Manchester United manager Marc Skinner has admitted the club still needs more ‘investment and recruitment’ if they are to challenge for multiple trophies per season in the coming years.
Having finished fourth in each of their three previous WSL seasons to date, narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification in the latter two, United came into the 2022/23 campaign determined to get over the line and break up the league’s established status quo.
No teams other than Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City – not always in that order – have finished in the top three since Liverpool won the title in 2014.
United always intended to win trophies in the women’s game. Yet the team have arguably exceeded expectations this season by being, not just in a top three battle, but firmly in a title race.
Ahead of facing Arsenal in a huge game at Leigh Sports Village on Wednesday evening, Skinner’s team are top of the table, three points clear of the third place and Gunner and fourth place City. United have a superior goal difference, so avoiding defeat would eliminate the advantage of Arsenal’s game in hand. Chelsea are one point behind in second, but have a game in hand too.
Where United have seen massive improvement this season is in putting games to bed – as many as 10 points were dropped from winning positions in the final 15 minutes of matches in 2021/22. They have also managed to grind out results in game that might previously have got the better of them – like Rachel Williams’ late winner against Reading, holding out with 10 players at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and a big second half performance against West Ham at Old Trafford.
Ahead of facing Arsenal, United have the WSL’s meanest defence (nine goals conceded in 17 games), its best attack (46 goals scored in 17 games) and the most different league goalscorers of any team (14 players have netted, plus own goals).
But United have undoubtedly benefitted from having a very settled team. They haven’t yet had to balance Champions League football, which with qualifiers and the group stage could be an additional eight or 10 games before even thinking about knockout rounds. A heavily rotated side also fell out of the Conti Cup before Christmas, although disappointing, meant less distraction.
Chelsea, in reacheing the Conti Cup final, will face United in the FA Cup final and potentially yet the Champions League final, have used every inch of their squad to cope with those demands and have still, at times, looked out on their feet, and been pummelled by injuries and various player absences.
United’s next step is to build a squad on that kind of level. They are not there yet, a fact that Skinner – still less than two years into the job, but now contracted until 2024 – hasn’t shied away from. He has repeatedly said, ‘We’re no way near done’, with regard to assembling the squad he wants.
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That message has again been felt in the build-up to the Arsenal game, one of three that also includes the Manchester derby and the FA Cup final, that will be season defining, if United are to realise their ambitions and make silverware a regular part of the future.
“We’d love to [challenge for multiple trophies simultaneously],” Skinner said.
“We’ve jumped a lot this season. For us to jump again to that level…our aim is to be competing for championships, going into Champions League and competing there, and obviously competing for domestic cups. That is the vision, but we’ve got work to do.
“I still think we’re off that from a consistency point of view. We’ve still got investment and recruitment to do, still have to grow our foundations here.”
United have 13 players out of contract this summer. The vast majority, fans would hope to see stay. But how the season finishes – if Champions League football is on the table or not – is set to massively influence things. Regardless of whether a new owner wants to invest into the women’s team, it would immediately boost the budget, allowing the club pay more in contracts, and give players a sporting reason to want to stay. The club also becomes more attractive to transfer targets, and it is ultimately self-feeding as new players arrive to boost the necessary depth for multiple competitions.
Off the pitch, the purpose-built training building is making daily progress and some facilities, like new pitches, are already in use. That infrastructure, which was infamously lacking when the likes of Tobin Heath and Christen Press were in Manchester, is all part of those vital foundations too.
But, like Skinner says, there is still some distance left to travel before the ambitions to challenge for trebles and quadruples season after season become reality.
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Fara Williams and Girls on the Ball take at the look at the WSL title race in 90min Talks.