The pain driving Manchester United’s supercharged WSL start

Manchester United’s thrilling start to the Women’s Super League season, with five straight wins and five clean sheets, has put them top, with one goal separating them from second-place Arsenal. The run of the only team yet to concede has been somewhat unexpected, but should it be?

This is a United squad fuelled by disappointment, driven by a desire to avoid feeling the pain that has engulfed them at the end of the past two seasons. After a maiden WSL campaign under Casey Stoney, in which they finished fourth, 13 points off third-placed Arsenal, the regrets have been plentiful.

In their second season the team came agonisingly close to disrupting the triumvirate of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, finishing one point behind the Gunners, but they were still eight points off a Champions League spot. Last term the pain was more acute, with United at times favourites to secure third place and a spot in Champions League qualifying after a format change, only for City to pip them by five points. City charged to the line after a rocky start, but third was very much United’s to lose and they crumbled.

In the 10 games in which they dropped points (four losses and six draws) the team gave up a lead or conceded late in seven. In a 2-2 draw at home to City, goals from Lucy Staniforth and Alessia Russo helped United to come from behind before they conceded to Ellen White in the 79th minute.

Against Tottenham, Russo’s goal in the 45th minute was cancelled out by Ria Percival in the 90th. Ella Toone’s first-half strike against Everton was undone by Simone Magill in the second half.

After Russo had given United an early lead at Arsenal, they could not prevent Stina Blackstenius from scoring in the 79th minute. On course to take a point away at City, Marc Skinner’s side conceded in the 81st minute in February to lose 1-0.

Toone’s goal against West Ham was cancelled out by Grace Fisk’s 90th-minute effort and finally, on the last day, United twice led against the eventual champions, Chelsea, only to lose 4-2.

The way in which the team dropped points accentuated the pain. “I sat with you at the end of the season and said it hurts,” Skinner said after United’s professional and composed 3-0 defeat of Everton last Sunday. “Hurt drives the hunger – we’re hungry.”

Watching United’s defeat of a well-organised Everton, in a fixture they drew last term, was symbolic of their growth. It was a patient and composed performance. Where last season United fell away in second halves, here they turned the screw, goals from Hayley Ladd and Leah Galton extending their lead.

Ladd described the performances this season as “mature” after that match. The team have benefited from the confidence coursing through the veins of their four European champions. The goalkeeper Mary Earps was superb when called into action against Everton, Toone is the creative engine and Russo, when fit, and Nikita Parris have been firing. They understand how to beat the best and never say die like never before.

The true test of this new maturity and grit is to come, though. On Sunday comes the visit of Chelsea, who have won the past three titles and are level on points with United and Arsenal but have played a game more. Then, after the international break, United travel to Arsenal before hosting Aston Villa at Old Trafford and playing City at the Etihad in their final league games of 2022.

“That is what we are here for,” said Skinner, when asked about those fixtures. “We want to pitch ourselves against the teams that are, historically, the best in the country. We aspire to be there.”

For now, talk is of United being well in the hunt to get into the Champions League for the first time, but when does the conversation shift to the team being genuine title contenders? Perhaps it should have already.