How has Marc Skinner turned it around for Manchester United Women?
Marc Skinner was announced as the manager of United’s women’s team on 29th July and managed his first preseason game against Liverpool on 08th August. Skinner was appointed late into the summer and had next to no time to assess his squad and forge a proper recruitment plan. United did manage to sign five players in the summer transfer window – Vilde Bøe Risa, Hannah Blundell, Aoife Mannion, Martha Thomas, and Sophie Baggaley but it is assumed that due to the timeline of the summer signings and the appointment of Skinner, none of the signings was his per se. Whispers in and around the club do suggest that the signings were made on the basis of the recommendations made by Casey Stoney before her departure.
After an underwhelming stint at Orlando Pride, Skinner’s arrival was met by some criticism from the fanbase; the same old story of the club not being AMBITIOUS enough!
His tenure at United kicked off with wins against Reading and newly promoted Leicester City but the team succumbed to the brilliance of Chelsea in their 3rd game of the season. Manchester United Women had never conceded 6 goals in a game in their history. An embarrassing 6-1 defeat at home to the reigning champions of the WSL was an eye-opener for Marc; the United job wasn’t going to be easy at all. United fought back against Birmingham City and won the away game 2-0 but three draws against Manchester City (who were reduced to 10 players in the 35th minute), Tottenham and Everton in back-to-back league games did not help Skinner’s cause as he found himself and his team in a slump.
In the Continental Cup, United dropped points vs Durham (won on penalties) and Leicester City (lost on penalties). For someone who does not know the rules of this competition, a team which wins a group match in 90 minutes will score 3 points. A team which wins a group match in the penalty shoot-out will score two points. A team which loses a group match in the penalty shoot-out will score one point.
Marc Skinner celebrated his first victory as the United boss in the Manchester Derby when his side faced Gareth Taylor’s City in the group stages of the Continental Cup. This was the first game of the season where fans could comprehend the hardwork Marc & his staff were putting in into this team and how the players were finally getting into the groove of SKINNER BALL.
Four days later, a 2-0 loss at home vs Arsenal meant United found themselves struggling to even make it to 4th place in the league. The fans started doubting his capability and started questioning whether he is the one to guide this team to the next level, i.e., qualifying to the UWCL. Many feared that United’s season might already be over because of such inconsistent performances.
Fast forward to the present and United have managed to win their last 6 games in all competitions, scoring 18 goals and conceding 0. SIX CLEAN SHEETS IN A ROW. This winning streak is a reflection of the resilience of this United side under Marc Skinner. But one might ask, what exactly changed? The simple answer is that Marc Skinner found the right balance; he adjusted his gameplan in accordance with his players.
Hayley Ladd’s inclusion in the Starting XI
Hayley Ladd is a fan favourite and you will often hear people say “Hayley Ladd is the first player on the team sheet”. But this wasn’t initially the case at United when Marc Skinner came in. In fact, Hayley Ladd did not even start in the first five league games. When Marc came in, fans had a hunch that he might find it difficult to field a balanced XI mainly due to the midfield depth in terms of both quality and quantity. And guess what, he did find it difficult to crack the code and find a balanced midfield.
But over a period of time, he realised the importance of starting Ladd, especially against oppositions who like to play a low block. Against low blocks, you need a CDM so that your full backs have more freedom to play higher up the pitch. The full-backs, along with the wingers, then can stretch the defence out wide. This grants more space to your attacking midfielders and forwards to score.
A calming presence in the middle of the pitch, Hayley is a no nonsense CDM. Her inclusion in the team automatically improved her fellow players and United haven’t looked back since. In many ways she is the silent guardian of this United side.
Vilde Bøe Risa adapting to life at Manchester United
In an interview with the Manchester Evening News, back in December 2021, Vilde accepted that she found it difficult to adjust to the new league and thus found it difficult to break into the team properly and perform consistently.
Vilde’s story this season is a lot like Ladd’s. Having played most of her career in Norway and Sweden,Vilde Bøe Risa needed some time to adapt to the FAWSL. Goals against Brighton in December and Tottenham in the last game must have surely boosted her confidence. The midfield trio of Ladd, Risa and Zelem have done exceptionally well in the last 6 games for the Red Devils. When Jackie Groenen got injured, a few sections of the United fanbase were afraid whether Vilde would be able to come in and perform the former’s responsibilities well. She did great if not better. Vilde likes to control the tempo of the game and won’t shy away from putting in that occasional tackle every once in a while.
With Jackie Groenen back to full fitness, United boss Marc Skinner has the opportunity of playing Vilde and Jackie together. United fans can expect fireworks if and when that happens.
Resurgence of Katie Zelem and Leah Galton
Manchester United’s captain Katie Zelem struggled a lot in the midfield this season but the inclusion of Ladd and Bøe Risa alongside her has certainly helped the United skipper. The 2018/2019 Manchester United Women’s Player of the Year was criticised a lot when United were in a slump this season but has earned the applause of the whole fanbase especially after her assists in the last two games vs Arsenal (cup) and Spurs (league) and that too from set pieces. This is exactly why Katie Zelem is regarded as a set piece specialist by some United fans.
After a good 2020/21 season, Leah Galton was expected to step up her game in the wake of the departure of five forwards in the summer. Galton struggled to adjust to the managerial change and scored just 1 goal and provided 1 assist. Football is more than just goals and assists. But there were instances where Leah looked lost on the pitch. But it turns out that she needed some time to adjust to Skinner Ball. This run of 6 wins that United are on has been like a breath of fresh air for all the players and the fans. Leah gave a Player of the Match performance vs Birmingham City in United’s first game of 2022. She then scored a brace and assisted Zelem in an emphatic 5-0 win for her team. She continued her great form and scored another goal vs Spurs in United’s last game. The SUPER LEAH GALTON is back and fans haven’t stopped singing the famous Leah Galton chant ever since her brilliant performance vs Birmingham.
Galton and Zelem have been United’s key players ever since the team was re-formed in 2018 and it is good to see that they have found their form back in time as United’s quest for their first ever top 3 finish in the WSL is back alive.
Skinner focusing on defensive composure
Barring a few games, United’s defence this season has been a formidable one. The full-back trio of Ona Battle, Hannah Blundell and Kirsty Smith have been performing admirably well for United under Skinner.
There were doubts over Kirsty Smith due to her fitness issues this season but whenever asked to step in for either Ona or Hannah, the Scotland international has consistently performed well. Her partnership with Galton on the left flank has been a key factor for United in the buildup to the goal. Hannah Blundell and Ona Batlle’s performances this season have earned them the title ‘the dynamic fullback duo of Manchester United’ by some fans.
Mary Earps has improved massively this season and has earned herself the No.1 spot for the England National Team. Quick with the ball distribution, Earps has been the Numero Uno of the women’s team. Sophie Baggaley has also been a good deputy to Earps and has been the cup goalkeeper for United. Baggaley’s performance vs Arsenal in the Continental Cup quarter final was applauded by everyone. Against a high pressing Arsenal side, Baggaley kept her cool and played her natural game. Baggaley’s arrival in the summer went under the radar due to Earps’ performances but Sophie has stepped up every time she’s been asked to play.
When Aoife Mannion joined United from Manchester City, there were doubts about her fitness and availability. Turns out there was no need of doubting as she has started in all games across all competitions for Manchester United. Maria Thorisdottir has done well in the absence of Millie Turner and ever since the latter’s comeback from injury, United have looked like a fresh side. Thorisdottir, Turner and Mannion compliment each other well and United have a quality trio of CBs at their hands.
Millie Turner wasn’t in the squad for United’s last game against Spurs in the league. United announced that the centre-back will be unavailable for an indefinite period due to an issue with the artery in her neck. As it stands, the diagnosis of the medical issue isn’t clear. The club will be hoping for her speedy recovery in the coming weeks.
Consistent duo of Alessia Russo & Ella Toone
When United were struggling this season, the only bright spots on a horizon that had never looked darker were the performances put in by Russo and Toone.
Ella Toone, on the other hand, had a fantastic 2020/21 season as she earned herself a spot in the Olympic football team of Great Britain for the Tokyo Olympics. After a promising last season, Toone was expected to be THE DIFFERENCE for United this season. And that is the case this season. United have Toone, the opposition doesn’t.
The duo of Russo-Toone reminds one of the duo of Woody-Buzz; perfect cohesion and linkup. Toone creates and Russo scores. Sometimes Russo drops into the midfield or switches to the right flank to help with the buildup and provide more space for Toone to score. Their chemistry seems natural to an extent that the United fans have come up with a new chant for this superb duo.
Manchester United have two of the most exciting prospects in the world right now and Marc should form his side around these two players.
Martha Thomas – SUPER SUB
United only brought in one forward after losing five forwards in the summer. Martha Thomas joined West Ham United in 2019 after Jane Ross joined Manchester United. She then joined Manchester United in the 2021 summer after Ross left United for Rangers. Thomas’ arrival was met by some concerns over her fitness and firepower upfront. She has struggled a bit this season due to injuries but has been a good addition to this team. An out-and-out striker, Thomas has been applauded by the fans because of how easily she has adapted to the United culture.
Some fans call her the Santiago Muñez of Marc Skinner’s United side because of her impact coming off the bench. Thomas has barely scratched the surface at United but is already showing promises of a good team player. Thomas and Russo are the only strikers at the club this season and it is evident that United have a poor depth in attack this season. United will need Thomas more now than ever as United have a chance at a cup silverware and a top 3 finish.
Manchester United are 2nd in the FAWSL with 24 points and are in the Continental Cup semi-final.
They face Bridgwater United in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Fans are expecting some U-21s players to feature against the third tier club. United face a tough run of fixtures before the next international break. Marc Skinner’s side will face Chelsea in the Continental Cup semi-final, Arsenal & Manchester City in the league in a span of 11 days in February. Marc Skinner and his backroom staff have managed to end the slump and turn it around for United but the real test lies ahead. After losing heavily to Chelsea in his third game in-charge, Skinner would like to take revenge in next week’s Continental Cup semi-final and help this United side reach their first ever cup final.
Marc Skinner on the title charge: “As for a title challenge, we need to take it each game, stay grounded, box each game in isolation and move on”.
The next few games will decide whether United can fight for the FAWSL title this season. With a cup silverware also within reach, Marc has a huge task of managing a depleted United squad but like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said – MOUNTAINS ARE THERE TO BE CLIMBED, AREN’T THEY?
Written by Atanu Wadhwa| Feature Image by Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images
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