Marc Skinner would not be drawn on whether Manchester United were now challenging for the title after this defeat of Tottenham put them second in the Women’s Super League, albeit having played two games more than third-placed Chelsea.
“Title contenders? Only if we keep winning games,” he said. “We’ve got Bridgewater next [in the FA Cup], nothing else. If we take our eyes off them it can hurt us.”
It has taken time for the United players to find their flow under Skinner. Despite his WSL pedigree, having arguably overperformed with a threadbare squad at Birmingham before moving to Orlando Pride, there was frustration among fans early in his tenure. With his style of play and, seemingly, an inability to get the best out of United’s previous highest achievers, he had doubters aplenty.
However, if Skinner’s two and a half years in the US showed anything it was that patience would likely pay off. At the close of the manager’s first campaign in the States, Orlando Pride had slumped to their lowest ever points tally and sat rock bottom of the NWSL table. By the time he departed for Manchester the Pride had picked up 15 points from their opening seven games of the season, a club record.
Having been unable to string together back-to-back victories since the team’s opening two games of the season, taking in all competitions, United are now six games without defeat. It’s a feat they have not achieved since a run of six wins completed their 2018-19 season in the Championship, in what was the team’s first season after they were relaunched by the club.
Skinner’s insistence on sticking to a regular XI despite results is paying dividends now, and the synergy in their play continued to impress at a bitterly cold Leigh Sports Village against Tottenham. In the reverse fixture, Alessia Russo’s first-half goal was cancelled out by a 95th-minute equaliser from Ria Percival. In Manchester there was no such profligacy up front or complacency at the back from United. Despite the hosts’ dominance, Tottenham had gone closest just prior to the first goal, when the forward Rachel Williams sent the ball across the face of goal but Jess Naz could not quite connect.
This time, though, United were two goals clear by the halfway mark, with Vilde Bøe Risa prodding in at the back post from a Katie Zelem corner and Hayley Ladd sending a thumping header past the Spurs keeper Tinja-Riikka Korpela.
The third made light work of the Tottenham defence, with Spurs also unbeaten in their five games prior to this fixture. The United forward Martha Thomas dinked the ball over Molly Bartrip, Ashleigh Neville missed her attempt to clear, and Leah Galton poked it over the line at the far post.
Perhaps more impressive than United’s six wins is the six clean sheets, 13 goals having been conceded in the eight league games prior to this run. With the centre-back stalwart Millie Turner out for an indefinite period after medical investigations revealed an issue with the artery in her neck, there was a risk that the newfound solidity would be disrupted. Instead, Aoife Mannion marshalled the back line and the stand-in Maria Thorisdottir played excellently in her absence.
“It’s what we built when we were successful at Birmingham, teams are built on clean sheets,” said Skinner. “The thing with Birmingham was it was about the block and resilience, with this team it’s more. I like our energy in keeping clean sheets in that we’re not having to defend for our lives. For us, it’s about being in that game at zero so we can grow.”