Manchester United have made stunning progress since winning the Women’s Championship in 2019 and establishing themselves as one of the top sides in the top tier Women’s Super League.
Casey Stoney’s side will be genuine WSL title contenders sooner rather than later having already led the way for several months earlier in the season, and have so far displaced Arsenal in the league’s top three, which would mean Champions League football next season.
The club’s early success and quick rise has been down to a number of factors. A healthy budget and the United name allowed them to assemble a squad that was far too good for the Championship, while Stoney’s coaching and leadership plus quality recruitment have also been crucial.
It is easy to cast an eye on the squad and wax lyrical about any number of players. Tobin Heath and Christen Press have brought World Cup winning experience this season, Jackie Groenen is a world class midfielder on her day, Ella Toone is a home-grown favourite with a big future, Leah Galton is often unplayable out wide, Lauren James is the future of England and so many more.
Given that Stoney was one of England’s top centre-backs for well over a decade, it is also little surprise that United are built on solid defensive foundations. Mary Earps is a top goalkeeper and centre-back pairing Millie Turner and Amy Turner should probably be getting England recognition, while Ona Batlle has also been a masterful signing at right-back this season.
Yet there is one player in particular who really makes United tick – and that is Hayley Ladd.
Ladd, who joined from fellow WSL club Birmingham in the summer of 2019, isn’t a glamour name like Heath, Press or Groenen. Yet the work she does on the pitch has made her arguably the single most important signing of the last two years.
The 27-year-old Wales international is the engine at the heart of the team. She provides the legs, energy and bite that gives United a platform from which to play. That she was United’s player of the year last season ahead of the likes of James, Galton and captain Katie Zelem tells you plenty.
United are a pressing team and Ladd, alongside Groenen, has won more tackles than all but two other players in the WSL this season. Most of those have been in the middle of the pitch.
“Her style of play brings a calmness to our midfield and the relationship she has on the pitch with the players around her is invaluable,” Stoney said when Ladd recently committed her future to United for another two years until at least 2023.
But there is more than destructive play to Ladd’s game. She has plenty about her going forward and actually leads United in WSL assists this season, getting her fifth of the campaign off the bench in Sunday’s win over Aston Villa, with Stoney opting to rotate the team.
Those five assists also put her joint sixth in the WSL overall, and while other players might be more naturally creative, Ladd’s openings usually result in chances being converted – her five assists have come from only seven chances created. It is a huge asset to have a player who can do both sides of the game patrolling the centre of midfield.
For all the star names, deeply talented forwards and mean defenders, United would not have so quickly reached where they are today were it not for the contributions of Hayley Ladd.