Manchester United have forced their way in to the Women’s Super League title race this season in only their second year as a top flight club, breaking up the previous ‘big three’ of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal to firmly make it a ‘big four’.
United are here to stay at the top end of the women’s game for the long-term. That isn’t in doubt.
There is no point pretending the club hasn’t enjoyed a good level of investment that has allowed manager Casey Stoney to bring in world class stars like Tobin Heath and Christen Press on top of existing international calibre players like Jackie Groenen.
But the squad also maintains a strong homegrown feel to it, while developing other players that have been brought in from a young age.
Millie Turner, Katie Zelem, Ella Toone and Kirsty Hanson all spent time in the academy ranks before having to initially seek career advancement elsewhere because the club didn’t run a first-team until 2018, while Lauren James, Alessia Russo, Ona Batlle and Ivana Fuso represent young talent recruited from home and abroad to develop in the long-term under the United banner.
Good progress for United this season would have been getting closer to the biggest WSL clubs following an impressive fourth-placed finish in the shortened 2019/20 season. Few could have expected a genuine title challenge so soon, but now that it is happening it was disappointing to see a golden opportunity go begging in the latest round of fixtures over the weekend.
United were leading the way for several weeks between early November and mid-January. They have scored more considerably goals than at the same stage of last season, are still similarly strong at the back as they were, had beaten Arsenal for the first time and showed their resolve by coming from behind to hold both Chelsea and Manchester City to draws.
That United were so disappointed to narrowly lose to Chelsea last month was another telling sign of progress and they bounced back from that setback with consecutive wins.
Until Sunday, United had a perfect winning record against the rest of the WSL. That is imperative for any side with ambitions of being crowned champions because the level of competition at the top in what is fast being the best domestic women’s league in the world is increasingly fierce.
That was much improved than at the same stage of last season when, in addition to narrowly losing to City, Arsenal and Chelsea, they were also beaten by West Ham and Bristol City, as well as being held by Reading and Brighton after losing momentum after the winter break.
This season’s perfect record against the rest of the league disappeared when Reading pulled off an unexpected 2-0 win at Leigh Sports Village thanks to two quick fire goals just after the hour mark. United had won 2-1 against the same opposition in the reverse fixture in December.
A win would have at least temporarily sent United three points clear at the top and put the pressure on Chelsea, who were facing Brighton later that same afternoon. In the event, Chelsea’s shock defeat, despite dominating against the Seagulls, meant they would have stayed there.
It was a first Chelsea defeat in the WSL in more than two years since October 2018, a run of 33 games. They are so good that such results are so incredibly rare and that opportunity may not come back around for United this season because the margins for success are that fine.
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