The ultimate Manchester United Women season preview: Can England heroes Toone & Russo lead Utd to UWCL football?

Manchester United Women compositeGetty/GOAL

A new Women's Super League season, but the same question: Can Manchester United break into the Champions League places?!

It's something that's been asked ever since the Red Devils came to the top table and finished fourth in their first campaign. If anyone is to break the stronghold that Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have on that top three, it feels like it will be United.

However, after being one point from doing so in 2020-21, Casey Stoney's last season in charge before her move to the United States, they were five points off third last time out.

Has their summer window been good enough to bridge the gap? We're about to find out.

  • Jackie Groenen Manchester United Women 2021-22Getty

    The Squad

    There are some real star names in this Manchester United team, most notably the dynamic duo of Alessia Russo and Ella Toone as well as goalkeeper Mary Earps, all three playing huge roles in England winning the Euros this past summer.

    Head coach Marc Skinner brought in another Lioness, Nikita Parris, this summer, too. Parris was electric at Manchester City - becoming the WSL's all-time top goal-scorer aged 24. She left to join Lyon, won the Champions League, but then didn't get much game time at Arsenal. She'll be more motivated than ever to return to her top level at United.

    She's not the only promising transfer. Maya Le Tissier, ranked at No.7 in last year's NXGN list, and France international Aissatou Tounkara are excellent signings to bolster the defence, and the fact they have kept hold of Spain right-back Ona Batlle is huge.

    However, Jackie Groenen's departure to Paris Saint-Germain after the English window shut has raised questions and put a damper on a good transfer market for the club.

    Groenen's contract was due to expire next summer and United have managed to get a good fee for her instead of allowing her to leave for free, but the creativity in midfield suffers with her leaving. It's that area of the pitch where most of the concerns lay. Can Skinner get the balance right with the options he has?

  • Baby-Jordy Benera Ona Batlle PSG Manchester United Women 2022-23Getty

    The Hopes

    There is one clear aim for United and it is Champions League football.

    Last season, they took points from Arsenal and Manchester City and, on the final day of the season as Chelsea went out to win the title, led the Blues twice. It's clear that they are closing the gap to the top teams and they need to continue in that vein to get the results needed to replace one of them in the top three.

    Their pre-season schedule was organised well to build on that. United went to France to face two top sides in PSG and Bayern Munich, beating the former.

    Those results count for nothing, though, and it's about applying what was learned there and last year to the big games when the WSL kicks off.

    Whether they can finally secure European football could be crucial if they want to retain some of their best players, too. Batlle, who is constantly linked with Barcelona, and Russo, who will have attracted lots of attention with her Euros performances, are both in the final year of their contracts.

  • Marc Skinner 2022Getty

    The Fears

    There would be nothing more frustrating for the club and its fans than another fourth placed finish. It could result in the loss of some key players and would raise questions of whether or not enough steps forward are being taken.

    A decision has to be made on whether or not to activate the extra year option in Skinner's contract, too, so it feels crucial for his position at the club for this target to be met - or significant progress towards it to be made, at least.

    Do they have enough in midfield to create and also protect the defence? Can the new forwards in the squad step up to ensure the goal-scoring burden isn't all on Russo and Toone? Can Earps carry her world-beating form from the Euros into this season?

    Those questions will need to be answered correctly for them to finish in that top three.

  • Ella Toone Nikita Parris Mary Earps Alessia Russo 2022Getty

    The Hero

    Alessia Russo? Ella Toone? Mary Earps? Take your pick.

    All three were sensational as England won the Euros this summer. Russo scored four goals from the bench, including the one voted best of the tournament. Toone netted to stop Spain beating England in the quarters and she opened the scoring in style in the final. Earps made saves that blew everyone away, in absolutely huge moments.

    It felt like each of these players reached new levels during the Euros and now their task is to bring that quality back to United to help them achieve their goals.

    Along with Parris, having experienced what it is like to win such a title under massive pressure, what they can bring to the team from a mental perspective could be just what they need to get over the line, too.

  • Lauren Hemp Jess Park Manchester City Women 2021-22Getty

    The Villain

    Manchester City. Not only are they the club's biggest rivals, but they are the team many expect United to battle most with for Champions League football this year.

    That was the case last season and the Citizens' superior record in the Manchester derby paid off again as they won 1-0 in February to put themselves in a much better position to claim third place. That was followed up with a 4-1 win in their FA Cup meeting just a couple of weeks later, just to rub salt in the wound.

    United have got the better of City a few times in the Continental Cup, but it's in the WSL where it would really count. A victorious derby day for United in one of this season's clashes would likely go a long way to ensuring they are in Europe next term.

  • Ella Toone Manchester United Women 2021-22Getty

    The Player to Watch

    An obvious pick, but this is a huge season for Ella Toone. The departure of Groenen puts more emphasis on her creativity from the middle and she'll be targeted more than ever by opponents as the player to stifle.

    However, she feels like she is only getting better and better every time she steps onto the pitch at the moment and her confidence will be sky high as her role for her national team also becomes greater.

    Her relationship with Russo is magical, but she has a whole host of new attacking team-mates to gel with and provide for this season, too, and that variety will be important for United if they are to be successful.