How Man United went from WSL title challengers to crisis club

Manchester United are a club in crisis. Struggling with no direction, a high player and staff turnover, and now facing their worst possible run in the Women's Super League (WSL). After such a triumphant season last campaign, the club are at a crossroads.

With the Ineos group now controlling football operations at the club following its purchase of a 27.7% minority stake from the Glazer family, the future trajectory and identity of the club is still a mystery. But what is certain is that United need to make drastic changes after a dismal 2023-24 campaign.

Having struggled to break into the top four since their promotion to the Women's Super League in 2019, manager Marc Skinner seemed to have conjured all the answers out of thin air last term by finishing in second, securing with it a debut appearance in the Champions League, and reaching the FA Cup final. But it has all seemed to fall apart for the Red Devils this season. After being knocked out of the Conti Cup and Champions League while failing to keep pace with the title race, United are in torrid waters; they are fourth in the WSL, 15 points off leaders Manchester City.

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Last season, United finished two points off champions Chelsea, only dropping 10 points throughout the entire campaign. This season, United have suffered five losses and four draws, only claiming one point from a possible 15 against their top-four rivals. They will struggle to earn a place in Europe, being six points adrift of third-place Arsenal and having played a game more.

Making their Champions League debut in November, United crumbled against current semifinalists Paris Saint-Germain, while at around the same point their league campaign also began to collapse. On the pitch, players appear deflated and lack conviction, and the team looks a far cry from the one which possessed a beaming confidence last season. It is also hard to argue that Skinner's uncertain future is not affecting the squad. United now have only one shot left at silverware, the FA Cup, but will need to overcome the one team they have yet to beat, Chelsea, in the semifinal on Saturday to reach the final for a second year in a row.

United confirmed that with Ineos and Sir Jim Ratcliffe's part-ownership commencing, they will also have an impact on decision-making regarding the women's setup. Given the turbulent season they have faced, many fans hoped that this would include a change in team dynamic to aid in a rebuild next season.

However, with Skinner being offered a new contract, players still unhappy with the lack of direction and a high staff turnover, there is a clear lack of coaching quality leading to poor results. But United have a opportunity to write their wrongs moving forward.

Off-field turnover leads to on-field chaos

Turbulence on the pitch is often reflective of what is going on behind the scenes. For Manchester United, having a significantly high amount of staff and player turnover amid a lack of direction and investment led to poor on-pitch performances and ultimately cost United the signatures of several key players.

Within the past 12 months, the first team's performance nutritionist, physio and doctor all departed the club, with goalkeeping coach Ian Willcock remaining as the only member of staff from former manager Casey Stoney's tenure.

In June 2023, Skinner's assistant head coach, Martin Peter Ho departed the club to take up the role as head coach of SK Brann. Since his departure, things have only gone upward for the 33-year-old, leading the Norwegian side to the semifinals of the Champions League. But for United, their dip in form lines up with Ho's exit.

Ho played a large role behind the scenes, both tactically and when it comes to player relationships. Having coached on Merseyside as an assistant at Everton and head coach of Liverpool U21's, his experience in the women's game is vast and his tactical knowledge proved crucial in United's pursuit of the title last season. One source told ESPN that Ho's departure left a big hole in the quality of the coaching staff and connection with players.

Many of the former staff have moved over to the men's side, which is still common in women's football due to the increase in pay and opportunity; however, it has left United threadbare when it comes to the backroom staff, highly affecting their on-pitch ability.

Movement of backroom staff in the women's game is equally not uncommon, however, the rapid change of staffing is one key element as to why Manchester United have failed to conquer opponents that last season they easily beat. It has been clear from performances throughout this season that tactical decisions, positioning and creating chances has taken a decline. Lining up with the high turnover and departure of their key coach, this is a clear reason as to why Manchester United have struggled so much.

United announced the departure of their head of women's football, Polly Bancroft, in February. Bancroft joined the club in October 2022 and signed key players like Jayde Riviere and Lisa Naalsund. However, United lost two of their best players in the summer in Ona Batlle, who departed for Barcelona, and Alessia Russo, who signed for title rivals Arsenal. Both had torrid negotiations with the club before deciding to depart, sparking concerns over Bancroft's ability to hold talks with players. Earlier this year, extension talks with current players were initially put on hold due to Bancroft's impending departure.

According to sources, some players were reluctant to agree to new deals due to not knowing the direction the club was heading in as Ineos' takeover began. One source told ESPN that United had been low-balling players whilst trying to negotiate new deals, forcing the club to call in help from the men's side.

The club do not have a positive track record of negotiating contracts swiftly. Goalkeeper Mary Earps has had contract discussions prolonged for 18 months, prompting questions over why discussions with England's No. 1 are taking such a long time. At the end of last season, United faced the departures of 24 players. Whilst they signed some world-class individuals, some failed to adapt to their new surroundings and the disconnect behind the scenes, and the lack of squad depth would prove crucial during an injury crisis.

Whilst they invested heavily in the summer, a lot of it was born out of necessity. Having lost such a large number of players, including two crucial members of the side that secured a European place, the summer signings should have created more ease for the club. Yet trying to embed such a vast cohort of new additions during a lack of clarity over direction and style of play caused by the high turnover in staff, the new signings failed to gel with the team and exacerbated their on-going issues.

The club were then reluctant to invest during the recent transfer window despite Skinner's desperate call for action. Summer signing Gabby George suffered an ACL injury in October, leaving the side without a recognised left-back. Fellow new arrivals Hinata Miyazawa (ankle) and Emma Watson (ACL) were ruled out in the autumn, alongside periodic absences of Riviere, Evie Rabjohn and Leah Galton.

In January, Skinner only had five outfield substitutes available when his side lost 3-1 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Compared to the reigning champions, who paid a then-world record fee (£428,000 including add-ons) for Colombia's Mayra Ramírez as cover for the injured striker Sam Kerr (ACL) and brought in Nathalie Björn in place of captain Millie Bright (knee), United are representative of the disparity between the traditional top three and the rest of the WSL table. Moreover, Manchester City also spent a large £200,000 fee for Aston Villa midfielder Laura Blindkilde as cover for the injured Jill Roord.

Given the turbulence the team have faced behind the scenes while the club failed to answer calls to invest, United have done well to remain in the top half of the table. Yet, it is clear that Skinner's ability to lead the side has been greatly affected by the chaos, leading to calls for his dismissal and a breakdown in his relationships with players.

Is Skinner's time coming to an end?

Skinner is out of contract at the end of the season, but sources have told ESPN that he has been offered a new deal. No terms have been agreed, however. The outcry on social media was vast, with fans believing that this was a sign that Ineos was not willing to fix the key issues with the women's team. Following United's poor performances in the first half of the season topped off with Skinner's outlandish comments to the press, the former Birmingham manager has faced calls from fans for his sacking.

"I'm here to win. I'm here to make sure I give energy to this team, and I am 100% confident that this team can do that and that I'm the right person to do that with them," he said in response to fans' comments. "What Manchester United fans know is I give absolutely everything, every single day. My players know that. Conflict is healthy. We have a massive fanbase, and they are the best. Even on the tour, we had fans on our plane. I will never discourage anybody from opening their views.

"I am here to absolutely do my very best to win for this club, these fantastic fans. I'm fully focused, and I'm fully energised to go into the new year to do that."

Given the difficulties behind the scenes, Skinner's relationships and impact on players has been waning. Throughout last season, Skinner was the picture of a manager engrossed with his team, connected and well-respected. The body language of players this season tells a different story, one that alludes to Skinner's struggle to lead the side. It is hard to reason that the poor performances this season are not a reflection of the low morale stemming from Skinner's lack of control of the dressing room.

The Manchester derby in November seemed to create a shift. After losing 3-1 at Old Trafford, the team looked less than comfortable in the league. Rather than sparking a change in approach to try and overturn their poor start, United regressed, heading into a poor run of games. A big loss at United's iconic stadium. their biggest occasion at that point, set the tone for the rest of the season. It was the perfect chance to stake their claim on the title once again, and they had ample opportunity to ensure they would walk away with three points.

Whether it was the occasion or the pressure, something shifted after that game, and United failed to look like the side that went toe-to-toe with Chelsea last season. January should have been a reset for the side following the winter break, but a 3-1 loss to Chelsea early on, followed by a 2-1 loss to City in the Conti Cup meant even their wins over Brighton and Leicester felt lacklustre and pointless, having slipped out of contention for the title by February.

The knock-on effect of the turbulence behind the scenes has had major consequences for members of Skinner's squad. The dysfunctional dynamic has meant several players have regressed in their abilities, with one even losing a place among her national team due to the inconsistencies and poor performances.

Maya Le Tissier plays as a centre-back for her club but right-back for England. After a tough campaign, the 22-year-old was not called up for England's 2025 Euros qualifying games against Sweden and the Republic of Ireland, whilst her defensive partner, Millie Turner, earned consecutive call-ups and made her England debut. Ella Toone has struggled at club level in the past two seasons. Despite showing up for England and becoming the first player in either the men's or women's games to score in the quarters, semis and final at a major tournaments, her contributions for United have dwindled.

Similarly, Earps has dipped in form, leaking poor chances and struggling with the depleted backline. Naalsund signed for the club in January 2022 and, after recovering from injury, took almost a year to break into the first team. Since then she became the favoured midfielder alongside Toone and captain Katie Zelem. The Norway international has arguably been United's best player despite their recent poor performances. Her quick decision-making and ability to orchestrate the tempo has been a saving grace for the side, especially when their grip on games began to slip away.

Unlike Naalsund, summer signing Geyse has struggled since moving from Barcelona, failing to make much impact on the team. Unable to break through defences and pinpoint passes and crosses, the Brazilian forward is probably the player who has suffered the most. Whilst some players have relished the opportunity to step up in the uncertain times, others have been greatly affected by the tumultuous season, which could have lasting impacts on their careers and could determine whether they leave the club at the end of the season with several, including Earps and Le Tissier out of contract in just a few months.

Not only has Skinner seemingly lost the support of some of his team, but he has lost the backing of the fans, making the decisions over his future and clubs even more complicated.

What does the future hold?

With the Ineos era already taking effect, Manchester United will have some big decisions to make, with each one carrying their fair share of positives and consequences.

The introduction of Ineos' control over the women's team brings a sense of a new beginning, a fresh start, a chance to rewrite their wrongs. But with little confirmed over the direction of the club, the control Ratcliffe will have as part-owner and whether the club will look to heighten their investment leaves many holding their breath.

The possibility of Skinner staying with the club has put doubt into a lot of fans' minds over whether Ineos know what to do when it comes to the women's side. Keeping Skinner, who has plenty of arguments for a new contract, sends a sign that the club has full faith in what the 41-year-old can do for the club. But, after he has lost the majority of fans' support, it could severely harm the backing the club gets.

A source told ESPN, however, that there would likely be changes to players and coaching staff in the summer window, indicating that the new era could see fresh faces as part of a rebuild, which United are in dire need of. Some bolstering to their coaching and technical staff on with long-term plans would begin to close some of the gaping holes that plague the team. Talks are still ongoing when it comes to Skinner; however, ahead of what could be a decision-making weekend for the manager, the pressure feels bigger than ever.

A win over Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal could be the trump card that Skinner needs to barter a new long-term deal and buy him some time to convince Ratcliffe that the standards the club set last season are attainable long term.

After all, reaching an FA Cup final is something that neither Manchester City nor Arsenal has done in recent seasons. Reaching two in as many years is proof of a manager with the capability to compete. Yet the prospect of no silverware for a fifth consecutive season and the risk of falling into mid-table leaves plenty of doubt hanging over Skinner's head.