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The Skinner effect

On May 12, 2021, after a successful 3 years in charge of Manchester United, Casey Stoney announced that she was stepping down as the club’s head coach. The announcement was a surprising one, but it also came with curiosity around who was going to be her successor and continue her legacy at the club. On July 29, following a long recruitment process lasting over two months, Manchester United announced the appointment of former Birmingham head coach Marc Skinner from Orlando Pride on a two-year deal with the option of a further year.

The announcement of Skinner was met with mixed reactions. His spell at Birmingham was a positive one, which included reaching a FA cup final and a 5th place WSL finish, before leaving the club in the middle of the 2018/19 season in 4th place. Considering the club’s limited resources in comparison to the bigger teams in the division, this has to be classed as an impressive feat. However, what caused the scepticism around his appointment was his most recent managerial adventure with Orlando Pride in the NWSL. During his time in Orlando, Skinner managed the side in 43 games, with a record of 9 wins, 12 draws and 22 losses, totalling a win percentage of 20,93%.

Skinner’s departure from Orlando was understandably celebrated amongst a large number of Pride fans who had been asking for his sacking for years. Looking at his managerial record with the Pride, Skinner didn’t have the credentials to be appointed by a club like United that was looking for a UWCL qualifying push. Despite this, Manchester United football director John Murtough expressed his confidence in Skinner following his appointment:

“We are confident that Marc is the best person to be leading the team as we look forward to another exciting season.”

Following in Casey Stoney’s footsteps and maintaining the level she developed was always going to be difficult for whoever took over from her. However, in his first full interview with the club channel, Skinner was adamant that he would build on Stoney’s work at the club:

“For me we have to continue on the great work that’s already happened and already been put in place for some of the foundations. We have to continue to do that, because this club seeks and wants success throughout its history and we want to create that with the women and continue the great work that’s already been done."

Halfway through his first season in charge of the club, let’s look at Marc Skinner’s Manchester United, and see if he’s followed through on his promises.

Playing style

Upon arrival at Manchester United, Skinner promised to implement a playing style that fit the mould of “The United way”. Manchester United’s success has been built on the criterias of fast, exciting attacking football, which was something Skinner spoke about wanting to continue with the women’s team:

“For me I feel galvanized and super energy within the walls of what we're doing here, the fabric of Manchester United’s success, the fabric of Manchester United’s attacking exciting football, so for me that’s what I’m here to do”

Based on United’s games so far, it’s possible to see that Skinner wants the team to play a possession based style by building up attacks from the back. However, it can’t be said that it has brought much success. The basic idea behind playing possession based football is to keep and move the ball so that your opponent has to chase after the ball, leading to their defensive structure breaking up and creating space for your players to move into and attack. To achieve this, the ball has to be moved with tempo around the pitch with your players using few touches, choosing the right solution and moving into the space being created. This again, will lead to space opening up and overloads being created around the pitch, creating imbalance in your opponent’s shape and structure.

Photo: GettyImages, Manchester United

In Manchester United’s case, this hasn’t been achieved on a consistent basis. It seems like Skinner has completely missed the point of playing a possession based style as his Manchester United team has mostly done the exact opposite of what a functioning possession-oriented team does. United move the ball very slowly with players taking too many touches or failing to identify space to move into. This massively hinders the effectiveness of their play, resulting in a lot of sideways and backwards passes rather than progressive carries or passes through the lines. Continuing on the theme of United’s slow play, their slow ball progression is something that has to be mentioned. Under Casey Stoney, United applied quite a direct style of play by moving the ball quickly up the field and through the thirds with progressive passes and quick ball progression. With Skinner in charge, this direct style has been thrown away and switched out with a slow possession based style with slow ball progression. Most of United’s players don't pass and move. Instead, they pass and stand, still resulting in this lethargic style of play.

In addition, United really struggle when they are being put under pressure, evident in their 1-6 loss to Chelsea. Many of Chelsea’s goals came from United’s incapabilities and shortcomings of playing out from the back under pressure. This leads to either losses of possession in dangerous areas or United having to play a long ball forward, which is something they are not effective at doing, as it more often than not leads to them not finding a teammate and therefore giving away possession. Skinner’s United is simply not competent enough to hold on to the ball for longer periods of time, which, in combination with their slow ball progression, negatively affects the way they play.

As of now, Skinner’s Manchester United appears as a team without any identity. It’s a low-scoring team that’s struggling to create clear-cut chances with a vulnerable defensive structure. Their defence is prone to making individual and collective errors whilst the midfield is incohesive and gives away a lot of space for opposition teams to attack in. United’s high, intense press under Casey Stoney’s management has also disappeared, as Skinner’s team doesn't really press the opponents and rather goes into a mid-low defensive block instead. Offensively, United doesn’t seem to have any clear attacking plan or attacking patterns. They very often rely on individual brilliance to create chances or score goals, and they only show rare glimpses of exciting attacking sequences. For the most part, their performances have been poor and the football on show has been slow, lethargic, dull, and uninspiring with no signs of improving on a game to game basis.

The disappearance of wingplay

Another aspect of Skinner’s United is the severe lack of wingplay. During Casey Stoney’s reign as manager, attacking out wide and utilising wingers was United’s main source of creativity and chance creation. United under Stoney focused on moving the ball quickly up the pitch before playing the ball out wide to either Leah Galton on the left or Kirsty Hanson on the right to set them up in 1v1 situations. Both Galton and Hanson are excellent at using their pace and power to bypass the opposing full-backs, and utilising their strengths proved a very effective way of attacking for United under Stoney. In addition, United’s full-backs pushed quite high up the pitch to provide support for their wingers. This would either set up combination play between the full-back and winger, or the full-back helped create 2v1 situations in favour of United by making overlapping runs. By doing so, the full-backs became options to receive the ball in space to put a cross into the box or create space for the wingers to cross it in. United’s wingplay was the centerpiece of their attack under Stoney, and both Galton and Hanson thrived in their roles.

Unfortunately, this is something that has drastically changed under Skinner’s management. United’s slow ball progression plays its part in this, but they are also struggling to involve their wingers much in general, and especially not in favourable attacking positions. Their wingers very often receive the ball under pressure from a defender with their back to goal forcing the wingers to play a back pass. This is something that is not necessarily a bad thing, but following the back pass, United recycle the ball too slowly to effectively switch play and catch the opposition out that way. The slow ball progression causes United to play a lot of sideways and backwards which in turn negatively affects their wingplay. They simply don’t move the ball forward fast enough to take advantage of potential imbalances in the opposing teams defensive structure and set up their wingers in enough 1v1 situations against isolated full-backs. This has made Galton and Hanson look isolated for long parts of games throughout the season, with neither of them having found much joy or form on the pitch so far. They have been involved very little and therefore been ineffective, something that partly must be put down to Skinner’s playing style, which for the most part neglects United’s wide forwards and fails to effectively utilise them.

Midfield conundrum

Looking at United’s lethargic playing style, defensive vulnerabilities and basically non-existent wingplay, the core of most of these problems can be said to be their midfield combination. Skinner has preferred to set the team up in a 4-2-3-1 consisting of a double pivot in midfield. However, he has tried and failed with multiple different combinations of personnel in the double pivot base of midfield. In terms of options, the midfield is the area of United’s squad with the most depth having 6 midfielders to choose from; Jackie Groenen, Hayley Ladd, Vilde Bøe Risa, Katie Zelem, Ella Toone and Lucy Staniforth. Out of these, Ella Toone has been used in the no. 10 role and has never really been an option in the pivot. All of the other 5 midfielders have made appearances in the double pivot. Despite changing and trying different midfield partnerships, Skinner still hasn’t managed to find a functioning combination. Throughout the season he has tried all of the following partnerships in the double pivot:

Zelem - Groenen

Zelem - Ladd

Zelem - Bøe Risa

Zelem - Staniforth

The Zelem - Groenen partnership has been Skinner’s preferred pivot, but with Groenen currently out injured, he has been forced to try out different players alongside Zelem without any luck of finding a pivot that complements each other. Looking at the above-mentioned partnerships Skinner has tried out so far, one recurring name is captain Katie Zelem. Skinner has been overly stubborn playing Zelem despite the fact that her form this season has been quite bad, making it unjustifiable to start her every game. Whilst Zelem is a decent ball-player (which suits Skinner’s possession-based philosophy) she does lack in too many important areas to play regularly in United’s double pivot. She does have a tendency to give the ball away sloppily in dangerous areas, especially under pressure. Another thing is her lack of work-rate, intensity, and defensive positioning and awareness. Groenen is someone who has all the qualities that Zelem is lacking, but even she struggled to cover well enough for these inadequacies. Given Zelem’s poor form and the struggle to find the correct double pivot, it should be time to give Zelem a period on the bench and try a partnership without her. However, it looks like Skinner has some favouritism in always picking Zelem and not giving experienced internationals like Bøe Risa or Ladd a proper run in the team, which from the outside seems like a decision that reeks of stubbornness, and one that has been detrimental to the team’s performances.

In comparison, Casey Stoney’s preferred midfield constellation during United’s unbeaten run in the first half of last season was Ladd and Groenen in the double pivot with Toone in the no.10 role. This proved to be a solid and well-functioning midfield that complemented each other. It had the required defensive solidity with Ladd, as well as attacking prowess with Groenen and Toone’s understanding of each other’s movement, combination play, and general quality. This midfield was also one that pressed incredibly effectively, with the prime example being the 1-0 home win against Arsenal. Skinner should take inspiration from this blueprint courtesy of Stoney going forward. Despite Groenen being out, playing Vilde Bøe Risa will solve the problem of slow ball progression. Bøe Risa is an excellent ball-progressor who often looks for a forward solution with the ball, playing through the lines, switching play or long through balls. She’s also quicker on the ball compared to Zelem which makes her less susceptible to being put under pressure. Another thing with Bøe Risa is that she moves forward into space providing an outlet higher up the pitch when United work the ball through the thirds. Whilst she’s not as defensively strong as Groenen, playing her alongside Ladd could work out better than Skinner’s previous midfield partnerships involving Zelem. The Ladd - Bøe Risa combination hasn’t impressed yet when given the chance, but Groenen will seemingly slot right back into midfield when she returns from injury as she should be a guaranteed starter for this United team.

Photo: GettyImages: Ash Donelon

Finding the correct midfield combination will be crucial for Skinner moving forward, and he would have to show more willingness to change in this department rather than sticking with something that’s clearly not working. His apparent favouritism of certain players is hindering the team’s performances and development, whilst also proving his tactical incapabilities by not finding the correct tactics for his team.

Skinner’s mentality problem

Another thing that has become evident during Skinner’s tenure is his weak mentality. Managing Manchester United comes with high demands and expectations of winning every game. This is something that Skinner doesn’t understand yet, and it’s showing both on and off the pitch. During interviews, he talks about the process being more important than the results, which in itself is enough proof that he isn’t up to the task of being employed by a club of Manchester United’s stature. Whilst coming in as a new manager and implementing his own style on the team is a process, the results will always come first and that’s what you will be judged on. Skinner hasn’t delivered at all on the results front nor on the process front.

It also looks like this mentality problem has rubbed off on the players on the pitch. In the recent run of games, Manchester United have drawn against Tottenham and Everton from a winning position. In both of these games, United had some sort of initiative, but immediately gave it away after grabbing the lead. Instead of maintaining pressure on their opponent like a real Manchester United team, they sat back in a relatively low defensive block to defend their lead. Due to their defensive frailties, this is not a winning strategy proven by the equalisers they conceded in these games. Sitting back to defend a lead instead of continuing to push for a second or third goal shows Skinner’s mid-table mentality. He simply doesn’t have the mentality to manage a team with ambitions of trophies and Champions League. Skinner did well at Birmingham, but managing there was a completely different prospect than managing Manchester United. There are more ambitions, higher demands and more available resources at Manchester United than at Birmingham which also requires a completely different mentality from the manager - a mentality Skinner hasn’t shown that he possesses.

Finally, Skinner has also proven that he has the ability to completely avoid taking responsibility for poor results and performances. Following the record-breaking 1-6 loss to Chelsea, one would expect the manager to issue an apology to the fans in the post-match interview for the devastating result, poor performance and the tactical shortcomings. However, Skinner didn’t. Instead he avoided talking about the game plan and tactics by focusing on the non-existent “positives” from the game and blamed individual errors for his disastrous tactical set-up. In the aforementioned poor run of results, throwing players under the bus has become a regular occurrence in Skinner’s interviews. Rather than taking some responsibility, Skinner has decided to hide behind his players and effectively blame them for not executing his “master plans” correctly. Firstly, throwing players under the bus for his own shortcomings is the sign of an inept manager under pressure, and secondly, the complete opposite of what Casey Stoney did during her reign as United manager. Stoney always protected her players by standing forward and taking the blame following subpar results and performances. Skinner has gone with the opposite approach which really doesn’t help him or the team improve. Recognising one's own mistakes is an important step on the path to development and improvement, whilst denial and delusion have the opposite effect, with the latter shining through in Marc Skinner.

Photo: GettyImages: Charlotte Tattersall - The FA

The appointment of Marc Skinner, in general, was quite incomprehensible due to his poor credentials following his abysmal record at Orlando Pride. He came in with a lot of promises of exciting football and building on Casey Stoney’s previous work at the club. So far he has only talked the talk without walking the walk. Instead of building on the strong foundations that Stoney had left him, Skinner’s project is already collapsing like a house of cards. His United team play lethargic, uninspiring football and lack any sort of identity on the pitch. They don’t have a clear attacking plan or consistent attacking patterns which combined with a fragile defensive structure has led to an underwhelming first half of the season. Skinner has already destroyed most of Stoney’s impressive work, and showed time and time again his tactical incapabilities, stubbornness, unwillingness to change, and favouritism. Coupled that with him throwing his players under the bus after poor results and fans are quickly losing their patience with him and faith in his project. He has to turn it around quickly or it could be curtains down on his project already. As of now, there are no signs of him making the required changes to save his sinking ship over a sustainable period.



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