United Women's defensive masterclasses
When looking to assess Manchester United Women’s defensive approach this season, let’s recall the two away meetings with a free-scoring Arsenal side, both of which came in the space of 19 days during January and February.
The first of these fixtures was a Continental Tyres League Cup quarter-final clash.
Jonas Eidevall’s Arsenal side were competing in their 23rd game of the season, and were favourites to progress on home soil. They’d bagged 66 goals prior to that night, failing to score on just three occasions – two of which came against the sides that contested the last Champions League final, Barcelona and Chelsea.
What’s more, Arsenal had appeared in eight of the previous 10 Conti Cup finals, winning five of those.
To counter the Gunners' attacking threat, United head coach Marc Skinner brought in Maria Thorisdottir at right-back, with the more offensive-minded Ona Batlle starting on the bench under the floodlights of Meadow Park.
Skinner’s set-up worked to a tee: the Reds sat back and bided time in a game that had to be settled on the night, restricting the hosts to just one shot on target and reaping the rewards when Alessia Russo headed in from Katie Zelem’s free-kick with just five minutes remaining. That goal sealed a 1-0 win, as United kept a fifth successive clean sheet.
“We were always in that game to do what we wanted to do,” Skinner said afterwards. “We’re not looking at what the opponent can to do us, we are feeling our own strengths.”
Reds centre-back Millie Turner, who was excellent across the 90 minutes, added: “We put in a massive, massive shift. We knew they would come out of the blocks and we defended with our lives.”
When the sides met again at Meadow Park, this time in the WSL on 5 February, United showed more attacking intent from the off - perhaps emboldened by our previous result there.
Batlle was back on the right of defence, and Russo again found the net with another header, this time just 10 minutes into the game.
While a change of approach would naturally lead to more opportunities from the opposition, the backline, including debutant Diane Caldwell alongside Thorisdottir in the middle, held firm for much of the game, restricting the hosts to four efforts on target.
Arsenal did score eventually, in the 79th minute, when Stina Blackstenius levelled following a defence-splitting through ball from Vivianne Miedema, shortly after Arsenal’s Katie McCabe had been sent off.
Despite that late setback, Skinner was again full of praise for his squad following another impressive result away to the Gunners.
“We’ve come to Arsenal and shown just how good we can be,” he said.
“We’ve defended brilliantly, our players have been in the best positions, we’ve marked correctly, we’ve been as aggressive as we asked them [the United players] to be.
“We switched off for one moment [when Arsenal equalised]. But what I will take is another notch in the belief that we can go anywhere and stamp how we want to play on the game.”
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.