Sport Writer Lucy Blitz reports on Manchester United Women’s start to the WSL season after a chaotic summer
The 2022/23 season was by far Manchester United’s most successful campaign to date — a second-placed WSL finish, on top of a spot in the FA Cup Final and Champions League qualification, confirmed their position among the best of the best. The Reds took their battle with Chelsea down to the wire, looking dangerous in the fight for a trophy. But big changes were imminent, and concern began to mount.
As the transfer window arrived, news surfaced that Alessia Russo was considering a departure at the end of her contract. Arsenal had submitted two world-record bids for the Lioness, only to have both rejected as the Reds held on to their star striker. While United hoped Russo would stick around, the forward opted for a place with the Gunners and left Manchester for North London on a free transfer. Full-back Ona Battle’s exit followed as the Spanish defender returned to former club FC Barcelona — again, as a free agent. Another blow for the Reds, as Battle had made 77 appearances for the side and was instrumental in their record season. Skinner had suddenly lost two high-profile players and received nothing in return. Appearing as a considerable failure on United’s part, scrutiny increased.
Meanwhile, the position of goalkeeper Mary Earps became the talk of the summer. While the Reds were clear that the England keeper wasn’t for sale, the rumour mill was churning with tales of Earps’ dissatisfaction and a desire to head out. Out of her contract next year, the world number one could be another player to leave on a free transfer if no club snaps her up in January. Combine the cases of Battle, Russo and Earps with talks of ‘hectic’ contract negotiations and the task of buying Champions League-ready players, it’s no wonder United looked in distress.
With a new term on the horizon, Skinner headed to the market to find a fresh crop of star signings. August meant the permanent move of Barcelona forward Geyse Da Silva Ferreira, accompanied by World Cup Golden Boot winner Hinata Miyazawa from Japan. The Reds completed their squad with Melvine Malard and World Cup winner Irene Guerrero on deadline day and were in good standing for the upcoming season. But time spent down under for the World Cup had left players with only weeks to prepare for the WSL’s opening weekend, along with a team that was yet to resemble the compatibility of last year.
So, what would become of the new campaign? United travelled south to Birmingham to face Carla Ward’s Aston Villa in search of their first points of the season. After a thrilling second half that saw the pendulum swinging, Rachel Williams came on from the bench to grab a match-winner in extra time and reignite the Reds’ fiery ways. Questions over connections between teammates were pushed to one side as new girl Geyse and United favourite Ella Toone created dangerous play to leave Villan legs shaking. Toone herself looked to silence those who commented on her form during last season, maintaining possession and dancing around the Villa defence. All in all, a strong start from the Reds.
Then came the task of hosting Arsenal, as well as navigating Russo’s anticipated return to the LSV Stadium. The Mancunian crowd were treated to an entertaining first half with the Gunners grabbing an opener after 14 minutes, only to gift Leah Galton an equaliser and place the sides on level terms. From there, the intensity increased, and United’s bench was once
again the place to be as Miyazawa connected with Malard to grab a second for the hosts. The Reds looked to be taking all three points from the battle, but a late strike from Arsenal’s Lacasse flew past Earps and forced a draw. Even so, United demonstrated their capacity for a comeback, and players looked to be gelling nicely. Next up, a Champions League debut.
PSG’s arrival in Manchester marked new territory for the Reds as they attempted to navigate a place in European football. The French side kept Earps busy in the first half before eventually finding the back of the net, but United showed resilience as they came from behind to level the playing field once again. An attacking force of Toone, Geyse, Miyazawa, Malard and Galton began to rattle PSG, and fans were left feeling that a win was possible under the lights. As far as debuts go, the Reds appeared to overcome initial nerves and present a challenge to the visitors, heading into the second round with plenty of positives.
As for the ‘saga’, United’s start to the 2023/24 season has calmed the critics. Of the three games played thus far, each showed Skinner’s ability to make crucial changes and force a result. New faces of Geyse and Malard are making their presence known, and existing players such as Toone and Earps are leaving criticism at the door. The Reds will travel to Paris on Wednesday in the hopes of continuing their European dream, but as for fans and Skinner, “they belong at this level”.
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