Manchester United Women; Too early for top 3?
Manchester United have really burst onto the scene of women's football since their establishment in 2018. After gaining promotion from the FA Women's Championship in convincing fashion, seeing them drop points in only two games (1 loss and 1 draw), conceding only 7, and scoring an impressive 98 goals in their first season, it was no doubt that it was going to be interesting to see how they would get on in the WSL. Manager Casey Stoney added experience and quality to a relatively young squad by acquiring players like Jackie Groenen, Hayley Ladd, Abbie McManus and Mary Earps before their first WSL campaign, and it's fair to say that United once again impressed by finishing 4th behind big guns Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal.
Going into a new season, expectations amongst a demanding fan base have increased, and with the top 3 league spots awarding a place in next season's Champions League, Stoney would look at that as the next step in the process of building a successful team. The question is if they can get there already this coming season or if it's too early for them. By considering last season's results and tactics, let's take a look at what fans can expect from Casey Stoney and Manchester United Women in the 2020/21 season.
2019/20 season recap
Looking back at the season just gone and how Stoney set up her side, she primarily went for the 4-2-3-1. Stoney actually went away from the 4-3-3 setup she had in the Championship, probably in expectation of tougher games and tougher opponents. By switching to the 4-2-3-1, her emphasis was more on a solid defensive structure rather than entertaining attacking football. Stoney's more conservative and cautious approach really paid off, proven by the fact that United only conceded 12 goals in the 14 games they played, the third best defensive record in the league. However, this approach really affected United's attacking play despite the team scoring 24 goals, the 4th most in the league. The 4-2-3-1 did not seem to get the best out of United's players, especially the midfield. The double pivot of Hayley Ladd and captain Katie Zelem did not work at all in an attacking sense/in possession. In most of the games, both of them stayed in their deep-lying positions, wanting the ball to dictate play.
The problem with this, proven by United's build up play last season, is that in a 4-2-3-1, one of the deep-lying midfielders has to move forward into space to be a passing option for the centrebacks, fullbacks and the other deep-lying midfielder who's building up play. Evidently from United's play, this did not happen enough, leading to the double pivot becoming too flat and deep due to both Ladd and Zelem staying in their starting positions wanting the ball to dictate play. This in turn led to United's no. 10, Jackie Groenen becoming isolated with her back to goal, a position one do not want to see a player of Groenen's calibre in. A team with Groenen in it, should want to get her on the ball with her facing the opposition goal as often as possible, so she can play her deadly through balls to wingers running in behind or combine with the striker or a midfielder who has moved forward. This did not happen enough for United in the 2019/20 season which really hampered their attacking play. Another problem for United's attacking play last season was the lack of attacking contributions from the fullbacks. Whilst both Amy Turner and Martha Harris did solid jobs defensively, their attacking contribution was lacking, leaving the wingers, Leah Galton and Kirsty Hanson very alone, often up against two defenders (a back-tracking winger and the fullback). Having the forward players isolated like United had last season negatively affected their attacking play, leading to them only scoring 24 goals compared to Arsenal's 40, Manchester City's 39 and Chelsea's 47 goals.
As for Manchester United's results in their first WSL campaign, they were mostly good, but with some mishaps. The season almost could not have started tougher for Casey Stoney's side with an away game against Manchester City and a home game against Arsenal in the first two games. Unsurprisingly, both these games ended in defeat for United, but both Stoney and the players would feel they deserved better based on their performances, especially against Manchester City, where United for large parts of the game created the best chances and were the better team. However, a wonderstrike from Caroline Weir ended up being the only goal in that game, and with Danielle van de Donk putting a dagger through United's hearts with a 89th minute winner in the next game, United got the worst possible start to their WSL campaign with 0 points from 2 games. Those results did not seem to destroy United's morale or belief though, as they bounced back with 5 consecutive wins in all competitions without conceding. 3 league wins in a row and Conti Cup wins against Manchester City and Everton was followed up by another narrow defeat to one of the top 3 teams, this time eventual champions Chelsea at Kingsmeadow. However, United once again bounced back with a 11-1 thumping of Championship side Leicester in the Conti Cup and a convincing 4-0 against Brighton, before suffering a very unnecessary 3-2 loss away to West Ham. The last two games before the Christmas break ended with a league win against Everton and a Conti Cup win against Birmingham, with both games ending 3-1 to Stoney's side. A very strong end to the first half of the season.
The second half of the season kicked off in the worst possible way for Manchester United, with a 1-0 loss at home to bottom of the table Bristol City, but Stoney's side bounced back with a 2-1 cup win against Brighton, sending them into the semi final, and a 3-0 win against Tottenham. The following two games saw United crashing out of the FA cup against Manchester City in the first round in controversial fashion, and their Conti Cup run coming to an end by the hands of Chelsea. 5 points from the last 3 league games, including draws against Reading and Brighton, and a win away to Everton, before the season was cut short due to COVID-19, saw Manchester United finishing 4th in their first season in the WSL behind Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal.
Expectations 2020/21 season
Going into a new season and looking at United's current squad, there might be a formation change at United. In the 2019/20 season, Stoney went away from the 4-3-3 she played in the Championship the season before, and went for a more cautious approach with the more defensively solid 4-2-3-1. This was probabaly because she wanted the team to be more solid and not get exploited defensively by the WSL teams. However, as mentioned earlier, this formation did not get the best out of the team offensively, proven by United's attacking play and low goal tally compared to the top 3 teams. Stoney might have also been too cautious in games against the teams which set up in a low/middle block defensively, most notably in the games against West Ham away, Bristol City at home and Brighton away, all games United should win on paper, but ended up dropping points in. In hindsight, Stoney probably got her team selection and tactics slightly wrong in those games, setting up too defensively, hampering United's attack causing them to struggle to penetrate the low defensive block those teams set up in, and dropping unnecessary points.
With Manchester United and Casey Stoney getting more used to the league, one should maybe expect Stoney to change her approach for the 2020/21 season with more emphasis on attacking fluidity rather than defensive solidity. To do that, she needs to get the best out of the attacking players, especially Jackie Groenen. Despite Groenen not being an outright attacking player, she is so important for her team's attacking play and fluidity. Unlocking Groenen and get the best out of her next season, is one of the keys to properly unlock United's attack, and to acheive that, Stoney needs to change the formation from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3. Not only will this formation change benefit Groenen, but it will benefit United as a whole, due to it fitting the current squad much better. A formation change to 4-3-3 and maybe a more attacking team selection with two offensively minded fullbacks will ensure that United's attacking players will not get as isolated as they were last season, and fulfill the attacking potential of the squad. This requires a willingness from Stoney to be braver both in terms of her approach to games and team selection, and seeing Manchester United Women play 4-3-3 in the 2020/21 is more likely now. Going into the 2020/21, United fans should therefore expect to see the team setting up in 4-3-3, maybe also a more attacking mindset and approach from Stoney.
With Manchester United finishing 4th last season, it's perfectly reasonable to look further up the table to the top 3 spots. Breaking into those top 3 spots is a very difficult task for any team, but United might be the team closest to doing so, especially looking at last season. Manager Casey Stoney also seems confident that her team is capable of doing it, maybe already next season. She has stated publicly that getting into the top 3 is their next goal as a team, and she has also said that she believes her squad has the qualities to do it as she knows what they are capable of. However, getting to the same level as Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, requires consistently good results against the other teams in the league, something United did not have enough of last season proven by them dropping points against West Ham, Bristol City, Brighton and Reading. Another thing is to be able to take points off the top 3 teams. Whilst United lost all of their games against the top 3 teams by only one goal, they need to do better next season and take points off them next season if they are going to challenge them properly. In some of the games, United had some big chances without capitalising due to lack of quality in key moments. This cost them in those games causing them to lose and it highlights one other thing which really separates United from the top 3 teams; a proper goal scorer. All of the top 3 teams have a striker which guarantees goals. Vivianne Miedema (Arsenal) scored 16 league goals last season, Bethany England (Chelsea) scored 14 and Pauline Bremer (Manchester City) scored 10 league goals. Manchester United did not have that player which could guarantee 10+ goals last season, with their top scorer being Lauren James with 6 goals.
United need to find enough goals from somewhere next season to break into that top 3. It's also important to mention that while United finished 4th last season, they were 13 points behind Arsenal in 3rd, which looking at it is a pretty big gap. One could argue that the gap is a little smaller due to United playing one game less, and getting robbed off two points against Reading after that Katie Zelem "handball" which resulted in a Reading penalty and the equaliser in that game. However, the reality is that United finished 13 points behind 3rd last season and averged 1.64 points per game. Arsenal averaged 2.40 points per game, Manchester City averaged 2.50 points per game and Chelsea averaged 2.60 points per game. This means that United averaged 0.76 points per game less than Arsenal in 3rd, 0.86 points per game less than Manchester City and 0.96 points per game less than Chelsea.
The gap is relatively big between the top 3 teams and Manchester United, and despite United strenghtening the squad in some areas, they still have not signed a goal scoring striker and have a thinner squad than the top 3 teams. The top 3 teams have also added more quality and depth to their squads, which proves that they will not take their foots off the gas and make it easy for any potential challengers. It's also worth noting that Everton have strenghtened their squad significantly with some very interesting players, and despite losing Chloe Kelly to Manchester City, they have showed their intentions for next season, and will be a team to look out for. Manchester United should be wary of Everton, but should at least aim to maintain that 4th spot next season and close the point gap between them and the top 3 teams. If they manage that, it will cement United's standing in the league as "best of the rest" which is a great foundation to make a real push towards the top 3 in the 2021/22 season. In addition to cementing 4th place and closing the point gap to the top 3, reaching a cup final in either the Conti Cup or the FA cup, is well within Manchester United's capabilities. Should that be achieved this coming season, it would be considered a good season for United. However, Stoney will definitely aim to properly challenge for the top 3 already this coming season, and Manchester United are very capable of springing a surprise, but closing that big point gap from last season seem too difficult to do for now. Retaining 4th place and a good cup run are therefore the expectations Manchester United have to live up to in the 2020/21 season.