United Women 0 Arsenal Women 1
A late Danielle van de Donk goal gave champions Arsenal all three points in Manchester United Women’s first home game of the WSL season.
The Dutch midfielder, on as a substitute, struck on 89 minutes to break Red hearts after a hard-fought second half in which goalkeeper Mary Earps excelled, denying Kim Little on several occasions.
At the other end, Jane Ross had the home side’s best chance, seeing her effort saved by Manuela Zinsberger in front of a 2,530-strong crowd at Leigh Sports Village.
Casey Stoney was forced into making two changes to the Reds side which fell to a valiant defeat in our season opener at the Etihad Stadium. New signing Jackie Groenen shone in that game but picked up a knock that ruled her out of contention, while Lotta Okvist missed out on her home debut with concussion. Kirsty Smith and Amy Turner came into the side, with Smith a direct replacement for Okvist at left-back and Hayley Ladd moving into midfield to allow Turner to slot in on the right-hand side of defence.
The Gunners brought back star striker Vivianne Miedema after she was ruled out of their opening-day win over West Ham, while England midfielder Jordan Nobbs made her first competitive start since suffering an anterior cruciate knee ligament injury in November.
Last season’s WSL champions lost just once on the road all season in 2018/19 – a 2-0 reverse to Manchester City – but if the Reds were overawed by the level of opposition we failed to show it during a combative opening period in which most of the play was contested in the middle of the park.
With Jane Ross ploughing a lone furrow up front as the fulcrum of our 4-5-1 formation, the onus was on our wide players to provide penetration from wide positions and our first opening of the night came on 14 minutes when Jess Sigsworth beat Katie McCabe for pace on the right - she crossed for Ella Toone who, on the stretch, headed just wide of Zinsberger’s goal.
It was an encouraging start for Casey Stoney’s side, with the Gunners, especially playmaker Kim Little, allowed precious little time to settle on the ball. Toone especially was proving a thorn in the Londoners’ side, twice shooting over the bar, first when running unchallenged from the centre circle and then after Zinsberger could only half-punch a United corner clear.
Arsenal, who netted 70 times on their way to the title last term, struggled to carve out any opportunities of note in the opening half-hour.
But, thanks to the precise passing of Nobbs and the hard running of Beth Mead, they eventually found their rhythm and it took a double save from Mary Earps to deny Miedema her first goal of the campaign.
The Netherlands’ record scorer connected well with Lisa Evans’ cross but Earps parried the initial effort and quickly recovered to snuff out any chance of a rebound and ensure both teams went in level after an even opening 45.
After a word or two, no doubt, from boss Joe Montemurro at the break, the visitors moved up a gear once the teams re-emerged and Jill Roord tested Earps with an early sighter from distance.
United continued to demonstrate our ability on the break as the game sprung into life, with Ross seeing her shot saved by Zinsberger after being played through by Amy Turner just before the hour.
Just moments later, at the other end, Little found herself in a similar position but Earps once again did well to narrow the angle and divert the ball out for a corner.
The Scottish midfielder was Arsenal’s most obvious threat, regularly attempting to receive the ball between the lines and create, and she fired just wide when United allowed her a little too much space with around 20 minutes left on the clock.
As the Gunners pushed for a winner, Evans and then Mead spurned decent chances, the former shooting straight at Earps after finding space on the left and the latter dragging her effort wide from the opposite side of the 18-yard box.
Earps again did brilliantly to push Little’s shot over the crossbar and when the out-of-sorts Miedema saw her curling effort bounce back off the upright, it seemed as if United were going to come away with a hard-fought point.
But, as the champions kept up the pressure in the closing stages, van de Donk, introduced for Nobbs midway through the second half, was on hand to bundle a bouncing ball home and leave the devastated Reds’ defenders sprawled on the turf.
United: Earps; A. Turner, McManus, M. Turner, Smith; Ladd, Zelem; Galton, Toone, Sigsworth (Hanson 78); Ross (James 58).
Substitutes not used: Mikalsen, Harris, Green, Arnot, Edwards.
Arsenal: Zinsberger; Maier, Williamson, Beattie, McCabe; Roord (Quinn 90), Nobbs (van de Donk 70), Little, Evans; Miedema, Mead.
Substitutes not used: Peyraud-Magnin, Mitchell, Schnaderbeck, Grant, Filis.
NEXT HOME MATCH
United Women's next game is on 28 September, when Liverpool Women travel to Leigh Sports Village. Kick-off is at 12:00 BST and match tickets are currently on sale at www.manutd.com/womenstickets.