devils. Their budget is smaller than Chelsea’s, Arsenal’s and Manchester City’s. But. they have already shown glimpses that the football they play can help them compete. Maybe not in the long run yet, but in the future. After all, they have been consistent with the results for their three seasons in the WSL, coming forth every time. No matter what people say, that is not bad for a team as young as United. Although fans of the club will demand more and the best.  

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