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Attacking football, young players and winning games: How Stoney has Man Utd playing 'the United way'

23:00 SAST 2020/01/04
Casey Stoney Manchester United Women split
As the second half of the Women's Super League season prepares to get underway, Stoney and her team can be very pleased - and excited - by their start

When Manchester United were promoted to the FA Women’s Super League for the first time, no one expected them to struggle.

A top-six finish was always the target for Casey Stoney’s side, despite them only existing for little over a year and having lost their captain, Alex Greenwood, to Lyon over the summer.

But that doesn’t mean their success so far shouldn’t be applauded.

United are fourth going into the second half of the season, but it’s their performances that have really impressed, with them having gone toe-to-toe with the best in the country.

Narrow 1-0 defeats to all of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have had countless positives, as did the 2-0 win over the latter in the Continental Cup.

“The excitement for me is that is a very young team - some of them have never played WSL football before,” Stoney said earlier this season.

“We develop them as players and people and make sure they can go out there and perform for this club.”

The manner of those performances – a style which draws choruses of ‘playing the United way’ from their loyal fans – have earned praise from every direction.

The former Arsenal defender, who was assistant to England boss Phil Neville before leaving for United, sets her team up in a defensively disciplined way at the back that typifies how she was as a player herself.

“It’s in her blood from all her years playing as a centre half,” goalkeeper Mary Earps said.

“She definitely gees us up for the game and gives us that extra level of defensive detail.”

The defending starts from the front though. The way they press, high and with intensity, can unsettle even the best of teams, and in midfield, they have real dynamism.

Katie Zelem dictates play while protecting the defence, Hayley Ladd is the gritty but instrumental workhorse, and Jackie Groenen is capable of conjuring up magic for the front three.

“There’s a reason we were talking to her so early last year,” Stoney said of Groenen earlier this season.

“With the power that we’ve got in the wings, having Jackie on the pitch with the ability to play forward it makes a difference to us.”

Jess Sigsworth and Lauren James bring that power. Both offer fluidity, swapping with the wingers when playing as a No.9, or the central striker if they are out wide.

Meanwhile, Jane Ross is a more old-school centre-forward who offers a different option, able to hold the ball up and bring others into play.

The ability to play in these different ways is something Stoney utilises often, even switching systems during games if she feels it is needed – sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

And the one player crucial to however she chooses to play is Leah Galton.

Arguably the best player in the WSL this season, the winger has been a revelation since signing for United – and it’s Stoney’s man-management of her that highlights perhaps the biggest strength in her coaching armoury.

The 25-year-old had fallen out of love with football when she was brought in from Bayern Munich, but the way she has been nurtured back to her best is impressive on both accounts.

“She doesn’t put any pressure on you,” Galton explained.

“For me to play well, I just tell her I have to be happy, so she’s making that environment where I am so happy, where I feel like I am playing well."

“They don’t know how much you know until they know how much you care, that old proverb,” Stoney added.

Making the players feel valuable is a running theme. Stoney lets her team convene at half time to solve problems before she steps in to talk, something she introduced based on how she felt as a player.

But it’s also about making sure the players are well-supported too, something the United boss believes she has learned the most during her coaching journey so far.

“I was surprised by how much you have to manage off the pitch as opposed to how much you manage on the grass. That’s a challenge for me and I’m learning all the time on that,” the 37-year-old said.

“I have to make sure we’ve got enough support around the players to make sure, no matter what, that player has got somewhere to go if they need it.”

Of course, on the pitch, there are weaknesses in this team – given they were founded just over 18 months ago, with a manager the same number of months into her career as a head coach.

Defensively, their attractive style can have implications, with United sometimes playing themselves into trouble. Stoney herself has admitted she is surprised how attack-minded her philosophy has been.

Furthermore, the back line’s general lack of star quality and experience at the very top level has undoubtedly been a factor when they have struggled at times to see out games.

“They were pretty solid throughout the game, but they dropped deeper and deeper and it was inevitable that we would put the ball in the back of the net,” Arsenal skipper Kim Little said after the Gunners’ 1-0 win over United, with the Red Devils just not having what they needed to keep out the reigning champions in the end.

Nonetheless, it’s understandable. This is a newly-promoted team, after all. It’s a team without the depth of those above them, one full of youth, inexperience and led by a manager also only early into her coaching journey.

And it’s that which makes their first few months in the top tier all the more exciting.