United Women: Spotlight on central midfield

Tuesday 22 March 2022 12:01

Perhaps in no other position does Manchester United Women head coach Marc Skinner boast such a surfeit of options as in central midfield.

Nor should the numbers available to the Reds’ boss mask a lack of talent – there’s plenty of quality, as well as quantity, in United's engine room.

The constant is skipper Katie Zelem – only Ella Toone has racked up more appearances in our history. Manchester born and bred, the 26-year-old is from a famous north-west footballing family – her uncle Peter played for Chester, Preston and Burnley throughout the 1980s and her father Alan was a goalkeeper for Macclesfield. Katie first joined the United Girls’ Centre of Excellence in 2004 at the age of eight. After spells with Liverpool and Juventus, for whom she was an integral part of their 2017/18 Serie A title triumph, she returned to her first love for our inaugural campaign, signing for Casey Stoney. Zelem was named Player of the Season as the Reds won the Championship and were promoted to the Women's Super League.

Zelem, United captain since 2019, is the conduit through which the Reds pass their way from back to front. Her superb technique with either foot and calm demeanour on the ball earned her a first full England cap in the Lionesses’ record-breaking 20-0 World Cup qualifier against Latvia last November. Along with forward Toone, Zelem is the only Reds player to have started every WSL game this season, and even deputised as an auxiliary centre-back in our recent draw with West Ham. The captain's wicked, curling set-piece delivery has earned rave reviews – in successive appearances against Manchester City in the FA Cup and the 4-0 WSL defeat of Leicester a month ago, she scored three times direct from corners. Few can bend it like Zelem.

Ladies and gentlemen… Katie Zelem! Video

Ladies and gentlemen… Katie Zelem!

Is this a world record? Katie Zelem has just scored three goals from corners in the space of a week…

Alongside Zelem, tenaciously working away just in front of the back four, is usually Hayley Ladd, who has performed the midfield anchor role with real consistency since joining United from Birmingham for our first WSL season in 2019/20. Unable to break into Arsenal’s team after progressing through the Gunners’ Academy, Ladd spent three seasons with third-tier Coventry City from 2012 while completing her undergraduate degree in human biology at the nearby Loughborough University, before spells at WSL sides Bristol City and Birmingham, where she played for two seasons under current United boss Skinner.

Our Player of the Year in her debut campaign – she appeared in every single fixture across all competitions – Ladd’s ability to read the game has already seen her clock up a half-century of United appearances, but the hamstring injury the 70-cap Wales international picked up while away with her country in February has limited her recent game time. She was badly missed in the FA Cup defeat to Manchester City at the end of February but is nearing full fitness once again.

In Ladd’s absence, Jackie Groenen has impressed as a deep-lying midfielder, although the 82-cap Dutch international – who captained her country for the first time in February’s 3-0 win over Finland – is known more for her intelligent distribution than any bone-crunching tackles. A multi-time age-group national judo champion, Groenen was forced to focus on her football career by Duisburg, her second senior club after SGS Essen, after breaking her hip in an accident the day before a match when she was 17. After making 39 appearances for the Bundesliga club in all competitions, a 19-year-old Groenen brought her silky talents to Chelsea in February 2014, helping guide the Blues to a runners-up finish in the 2014 WSL, before returning to Germany halfway through the following campaign with Frankfurt.

After scoring an impressive 16 times in 95 games for the club across four seasons, Jackie joined the Reds in the summer of 2019 for our first crack at the WSL. From a footballing family – older sister Merel is also a footballer – Groenen started every game of the Netherlands’ famous Euro 2017 victory, her consistent midfield displays earning her a place in UEFA’s team of the tournament. The 27-year-old, who has a law degree from her hometown University of Tilburg, tends to be used as an alternative option to Ladd in the ‘no.6’ position alongside skipper Zelem at the heart of the United midfield.

In January, coach Skinner brought in a familiar face in the form of his former Birmingham and Orlando Pride charge Jade Moore. Signed predominantly as defensive midfield cover, the 31-year-old is dripping in WSL experience and has a half-century of England caps, appearing at two separate World Cups for the Lionesses and helping them to finish third in the 2015 edition. An age-group regular for her country, Moore was diagnosed with two holes in her heart when she was 17 at a routine screening while on an England youth training session at Loughborough University and had immediate surgery to correct the issue.

Moore began her career at third-tier Lincoln in her mid-teens, then enjoyed top-flight spells with Leeds, winning the FA Women’s Premier League Cup in 2010, before winning the FA Cup during her six seasons at Birmingham, ahead of moves to Notts County and Reading. Moore then linked up with former Blues boss Skinner for a second time at Orlando Pride in April 2020. With the pandemic restricting her game time, she spent six months on loan at Atletico Madrid from August that same year. One of three deadline-day additions to our squad, Moore returned from a serious knee injury sustained in the US to come off the bench for her United debut against West Ham this month. “I’ve contemplated retirement with the injury,” she said. “To be sat here now, having signed for a massive club like this, I’m proud and delighted.
Moore's insight into injury recovery Video

Moore's insight into injury recovery

"It's been a long process," says Jade, who describes the bittersweet feeling of making her debut in Wednesday's draw...

When the Reds signed Vilde Boe Risa last summer, not even the most seasoned watcher of Scandinavian women’s football would have expected the 26-year-old to have been deployed as a forward-thinking midfielder for United. Many expected the Norwegian international to feature further back for Skinner, with a more defensive brief, but she took advantage of early opportunities to flourish by using her supreme engine to surge into open space. Boe Risa’s display in the 2-0 victory away to Brighton in December was a case in point – she scored the Reds’ opener and could easily have scored a hat-trick as she pushed high into the box from a left-sided starting position to win the Player of the Match award. No player has produced a higher percentage of shots on target in the WSL this season, while the Reds score on average 2.92 more goals than they concede per WSL game while she’s on the pitch – in short, she is a really positive influence on the side. 

After breaking through at local third-tier side Asane in her native Norway, a 17-year-old Boe Risa joined top-flight side Arna-Bjornar in 2012, before spending two seasons at Goteborg from 2019, winning a Swedish Cup and the 2020 Damallsvenskan. 
Boe Risa has netted against Brighton, Tottenham and Chelsea so far this season.

Another option in the attacking midfield role is Lucy Staniforth, who brings a wealth of WSL experience and 17 England caps to the squad. Still only 29 but with over a decade’s experience at this level, Staniforth started the season in fine form in the no.10 role and linked the play effectively to whichever of Alessia Russo or Ella Toone were starting at centre-forward. Indeed, her delicious backheeled flick in the first WSL Manchester derby of the season in October is an early contender for Goal of the Season.

Staniforth is another member of the United squad with a rich footballing pedigree. Her father Gordon was a striker for Hull, York and Carlisle in the 1970s and brother Tom was at Sheffield Wednesday before his tragic death in 2001, aged just 20 – Staniforth has always worn the no.37 shirt, her sibling’s old squad number, in tribute to him. After breaking into third-tier Sunderland’s first team at the age of just 16, earning a Women’s FA Cup runners-up medal in 2009 with the Black Cats, Lucy had injury-interrupted spells at Lincoln, Bristol Academy and Liverpool, but her return to Sunderland in 2016 marked a return to form. Following a two-season spell at Birmingham, Staniforth joined the Reds in the summer of 2020 and has been a regular squad member ever since, though a knee injury picked up in December has limited her appearances just as she was back in touching distance of a return to the England squad ahead of this summer’s European Championship. She had knee surgery last month and should be back soon.

Finally, Carrie Jones – who signed her first professional contract in November – is one for the future. Jones may only be 18, but the fact she already has nine senior caps for Wales, and was the Dragons’ U16 and U17 captain, is indicative of the two-footed talent and leadership qualities she possesses. Signed from third-tier Cardiff in June 2020, Jones initially linked up with our U21 side but has since become a regular member of the senior squad and started our FA Cup fourth-round tie against Bridgwater United. Blessed with a smooth technique and plenty of versatility to also play in wide areas, she is highly rated by all at United.

Tickets for United Women's first game at Old Trafford in front of fans, against Everton this Sunday 27 March, are available from manutd.com/womenstickets.