Manchester United midfielder Vilde Boe Risa was told in no uncertain terms a matter of weeks ago by new Norway coach Hege Riise that her lack of regular game time at club level was harming her international career – something no player wants to hear less than a year out from a World Cup.
Boe Risa joined United last summer, a long-term target for the club under the management of Casey Stoney. She grew up supporting the Red Devils and described the move at the time as a ‘dream come true’. In reality, what unfolded over the course of the season didn’t live up to expectation.
The former Damallsvenskan champion only started eight WSL games in 2021/22 and played fewer minutes than all of her direct midfield competition aside from Lucy Staniforth and Jade Moore – both of whom spent considerable time out of action because of injury.
When Riise dropped Boe Risa from this month’s Norway squad – having done similar with Beth Mead and Great Britain in 2021 after being unimpressed with her club performances for Arsenal – it seemed as though the player would have to make a hard choice: club or country?
Now, only a matter of weeks later, the situation has already evolved.
United weren’t planning to sell Jackie Groenen this summer despite the known interest from Paris Saint-Germain – Groenen herself wasn’t expecting to go when asked at the start of September. But when PSG made an offer that was too good to refuse for a player in the final year of contract and United were unable to go into the market themselves because the WSL transfer deadline had already passed, the door has suddenly swung open for Boe Risa to step into the void.
Boe Risa, who turned 27 in July, has the technical quality to be a major asset for United. That much has never been in question. The issue has been whether she has the physical attributes and defensive nous to thrive as a central midfielder in the WSL and in manager Marc Skinner’s system.
Part of the reason for Boe Risa’s limited exposure last season, Skinner has explained, was to allow her time to adapt to a new league and way of playing. The boss is nothing but complimentary about the player but wanted to be able to call on a more rounded version of her - as with everyone.
“I want a more fluid system and shape where players know each and everybody’s role,” he said this week as United prepare to face Reading on Saturday and only hours after Groenen’s exit.
For Boe Risa, it seems that proving herself to Skinner on the defensive side of the ball is all that really stands between her and a regular place in the team. Everything else is already right.
“Vilde has an unbelievable brain and vision. What I’ve asked her to do, and what I asked last season, was for her to have time to adapt to this league. We’ve looked at defensive body position on the training field, how she defends the game as well as attacks the game,” Skinner explained.
“For us, we know what she has with the ball and she has the brains without the ball…she now just has to practice and keep practicing. Vilde has lots and lots of qualities and will be a key asset to create goals and obviously stop them. With Vilde, once she snaps this defensive control into place, she obviously has the talent to unlock any defence [offensively].”
United fans did see flashes last season of what Boe Risa is capable of. She actually played her best football in the middle portion of the campaign when Groenen was ruled out for a couple of months through injury and was even nominated for PFA fans’ player of the month award in December.
The Norwegian continued that form into January but eventually lost her place once Groenen returned. In the final three months of 2021/22, Boe Risa then started just one of seven WSL games.
Now that the direct competition has been slightly dialled back, although United fans have reason to be excited over teenage summer signing Grace Clinton, and with a year's worth of settling and adapting under her belt, the opportunity is now there.
In the games in which Boe Risa had specifically thrived in winter, United thrashed a number of teams including Aston Villa and Tottenham. The reverse of those fixtures ended up being frustrating draws that ultimately proved costly in the hunt for a top three place.
If things click as they now could, Boe Risa has the potential to be everything United need…and if she does that, a place in Norway’s World Cup squad next summer will also be waiting for her.