Improved Man United could be real top-three contenders in WSL this term – but is their project future-proof?

While the injury-time triumph over Arsenal at the weekend has raised expectations that United can seriously challenge for a Champions League place, the club’s long-term health may also rest on this season’s finish, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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In the 73rd minute it looked like Manchester United were playing a familiar tune. They had gone 1-0 up against Arsenal, playing much better than their opponents, but with Laura Wienroither running on to Katie McCabe’s inch-perfect cross, they were about to find themselves 2-1 down.

It was a moment that could sum up the difference between the two teams.

Arsenal have not won a trophy since 2019, yet they remain the most successful English women’s team in history. Sides like that can often fashion wins based on their aura. Developing that ability has been key to the achievements of Emma Hayes and her ‘mentality monsters’ at Chelsea. Playing badly but still winning is a hallmark of a team that has it all. But what about playing well and still losing?

Manchester United have had numerous near-misses when it comes to Champions League football. They have spent time at the top of the WSL table in the past, only to be pipped to third by a handful of points come the end of the season. Being unable to get results against their close rivals has not been the only reason for this, but it has not helped. When United have needed to close out games or make their pressure count, they have been lacking.

At the Emirates on Saturday evening, Manchester United did not go on to lose. Goals in the 85th and 91st minutes from Millie Turner and Alessia Russo respectively – both headers from set-pieces – produced a comeback that when Arsenal went 2-1 up had looked unlikely. It was the first time since March that United had picked up points from a losing position, and the first time they had ever managed it against Arsenal.

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Manchester United have beaten Arsenal twice before, but it was the first time they had beaten a top-three side in the league under Marc Skinner. Coming off the back of their 3-1 loss to Chelsea where they lost control of the match, it was a welcome turn around. Notably, Skinner was patient with his substitutes and kept the structure pretty much the same. When Lucia Garcia and Martha Thomas did come on, they added energy and verve: evidence of a depth that, with Arsenal having to bring on 16-year-old Michelle Agyemang for the final minutes, was sorely lacking on the opposition bench.

This is not just about United’s late goals though – they are a side who do not give up good chances right now. The highest individual xG values they have conceded are 0.36 against both Chelsea and Arsenal (Sam Kerr missed her one, Wienroither scored). They also have the lowest cumulative xG conceded in the league.

Their xG difference is 0.6 per 90. That is still a way off Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal, and only a small improvement of last year’s 0.44 per 90 – but it suggests that United have decided to be slightly more conservative when it comes to attacking in order to improve their defence.

Given their set-piece ability, this is a decision that makes sense. Only Arsenal (ironically) have scored more goals from set plays this season than United, and their xG ratio (the amount of their total xG that comes from set-pieces) is 0.22, the fourth highest in the WSL. In Katie Zelem, they have someone who can be relied upon for high-quality deliveries. Why risk being more open in attacking play when you can try to win a free-kick or corner?

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United have now played two of their six matches against the top three, and already have more points from them (three) than they did from all six of last season (two). There is a Manchester derby to come before Christmas, which could be the decisive factor in seeing whether they can deal with the pressure of being caught by those below them. City have won every game since their loss to Chelsea on the second WSL matchday, and whilst United will be their sternest test since that match, they will be feeling confident.

One remaining concern for Manchester United fans will be some of the noises coming out of the club. Whilst they recently again extended Ella Toone’s contract, there has been deadlock around Russo, who will be a free agent at the end of the season. Quotes from Polly Bancroft, their new Head of Women’s Football, seemed to suggest they intend to fund the club solely or predominantly on income directly to the women’s team, as opposed to being supported with a bigger budget from the men’s side. It is unlikely that United will be able to truly establish themselves at the top of the table if they do not get that support, and end up losing their brightest and best players as a result.

For this season, Skinner’s team do look to have genuinely improved on last year. Perhaps the promise of Champions League football could be enough to persuade players to stay. There will then be a big chunk of pressure on them finishing in the top three. There is a risk that the whole Manchester United project might rest on this season’s finish.

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

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