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Are Manchester United Women title contenders?

by Zoe Hodges

After Manchester United Women’s 5-0 thrashing of Aston Villa on Saturday, I was asked on BBC Radio Manchester whether I thought the Reds were title contenders.

As the season has progressed, slowly, journalists and commentators have been cautiously referring to United as title challengers but the majority of the fans have been dismissing this in fear that the pressure will hamper their chances of securing top three – the original goal before the season began.

But is it time we as fans acknowledge that United may be ready to challenge for the title?

Style of play

It’s not the first time United have had a sniff of WSL glory, in the 2020/21 season they headed into Christmas top of the league but injuries to star players like Tobin Heath and Alessia Russo ruined the second half of the season as they slipped down to fourth.

With that in mind, despite how well the Reds have performed so far, you can’t take anything for granted as they head into 2023 and they will rely heavily on their players staying injury free to get United over the line in third place or above.

Getting Champions League football next season might be the only way of retaining players like Alessia Russo, Ona Batlle and Mary Earps, just some of the players who will shortly be out of contract.

But never before have I felt the buzz and belief that I feel this season from this team. They are playing so cohesively as a unit, they’re constantly hungry for more goals even when they’re winning, when in the past they may have instead chosen to sit back.

They’re playing with freedom and style and if they go behind, they have shown character to comeback and challenge for the win.

More than that, every player is pulling her weight. In all competitions so far this season we have seen 13 different goalscorers from United. They have a depth to their squad that we have scarcely seen before.

Key performers

There are some individual performances and partnerships that you can’t help but get excited about; the link up play between Ella Toone and Alessia Russo has never been stronger and the pair are flourishing this season. You believe that something good is going to happen when they are both on the pitch.

Ona Batlle is showing what a world class player she is as she defends resolutely but creates so many opportunities going forward and her flexibility to perform well on both sides of the pitch is an added bonus for manager Marc Skinner as he tries to adapt the squad game to game.

United’s new signings, Nikita Parris, Adriana Leon and Lucia Garcia all seem to be settling in well and have hit the ground running. Rachel Williams, though much more experienced than some of their younger players, is like an excitable puppy when she comes off the bench and onto the pitch. She presses well and forces those mistakes from the opposition in the latter stages of the game.

We can’t forget Millie Turner, who has bounced back well following her health scare at the end of last season whilst Maya Le Tissier, despite her young age, shows such maturity and wisdom in her style of play.

Though her colleagues have made her life a little easier this season, Mary Earps, bursting with confidence after her Euros victory with England, has pulled off some vital saves this year. Her distribution accuracy has come on leaps and bounds over the last couple of years and she is a safe pair of hands, asserting her dominance in opposition set pieces, plucking crosses out the sky.

A word of praise has to be given to United’s Captain, Katie Zelem, whose set piece delivery has been on point in the last couple of seasons and made a huge difference particularly in the Arsenal game.

After that comeback, I think United laid down the gauntlet as real challengers. They showed the league that no one is unbeatable and that they have the character and belief that they can go behind in games, not panic, play their own game and win the United way. The game in itself was not the only progress we saw, it’s the fact that that game came after a defeat to Chelsea, the Reds’ first and only defeat of the season. In the past that Arsenal game following that Chelsea defeat would have felt like a nailed on three points for the Gunners as their season began to fall apart, but this year things are different.

Nothing’s perfect

Of course this season hasn’t been without it’s mistakes and disappointments, I haven’t got the rose tinted glasses on here. The Chelsea game was not the result anyone had hoped for (apart from Chelsea fans, of course). It was supposed to be a test to see if United had improved, if they could challenge the top three.

In the first half, they showed promise, defending well and creating a couple of chances of their own.

After going 2-0 down it felt like history repeating itself and the Reds were heading into the Arsenal game without hope but they showed fight, when they hadn’t in previous seasons in this position, launching an attack and getting one back before Chelsea got their third.

Even in the Aston Villa game at Old Trafford, there were instances where United got caught in possession and if not for the heroics of Earps they could have been punished. A top team, with a more powerful and creative striker could have challenged them or even put the game out of sight for them!

The Continental Cup was a huge disappointment for everyone attached to the club. Though they heavily rotated their squad, they went ahead in their first two games and then sat back and let the opposition draw level and ultimately lost both on penalties. This year was supposed to be about top three and a cup run, that’s still possible with the FA Cup yet to begin, but I’m sure everyone hoped for better in the Conti Cup. But could any of us have hoped at the start of the season that they’d be performing so well in the league, being referred to as title challengers? Maybe they sacrificed one target to exceed in another.

With the Manchester Derby just days away, United are heading into this game as if it’s a decider, another season marker for them as to how credible they are as a top three side: But to the outside world, it’s about how credible they are as title contenders. I’ve never felt so confident that this team can win, that this team deserves the three points more than Manchester City but it will all come down to how they perform on the day.

Dressing room unrest?

This is United’s season, on the pitch they are truly excelling, playing some of the best football they’ve ever played, but off the pitch, what’s the situation?

We hope that those who are nearing the end of their contracts are waiting to see if they secure Champions League football next year, and then we hope they do secure that. But rumour has it that not everyone gets on with the manager.

From the displays on the pitch, you can scarcely believe that’s true but the lack of pen to paper from some of the elite does cast a doubt in one’s mind as to whether there is some truth to those rumours.

The fans, though they always get behind the girls, are not all fans of Marc Skinner’s either. His management style is very different to Casey Stoney’s, who many of the fans and players built a strong rapport with.

But if he is getting results on the pitch and achieves the club’s targets this season, it may be enough to win over those doubters and perhaps persuade those players to stay. If he won the league… well he may just get a statue outside Leigh!

In summary, I think the time has come to acknowledge that United could win the league, we can dare to dream now but that doesn’t mean to say that we should be disappointed if they don’t. A top three finish would still be a massive victory for them and one we should cherish and celebrate if they manage to achieve it. For now, fans need to take it game by game and enjoy the brilliant football the team is now playing week in, week out.

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