Manchester United will be grateful for a welcome break to rest and recharge ahead of what will be an historic WSL game at Old Trafford against Everton next weekend.
Following a difficult February, Marc Skinner’s side were in blistering form at the start March, scoring seven times across important wins against Leicester and Brighton. But that same cutting edge was missing against West Ham on Wednesday in what was a third game in the space 12 days.
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By the time United host Everton at Old Trafford on Sunday 27 March – the first time they will play at the iconic stadium in front of fans after last season’s behind closed doors match – there will have been 10 full days between games.
A lack of first-team squad depth was highlighted against West Ham, who equalised in the 93rd minute, costing United two points in the hunt for Champions League football.
Skinner said ahead of the game that Hayley Ladd, whose return to form in December and January underpinned an excellent run, might have been fit had the game been a few days later. Her absence whenever out of the team will always be a loss because of the crucial role she plays.
The same was true of Lucy Staniforth, who has been missing since December. Both midfielders should be back in action well in time for Old Trafford as long there are no unexpected setbacks.
Maria Thorisdottir was a surprise late omission in east London, forcing Katie Zelem to drop back into defence due to a lack of alternative centre-back options. Skinner referenced Covid-19 after the game, which should mean the Norwegian is able to return to training in good time.
Fans will also hope the extra rest and time between games now also gives Aoife Mannion a chance to regain her fitness. What was thought to only be a minor knee problem has ensured the fan favourite and influential defender hasn’t played since January.
Millie Turner’s loss to an artery issue has been another blow recently. She has continued to train as much as she can without risking further problems and even during her ongoing absence has travelled with the team on matchdays and even taken part in non-contact pre-match warm-ups. Every day that passes is another closer to her being able to make her eagerly awaited return.
Even Jade Moore, who made her United debut off the bench against West Ham, will benefit hugely from being able to get more than a week's worth of extra training under her belt.
Ella Toone summed up what is now important after the disappointment of the West Ham result: “We need to use [10 days without a game] wisely to get a few players back and recharged.”
A fully fit United squad is good enough to compete for a top three place – that much has been proven. But despite the optimism of early March, there was a feeling on Wednesday night that the team had again become a bit of a walking wounded. This extended break will help alleviate that.
Longer-term, United need to have better squad depth to cope with a build-up of injuries and Skinner at least alluded to that being a known issue this week on the club's agenda.
“It’s about recruiting in the future so we don’t get into this position,” he acknowledged.
Skinner had also already responded to questioning about a perceived lack of rotation ahead of the West Ham game, insisting: “I do trust my players, I always will do, otherwise they won’t be at the club – I’ll be very clear on that. For us, I’ll rotate when needed and play players in positions when needed, we’re just trying to balance every bit of [each] game.”