Ninety minutes to save the season: Is the criticism surrounding Manchester United warranted?

It has perhaps been a disappointing season for those who have pledged their footballing allegiances to the Red Devils. Come Sunday, Manchester United will fiercely lock horns with an emerging powerhouse from North London.

Erik ten Hag’s side will go head-to-head with Arsenal at Old Trafford, desperate to mount a late bid for European football against a side challenging for the Premier League title.

But two hours prior to kickoff in M16, the Red Devils will take to the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium. Stunning similarities have emerged between both the men’s and women’s teams at the club this season, with some billing their respective FA Cup finals as the only remaining change to save their seasons.

Marc Skinner’s Manchester United Women have been here before. Last season, their trip to the capital was dampened by Emma Hayes’ indomitable Chelsea – a side they had never beaten, until their stunning victory over the Blues in the semifinal of this year’s competition.

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Their opponents this time around will be Robert Vilahamn’s Tottenham. The Lilywhites have been completely overhauled since their months-long flirt with relegation last year. Their 41-year-old manager has rejuvenated a side that survived by mere points, turning them into top-half finishers and serious contenders for silverware.

By contrast, Manchester United have slipped from finishing two points behind Chelsea in the Barclays Women’s Super League to being on course for their worst-ever top flight finish, 17 points adrift of the current leaders.

It is, at first glance, a rather damning comparison. Delve a little deeper, however, and the wider circumstances serve to somewhat alleviate the pressure that has been mounting on Skinner in recent months.

Put simply, player departures coupled with uncertainty over club ownership and unforeseeable injuries have left the 41-year-old with the short straw. He is the man who must face the media when all goes wrong. He is the man who has been met by consistent cries from fans for his sacking.

As the latter stages of the 2022/23 season drew in, there was a palpable sense of excitement in Manchester. The Red Devils had not only finished above their cross-city rivals for the first time, but they’d sealed a spot in the UEFA Women’s Champions League qualifying round.

The summer, however, would see that excitement slowly dissipate. A number of high-profile departures, most notably those of Alessia Russo and Ona Batlle, left Skinner with the bare bones of a squad.

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Fans were left understandably dismayed that Russo had been permitted to join Arsenal on a free transfer, given that the Gunners had prepared a world-record bid for the forward in January. But had the England international fled for the capital city then, United’s quest for Europe may have fallen flat on its face.

Russo was undeniably a crucial cog in the club’s frontline, and frustrations lie in the fact that no real replacement has been sourced. It is, by and large, the same picture across every area of the squad – despite a plethora of incomings, the club’s transfer policy has been branded slapdash by some fans.

Irene Guerrero is perhaps the clearest example. Less than a month after being crowned as a World Champion with Spain at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the midfielder swapped Atletico Madrid for Manchester United on Deadline Day. She has made just seven appearances since.

In contrast, the acquisition of Gabby George to fill the void left by Batlle’s return to Barcelona looked to be a shrewd one. Batlle had emerged as one of the world’s best right-backs during her stint in Manchester, and sourcing a replacement was always going to be a tricky test – but George looked to fit the bill perfectly.

That was until the former Everton defender ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament in just the third match of the club’s league season, bringing a premature end to her involvement in the 2023/24 campaign.

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Unlike their cross-city rivals who made three promising signings in January, the winter transfer window was a remarkably quiet one for a Manchester United side in desperate need for fresh blood. Their maiden European campaign had already come to an end by this point and they’d been dealt hefty defeats in the league too – but uncertainty over club ownership left Skinner at a stalemate, with no investment made ahead of the run-in.

Admittedly, Skinner’s style of play hasn’t been the most entertaining. His team selection has, at times, been questionable – but it is so crucial to look at the entire context of the season, understanding that through no fault of his own, Skinner’s plans were torn to shreds just weeks into the season.

Everything that has ‘gone wrong’ at Manchester United is perfectly understandable, and as much as fans may enjoy pinning the blame on Marc Skinner, he is not wholly responsible. Even if the Red Devils stutter at Wembley on Sunday, calling this season a failure overall would be harsh.

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