The FAWSL Trophy at Meadow Park - Image provided by FA Images

OPINION: Can Manchester United stay at the FAWSL summit and become champions?

Manchester United fans had many reasons to be hopeful at the start of the 2020/2021 Barclays FA Women’s Super League season.

The club finished in fourth position in their first-ever Barclays Women’s Super League season in 2019/2020 and headed into this campaign with ambitions of breaking into the top three and therefore gaining UEFA Champions League football for next season.

The club made some exciting signings including the Spanish full-back Ona Battle and of course, the double FIFA Women’s World Cup winners, Tobin Heath and Christen Press. However, few United fans would have dared to dream going into the winter break that the club would be sitting top of the table and still unbeaten. Casey Stoney’s side have answered every question that they’ve been asked so far, with only one question outstanding; can they go all the way and lift the trophy?

Let’s have a look at the different factors which may decide if United can truly be champions come May.

The fixture list

A good way to gauge a team’s chances for the rest of the season is to look at the fixture list. This shows a few potential bumps in the road for The Red Devils. In the first half of the season, United remained unbeaten after playing the traditional ‘big three’ teams, beating Arsenal and drawing with Manchester City and Chelsea. However, these games all took place at The Leigh Sports Village, United’s home ground, where they are more effective. In the second half of the season, United will have to play the ‘big three’ away from home. While United’s away form in the league has been very impressive this season, the team winning all five of their away league fixtures, these wins have often included shaky moments, such as going 2-1 down to Birmingham City early in the season and having to grind out a victory against a resilient Aston Villa side who United should have been blowing away with the greatest respect to Gemma Davies’ side. The club’s two FA Women’s Continental League Cup defeats this season came in away ties to Liverpool and Everton.

It is difficult to tell how United will face up to the different challenge of facing the big 3 sides away from home, but we will find out soon enough; United’s next two fixtures are away to Everton and then away to Chelsea. After these two matches, we should have a much greater understanding of United’s ability to duke it out with the big teams on their home turf.

Fixture congestion

One big note in United’s favour is their lack of fixture congestion relative to their rivals, although the club’s postponed fixture against Everton will now need to be rearranged. Chelsea and Manchester City, for instance, are both through to the UEFA Women’s Champions League round 16. In the last two seasons, the winners of the Barclays FA Women’s Super League did not take part in the UEFA Women’s Champion’s League, so the competition seems to have some effect on domestic results. The UEFA Women’s Champions League could result in an extra seven games, including some tricky away ties, to the teams’ fixture lists.

Chelsea and City will also play each other in the FA Women’s Continental League Cup quarter-final, a competition that United and Arsenal have both been eliminated from. That tie was due to take place next week but has been called off due to City’s COVID-19 outbreak meaning that both clubs will have another fixture to sew into already packed schedules. With the semi-finals likely to take place in February, the games are beginning to come thick and fast, back-to-back.

Chelsea, City and Arsenal were also involved in extra games to finish last season’s Vitality Women’s FA Cup between September and November.

Squad depth and injuries

Manchester United manager Casey Stoney has repeatedly praised the increased squad depth of her team this year. She has excellently utilised her ‘gamechangers’ to come off the bench and make big impacts on games. This is a huge difference to last year when players would often be forced to play out of position due to injuries.

Despite this, United have still had to weather a couple of injury crises. Early in the season, United were left without defensive cover and before the winter break, many of the team’s strikers were injured. Alessia Russo has been out since November following hamstring surgery, Lauren James has been in and out of the team with injuries, while Christen Press missed December through illness. This led to Stoney playing winger Kirsty Hanson up front against Reading. With many of these absentees expected to remain unavailable, the squad will be tested to the limits in the title race, especially considering Chelsea’s outrageous depth.

January transfer window

With the various injuries in the squad, some have wondered if United will look to strengthen during the January transfer window, which opened this week. The answer is probably not; United have yet to sign any players during a January window and while Stoney suggested that she would be open to signing the right player, it doesn’t look overly likely at the minute.

In this case, United must be careful about letting players go. Lotta Ökvist, the Swedish left-back, has been linked with a move away as she seeks more game time. Similarly, there have been rumours of Spurs moving for Jane Ross. United may be powerless to stop the former, but they shouldn’t entertain the latter. Ross is the only striker who has been consistently fit all season, she has vast Barclays FA Women’s Super League experience, including winning the competition with City and that could be helpful for the squad. If she is happy being on the bench for most games, United should hold on to her. She is a fantastic third or fourth-choice striker.

Resilience, belief, mentality

One of the biggest factors in United’s remarkable run up to this point has been a growing belief and improving mentality within the squad. This has been helped by the influence of Tobin Heath and Christen Press but can’t be solely credited to them. Casey Stoney seems to have instilled a winning mentality in her young squad, helping her side to win games that they would have drawn or lost last season. Their ability to get over the line in tough games is much improved and they will need to eke every ounce out of this belief if they are to go all the way this season.

Conclusion

United had an outstanding first half of the season and they deserve to be top of the table. Whether they can hold on to this position will depend on many factors. Injuries and COVID-19 disruption could play a particularly large role in determining the Barclays FA Women’s Super League winner this season, as could club player discipline taking into account some of the events that we have seen hit the news this week. I think that the Chelsea game will give us a little indication of just how close United are to being champions this season. If they can match or even defeat Emma Hayes’ star-studded side, United will be displaying some really solid title credentials. Defeat to The Blues would certainly open things up at the top and possibly swing the title towards Chelsea’s hands.

It is going to be a thrilling second half of the season, that’s for sure.

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