Manchester United fans could be forgiven for wanting more from the 2021/22 WSL season, which drew to a close on Sunday with their team in fourth place for the third year in a row.
United, having narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Champions League for the first time last season, spent most of the second half of this season in the top three. But points dropped and Manchester City’s flawless surge to the line saw them shunted down to fourth… again.
Given that third place was in their hands for so long and slipped away, it might feel like a failure. But United had arguably already overachieved to be in contention until the final day in what was always likely to be a transition year for the club.
Preparation for the season was far from ideal. Former manager Casey Stoney resigned in May against a backdrop of frustration – primarily regarding training facilities, with new boss Marc Skinner not formally appointed until the very end of July.
It set United way back. New arrivals didn’t start to join until the latter stages of July when it was known that Skinner was coming, in comparison to both Arsenal and Chelsea who started their summer activity as early as May, while Manchester City signed two players in June.
Pre-season was therefore also squeezed, while a handful of key players were missing during that crucial period because of international duty at the Olympics.
By the time, United began the 2021/22 campaign, they had lost five forwards and considerable experience elsewhere in the squad, without really securing replacements. It put a lot of pressure on younger talents like Ella Toone and Alessia Russo to step up, which they did. But there has been a degree of papering over the cracks until things can be properly addressed this summer.
The squad that Skinner has presided over has been largely inherited. In his nine months in the job, he has worked tirelessly to implement his own philosophy and ideas – positional fluidity and ‘taking the label off’ has been one of them that took until the second half of the season to bear fruit.
Recruitment to boost depth, which United haven’t had enough of and has been evident in settled starting XIs and lack of in-game substitutions, will be an important step ahead of 2022/23. Skinner is particularly keen to bring in a striker, ‘number 10’, winger, midfielder and centre-back.
That should make a positive difference next season and put United more on a level with Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, who can change tight games from the bench – look no further than the final match of the season when Chelsea made a double substitution at half-time to take control.
But it is important to note that even now United, just four-years-old as a club and at the end of only their second full season in the WSL, are so close to breaking up the top three. Indeed, the gaps back to fifth place in the final table this season and last are evidence it is already a top four.
Only eminently fixable small margins cost United a place in next season’s Champions League, having dropped 12 points from winning positions at late stages of six games. Stoppage time equalisers conceded against Tottenham and West Ham and a late equaliser from Everton are an immediately obvious source of six extra points they could have had – enough to finish third.
But United also lost leads in the final stages of games against both Manchester City and Arsenal during the season, both times against 10 players. Meanwhile, failure to break down a resilient Aston Villa in April despite dominating and creating chance was another two points lost.
Had they taken those 12 extra points, the final day against Chelsea would have been a title decider, highlighting just how much it is now down to fine tuning rather than major surgery.
Keeping concentration and making better decisions in individual key moments could have made such a huge difference overall, but the players will be better off for the experience regardless.
The critical results are also vastly different in their nature to 2020/21 when United lost to both Reading and Brighton in the second half of the campaign. Fast forward to now and Skinner’s team have lost fewer games and went unbeaten against every team outside the top three. It cannot be considered anything other than progress, particularly in the circumstances.
But recognising that progress does not mean the club has settled for fourth place, nor does it mean that Champions League football isn’t still the burning ambition for the near future.
If anything, United doing as well as they have done in the WSL this season is a positive sign that they can hit their targets in 2022/23 when there has actually been proper chance to prepare.
As Skinner said after facing Chelsea: “The fire has been lit.”
For more from Jamie Spencer, follow him on Twitter and Facebook