Manchester United Women have their biggest game of the season (so far) on Sunday, a trip to face title-holders Chelsea at Kingsmeadow. United are currently sitting atop the FA Women’s Super League table, but the Blues are right on their heels. They’ll have the advantage in the title race should they win, with even a draw working out mathematically in their favor, making this a must-win for Marc Skinner’s side.
Essentially this piece is a three point thesis on what the Reds need to improve from their last matchup with Chelsea to emerge victorious this time around. What United need to win is play better out from the back, play better in midfield, and get the ball to their superstar forward and co.
Everything boils down to simple points, but with the losses against the Blues in the last few meetings it really is that simple. The gap between the teams is not as big as it used to be. This United team has made massive strides in finding themselves and transforming into a title challenger. They are in pole position right now, but Chelsea are in their way with two games in hand and just a 5-point difference. The rest of the work comes later, right now it’s all about finally knocking off the holders in their own back yard.
Don’t give away bad goals
Part of the reason Manchester United have struggled so much against Chelsea is their inability to effectively progress the ball from defense and midfield, and that was once again their Achilles heel earlier this season at Leigh Sports Village. Sam Kerr’s opening goal in the 60th minute came from a very poor giveaway by Millie Turner, and it wasn’t the first of the match by the United defense. Until the hour mark United arguably matched Chelsea in terms of quality chances created, and it wasn’t until after that the Reds started to look uncomfortable.
A second goal followed just minutes later from a former Red, Lauren James. It was more routine, coming off of a quick counter, and a third goal late put the game to bed after Alessia Russo made a game of it.
Now advancing the ball against Chelsea is of course easier said than done. Their midfield is stronger than United’s, and their high press causes a lot of problems. However there will be a big boost in defense from last time, the presence of Ona Batlle.
Batlle missed the first match this season through injury, causing Marc Skinner to shuffle the pack in defense. Hannah Blundell moved to right back in Batlle’s absence, and Maria Thorisdottir came in at left back. Defensively it wasn’t too much of a downgrade, given that was their main focus, but it severely restricted United’s ability on the wings. Blundell has been stronger at left back this year, and Batlle is an absolute force of nature on the right. Both players are crucial to United’s strength on the wings and providing chances for the forwards.
Batlle will however be available on Sunday, with everyone healthy except Jayde Riviere according to Skinner in his last press conference. Additionally, Chelsea will be without Pernille Harder and Fran Kirby, with the former unfortunately missing the rest of the season with a major injury.
Finding their feet in midfield
Speaking of easier said than done...
Manchester United’s midfield simply isn’t on par with Chelsea’s. The loss of Jackie Groenen left a hole that has been at least temporarily filled by Hayley Ladd, but generally they’re still very dependent on Katie Zelem. In the first meeting this season Zelem had a really poor game, completing just 67% of her passes, no crosses, and just 1 of 8 long passes. According to FotMob, she was the lowest rated outfield player in the match with a 5.2, but this is perhaps unfair given how much she had to accommodate for the poor play out from the back.
Still, the point remains that while United’s midfield isn’t quite at Chelsea’s level they still have a big role to play, and a big improvement to make if they’re to stay in the title race.
Zelem is a key player for how United tick. Similar to Batlle, she’s a big provider for United in attack. Her set pieces are her specialty, but she’s a really good passer across the board. It just didn’t happen for her last time out, but as previously mentioned she won’t be carrying the burden of ball progression herself this time around. Her and Ladd will have a big part to play at the base of possession in attack, but they’ll have a full strength side around them as well.
With the fullbacks back in place there are more avenues forward for United, and with strong wing play the pitch will open up a bit more as well. That means room for Leah Galton and Ella Toone ahead of the midfield, more room for Russo to drop into buildup, and more lanes for the forwards to exploit. It’s still a tough matchup and the pressure will be on, but Zelem and Ladd have to step up more in their respective roles and take advantage of whatever space they have to work with.
This is the simplest part of the three-point thesis, but with the ability of a player like Russo why wouldn’t it be? She has 9 goals so far this season, and is coming off of a hat-trick in the previous match against Leicester City. She missed a bit of time with an injury early in the year, but has been a big contributor by scoring in 6 of her 10 games since returning to action.
And Russo doesn’t just score goals. Her hold-up play is exceptional, often playing off of the creators in transition, and she drops into build up play rather than waiting around up top in traditional no. 9 positions all match. Her proactive play opens up space for her teammates to get into goal scoring positions as well, and that’s what they need more of in order to find the back of the net earlier and more often against Chelsea.
United attacked well in the first half of the meeting between the sides in December, and started the second half well too before conceding. Russo’s goal was a consolation in the end, but it was deserved considering her production in the game to that point. With more consistency behind her, and more reliable avenues of progression, the forward line should be in decent shape.
In 8 total previous meetings the best result United have managed against Chelsea was a 1-1 draw back in September of the 2020/21 season. It’s been 5 straight defeats since then, with Chelsea outscoring United 18-8 in those 5 matches. Even outside the context of the title race, it’s time for the Reds to get one over the Blues.
With so much at stake in the league, European qualification, and the greater context of player contracts expiring it is easy to understand the pressure on this occasion, but they wouldn’t be in this situation if they weren’t capable of handling it. It’s their time to step up and show that they are not planning on fading away, and that they’re here to stay at the top of the table.