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Editor’s note: this piece was published before Manchester United announced that manager Casey Stoney would be stepping down.
The FAWSL season ended this past weekend, with Manchester United finishing fourth. Their 47 points in the 22 match season not only fell short of a FA Women’s Super League league title, it also kept them from qualifying for the Champions League.
Looking at the grand scheme of things, a fourth-place finish is not bad for a team only founded in 2018, one that is competing in just its second season in the top-flight. However, context is essential, and United clearly have issues that need to be addressed.
In December of 2020, it looked like Manchester United were locked in as potential title winners for the FAWSL 2020/21 season. By March of 2021, their form had dipped, but they were still firmly in third place, which guaranteed them a spot in next year’s Champions League. By the end, they were on the outside looking in.
The fumbling throughout the season is “a failure,” according to manager Casey Stoney.
“I would never say my players failed because they give 100 percent effort all the time. But for me as a head coach, I would see that as a failure, yes. We’ve set out to hit top three, and we haven’t got it. I’m the head coach of the team, and I’ll take responsibility for that. I’ll look at all angles.”
Casey Stoney on whether she can enjoy last game: "No I can't! I'll be sitting there thinking 'what if'. If we had got UWCL I would have been celebrating with my players after. But we didn't so I failed. I don't enjoy failure. I hate it. But I will look at my players with pride."— Emma Sanders (@em_sandy) May 7, 2021
Man United had some injuries to key players this season, with Tobin Heath, Leah Galton, Alessia Russo, and Lauren James missing a significant amount of matches. Stoney doesn’t see that as a reasonable excuse.
“If we had every single player fit throughout the season, would we have more of a chance? Of course, we would have. But we lost games when we could have won them, we missed chances at crucial moments in games, and I’m responsible for that.”
If Manchester United wants to come back stronger, they need to address their recruitment.
Last summer, the club invested in multiple big-name players. Heath and Christen Press, two of the USWNT’s most prominent stars, were acquired from the Portland Thorns and Utah Royals. The club also signed Carrie Jones, Lucy Staniforth, Ona Batlle, Ivana Fuso, and Alessia Russo.
But recruitment isn’t always about getting the best players in the world. It’s about finding the players that fit your club’s specific needs. It was clear from last season that the club needed a consistent striker, a poacher of sorts whose main job would be goal-scoring. They didn’t acquire one this summer, and they suffered because of it. United’s top scorer in the league this season was Ella Toone with ten goals, while Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal all had two players who scored at least ten goals.
Chelsea’s Sam Kerr scored 21 goals while Arsenal Vivanne Miedema bagged 18. Players of Kerr and Miedema’s caliber aren’t exactly just lying around, but the role they play is one that United needs to fill.
The offensive disparity becomes even more obvious when looking at the total number of goals scored by these top four teams. Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal scored 69, 65, and 63 goals respectively. Manchester United scored 44. That’s not enough for a side that wants to challenge for the title.
In the winter transfer market, United had a chance to rectify their lack of scoring goals by signing a striker, but their only business was obtaining Norwegian defender Maria Thorisdottir.
United still have the pieces in place to eventually become one of the best teams in the world, especially if Tobin Heath and Christen Press return.
Stoney is a fantastic manager, one who is able to get the very best out of her players. But if Manchester United want to compete next year, they need to be smarter about their recruitment. They need to look at the gaps that their squad actually has and fill them accordingly. If that happens, they have a chance to not only compete in the FAWL, but also become a force in Europe.
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