Old Trafford was silenced on Sunday when Marc Skinner’s side were beaten by Man City, a result which highlighted several of the Red Devils’ issues
Sunday was a huge day for Manchester United’s women’s team. The Red Devils welcomed bitter rivals Manchester City to Old Trafford and a club-record crowd of 43,615 fans streamed in to watch. Most of them were hoping to see a home win, one that would move United to within a point of Arsenal in second place in the Women’s Super League, and four behind leaders Chelsea, while also leaving City nine points off the pace with only seven games played. But although it was an historic day at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, the match was a nightmare for the hosts.
Despite home advantage, despite going 1-0 up after 21 minutes and despite playing against 10 players for almost half an hour, United came away empty-handed. They were sloppy, wasteful and uncomfortable in what turned into a 3-1 win for City.
Marc Skinner admitted after the match that his United team probably now need to go unbeaten for the rest of the season to stand any chance of winning the title. But based on what we saw on Sunday, that looks highly unlikely.
The 2022-23 campaign was an incredible one for Skinner’s side. They were the only team to battle Chelsea for the WSL title until the final day, they secured a spot in the Women’s Champions League for the first time and they reached a maiden Women’s FA Cup final, too.
But the outlook is quite different with almost a third of this 2023-24 season gone. United couldn’t reach the UWCL group stages after landing a very tough tie in qualifying with Paris Saint-Germain, they’re seven points behind league leaders Chelsea and a defeat at Old Trafford to City has only intensified dissatisfaction among the fans. So, what is going wrong?
As well as losing highly-rated assistant manager Martin Ho, who has since guided Norwegian side Brann into the Women’s Champions League group stages, there were 13 first-team departures during the summer, two of which were hugely significant: Ona Batlle and Alessia Russo.
Batlle is the best right-back in the women’s game and her return to Barcelona, the club she came through as a youngster, felt inevitable for some time. She was always going to be extremely difficult to replace as there is no one quite like the Spaniard, who excelled as an inverted full-back during her time in Manchester.
Russo didn’t light the league up in her final season with United, scoring just 10 goals, but her move to Arsenal was an issue because of the way Skinner opted to tackle the task of replacing her. A flurry of new attackers have arrived, none of whom are providing the same kind of focal point as Russo.
Life after Russo
Geyse – a tricky, direct and energetic forward who joined from reigning European champions Barcelona this past summer – is now playing the No.9 role on a regular basis. She is a wonderful talent and has shown flashes of her brilliance already. She is also a very different player to Russo.
On her Man Utd debut in October, in a dramatically late win at Aston Villa, Geyse was a constant nuisance for the opposition but she drifted out wide so often that it left no one in the box to put chances away. That has been the case for most of her time in United red, too.
“If the forward goes into the wide channel, then the other one has to come in and we have to flood the box because of the way that we play. That will come, I’ve no doubt about that,” Skinner said after that win on the WSL’s opening weekend.
“Geyse is different to Alessia. Alessia is a pin player and spins and switches. Geyse can hold it and turn you and go. That’s a different type of forward. I think when we watch it back, we can be more positionally ruthless and I think that will come.”
It was Rachel Williams who saved the day at Villa Park, the experienced forward coming off the bench to win the game in stoppage time. As a classic No.9, it was she who brought that penalty-box presence United had been lacking – and it wasn’t the only instance of that happening this season. The 35-year-old, the team’s top goal-scorer in the WSL this season, also came to the rescue away at Brighton earlier this month.
It’s fantastic when you have players on the bench who can make a difference but Williams’ goals have often shown that United simply lack a starter who can be in the right place at the right time to get on the end of the chances being created – and finish them ruthlessly.
The right combination
Why is that the case? Well, Geyse has a lot of talent but her final product and decision-making aren’t always convincing. She’s also not that orthodox centre-forward that will lurk in the box, waiting to sniff out a goal. Melvine Malard, however, appears to be a little more like that.
The France international joined Man Utd on loan from Lyon this past summer but has largely operated in a wide role despite it feeling like a switch of positions between her and Geyse would be beneficial. When she gets in the box, she is deadly, as her four goals for the club already have shown. Yet, she is often stuck on the wing struggling to make an impact. Even Nikita Parris, who excelled in a central role against Everton, appears to be a better option as a starting No.9 than Geyse, whose talents could be maximised out wide.
Skinner has tinkered a little with that front three this season but has yet to really nail down those killer combinations that can make United a more clinical side. He’s also stressed that the players are still adapting to life in England and learning the language to communicate with their new team-mates.
“There are still barriers,” he said on Sunday, speaking about the glimpses of that relationship between Geyse and Malard. “It’s just the little details. For example, if we’re going to play more direct, then we can play underneath, so maybe Geyse is the highest player but then Melvine drops underneath so if Man City see get the first contact, we’re in the second space and once we’re in that second space, I don’t think Man City would live with us. But we end up being in a flat line because they can’t quite communicate quickly as the ball is travelling. There are all those little details that they don’t yet have the language skill to do.”
But until Geyse and Malard are able to work in tandem in their current roles, can Skinner change things so that their abilities can be fully exploited while the relationship is still growing? After all, those partnerships take time to grow and there just isn’t a lot to spare in the WSL.
There are only 12 teams in the WSL. Each side only plays 22 games in the division. So, when you’re seven points off the top of the table after as many matches, it’s quite a lot of ground to make up if you want to be a factor in the title race.
Skinner has spoken about time, about how these players will gel and they will work together beautifully on the pitch, but nearly a third of the league season is now gone and he is still speaking about it. How long will it take?
Let’s also not forget that Malard is a loan player. You don’t want to be waiting four months for someone on a temporary deal to make an impact. You need to make the most of their presence as soon as possible, especially if Skinner wants Man Utd to compete for the title and to have another go in Europe next season.
The problems don’t just surround the forward areas and how this attack looks without Russo, either. Batlle’s departure has made United weaker at the back both in and out of possession. Errors when playing out from the defence are creeping in more and more frequently, with captain Katie Zelem caught on the ball in her own half in the build-up to City’s second goal on Sunday and Maya Le Tissier playing a short backpass to Mary Earps that proved costly for the third.
There are also questions around the midfield, namely why so much of United’s play seems to completely bypass it, and why the balance does not seem right a lot of the time in the combinations of three that Skinner picks. Rectifying the latter could go a long way to putting a stop to Ella Toone’s poor form in 2023, too.