Elite European competition had been a long-standing goal for Manchester United’s Women’s team ever since their reformation in 2018, but Marc Skinner’s side looked unnerved in the opening 45 minutes against Paris Saint-Germain.
The United manager’s decision to play a 4-5-1, fronted by Lucia Garcia with Leah Galton and defender Jayde Riviere out wide, appeared to complicate things for a team still coalescing after 10 new signings in the summer. United could not win this second qualifying-round tie on Tuesday night but came close to letting this first leg get away from them. Millie Turner had to save early blushes with a goal-line clearance in the first 90 seconds, and any attempts from Skinner to smother the space with a midfield five were rocked by an aggressive front press from the French side. It would take an injury to PSG’s Oriane Jean-Francois in the 17th minute for the home side to begin addressing the game’s momentum — and another seven minutes before Garcia latched onto a slack back pass to have United’s first attempt on goal.
Skinner himself would spend much of the first half either consulting screens in the dugout to get a tactical view of the field, or trying to relay messages between himself, his coaching staff and an out-of-position Riviere who had trouble dealing with Malian forward Tabitha Chawinga. The score may have read 0-0 at half-time, but United’s hopes for making the Champions League group stages owed a small debt to suboptimal finishing from Chawinga and Sandy Baltimore. Playing in front of a home crowd of 4,827 fans at Leigh Sports Village, United initially looked outmatched by a more wizened and experienced opponent.
GET IN!!! 💥
— Manchester United Women (@ManUtdWomen) October 10, 2023
Luckily a half-time change allowed Skinner to turn the tide. On came Brazilian forward Geyse for Riviere, and United reverted to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 shape. Out went a tactical plan focused on nullifying their French opponents, and in came a creative verve that powered United onto greater heights. Geyse’s strength and intelligence of body make her an exciting new attacking outlet for United this season. In the first half, Skinner’s side struggled to receive under pressure and turn to face the PSG goal. In the second, Geyse’s hold-up play gave the home side a valuable reference point to build things around as they progressed the ball up the field.
A goal for PSG – scored by Chawinga in the 53rd minute – threatened to take the wind out of United’s sails, but two further changes for Skinner saw the Champions League debutants get back on course. World Cup Golden Boot winner Hinata Miyazawa brought a calmness and control to United’s possession game and Melvine Malard would provide a cutting edge up front. Malard’s goal in the 70th minute – heading a cross from Turner – set the scene for an entertaining counter-attacking finale. It was her second goal in as many games following her strike against Arsenal last Friday, and the on-loan forward looks on her way to becoming a fan favourite.
The 1-1 draw in the first leg means United are in a good position to reach the Champions League group stages and have a deep squad, capable of playing in more ways than ever.
“I felt there was a little bit of trepidation in the first half, but in the second half we felt we believed,” said Skinner.
“We were adapting and evolving to defend against a new system. We had to pay respect. In the second half, when we knew how they would play, we unleashed the players to do the business that they did. That’s the fastest [team] we’ve played against. In the second half, we had them on the ropes and I felt we could take the game.”
United’s debut in the Champions League asked a lot from former Champions League winners Geyse and Malard to come off the bench and salvage a tricky situation. With so much riding on the team’s successful progression to the group stages (e.g. Mary Earps’ possible future at the club), The Athletic was curious to know whether Skinner’s tactics in the first half were a planned rope-a-dope tactic for their French opponents, attempting to feel things out, before looking to counter-attack once they tired.
The United manager would explain that the addition of this pair of substitutes had more to do with physical conditioning, rather than a cunning plan; Geyse had a dead leg following the draw with Arsenal, Malard is thought to be dealing with a minor complaint since arriving in England.
We dug deep tonight, but we couldn’t have done it without you
— Manchester United Women (@ManUtdWomen) October 10, 2023
“We know we have super attacking players, but also so have they,” responded Skinner, calling PSG the most physical team his side had ever faced.
“If you leave yourself too open, the game – and tie – could disappear. Second leg, maybe [United will attack more] because it’s winner takes all. So we’ve left it in a precarious position for both them and for us. But what I think we will do tonight is learn from our second half as well as our first half.”
It was a draw powered by the versatility of United’s revamped squad. Skinner is blessed with “aces in places” – unique talents in key positions – all of whom can define matches in their own right.
“What I love is that there’s a lovely blend of Geyse’s flair and flamboyancy. Mal’s (Melvine Malard) understanding when to come in, Hini’s [Miyazawa] calmness,” said Skinner.
Tooney’s [Ella Toone] energy and Katie Zelem’s calmness — that adds up to these qualities moments. That is what I am trying to build. I am trying to build a set of players that have tools to unlock any situation.”
A second leg in Paris on 18 October will be difficult, but be it through accident or design, Skinner’s method has given United a solid chance of making the Champions League group stages.
(Photo: Charlotte Tattersall – MUFC/Manchester United via Getty Images)