Since Manchester United Women last faced Arsenal Women in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League, they have seen quite the turnaround in form.
Their November 21 match at Leigh Sports Village saw an unstoppable Gunners side win 2-0 as Marc Skinner’s side went a fourth successive league game without a win.
But in the four WSL games since – either side of the winter break – Man Utd have won all of them, scoring 15 goals and conceding none. They have also had ten more touches in the opposition box per game than any other side while using the fewest players in the league to date.
It has catapulted Man Utd into the top three, setting up a mouth-watering tie with current league leaders Arsenal on Saturday, live on Sky Sports. But just what has been behind such a change in form?
In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports’ lead WSL reporter Lynsey Hooper, Skinner said: “I think we firstly highlighted before Christmas what it meant to be ruthless in both boxes. I remember having those conversations and really, it’s just the players taking on the information.
“Most teams present ways to attack you and some teams are patterned. Some teams are fluid, some teams have players that can create wonderful things, so for us, it’s just about understanding what the key code to that game might be.
“The games prior to Christmas and post-Christmas, we’ve just found a rhythm where we’re playing together more. So our connections are better, we understand each other more, we know what this player is going to do. I always knew it would take time.
“Talking about statistics, you look at my seasons and as I go throughout with a team, the more time we have together, the better our results get. That’s because we work on the connection of the full team. There’s a focus, there’s a growing confidence, and there’s a togetherness.
“I think those are the real key ones without going into more of the tactical stuff for each game, those are the things and the principles that guide us together and bring us to where we are right now.
“Going forward, I think what is happening is we have those wonderful players that have the ability to take and create those spaces. And that’s the key thing that they’re spending more time, taking more touches in that final third, which shows me not only are we getting better in there, but more importantly, it’s the psyche of what we’re asking them to do.
“Go and take our way of playing to the opponent, and don’t be scared of that and embrace who you are. We now have other variants where we can hit the counter-attack because we have good wingers in our game, but we also have midfielders who can rotate throughout those systems.
“So we’ve got more variants, and of course, we’ve got Martha [Thomas], Alessia [Russo] and now Signe [Bruun] who can play in those zones.
She’s a player of absolute wonderful talent. She’s somebody in the box that already pre-empts the space she needs to be successful so she can absolutely transfer that to any league. For her to come to us is a really good sign of where the club wants to go and what they’re trying to do. We’ve brought Signe into make sure we work as a together group that can create for each other.
“And for me, the game is all about connections and relationships. If me and you form a really good and positive relationship, if you fail at any point, I can pick you up.
“It’s these little connections that are a key source to any game. This league is now packed full of wonderful players and great coaches. But I’ve picked up a really unique group here, that really do love playing with each other. I think that’s a real key, that’s something I had to build on and continue to promote.
“Who would I to be turning that down? So there’s nothing really inventive about it, it’s just about giving them more time together. That’s why we use less players, because how do you get time together to build that, unless you play together?”
But for all of their recent form, United still tend to struggle against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. They have won just one of their last 12 against the traditional ‘big three’ in the WSL, but Skinner thinks it all comes down to experience.
He added: “I think the difference is that those teams have been doing it for a lot longer and they have seasons of experience. For us, we have wonderful players, but we’re growing that experience.
“Sometimes it’s not nice and sometimes you have to take a defeat to really know that. It sparks the fire of what you’ve got to do to be there next time.
“We have to do it our way and I think once we have these experiences and more of them, we’re going to grow, grow, grow. What I know about this group, more importantly, is that there’s a fire in them. When there’s a fire, it’s very difficult to put that out.
“We know how difficult this task against an Arsenal side will be. We don’t take anything lightly. But what we do is we believe in each other and we believe in what we’re trying to create. When you have that, you don’t look at the opponent so we talk about these three teams. There are magnificent teams that are not yet in that bracket and are working hard towards being in that bracket.
“But if we will see them as the mountain to climb, I don’t think we will ever climb it. It’s about being ourselves and creating our mountain and being who we want to be. Once we do that, we will then be where we want to be.
“I think we can only really judge ourselves against ourselves. We know how good these teams can be. We know how good their players are, their staff are. But we’ve got to stop chasing at some point and we’ve got to start thinking about who we are and that’s where you grow a team identity.
“We love all of our energy to be in that moment and that’s what my teams will do. We’re going to focus on us and try our best to beat these teams, but grow every time that we play them.”
It is looking more and more likely that these four teams will be competing for just three Champions League spots. But again, Skinner is focused only on United’s ability to achieve.
“We’re in the race for wherever we want to be,” he reflected. “The race is for us to run and that’s a thing that’s really important. I really do believe in taking each stage as it comes, like if we get to a point where we lose focus against Arsenal, and chase just the points, your progress falters.
“I’m just going to keep making sure that our players are focused on the next game, we all say this, or don’t look at the table – everybody does. But then you have to zoom back into how you overcome the next obstacle, which is one of the hardest, if not the hardest in the league.
“We have a very, very clear structure of let’s do the best in this moment. If we collect the three points because we’ve been the better team and we’ve created the most opportunities, then why can’t we be at the top of the table? Why can’t we challenge the teams at the top? We can, of course we can.
“I’m not going to lose sight of what we have to do in each game and I will not let my players do that.
“So yes, I suppose a roundabout answer is yes, of course we can [be in the Champions League spots], but we know how far we’ve got to do we know we’ve got to do with playing some exceptional teams. The teams that are currently sitting in low positions can easily take points on any day. That’s great for us and it’s going to make it very exciting for the fans.”