Manchester United were presented with their first big test of the WSL season when Chelsea visited Leigh Sports Village ahead of the recent international break and they came off second best.
It had been a fairly even and closely fought first hour, before a United mistake in possession at the back was punished by a Chelsea goal. Barely any more time had passed before Chelsea had doubled their lead by ruthlessly finishing off a quick counter attack.
Having been very much in the game until Chelsea scored, United were their own worst enemy.
The fact that Marc Skinner’s team then mustered a pretty ruthless goal of their own through Alessia Russo, punishing Chelsea in an almost identical way that they themselves had been caught out earlier, showed that they do have it them to compete with the WSL’s biggest teams.
United have been so close against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City in the past without really making the permanent step up to that level.
They beat City as early as October 2019 and lost by just a single goal in two other meetings that season. It should have been victory in the home WSL Manchester derby last season, conceding a late equaliser over 10-player City, while Skinner’s team dominated the first half of an FA Cup tie without making the most of it and then capitulated after half-time.
There was also a draw with Chelsea back in September 2020 and United twice led against the soon to be crowned champions on the final day of last season, before then competing on an even footing for two thirds of the aforementioned game earlier this month.
United beat Arsenal for the first time in November 2020 and last season were the only team to come away from the Gunners’ usual Meadow Park home with anything other than a defeat in the WSL. Realistically, they should have won that game but lacked the clinical edge to add to their lead, and then leaked an equaliser against an Arsenal side down to 10 players.
It shows that the gap is really not big at all, yet in games of such magnitude and against opposition of such high quality, that very last bit is the hardest to close.
“It’s not about taking those little positives, forget that. It’s about going into these games and saying, ‘If we don’t maximise these moments, you don’t win a game of football anyway’,” Skinner said.
“That’s where the best teams live, in those little brackets, and that’s where I want our team to live.”
The scale of the task is significant. Arsenal might be yet to face one of last season’s top four yet, but they have momentum from thrashing a Lyon side beset with injuries in the Champions League and putting together a run of 14 consecutive WSL wins stretching back to January. Wins breed confidence in football and confidence at any level is an incredible weapon.
That being said, there is vulnerability because the Gunners are without their both of their preferred starting centre-backs and their most important midfielder because of injuries.
“We need to be tight at one end and make sure we create plenty at the other end,” Skinner explained as United, who haven’t lost successive WSL games since February 2021, pursue a fourth consecutive away win in the league.
“We need to show our personality with the ball I know we have. What I mean by personality: it’s the constant bravery to perform in tight positions in 1v1s and win our duels against a very good team.”
After the Chelsea defeat, the principled United boss was defiant in his response about his team’s style of play and building possession from the back, instead drilling home the importance of playing smarter in those situations rather than ditching the philosophy altogether.
Above all else, cutting out mistakes and lapses in key moments will be key to securing a good result at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday. United’s lapses in key moments and a lack ruthlessness last season against Everton, Tottenham and West Ham cost them Champions League football, but that hasn’t been the case against two of those same teams this time around. It shows vital progress.
United now need to make sure they show the same progress against the next calibre of opponent.
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