Marc Skinner has targeted players who can help Man Utd find different ways to win; A player’s personality also played a key role in recruitment; Watch Tottenham vs Man Utd from 11.30am live on Sky Sports Football and Main Event; kick-off at 12.30pm
As they say, there’s no rest for the wicked. This summer, Manchester United manager Marc Skinner certainly didn’t rest on his laurels, instead working throughout the break to further improve his squad for the new season.
The last campaign was a learning curve for Man Utd and Skinner. The former Birmingham City boss returned to the WSL last summer and into a side cultivated by the outgoing Casey Stoney – all of the five summer signings from last year were bought in before Skinner was appointed.
But it was hardly a squad of misfits and slouches. Man Utd pushed the ‘big three’ all the way and almost secured Champions League football for the first time. However, they ultimately ended in fourth spot, five points behind local rivals Manchester City.
One area of weakness was United’s ability to see games out. They lost the most points from winning positions last season (13), and it was a priority high on Skinner’s target list this summer to correct, seeing him bring in seven new players.
This includes Euro 2022 winner Nikita Parris – joining from Arsenal – plus WSL and international experience in Adriana Leon and Rachel Williams. Young English talent such as Grace Clinton and Maya Le Tissier have also been added to the ranks, along with Lucia Garcia and Aissatou Tounkara from Spain.
“I took all of last year to assess where we’re at, and so I’ve made seven changes this year, bought seven players in and the whole idea is that I want to have different ways to win,” Skinner exclusively told Sky Sports ahead of Saturday’s WSL season opener against Tottenham.
“We had too many deep blocks last year, where a team goes into a really narrow shape and there’s no space to play, so I needed different options. I want our team to be aggressive, I want our team to be front foot, I want us to try and win every game but there’s got to be different things to do that.
“Maybe we fell short on that last year, and there’s an amazing statistic that if you had ended the game in the 60th minute, we’d have won the league.
“So the last third of the game, we have to be better and I had to make different changes at different times. We’ve recognised that and that’s why this squad needed injection and it brings a lot of competition.
“So the squad is in a good space, the players are hungry and I want this team to be the most hungry team in the league.”
But it’s not just the footballing prowess that Skinner looks for in a signing – although, of course, extremely important. The manager chats to each player personally to make sure they are the right fit for his team before making them an offer.
He explained: “I wanted our characters to be fearless this year. There were moments last season in big games where we gave too much respect to our opponents so I wanted people who weren’t going to give that much respect. Respect what they can do, but don’t respect them when we’re playing against them.
“Most importantly, when I design a team, I design it around good people. Every one of these players, I interviewed and I have to connect with the player. Anyone can see how good they are on video, but do you wonder why they go to a club and fail? It’s because they don’t connect with the club.
“I had to move and I had to work this summer – I haven’t stopped and then the fun starts! Some people take longer to integrate, we knew that, but we also welcome back Millie Turner this season as well, who is going to be like a new signing. Hopefully later in the year, we’ll welcome Aoife [Mannion] back and she’ll be like another new signing.
“It’s about kicking on now. There’s an expectation at Man United and I’m not scared of that so I need the player to be prepared for that. I need fearless people.”
It’s no surprise then that when Skinner speaks of his new signings, their personalities and character come in for praise as well as their abilities as footballers.
“Honestly, Nikita was a no-brainer for me. The more experience I get, I’m a big believer that if you change the context for a player, you change the player and what’s expected of them – it doesn’t mean the coach is wrong, it’s just something different.
“I want to see her personality this year. She has this vibrant personality, she’s aggressive on the field and wants to play hard, but off the field, she wants to have fun. I want that blend – I want my team to be the best and most united team, but when we get on the field, I want to fear nothing and she’s another player that does that. With all the talent she has, I absolutely believe we can see a different version of Nikita.
“And I don’t think people have seen the best of Adriana yet. She’s someone that can invade spaces and she gives off lots of energy, she’s super cool and she loves life. I knew about her from America as well as West Ham, but you’re going to see a different version of her this year, I have no doubt.
“I’ve been watching Lucia for years and years and she finally became available. She is just electric. Watching her, she’s the right time, the right age, the right quality for us and we needed that quality. She can play inside, outside, she can find spaces from behind so she’s going to be a wonderful addition for us.
“Rach Williams is an absolutely fearless character. If you look into her back story, which I think is really important when you sign a player, the things she’s had to deal with in her life, it would be easy to crumble. She has taken everything in her stride, she’s looked after people and this is just off the field.
“She bought up her family, her parents died quite young and she had to take all of that on when she was younger. So when she plays, she’s fearless and she brings the real life into the football field.
“Maya is an exceptionally young, gifted talent. For someone that has the ability to come and play into one of my teams now, someone who wants to possess the ball, wants to defend, has so much enthusiasm for the game.
“She had a really good grounding under Hope Powell at Brighton, she joined them really young so has got a lot of experience, even at a young age. For me, when we met her, she was someone that without a doubt we needed to have.
“With Aissatou, I needed to add some international experience at latter stages of tournaments, Champions League players at latter stages of tournaments because sometimes, you just don’t have time to allow your team to get that without getting the experience in.
“In the Euros this year, she went to the semis so she has a lot of talent we can use. She’s a ball-playing centre-half, she’s been in Spain so she’s used to that, but also her physicality away from the game, she can affect it another way. We sometimes leave ourselves open to transition because of the fact we have so much ball possession.
“Grace has the personality to play for Manchester United, as well as the talent. I’m very much looking forward to helping her grow, she’s only young as well, so lots of growth there but has the ability to turn a game and find the magic moment.
“When defences are tight, you need players who can pick the lock. Obviously there’s Ella Toone, Alessia Russo who work higher up, but in between the spaces, we need operators. We have Vilda [Boe Risa] and [Lucy] Staniforth, Jackie [Groenen] can do that of course, but we wanted someone who had that vision and we think she can assist quite a lot this season.”
Of course, mention of Parris, Toone and Russo turns minds directly to their Euro 2022 triumph with England this summer, alongside Man Utd and Lionesses No 1 Mary Earps. Each of the quartet played a huge part in writing their names into history, with Skinner hoping to harness that experience to help Man Utd.
Reflecting on the summer, he said: “I just love the spirit around England and the national team epitomises that. My daughter was watching the games in an England kit, loving the fact that Ella was playing, or Alessia or Mary. She was doing the Mary Earps in the way she would hold the ball and be very cautious.
“Then watching young kids – boys and girls and men and women too – watching our team. I think we’re finally getting to the point now where yes, we call them the Lionesses, but it’s the England team. Not women or men, just the England team.
“I’m proud of our country for embracing that, not just what the girls have done, but proud of everybody that gets behind them and genuinely getting heartfelt messages of love and support for what they’ve achieved. Some of our girls may have come off the bench – Mary had one of the biggest parts – but when Alessia came on or Nikita or Ella, they had huge impacts. I want them to bring that into Manchester United now.
“I can show them a video of them in the biggest moments and say ‘watch this, how did that feel?’ and then when they’re in that moment, they don’t rush. It’s calmness and the best players can move their bodies at 100 miles an hour but their brains slow down so they can see the best option.
“That’s what we have with these players, they’ve gone to the highest level and they’re going to bring that back to Manchester United no doubt.”
Their first test this season is a trip to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday to face Spurs, live on Sky Sports Football from 11.30am as Man Utd once again kick off the campaign on the opening day.
Rehanne Skinner’s side were another who pushed for a top three spot last season – at times, taking advantage of Man Utd’s struggles in seeing out games.
While Champions League football, or even a WSL title win, is the target of every club, Skinner believes focusing his team’s maximum effort on each match will see them finish where they are supposed to come May.
“For me, I set my standards in trying to win the league and trying to win every game,” he explained.
“We’re fighting against three teams that finished above us last year and haven’t been moved in five years. Everybody expects – nobody expects more than me – but the reality is we’ve got to chip away. If we finish third, is that an achievement? We’re talking about if the game finishes in 60 minutes, we win the league so if we set our barrier there and shoot and finish fourth, it’s a failure.
“For me, I’m not scared to say we want to challenge in there, but should we not shoot to win the league? Can we? That’s a challenge every day to our players. I’m not saying we have any right to win the league, we’ve got to earn everything we get.
“In every game, we have to be at our very best, even if we play poorly, we have to find a way to win the game. Then, at the end of the season, it works itself out.
“I want to go for every game exhausting every chance to win that game. I did that last year and I found that our mental balance from the prior season was so much better. When we lost, it wasn’t the end of the world, we refocused on the next game.
“That was important and I’m going to stay exactly the same – each game, we have to focus on exactly what we can do to win that game. If then, we do what we should do, we’ll finish in the position we finish in.
“We know the fanbase we bring as Manchester United, we know the viewing figures that Manchester United have. It [playing Tottenham] is a great fixture on the back of a wonderful summer, it’s a very tough opponent for us.
“The only thing that is hard to navigate is that we get the girls back on the Thursday and then we play Saturday and we’re away so we have to travel. There’s no excuses and we’ll go into the game as best we can and Tottenham will probably be in the same situation.
“But we have to maximise that these players have been away with their national teams, they play in different ways, in different systems so I have got to be creative in the way I get them back onto the same page. That will be my only gripe. We want to be the team that opens the league, we want to be the best team in the league so let’s take that pressure as it comes.”