To be fair, her Manchester United side have had a baptism of fire playing against the country’s two top teams in the first two matches of the season, but for Stoney, her players and Manchester United’s fans, the expectations are for better performances and better results.
What has really stood out in these opening two matches is a gap in fitness, decision making and clinical edge. United held their own in the first half against Arsenal, in a similar manner to the match against Manchester City, and like in the derby, probably should have gone 1-0 up with Ella Toone’s diving header somehow flying wide with the goal at her mercy.
Toone’s contribution to the match and Manchester United’s performance and deficiencies could be summed up in three moments. Following that missed chance, she had an opportunity to play Leah Galton through on the wing on a United breakaway but decided to go alone and blazed the ball over, and in the dying moments of the match, with United pushing forward for an equaliser, her return pass from a throw-in by Kirsty Hanson was hit back into touch, completely missing her teammate. Toone is one of several who need to step up.
In the final minutes of the first half, it looked like Arsenal were edging into the match, with Mary Earps pulling off a double save from striker Vivianne Miedema before the resulting corner bounced off her crossbar. Earps was outstanding throughout the match and kept the scoreline respectable. On another day, with a bit of luck, she may have rescued a point or more for United. She looks every bit the keeper who should be chosen as England’s next number one.
In the second half, Arsenal dominated proceedings, there’s no other way to see it. United again could have done more on the break, and it was disappointing to see Jane Ross be thwarted in a one-on-one situation with the opposition goalkeeper. Other than that, it was all Arsenal and whether through last-ditch tackling, Earps’ brilliance or sheer logic-defying luck, the ball would not go in, flashing wide, hitting the post and drawing plenty of sighs of relief from the stands – until substitute Danielle van de Donk scrambled the ball home in the 89th minute, inevitably.
Is it unfair to be critical of some of United’s players so early in the season, considering the massive step up they have had to make, their inexperience and the massive tasks they’ve had to face so far? Perhaps. This is Manchester United though and this alone means the expectations and demands are greater. Kirsty Smith needs to show why faith has been placed in her by her manager. The same goes for Amy Turner.
They both didn’t have terrible matches, but they seem lacking in comparison to the top level, especially in their decision making and positioning. Turner’s distribution usually came down to aimlessly pumping the ball forward. Smith was inaccurate and caught out defensively with the goal and several chances coming down her side.
Jess Sigsworth and Lauren James’ fitness must come into question. Especially in James’ case, it seemed she tired very quickly even though she was a second half substitute. She didn’t make runs into the penalty area when United came down the wing and in the final few set pieces, decided to not go up into the penalty area where her presence was required. She also must realise along with the rest of the team that this is the FA Women’s Super League and they won’t be afforded so much time on the ball. Decisiveness is required and taking so many touches before releasing the ball, turning back and forward before deciding what to do simply won’t cut it. At 17, James still has plenty of time on her side, but if she wants to feature regularly, more is expected from her.
The bright side is that United will not face much tougher tests than The Gunners and The Citizens, but now that the league is well and truly under way, United need to start picking up points and prove that they can challenge for a top six spot this season. Next up is Liverpool and only three points will do.