·28 September 2023
·28 September 2023
It’s unlikely anyone will say it out loud even if they believe it, but consolidation. Like their male counterparts, Manchester United are hampered by the Glazers’ avaricious ownership and as such, chances are they will always be chasing better-funded rivals. No team can expect to win the big pots after first losing a player as brilliant as Lauren James, who departed in 2021, then two more of similar quality in Ona Batlle and Alessia Russo, who left this summer.
Though there was little hope of persuading Batlle against returning to Barcelona, a club run properly would surely have done whatever it took to retain the two England stars. Consequently, matching last season’s second place looks difficult – especially given the added complication of a Champions League debut.
On the other hand, it is not that difficult to look at United and see a team on the up. Their rapid improvement over the last three years has infused the squad with confidence and, after coming so close last season the players will believe they can go one better – not without reason. Leah Galton has made huge improvements, Ella Toone teams quality with mentality, Katie Zelem is a reliable, inspirational leader while, in Mary Earps, United boast the best goalkeeper in the world.
Ultimately, though, the success of their season will depend on unknowns. Nikita Parris has plenty of talent, but at 29 is running out of time to fulfil her undoubted potential and she must improve on last term’s return of four WSL goals and one assist. Otherwise, United must rely on two new signings, Geyse and Hinata Miyazawa, to add the firepower they currently lack. Should that work out, anything is possible. More likely, though, they face a serious struggle to retain their Champions League spot, never mind challenge for the title.
When the excellent Casey Stoney resigned in despair, unhappy with a lack of financial and infrastructural support, United looked in trouble. But Marc Skinner has done superbly since taking over, stationing Zelem and Hayley Ladd in front of the defence to facilitate a high-pressing, possession-centric and dominant style which allows his team the freedom to attack in numbers. But more than anything, his relentlessly positive personality has persuaded his players that they can impose their game on any opposition.
Over the last few years, Mary Earps has developed into a far better goalie than once looked likely and, now firmly established as the world’s premier swearer-keeper, she begins the new season with a new status that should radiate confidence through the players tasked with protecting her. But with great expectations comes great pressure and if – as reports stated – her desire to leave United for Arsenal was denied, she will have to refocus for the trudge through another long campaign.
Hinata Miyazawa was the leading scorer in the World Cup but, though she is a fine finisher, she will likely play as one of three creators stationed behind Geyse. There, her imagination and pace – exceptional with or without the ball – should make her a major threat, whether she settles immediately or needs a little time. But with Galton, Parris and Toone also pushing for inclusion, the 23-year-old will have to play well to earn her spot in the side.
United’s England contingent experienced plenty of both. Earps enjoyed a terrific tournament and Toone scored a belter against Australia – one of the goals of the tournament – while Zelem barely featured. Otherwise, Miyazawa enjoyed personal success but collective disappointment, while Geyse managed just a single start before Brazil were surprisingly eliminated by Jamaica at the end of the group stage.
United have a decent presence on Twitter with roughly 428,500 followers but still lag well behind Arsenal and Chelsea – probably because of their newness and how zealously the other two promote their women’s sides. On Instagram, meanwhile, United have 2m followers – 200,000 more than Arsenal but 1.8m fewer than Chelsea – and on TikTok lead both by around 600,000, suggesting that theirs is a younger fanbase than that of the London giants.