In 2018, when Manchester United decided to return to professional women’s football after a thirteen year absence, they hired Casey Stoney to build the squad from the ground up. After being granted entry into what was then-WSL2, rebranded the Women’s Championship ahead of United’s inaugural season, the Red Devils aimed for a short stay, and to soon rub elbows with Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal at the top of the WSL table.
After securing fourth place when the 2019/20 season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the following season the Reds bolstered their attack by luring USWNT superstars Tobin Heath and Christen Press to join them for at least the 2020-21 WSL season. For the majority of the first half of the season, United wasn’t only competing with the top-4, they were topping them all.
Strengths, but weaknesses too
Since United’s arrival in the WSL, Casey Stoney have made them an extremely unpleasant side to play against. Even before they had the star power of Heath and Press, they were forcing the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City to be relieved with eking out 1-0 wins. Stoney’s United press hard and heavy in midfield and defend their box with a frustrating stoutness. They are well organized, well-drilled, and difficult to pull out of position.
However, as this season has gone on, Stoney’s – and as a result United’s – Achilles heel has been the other end of the pitch. United have scored 32 goals in fifteen matches, which seems mighty fine, if not outright impressive. But the teams they’re attempting to go toe-to-toe with have attacking schemes that help them pile up the goals. In fourteen matches apiece, Chelsea have scored 42 and City a league-high 46. Arsenal, currently floundering nine points behind United in the table, have scored forty in thirteen.
This trouble area for United often rears its head against the top clubs, the ones they need to beat to solidify themselves as contenders. After the recent 3-0 defeat to Manchester City, United have one win (Arsenal), two draws and two defeats versus Chelsea and City. United had a total of four shots on target in their two matches versus Chelsea, and in the recent battle with City, managed just five total shots, with three on target.
Of course, beating Manchester City and Chelsea are difficult tasks to ask. Both clubs are loaded with talent along all three lines, but Manchester United – especially with Heath and/or Press – aren’t a stratosphere away in the talent column.
A helping Heath and a misplayed Press
For a while, Tobin Heath was solving most of these problems on her own. With four goals and two assists in eight appearances (7 starts), the American winger became the soul and heartbeat of United’s attack. As cruelty would have it, Heath would pickup an 8-10 week ankle injury in training, meaning United would be without her for the majority of the second half of the season. This put pressure on every other forward, but also, and more significantly, Stoney.
Though Heath had taken to her role with United, immediately becoming a team leader and arguably the team’s most important player, Press has had less success – scoring just two goals in nine appearances (7 starts). One of the primary reasons for Press’ ineffectiveness is her being deployed as a center forward.
The difference in their effectiveness is even more jarring than that. Before her injury, according to FBref, Heath had registered a total of 26 shots, Press has only had 17; and now with Heath out, Press is getting more shots but not in positions to be effective. Against Manchester City, Press had a total of five shots (three on target) that only amounted to a combined xG of 0.5. And when you look at shot creation – two offensive actions leading to a shot – things stand out even more; Heath 43, Press 11.
Of course stats can lie, and it is true that Heath and Press are being asked to do two very different jobs, but the latter is part of the problem – and this all even more evident while watching matches. Supporters of the USWNT can see a marked difference in what Press is being tasked with at United. What makes Press so dangerous is her ability to drift wide, receive the ball, and quickly decide whether she can hit the target or if she needs to use her dribble to open a lane to shoot. Press is excellent at it.
Excellent, I tell you.
Christen Press stealing souls and scoring goals in her first game back from the World Cup. pic.twitter.com/capFt2yXeU— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) July 20, 2019
This is trait also makes Stoney’s directives to the American superstar so confusing – forwards who can create their own shots are extremely rare across world football. With Heath fit, it is difficult to get them both into the spaces they prefer, but since Tobin’s injury, Press’s role and positioning hasn’t changed. One problem could be that United do not have a quality center forward they can plug in instead. But asking Press to be a poacher in the box is not allowing her to be at her best, which in turn is holding United back.
Another confusing aspect is that Press’ natural game is not foreign with the way United typically generate attacks. The Reds lead the league in shots after successful dribbles, with 40; the next highest is City with just 28! Given how instrumental Tobin Heath had been, it’s fair to assume that the impossible to mark 1v1 winger is inflating this number. However, Heath only has four such dribbles, Ella Toone leads United with nine, Leah Galton is second on the team with six. In fact, Kristy Hanson, Lauren James, Alessia Russo and Katie Zelem all have more (3) than Press (2). This means that, routinely, players who aren’t as good at scoring from these chances as Christen Press are getting far more of them than Press.
We can’t lose if they don’t score but...
Stoney is a young manager, but a very good one. She has galvanized the team and led them from the Championship to the rare air at the top part of the WSL table. She is also a tremendous leader who is capable of molding a team in her image. United play with a stalwart no-nonsense defensiveness that Stoney portrays, and sought during her playing days as a center-back. The next step in her evolution as a manager must be solving problems at the other end of the pitch. It may require some loosening of her defensive rigidities, as creating chances assumes the inherent risk of losing possession and allowing an attack in transition.
The long-term futures of Press and Heath are still unknown, but an opportunity to play for Manchester United in the Champions League could be the kind of perk that convinces them to stay in Manchester for at least one more season. Assuming Arsenal collect all points from their two games in hand, United will need to not only keep winning, but be in much better form for their own meeting with the Gunners. Finding a way to force every WSL defense to worry about the Real Christen Press could go a long way toward remaining in that final Champions League spot.