Manchester United 4-0 Tottenham: An Alternative Match Report

Well, Tottenham can’t say they weren’t warned.

Around three weeks ago, Ella Toone won a Women’s Super League game for Manchester United against Leicester, scoring a stunning goal from outside the box, picking out the top corner.

I’ve long felt that Toone is a player that casual fans have a slightly false impression of, based around her goal in the Euro 2022 final—a delicate and composed finish. Yet, while she is technically sound and capable of great moments on the ball, her real strength is her vision off the ball.

When we use the term vision, we often think of great technicians; a player who can open up a defence with passing such as Keira Walsh or Patri Guijarro. Toone has a different but equally important type of vision. The ability to identify space in the opposition defence, and drift into that space unseen. It’s this ability that was discernible in her goal that cracked the Women’s FA Cup final open, sending United on their way to a comprehensive 4-0 win against Tottenham, winning them the club’s first major trophy.

When Tottenham’s Jessica Naz has the ball on the right wing, Toone is all the way back in her own penalty area. But the second Naz gives the ball away? Toone uses that aforementioned vision. Where’s the space? Because that’s where she’s going to be.

Eleven seconds later, she’s now just inside the Tottenham half, receiving a fine reverse pass from Lisa Naalsund. Eight more seconds, and she’s scored one of the finest goals seen at Wembley, one of the finest in an FA cup final, and definitely one of the best I’ve seen in the flesh.

As it was against Leicester, it was against Tottenham: a stunning goal from outside the box, picking out the top corner. So while many people’s takeaway from the game is that Toone—surprisingly for someone who’s rumoured to have an aversion to the capital city—has made this pocket of North-West London her second home, that goal is a microcosm of something else that should be understood a lot better than it currently is in football. The notion of opportunity, and how often it is the midwife of success.

Women's FA Cup, Women's FA Cup final, women's football, WSL, Manchester United, Tottenham, Ella Toone, opportunities
Artwork by Charbak Dipta

There’s a school of thought (chiefly embodied by fans of their rivals) that this FA Cup triumph for United is a lesser achievement due to the paucity of their opposition. These finals are usually contested by a combination of Chelsea, Manchester City or Arsenal. “Yeah, well of course you won.” The snarky response goes, “Lads, it’s Tottenham.”

Not only would such rhetoric elide the fact that United dispatched Chelsea in the semi final, but it overlooks that even if they had avoided the WSL’s top 3 on their way to the final (which is what happened a year earlier), victory is still not guaranteed. All it gave United was opportunity. An opportunity that was also afforded to Tottenham.

The nature of competitive sport is Manichean. It relies as much on one losing as the other winning. Showing the best of oneself is inextricably connected with the other not doing so. Often, the one who wins takes advantage of an opportunity that comes their way because of the faults of their opponent. It’s a delicate symbiosis necessary to avoid every game of football ending 0-0.

Twelve months earlier is a case in point. In the first half of last season’s final, United had the better of the contest versus Chelsea. But they had an early goal disallowed, failed to turn their superiority into a goal, and lost 1-0. But just because United didn’t score, that didn’t make Chelsea’s eventual victory axiomatic. They still needed an opportunity of their own. Emma Hayes still needed the foresight to bring Pernille Harder off the bench and position her close to Sam Kerr. Guro Reiten needed to take advantage of Hayley Ladd misreading the ball. Harder had to be precise with her pass to Kerr. And Kerr had to be ruthless with her finish. All these little moments added up to the final result. And yet, opportunities presented aren’t always converted. It’s no coincidence that the ones who consistently take their opportunities are the ones who regularly triumph. In this season’s FA Cup, United were better than their rivals in the critical moments, better at converting their opportunities, and it has given them their maiden trophy.

But this can be precarious. The past isn’t a guarantee of the future. Winning the FA Cup was a landmark moment in the club’s short history, but can United make days like these a habit? They came into this season as runners-up in both the FA Cup and Women’s Super League. It looked as if the club were ready to enter the ranks of England and Europe’s top teams and manager Marc Skinner had said that Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City should be “afraid of [us].”

So why wasn’t this season’s FA Cup success the crowning glory of another great United season, instead of being an uplifting coda to a very underwhelming one? Well, it’s in part because opportunity exists everywhere.

Last season, Ona Batlle (the world’s premier full-back) took the opportunity to return to Barcelona at the end of her United contract. Alessia Russo—another free agent—was reportedly messed around by United in contract negotiations, and thus, left for domestic rivals Arsenal.

United’s transfer business (while recruiting gifted names) appeared to be done without the forethought as to how they’d fit into the squad. This disruption gave Paris St Germain the opportunity to knock them out of the Champions League qualifying round (which they took); followed by a poor start to the WSL season which ended their title hopes after only a few weeks. 

Some fans now have considerable doubts around Skinner, with a small minority wanting him removed entirely.

There’s no doubt that United’s impressive 2022/23 season was based partly around the team outperforming their underlying numbers, having good luck with injuries, and gaining a significant amount of points due to scoring late goals—a strategy that’s an unsustainable foundation for success. But taking opportunities on a regular basis is in itself a skill, and it happened far too often during that campaign for it to be totally random.

United now have (that word again) an opportunity to use the FA Cup win as a watermark for what the club wants to be. An opportunity for players not yet at their peak, like Toone, Geyse, Jayde Riviere, and Maya Le Tissier to train on and become not just leading players in the WSL, but leaders among their global peers. An opportunity for Skinner to learn from mistakes made in games against his direct rivals, to not sideline players outside his preferred XI, and to maybe ease up on the public pronouncements that can make him sound like a cross between a bad motivational speaker and someone trying to sell you a monorail.

And most of all, an opportunity for United to run itself as a serious club. Most of the headlines around their travails have been taken up by its men’s team, but the wilful neglect from the owners have also hurt their women’s side. With a greater sense of purpose, Casey Stoney might still be the manager, and Lauren James might not have departed for Chelsea

A feeling persists that Manchester United are still a grand old castle built on sand. This isn’t based around a vibes equals truth mindset, where anything can be manipulated to prove a conclusion you’ve decided on in advance.

The evidence is their newfound flakiness. Without Batlle, their full-backs are often left exposed, and Skinner’s persistence with an unbalanced midfield (Naalsund and Katie Zelem don’t work as a central pairing) has turned a team with the best defence in 2022/23 (conceding 12) conceding close to three times that amount this season (32). This leakiness was exacerbated by a failure to hold onto winning positions. Leading Arsenal 2-1 before drawing 2-2, leading Manchester City 1-0 before losing 3-1, leading Liverpool 1-0 before losing 2-1.

And then the performance nadir of the season. Turning up to Old Trafford (still a sad rarity for this team) for their final game against Chelsea. A week after winning the FA Cup, the team put in an execrable display, being thumped 6-0 by Emma Hayes’ side, barely winning a single duel. The lap of honour with the FA Cup becoming a sideshow to Chelsea lifting the WSL trophy on the same pitch—described by Katie Whyatt as “witnessing a proposal at someone else’s wedding.”

No club that has the ambitious rhetoric that United have should be losing 6-0 to anyone, in any context. But for years the deeds have not matched the words. The phrase, “This is Manchester United” means little in women’s football. Because the truth some refuse to countenance is that United are not a big club. They’re a big men’s club. You can only dine out on Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson for so long when your women’s trophy cabinet extends to the sum total of one FA Cup.

The new minority owners, INEOS, have an opportunity to change that, even though early signs are not encouraging. But for an organisation known for its attention to detail and obsession with marginal gains, they should be familiar with the Zig Ziglar quote, “Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation.”

Ella Toone showed two Sundays ago what can happen when that’s put into practice. When scoring that goal against Leicester, here’s what she had to say about it:

“The girls know every day I stay out and practice shooting from outside the box.”

So when opportunity arrived at Wembley, Toone knew what to do next because she had adequately prepared herself for the moment. It remains to be seen whether it’s a lesson heeded by the club she plays for. For Manchester United, the opportunity is there.

Shane Thomas

Shane Thomas is an increasingly sporadic writer from South London. He will tell anyone who'll listen (and anyone who won't) that he's from the same hometown as Naomi Campbell. He was a contributor to The Women of Jenji Kohan: A Collection of Essays.