Manchester United Women manager Manager Casey Stoney watches from the touchline Manchester United Women v Lewes Women, Women's Championship football match, Leigh Sports Village, Leigh, UK - 11 May 2019 Photo: Jon Super for The FA

Winning at the Etihad – Jack Morris previews the Manchester derby from the red side

From a Manchester United fan’s point of view, there are four bold words floating around in my head. Those words being ‘winning at the Etihad’.

The question is, how does Manchester United manager Casey Stoney plan to do it? Does she stick with a proven formula from last season or does she try something new, considering the sizable challenge that Nick Cushing’s Manchester City pose?

This is the team that won two domestic trophies last season and went the whole league season unbeaten until Arsenal, the team that pipped them to the title, ended their undefeated run on the final day of the season.

Tried and tested – Casey Stoney’s 4-3-3

Casey Stoney may well go with what the team have been running with for the past year. She may think there’s no need to experiment against one of the best teams in the country, especially at their ground. She may also think there’s no reason to chop and change tactics. Perhaps she believes in not trying to fix something that isn’t broken and go with the positive attitude she and her team have demonstrated since its inception. On more than one occasion last season, Stoney reiterated that her United will play their game and look to impose their will on the pitch. Going with a 4-3-3 looks a safe bet for Stoney, with the only questions being those of personnel, mainly on the right side of the pitch and upfront.

Jane Ross, brought in for her experience at FA Women’s Super League level would be a solid choice to start upfront, with Stoney then having to decide whether to go with Lizzie Arnot, Kirsty Hanson, Lauren James or Jess Sigsworth on the wing.

James, still a diamond in the rough at 17 years of age, feels like a bit of a risk for this occasion, and may get lost in the match in a similar fashion to when United came unstuck against Arsenal in the semi-finals of the FA Women’s Continental League Cup last season. She’s also more a natural attacking midfielder or ‘false nine’, than a winger – but with her trickery, control, dribbling and ability to cross and shoot, she could do a job there and give Demi Stokes plenty to think about. The same could be said for the two Scottish wingers, Arnot or Hanson.

In contrast to James, they are natural wingers, capable of cutting inside and delivering crosses or shots on their left foot, and may provide a higher and more reliable work rate than the mercurial James. Arnot of course scored United’s first ever goal following the team’s relaunch against Liverpool last season, and all United fans will be dreaming of a similar outcome this Saturday. Hopefully they’ll also be able to provide the necessary cover and track back to help out our right-back. For this reason, in this formation, I have gone with Jess Sigsworth.

It looks like Martha Harris will be missing at least from the opening match, if not longer, so it seemingly solves the dilemma at right back for Stoney, with Kirsty Smith getting the nod. That’s of course unless Stoney pulls out another surprise and either goes with Abbie McManus at right back, Amy Turner coming in alongside her regular partner last season in Millie Turner, Stoney turns to an unproven youth, or perhaps Hayley Ladd in a position she may not be comfortable in or another player that may be playing out of position. This of course means further alterations may be made in the middle of the park or on the wings – and again, Stoney may not want to experiment that much.

Smith splits opinions in the fan camp, which is why there is a question in my mind to begin with. She looked very good coming in against Everton in the FA Women’s Continental League Cup group stage win at The Toffees’ ground in Southport, when former captain Alex Greenwood was shifted into midfield for additional cover and bite in the middle, with Smith taking up her place at left-back.

It was a standout performance by her and the entire team at the turn of the year. She seemed to fade though as the season went on, and it surprised some that Stoney hung onto her in the summer. Too often it seemed she would would make the wrong decision when pushing forward and lacked control of the ball and positional awareness when on the defensive. Nevertheless, Stoney has retained her and we are all hopeful that she manages to push Smith onto the level which we would like her to be at.

Come what may though, I think we all recognize that Smith is better going forward, so she will need cover and help when on the defensive. I feel Jess Sigsworth would be the best for that job. She may not like being shifted from her natural striking position, but she’s a team player through and through and has played down the wing in previous matches as well. She’s a diehard, adored by the fans, and will run her socks off to try and get the result the team want. What if Stoney though goes with something else entirely?

An alteration for the big occasion – 3-5-2

Personally, this is the formation I would go with in order to get a result at Manchester City. A tad cautious? Defensive? Experimental? Yes. This is one of the best teams in the land though at their ground. Time to think out of the box and maybe catch City unaware and unprepared.

As mentioned previously, Smith’s best attributes are in attack so allowing her to push forward more while allowing more cover behind her looks sensible to me. The same goes on the other side for Lotta Okvist, United’s new left-back. By all means Okvist sounds like an exciting prospect, but is still unproven in this league, at this level, and it may take time for her to adapt. From the little known about her in these realms, she also seems to be a more attack-minded full-back, in the Alex Greenwood mould. Greenwood though was proven at this level and is a class apart in that position, as proven by her departure to the best team in Europe. (Yes, it still hurts.)

Upfront I have chosen to go with Leah Galton, who picks herself as a left-sided attacker whatever the formation is. Stoney confirmed as much in her most recent interview, telling Our Game Magazine that she expects a good partnership down the left between Okvist and Galton, who she believes will be one of the standouts this year. Galton is an industrious player, like Sigsworth, the kind that gives her all for the team no matter of the task she’s asked to do, so I trust that she’ll be able to lead the line with her as a wide forward whilst also providing help at times to Okvist.
This leaves Mollie Green, United’s goalscorer in so many crucial matches, Ella Toone, James, Ross, Arnot and Hanson to all potentially have a role to play on Saturday from the bench, whether during the match we find we need a system change, an attacking spark to chase a goal or further cover to see out the game.
Come what may, this first match of course isn’t the be all, end all of the season. It’s just the beginning and as every manager would say, it’s just another three points at the end of the day. It is the first professional Manchester women’s derby though. It is at the Etihad. It would be nice to do something no one expects and show that this city belongs to the new devils. This is the one we’ve been waiting for.
By Jack Morris (@ripper48)

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