We want to go one better than last year. Fourth was unbelievable for us in our first season, but we always want to improve on itKatie Zelem
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]anchester United captain Katie Zelem has described manager Casey Stoney as “unbelievable” as the team prepares for its second season in the FA Women’s Super League. Zelem and her teammate face champions Chelsea, fresh from the world record transfer of Pernille Harder, at Leigh Sports Village on Sunday, looking to build on last season’s fourth-place finish.
With United playing catchup behind three teams who are now veterans at the top level of the women’s game, Zelem says manager Stoney will be a driving force behind any further improvement should United challenge the top three closer this time around.
“Every year she seems to gain more knowledge and become a better manager,” said the midfielder. “Obviously, Manchester United was her first managerial role so she knew that she had things to learn and wanted to work on, but she’s still open to learning things.
“She’s different from the others. A major point is obviously that she’s been a player. She sees things from our perspective and she knows there are difficult times and there are good times and she knows how to manage that. For us, that works well, that she’s experienced it firsthand.”
Defender Amy Turner, who has also been a regular part of Stoney’s plans over the past two seasons and played alongside her at both Lincoln City and Liverpool, also praised the manager for the attributes she has brought to the squad.
“A big thing Casey expects from us as players is honesty and being selfless,” said the defender. “It’s about putting the team before yourself. I think that is a really big thing and also at times a really hard thing to do because you do want success as an individual but, ultimately, it’s the team that needs to succeed and she instills that within us and I think we’ve found a really good balance.
“She expects hard work as a minimum, she expects we can be that in every game, the team that works the hardest, if we’re working harder than the opposition then I think we’ve got a really good chance of getting results. She brings her own personal values, I suppose, and we all really buy into it and believe in it. We trust in what she’s saying.”
The 24-year-old Zelem, previously of Liverpool and Juventus, will potentially lead out her side once more on Sunday but has extra competition in the midfield with the arrivals of England international Lucy Staniforth and Germany Under-19 international Ivana Fuso.
Added to Ella Toone, Jackie Groenen, and Hayley Ladd, Stoney now has more depth to rely on than last season, and Zelem says the new signings, which also include Spain full back Ona Batlle, have “fitted in brilliantly” during preseason.
“We needed some new additions to strengthen our team and bring us a bit more strength in depth and that’s exactly what they’ve done,” said Zelem. “We’ve had some really good friendly games leading up to the Chelsea game, so our preseason has gone really well, and we’ve been able to work on things we wanted. Now we’re just excited, we can’t wait to get going.”
Mind the Gap
While United have added depth in key areas, there remains a 13-point gap from last season to be bridged to the top three, with the extra incentive this season of a Champions League spot for finishing third for the first time.
Stoney’s side fell short in every league fixture against Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal, and dropped vital points in games against Reading, Brighton, and West Ham, but Zelem believes her squad are ready to further compete with the biggest and best.
“We want to go one better than last year. Fourth was unbelievable for us in our first season, but we always want to improve on it. With our new signings and our added experience of playing in the league, I think that’s only sending us in the right direction.
“We’re ready, we’ve got to take on that challenge. We had some really close results with what you would call the top three last year and now it’s about turning those fine margins into wins, and I think we’re more than capable of that.”
Turner also admits she and her teammates feel better equipped this time around to compete with the top three, with the ultimate test coming first up on Sunday afternoon.
“I think that [fourth] was the expectation,” she said. “We didn’t probably set out to achieve it because you don’t achieve anything for finishing fourth, but I think it was realistic to be honest. We knew that we could compete with the top three, but it’s a different thing competing with them and beating them, and we didn’t have that last year, but now I feel like we’re in a much better place.
“I suppose it will come with different challenges. Last year we were a newly-promoted team, maybe other teams didn’t know too much about us, so it’s about being adaptable and kicking on and showing what we’re capable of.”
Bridging the gap won’t come easy. While United have strengthened and may strengthen further before the transfer window shuts next Friday, those above them have all added quality too.
Aside from the eye-catching arrival of Harder, Chelsea has also added Jessie Fleming, Melanie Leupolz, and Niamh Charles to their squad, while Manchester City have signed U.S. Women’s National Team duo Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle, plus England forward Chloe Kelly, with the arrivals of Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood set to follow.
Arsenal’s business has been more modest, but they have added top quality in the form of Australia’s Steph Catley, and while United themselves have been rumored to be making big moves with a week to go, Zelem wouldn’t be drawn on it, but did admit she expects those above them to improve.
“It’s unknown what’s going on at the minute and we’re in no position and no place to say [regarding United], but absolutely [at City] I think it’s really going to push their squad. They’ve got a great squad over there and it adds even more depth to what they already have.
“I think, not just the fact they’re American, but they’ve got huge experience and they’ve won huge titles, so they’re only going to improve the standard of not just Man City but everybody else around them.”
Last season’s top two faced off at Wembley last weekend in the first women’s Community Shield for 12 years, with Chelsea reasserting themselves as the nation’s top team with a 2–0 win in Gareth Taylor’s first game in charge of City.
With both expected to be rivals for United this year and an opener against the Blues this weekend, Zelem admitted she’d be keeping a close eye on things.
“Even when we’re just watching as fans, there’s always little tips you can be taking,” she said. “We do a lot of analysis work but it’s no harm to be topping it up by yourself.
“There’s a lot of friends that play for both teams, so I’ll be neutral [Zelem was speaking pre-game] on this occasion.”
If there’s one player in the current squad who could aid in bridging the gap to the top three, it could be forward Lauren James.
The talented youngster had a major breakout season in the FA WSL after joining from Arsenal in 2018 and has the quality to continue going from strength to strength after an outstanding first season, with Zelem admitting there’s so much more to come from her.
“She’s still so young. She’s not even reached 20 yet. For most of us, that’s still a baby. She’s got so much talent — probably one of the best technical players I’ve ever played with. She’s always got a learning interest like the rest of us and I think there’s so much more to come from her. She’s going to be a world-class player.”
Amy Turner’s Journey
For Turner, it’s been a journey just to get here. It’s only a mere three and a half years since she was left without a club when Notts County pulled out of the FA Women’s Super League on the eve of the 2017 Spring Series.
Even worse, she was carrying a serious knee injury which would keep her out for more than a year, and also had no contract for the 2017–2018 season.
It was Liverpool who came to the rescue and offered her a contract despite Turner not being ready to make her debut until January, and she admits where she is in her career now felt a long way away at the time.
“I don’t think I ever really expected to be at Manchester United,” she reflected. “That wasn’t a possibility back then and at the time when Notts did go into liquidation, I was just starting a long-term rehab.
“I’d had surgery on my knee, so yeah, it wasn’t a good time for me in a lot of ways, but I was grateful that Liverpool stepped in and signed me pretty much straightaway, and I think without that I probably wouldn’t be at United now.
“Playing with Casey at Liverpool and showing how hard I was working to get back up to the best version of myself probably did me a lot of favors to where I am now.”
Captain Katie Zelem
Despite only being 24, Zelem is the captain of one of the biggest club names worldwide, but has experience beyond her years after coming through the United academy and representing the first teams at both Liverpool and Juventus, as well as the England youth teams.
The midfielder admits a senior England call-up is still a target of hers, while also stating she took on a bigger role for the team as everyone got to grips with the difficulties of lockdown.
“You’ve got to aim high, and that’s [England] the top for me. I want to represent my country and play internationally. There was a pandemic and everyone experienced the same thing, so now it’s just about starting the season well and hopefully getting noticed by Phil [Neville].”
On her experience of lockdown, she added: “It was something that obviously no one had ever experienced, so for myself, I still wanted to try and lead the team in different ways. We had a lot of team activities that went on, and credit to the staff that was so involved in them, and running them all.
“Any little questions, the girls came to me or any little boost of morale — I know it got really difficult for all of us over a long period of time. It was a real unique experience for me, and allowed me to try and master skills in other areas.”
[dropcap]On[/dropcap]e impact of lockdown will be that games around the FA WSL will kick off behind closed doors this weekend, with West Ham vs Arsenal on September 13 set to be the first league game used as a pilot test event for the gradual return of supporters.
United, more than most, will be affected given their raucous home support, especially for a big game like Chelsea, and defender Turner knows the fans will be missed when the team walks out this weekend.
“I think it’s going to be really strange,” she said. “Particularly at United, fans are a staple of our home ground. You know when you come into LSV the fans are going to be loud and proud, singing for 90 minutes and I suppose even away games.
“We’re going to miss them, it’s probably not going to be the same without then, but we understand the reasons why they can’t be there at the moment. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before we can get them back in again.”
Turner admitted players will try to remain as connected as possible to their supporters, but also hopes the team won’t be too overly affected by playing in front of an empty stadium.
“We do as players try to stay as connected as we can with the fans. We are in bubbles at the moment so we’re quite strict on physically seeing people at the minute, but yeah, the players all appreciate our very loyal fan base — we try and include them as much as we can.
“Time will tell; we’ve not experienced playing there with no fans, but we always seem to get big attendances whether it’s home or away. I think in women’s football in general we’re used to not playing in front of big crowds so as players I don’t think it will be too difficult to adapt to.”
Turner added: “We’re still playing for the fans even though they’re not there, we play for our teammates and ourselves and the coaches and we can’t afford to use that as an excuse — you know, the Barmy Army weren’t there so we didn’t win. We can’t really say that so I don’t think it will impact us negatively in any way.”