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

OPINION: A mid-season report on a rollercoaster campaign for Manchester United

It has been a topsy-turvy campaign so far for Casey Stoney’s Manchester United.

While there have been highlights, such as battling performances against the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea and good results against Liverpool, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur, there have also been poor results like the ones against West Ham United, Bristol City and Brighton & Hove Albion. Going through United’s season, it does feel like a bit of a rollercoaster.

It started off with two narrow defeats against Manchester City and Arsenal in the league. Two losses that could have easily been draws or wins for United had chances been taken by the likes of Ella Toone, Jackie Groenen and Jane Ross.

It continued with a first league win against Liverpool which started a five-match winning streak in all competitions as United added Tottenham Hotspur, Reading, Everton and Manchester City in the FA Women’s League Cup, probably United’s standout result this season so far, to their list of scalps. Mary Earps and her back-line kept clean sheets in all of these matches and allowed United fans to dream about pushing on to potentially challenge the established top three teams in the country in the league and cup competitions.

A narrow defeat to Chelsea in the league in November following a dubious penalty decision against Millie Turner, with further chances spurned by Toone and Kirsty Hanson didn’t dampen spirits as United racked up 11 goals in the FA Women’s Continental League Cup against Leicester City and four without reply against Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Women’s Super League, United’s highest margin of victory in the league so far. This is where the season seems to have slightly nosedived.

Manchester United arrived as clear favourites against West Ham United at the Rush Green and they took the lead early in the match only for West Ham United to net a quick equaliser. Stoney’s side edged ahead again with 10 minutes to go yet they ended up falling to a 3-2 defeat. All three West Ham United goals were conceded from set-pieces and for large parts of the second half, United looked shaky at the back and bereft of ideas upfront.

After the Christmas break, United returned home to the Leigh Sports Village and lost 1-0 to Bristol City, who had not won for almost a year. Beyond that astonishing result, like at West Ham United, what stood out the most was that the performance levels had dropped. Yes, United had pushed on in the second half and on another day, one of the chances which they created would have gone in, but for long periods in the match they looked sluggish, off the pace and lacking in precision and creativity.

A much changed team against Brighton & Hove Albion got United to their second FA Women’s Continental League Cup semi-final in as many seasons but with Brighton & Hove Albion missing a penalty and the scoreline ending a close 2-1 win, it was evident that the confident team that had dispatched The Seagulls so easily in November were not firing on all cylinders.

Stoney’s side ended January with two home cup exits within a week. The heroics of the FA Women’s Continental League Cup group stage win against Manchester City were not repeated as The Blues knocked out The Red Devils 3-2 in the Women’s FA Cup fourth round. Chelsea then disposed of United in the FA Women’s Continental League Cup by a single goal, ending United’s quest for silverware for the season.

There is no shame in losing to two of the top teams in the country by such a narrow margin but what was disappointing was the manner of defeat. Abbie McManus, brought in from City for her International experience, under-hit a back-pass to goalkeeper Earps, leaving fellow international Ellen White with little to do on the way to her first goal in the game. Another followed from White along with a long range deflected effort from Jill Scott.

United fought back and had there been goal-line technology in the women’s game perhaps McManus would have made it 2-2 when her effort was inches either side of the line but poor defending at the other end led to City scoring an avoidable third.

The defeat to Chelsea was frustrating for other reasons. There was little to separate the two sides in the scoreline and on the pitch but Stoney’s side offered little creativity, mainly launching the ball forward and again looking imprecise in possession.

Two more disappointing results followed against Reading and Brighton & Hove Albion away. The Red Devils probably should have had both games wrapped up after going ahead but dubious penalty decisions at Adams Park coupled with poor finishing and a lack of creativity at The People’s Pension Stadium meant United left both matches with only a point to their name on both occasions.

United’s last match before the current break saw a return to winning ways as they won 3-2 at Everton in their homecoming match at Walton Hall Park. The first half was probably the best United fans have seen since the turn of the year, with a returning Leah Galton providing two goals and incisiveness and speed in attack.

Galton’s importance to the team was made clear as after she was substituted and replaced by Lizzie Arnot, United lost their direction and conceded two soft goals. Goalkeeper Earps was unable to deal with two crosses into the penalty area, missing a corner delivery for the first goal and comically letting in a long range effort for the second in windy conditions.

So where do Manchester United go from here until the end of the season and what about next season? It is clear that if Stoney’s side want to push on up the league in the coming years and truly challenge the country’s elite, strengthening is needed in several key areas, with a quality striker probably top of the list. A striker who covers ground and gets goals in the way that Vivianne Miedema does for Arsenal would make a big difference in the team and would reduce the number of missed opportunities in the final third.

The full-back positions are also a topic of debate. Last season, Alex Greenwood was excellent for Manchester United and she has been missed since joining Lyon. Kirsty Smith and Martha Harris have tried to fill the void and have given it their all, their desire cannot be questioned. The jury is out on whether those players can flourish in the top flight, the same can be said for Swedish left back Lotta Ökvist.

Ökvist started the season as United’s first choice left-back but she was dropped after a poor first half against Liverpool and has struggled to get back into the first team since. She returned against Everton and whilst she made a couple of mistakes in the first half, she seemed to grow into the match. She still at times doesn’t look quick or physical enough for the league, although she is still a young player. Greenwood’s aggression and quality on the ball seems like a dream now. At right-back, Amy Turner, a natural centre-back, has made the position her own this season but there is a feeling that this is a makeshift solution that Stoney would be ill-advised to keep using in the coming seasons.

Groenen has added a bit more bite to United’s midfield along with Hayley Ladd. They both work hard and are capable of finding the right ball to free up the frontline along with captain Katie Zelem, but all three midfielders seem to be lacking the all-important goal threat when coming from the second line. Groenen chases the ball and has helped with United’s high press but has yet to score a goal for The Red Devils. A goalscoring midfielder could be on the shopping list in the summer.

I am still of the opinion that Earps is the best English goalkeeper and a great shot stopper, in spite of recently being dropped by England manager Phil Neville. However, her footwork, especially her distribution with long balls and her commanding of the area when balls are crossed in has faded as the season has gone on. She needs to work towards getting back to the levels that she was at when the season started.

Millie Turner is United’s best centre-back in my opinion and Stoney may need to look at adding a better option next to her as McManus has made some notable errors throughout the season.

Galton is electric on the left wing but on the right side of the pitch, no player has really nailed down the position as their own. Hanson started the season well but her steady progress stalled towards the end of the year. Jess Sigsworth and Ross, two strikers, have been tried there for their experience at holding up the ball and their high workrate, but both are not natural wingers. Lizzie Arnot is still finding her feet at this level.

In summary, I think that the squad would be much-strengthened with signings in six positions in the summer, those being both full-back positions, centre-back, attacking midfield, on the right wing and topping the list, a striker. A striker alone would solve a lot of the conundrums that United face.

Stoney has been a bit more flexible with her side in the last two matches, with varying results. She tried a 4-2-2-2 formation at Brighton & Hove Albion with the two up top playing wide and the two behind playing as attacking midfielders/false nines. Playing without a striker in effect was innovative from Stoney but it led to United creating very little in the match after taking the lead so early on and inviting pressure in the second half. United were lucky to escape with a point against a team they had battered just a few months prior.

Against Everton, Zelem was dropped for Toone and this seemed to provide a bit more of a goal threat for United. Toone added the third from close range, which ended up being the winner and in general, looks at her best when in front of goal.

For the rest of the season, United should play a straight up 4-4-2, a formation that seems to have been neglected in modern football. Sticking Sigsworth and Ross up top together, or one of them with Toone or Lauren James when she returns from injury, might get the best out of the two forwards.

Galton is an easy choice on the left and on the right I would go with Groenen to begin with and see how she handles the position. Her tenacity, hounding players and tracking back should help out whoever is playing at right-back and she should be capable of finding her passing range from out wide too. I’m reminded of Owen Hargreaves thinking about her. Hargreaves also played on the right for United in spite of being a more natural central midfielder in the men’s last UEFA Champions League triumph, adding steel and grit on the right to United’s formidable firepower upfront.

Zelem and Ladd fill out the rest of the midfield, with McManus playing in between the two Turners and I would go with Ökvist, the natural left-back, to give her the opportunity to make the spot her own until the end of the season, with Harris and Smith waiting in the wings should she or Amy Turner need replacing.

On paper, United fans should be happy with how the season has gone so far. This is the team’s first season in the top flight and only their second season since reforming. They have made two FA Women’s Continental League Cup semi-finals and have lost by one goal to all of the top teams on five separate occasions. They have had injuries, suspensions and breaks in play due to poor weather, waterlogged and frozen pitches that have affected their momentum. They have been treated to some absolutely abysmal refereeing decisions yet they still sit in fourth place.

Manchester United fans though are different and Stoney and her players know this. In our minds, we should be a lot closer to the top three. In our minds, we maybe should have gone further in both cup competitions. We want and expect the best and in Stoney, we trust to deliver.

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