Six whole months after the 2019/20 WSL season was cut short due to COVID-19, we can finally look ahead to a new season. Although it will be under different and unusual circumstances without fans and games being played behind closed doors, fans are undoubtedly excited to see their team back in action. Despite the pandemic, we might be in for the most exciting and interesting season in a long time with more teams showing their ambitions by making big signings in the transfer market. The influx of talent to the WSL has been extraordinary, especially with the players coming from the NWSL. This means a big increase in talent and increased competitons for places.
It was exciting when the FA released the fixtures for the first two games of the season in early August. The anticipation is always high amongst fans when it comes to the first fixtures, and for managers and players, they get to know which team they need to prepare for. It's fair to say that Casey Stoney and Manchester United Women, once again got a very difficult first game. Having to face Manchester City and Arsenal in their first two games of last season's campaign, they are once again involved in the most eye-catching opening fixture this coming season as they host reigning WSL and Conti Cup champions Chelsea at Leigh Sports Village. The task on paper seem daunting for Manchester United, but according to manager Casey Stoney, her and her team will be ready for the challenge, a challenge they are very much looking forward to;
Casey Stoney on facing Chelsea
" We will be fully prepared. We knew we would get a big game. We got a big game last season, we knew, I said to my staff "we will get Chelsea", I knew it, so I wasn't surprised when I saw the fixtures, but that's the games you want to play. I don't need to give my players any incentives in pre-season. They're all fighting for a shirt, they all want to play against Chelsea, they all want to perform and they all want to win."
Stoney will be hoping to get the new campaign off to a good start, but she needs her team to perform at their highest level to get a good result against Chelsea. Stoney's tactics needs to be spot on, and United might need some luck and for things to go their way to topple Chelsea. However, this does not mean that Manchester United will be a pushover. Despite Chelsea winning both meetings last season 1-0, the game at Kingsmeadow was a close one. United are very capable of causing any team problems, proven by their tight encounters against all the top 3 teams last season. Emma Hayes will be looking at starting Chelsea's title defence with a win and they will be considered favourites going into this game, but they can not underestimate Manchester United's quality. Let's take a look at what we can expect from this game between Manchester United and Chelsea.
What can we expect?:
This game will not be too much different from last season's encounters between the two sides. Chelsea will probably stay true to their playing style, having most of the possession, attack with width, variety and quality. They will look to dictate play, either by going for the 4-4-2 which they primarliy used last season, or go for a similar approach to the Community Shield game against Manchester City by playing 4-3-3. The latter seems the most likely with all their midfield and forward options. Although they should be aware of United's threats, it probably will not affect their game plan too much. This was also proven in the mentioned Community Shield game against Manchester City. Chelsea had no problems allowing the game to be back and forth. They allowed City to play their game, but they were also very confident in their own playing style and game plan. They will definitely be the same going into this game against Manchester United, even though it's an away game against a strong team.
As for Manchester United, they will be looking to have a solid defensive structure and deny Chelsea space close to their goal by sitting in a middle block, shifting from side to side and, lure Chelsea into their pressing traps and press intensely when that happens to win the ball. To achieve this, Stoney will most likely set up in 4-2-3-1, like she did for most parts last season, with a double pivot in front of the defensive line to deny space. In possession, it might look more like 4-3-3 with United trying to play their own game, playing out from the back, getting into good attacking positions and try to exploit Chelsea's defence, something which is very possible if you go for it, proven by Manchester City in the Community Shield. City managed to create chances by playing their own game in possession and put pressure on Chelsea's defence. This is what Manchester United need to do as well to have a chance of three points.
Possible starting XI's:
Casey Stoney's lineup is very dependent on her game plan. Should she opt for the bravest approach, with attacking football and try to hurt Chelsea, we could see her playing a midfield three of Ladd as the no. 6 with two attacking no. 8's in Groenen and Toone, and two attacking full-backs in Batlle and Ökvist/Smith in a 4-3-3. However, this seems unlikely against Chelsea, which means she will probably opt for the more cautious defensive approach. With that game plan, we could see her set United up in 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot of Ladd and Zelem with Groenen as a no 10, a very familiar sight from last season. This approach also mean more defensive full-backs. Amy Turner at right back is therefore to be expected in that set up, with new signing Ona Batlle at left back. This could be United's lineup with the more defensive approach in 4-2-3-1:
Earps (GK), A. Turner, McManus, M. Turner, Batlle, Ladd, Zelem, Groenen, Hanson, Ross, Galton
Predicting how Chelsea will line up is a very difficult task due to their big squad. Emma Hayes really has a luxury problem before every game picking a starting XI from all the quality players she has available. However, the Community Shield game against Manchester City might be an indication of what Hayes will go with against Manchester United in the first game of the WSL season. Hayes went for a 4-3-3 and Chelsea emerged victorious in that game with a lot of players having great performances. However, she decided to bench her top scorer from last season, Bethany England for Australian superstar Sam Kerr. Kerr showed rustiness in front of goal, missing five big chances throughout the game before getting subbed off. This might cause Hayes to start England over Kerr against United should she opt for the 4-3-3, with that being the only change from the Community Shield victory against Manchester City. This could be Chelsea's lineup in the 4-3-3:
Berger (GK), Mjelde, Bright, Eriksson, Andersson, Leupolz, Ingle, Ji, Kirby, England, Reiten
Ones to watch:
Despite having a sub-par campaign last season, there is no doubt about Jackie Groenen's qualities as a footballer. A brilliant midfielder who combines two different midfield roles in her playing style: playmaking and box-to-box. This makes Groenen pretty unique from other midfielders as she is fantastic in both playmaking and in the box-to-box role. Groenen excels in a midfield three (4-3-3), where she can play as the right-sided no. 8, like she does for the Dutch national team. In that role, she is both the link between the defence and attack in possession with progressive passes, through balls and combination play, but is also covering so much ground to mop up after her teammates, winning the ball back with an interception or a tackle. No wonder Dutch fans call her "stofzuiger". However, for Manchester United last season she was mostly deployed as a no 10 in Casey Stoney's 4-2-3-1. In this position, she was too isolated, mostly with her back to goal, causing her to not be able to use her qualities often enough. In this coming campaign, and in the game against Chelsea, Groenen will be crucial to United's defensive structure with her high, relentless work-rate, intense pressure and defensive abilities, but also very crucial to United's attack, with her brilliant vision, passing and on-the-ball ability. These qualities make Groenen a one to watch.
Leah Galton is another one of United's players Chelsea need to keep a close eye on in the first game of the season. A fantastic left-winger who combines great physical attributes with silky dribbling skills and a lethal left-foot. Galton ended last season's WSL campaign with 4 goals and 3 assists, maybe a little underwhelming considering her four goals came in only two games (2 vs Brighton and 2 vs Everton), but she was one of United's most important players due to her high chance creation and being a constant threat down the left-hand side. Galton is capable of turning any full-back inside out before either getting a dangerous cross in or shoot herself. With Chelsea often pushing their full-backs high up to join the attack, there will be space for Galton to run into and exploit on the counter should United win the ball in favourable areas. Chelsea need to be aware of this, but even if they are in balance defensively, Galton is very capable of causing problems. Galton is therefore a constant threat Chelsea need to look out for.
The newly acquired right-back from Levante, Ona Batlle is also a player to look out for. A very offensively-minded and attacking full-back with a lot of pace, brilliant on-the-ball abilities and aggressive defensive style, Batlle will be a very important asset for Manchester United in the WSL and against Chelsea. With the expectations of Chelsea having most of the possession and United sitting in a low/middle defensive block, United will need to be aggressive and intense while defending to deny Chelsea time on the ball and space. Batlle will certainly provide that, but she is also very defensively aware by following runs in behind and covering for her teammates should they be outplayed. However, Batlle's main strenghts are her attacking outlet. She likes to take on players using her pace and technique to get past. She is also very smart on the ball, very rarely making a bad decision. Batlle will be important for United against Chelsea, both in a defensive sense and an attacking sense. Her aggression and intensity will be important to win the ball back and not allow Chelsea's players any breathing room, her defensive awareness will make sure that no one runs in behind her, whilst her on-the-ball abilities will be crucial in United's build-up play. She will also provide great attacking support and be a threat going forward.
Guro Reiten will without a doubt be a force to be reckoned with this season as well. Having signed for Chelsea before last season, she did not spend too much time to get used to the league. Her 12 goal contributions (5 goals and 7 assists) and being the leading creator of shot creating chances (72) saw her being nominated to the player of the year award. Reiten has a great ability to create a lot of chances by using her brilliant passing range, vision and amazing left foot. She also possesses great technical ability and spacial awareness which makes it very difficult to defend against her. Reiten can be a player which goes a little under the radar, but she is always a threat to her opponents and will once again be very important to Chelsea's attack. Having quickly acclimated to the league she will be looking to improve on her impressive numbers from last season, which for any team is a scary thought. Reiten will definitely be a handful for Manchester United's defence in the first game of the season.
Another quality player which goes under the radar is Korean midfielder Ji So-yun. Ji is a magical attacking midfielder with incredible vision, passing, creativity and a lethal shot. Combined with her great game intelligence, smartness, good off-the-ball movement, trickery and the ability to find space, Ji is always going to be dangerous from her midfield position. 6 goals and 3 assists last season proves that she is a great attacking threat. For most parts of the game she dictates the tempo of Chelsea's play alongside Sophie Ingle from midfield. She might get overlooked due to Chelsea's other attacking players scoring so many goals, but Ji is the brain behind a lot of her team's attacking play. Ji makes Chelsea's attack tick which makes her so instrumental and dangerous considering all the attacking talent Chelsea have in their ranks.
When talking about players to watch out for, one can't forget Chelsea's top scorer from last season. Bethany England. Her 14 league goals was only bettered by Dutch superstar Vivianne Miedema. She also contributed with 4 assists, adding up to 18 goal contributions in total which without a doubt is very impressive and marked an unbelievable campaign for the English striker, proving that she is one of the best strikers in the league. What makes her so dangerous is her great pace and deadly finishing with both feet. England also possesses great and smart movement which causes her to be in the right place at the right time and taking up great positions in the opponents' box. Add hard work, hold-up play, combination play and being a threat in the air, and you have a near perfect or perfect striker. Assuming she starts over Sam Kerr and new signing Pernille Harder, she will be Chelsea's main goal threat and someone United's defence need to be very wary of.
Form guide - Last five matches in the FA WSL
Manchester United Women: LWDDW
0-1 vs Bristol City (H) 5 Jan 2020
3-0 vs Tottenham (H) 19 Jan 2020
1-1 vs Reading (A) 2 Feb 2020
1-1 vs Brighton (A) 12 Feb 2020
2-3 vs Everton (A) 23 Feb 2020
Chelsea Women: WWWWD
6-1 vs Bristol City (H) 12 Jan 2020
4-1 vs Arsenal (A) 19 Jan 2020
8-0 vs West Ham United (H) 2 Feb 2020
2-0 vs Birmingham City (H) 12 Feb 2020
3-3 vs Manchester City (A) 23 Feb 2020
Manchester United - Chelsea will hopefully be an exciting and entertaining game. Both teams have quality players in their squads which will provide a great game to watch. Chelsea will have most of the possession and try to break down United's defence. Manchester United will make try to avoid that by focusing on defensive solidity. They will be looking to hit Chelsea on the counter and exploit the space in behind their full-backs. United need to up their quality in the attacking third and in the key situations to have a chance of getting a good result. Chelsea are going into the game as favourites, but United are going to make it difficult for them and might even manage to spring a suprise. This is the biggest and most eye-catching game of the opening fixture, and both teams will surely do their best to live up to that and provide a great spectacle.