Manchester United: Could January make or break the Red Devils’ season?

After three consecutive fourth-placed finishes in the Barclays Women’s Super League, Marc Skinner’s Manchester United recorded their best-ever league finish last season. The Red Devils wrapped up their campaign just two points behind Chelsea, and having secured their participation in the UEFA Women’s Champions League for the first time.

A strong finish last season, coupled with a handful of exciting incomings including Japan’s Hinata Miyazawa, left Manchester United fans feeling cautiously optimistic about how the 2023/24 season could pan out. Ona Batlle had left for Barcelona though, but the club had seemingly fended off fierce interest from Arsenal in Mary Earps, despite joint top-scorer Alessia Russo signing for the Gunners upon the expiration of her contract.

All in all, many would have considered Marc Skinner to have a stronger, more well-rounded squad as the Red Devils headed into the new season. Yet from the very start, there were signs that perhaps this team wouldn’t be as unified as he’d have hoped – with performances undoubtedly shakier than they had been last term.

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Elimination from the UEFA Women’s Champions League in the second playoff rounds was nothing short of an embarrassment for Skinner’s side, having fended off Paris Saint-Germain to settle for a 1-1 draw at Leigh Sports Village, before falling to a hefty defeat in the French capital.

Domestically, the Red Devils have played ten league matches ahead of the Christmas break. Manchester United sit fourth in the Barclays Women’s Super League standings – a staggering seven points behind Chelsea, who look to already have one hand on the trophy for a fifth consecutive season.

The final match of the season sees Marc Skinner’s side host Chelsea at Old Trafford, and there is a very real chance that it could be the visitors that mark yet another league triumph at the Theatre of Dreams.

Admittedly, the Red Devils have found themselves somewhat riddled by injuries. Gabby George and Emma Watson will both be unavailable for the remainder of the season after rupturing their anterior cruciate ligaments, and a fractured ankle for Hinata Miyazawa leaves Skinner to contend with at least three long-term absentees.

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But injuries are nothing short of a certainty in women’s football and should not be used as an excuse, as shown by Arsenal’s 2022/23 campaign. Jonas Eidevall’s side fell short in what quickly developed into a two-team title race, but grinded out consistent results to finish as the best of the rest – reaching the semifinals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League along the way too.

If the season so far is anything to go by, the Red Devils don’t look to have the same mental grit required. Marc Skinner’s side will play five games in January 2024, including a friendly against PSV Eindhoven and a FA Cup tie against Newcastle United.

Those should, on paper, be relatively easy matches for United – but a trip to Stamford Bridge, a Conti Cup derby against Manchester City and a return to Old Trafford to host Aston Villa in the space of just 7 days at the end of the month could truly make or break the Red Devils’ campaign.