Manchester United will not miss out on a WSL top-three finish season because they haven’t taken enough points against the league’s three established giants. It will be as a result of failing to see off the likes of Everton, Tottenham, West Ham and now Aston Villa when in the lead.
Briefly overtaken by Manchester City on goal difference on Sunday afternoon prior to a frustrating draw against Villa, United have a one-point lead over their neighbours and rivals.
But City have a game in hand and are expected to win all of the remaining favourable fixtures. United, meanwhile, have to travel to Chelsea on the final day. As such, signs point to a cruel leapfrogging by the time the final whistle blows on the season.
It is a bitter pill to swallow for United fans, who witnessed their team fall away in the final stretch of last season in similar fashion – on that occasion it was a fast-finishing Arsenal who benefitted.
It is possible to look back on a heavy defeat to Chelsea in September, or to defeats to Arsenal and Manchester City in November and February respectively and think what could have been. But those are the only league games United have lost this season, two fewer than City and only one more than Chelsea. They haven’t made the difference that will likely see the club agonisingly drop to fourth.
It is six draws that have, the joint most of any WSL club at this stage of the campaign. Conceding late equalisers against Manchester City in October and Arsenal in February were disappointing in the context of each game, but acceptable overall. Indeed, aside from the bizarre collapse against Chelsea so early in the season, United have been largely competitive in games against the ‘big three’ – even the heavy FA Cup defeat against City saw them dominate the first half.
To their detriment, United have failed to kill games off against weaker opponents. They led 1-0 against Tottenham in November, only to concede in stoppage time. Everton’s equaliser just a week later in similar circumstances was slightly earlier in the game but still deep into the second half.
More recently, it was a stoppage-time equaliser against West Ham to wipe out a 1-0 lead.
On Sunday, it wasn’t a late goal that was conceded against, but failure to score themselves. The team had been slightly fortunate at the start of April when a mistake from Brighton goalkeeper Katie Startup handed them a 1-0 win, but they didn’t get the same gift from Villa.
It highlights the fine margins at stake that all four could, and perhaps should, have ended with maximum points but for key moments – the stoppage time equalisers at set pieces that weren’t properly defended, or the missed chances that failed to extend leads or break the deadlock.
Marc Skinner, in his first season in charge after an unhelpfully late appointment last summer, has long preached the value of experience and learning from setbacks. He wants his team to at least be able learn from low moments and grow for the future as a result.
Failing to beat Villa and have their top three hopes fully taken out of their own hands was arguably the lowest moment of the season. But Skinner refused to make excuses, fully admitting his side’s shortcomings over the course of the campaign, yet insisted it becomes something to build on.
“If you want to go on and be top three and win things, you’ve got to score those moments. We need to be accountable for what we can control and what we can achieve,” he reflected afterwards.
“We’ve done that a couple of times this season where we fell short against a deep block, and we’ve got to overcome that. Own it, grow from it, move on, [and] we’ll be a better team.”
United will expect to come back strong and be in the top three race again next season.
Skinner will benefit from having proper time to plan and prepare this time around, having arrived relatively late last summer – his appointment was not confirmed for more than two months after Casey Stoney resigned, and barely more than a month before the season began.
The club is already ‘very much down the line on a few players’ when it comes to recruitment, he has previously confirmed. Adding depth, which the squad has lacked this season and has perhaps ultimately been reflected in results, has been a significant factor in planning for 2022/23.
Skinner has confirmed to 90min that United are seeking a ‘number 10’, central midfielder, winger, striker and centre-back in what a busy summer – “If the right people come up that we’ve already identified, this club is one that will allow us to go and make those acquisitions.”