Manchester United formed a new women’s team in 2018 with the ambition of competing with the best. Fast forward just two years and that is now much closer to becoming a reality following the incredible double signing of USWNT forwards Tobin Heath and Christen Press.
Reigning champions Chelsea have signed arguably the best striker in the world this summer in the shape of Pernille Harder, while Manchester City have brought in American midfielders Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle this summer alongside England full-backs Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood.
But Chelsea and City are expected to sign world class players and have a respective history of doing so. City briefly brought two-time FIFA World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd to England in 2017, while Chelsea persuaded Sam Kerr to join them just last December.
United, despite the club’s wider reputation in the men’s game, were not at that same level yet…until now. Because of that, their capture of Heath and Press trumps the other huge deals of the summer. Both players have won consecutive Women's World Cups and were crucial to each triumph.
United made short work of the Women’s Championship in 2018/19. They dropped just five points all season, averaged almost five goals per game and finished with a monstrous goal difference of +91. In a way, it was to be expected given the make up of the squad, which included a raft of players who opted to drop down from a higher level in order to be part of it.
United were therefore also well placed to rise straight up the WSL table when they arrived in the top flight. A handful of smart summer signings – midfielders Hayley Ladd and Jackie Groenen in particular – improved on the promotion-winning squad and saw Casey Stoney’s side win the ‘best of the rest’ contest to finish fourth in the truncated campaign behind the usual ‘Big Three’.
With Stoney an elite defender in her own playing days and a former England captain, it is little surprise that the 38-year-old has built a well-drilled and disciplined unit.
Last season, United conceded just 12 goals in 14 WSL games, fewer than Arsenal and only one more than Chelsea, while every club that finished below them conceded at least 20.
During that debut top flight campaign they were never overawed facing the bigger sides. Faced with a daunting trip to the Etihad Stadium on the opening weekend of the season, with over 31,000 fans there for a record-breaking Manchester derby, United were beaten by a single long-range stunner. The game ended 1-0 in favour of City, but a draw would have been undeniably fair.
Just one week later it was a similar story against Arsenal when a narrow defeat was decided by a single late goal. In two meetings with Chelsea, again, United lost just 1-0. They actually got the better of City in a Continental Cup game, 2-0, and were only just beaten 3-2 by their neighbours in the FA Cup, a contest unfortunately influenced by poor officiating.
They were close to the big sides then, yet lacked the attacking options to step onto a level footing. It was telling that, despite comparable defensive numbers to City, Chelsea and Arsenal, they were still very much lagging behind when it came to goals. 24 in 14 WSL games last season was only marginally better than Reading and Everton, while being barely half of Chelsea’s tally of 47.
As the 2020/21 season kicked off last weekend and United were handed yet another fantastically difficult opener, they went toe-to-toe with Chelsea and came out on even ground, 1-1. Neither team was quite at full strength, but it was a point that was well deserved.
With England international Lucy Staniforth an important addition to midfield creativity earlier in the summer and now Heath and Press adding genuine world class quality across the front line, United have massively improved the weakness that was keeping them at arm’s length from the ‘Big Three’.
That gap is closing faster and by the end of the 2020/21 the WSL might have a ‘Big Four’ instead.