Manchester United look likely to narrowly miss out on a place in the Women’s Champions League for the second season in a row, with rivals Manchester City now in the driving seat in the battle for the WSL’s third and final European qualifying berth.
The frustrating thing for fans is that it is clear their team is not far away from being able to consistently compete against the league’s established big clubs.
Only a late Arsenal equaliser denied them what would have been a deserved away win over the Gunners in February, while Manchester City also needed a late equaliser in a 2-2 derby in October. United were only narrowly beaten in a WSL derby in February and had bossed an FA Cup against their neighbours for 45 minutes that same month before later collapsing.
United would also be clear in third place by now, perhaps even still in the title race, had they not conceded late equalisers against Tottenham, Everton and West Ham, dropping six additional points from winning positions in those three games alone due to failing to kill things off.
Against Aston Villa last weekend, they were unable to break down a resilient opponent, but still created chances and probably should have won by two or three goals.
These are not huge gaps to try and close, but fine margins that require careful tuning. The season has been ultimately defined by a handful of key moments, which with more composure or experience could have flipped the other way and made all the difference.
Time is a factor in that – in the sense that United remain a relatively new club by the standards of the WSL’s elite and manager Marc Skinner is still only nine months into the job with minimal chance to prepare when he was first appointed late last summer.
“Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea have been doing it a lot longer than us. Sometimes you just need to realise that you are where you are,” Skinner said ahead of the team's final home game of the 2021/22 season this weekend.
“I’m privileged that we’re not talking about how much we have to jump. We’re at a point where we have to concentrate more, we have to grow up and mature in these moments – that’s a positive space to be in,” the boss explained.
For Skinner personally, the summer is a welcome pause after a relentless 18 months. But as well as a much-needed break and recharge, a holiday will provide time for necessary self-reflection.
“I’m really reflective and honest,” he said. “I’m going to look at myself throughout parts of this season and ask have I been aggressive enough, have I asked enough?
“What I will be sure of is I’m going on holiday at the end of the season because I’ve been going for 18 months – I had half a season in Orlando and a full season here without a break. That is where my best learning will happen because I know the fire in me will drive this team, but reflection is going to be the key tool for everyone.”
Recruitment is also a recurring theme in what will shape United ahead of next season. Skinner has previously confirmed that discussions with potential targets are ongoing and that a striker, ‘number 10’, midfielder, winger and centre-back are the specific positions he wants to build depth in.
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Having new players come in that would be capable of changing the key moments where United could have been better this season is going to be crucial to achieving the club’s ambitions.
“We’ve got to find different ways to [unlock defences],” the manager explained.
“I think we have a lot of quality players. But I’m going to look for variants in our team and recruit variants that gives us different ways to score goals…we’re asking our players to be ambitious [but] our club has to continue to be ambitious and we are.”
As United look to go again hard next season, the vision that he has spelled out is an attractive one.
Already known for how he values fluidity and positional versatility in his players, Skinner insists that he doesn’t want a team of ‘robots’, instead wishing to create an air of unpredictability.
“I don’t want to be a boring team” he said. “The opponent will not get a second to breathe – they fear stepping onto the pitch because they know we can press high, we can defend deep, we can play through, or over [the top], we can run, we can dribble…
“I want us to have a variance where teams don’t know where the next punch is coming from. I want a team and toolbox of qualities from our players that allow us to adapt. If [an opponent] blocks up, this is the team, if [an opponent] looks to counter, this is the team.
“I want people to look at our team and be impressed by the way they press, hold the ball, their calmness to play out from the back, or play forwards when that’s not right because we’re thinking and not scared of the opponent. That takes time and my injection with my energy and drive.
“Once we have that, you’re going to see a team that so exciting that even the current top teams don’t want to play against us.”