Manchester United led the WSL for much of the first half of last season, only to run out of steam and fall away after Christmas as injuries piled up and frustrations rose.
Five defeats in nine games between January and early April, starting with a narrow loss to champions Chelsea, was ultimately the difference that made United finish 10 points off the leaders in the end, as well as agonisingly only point off a Champions League place.
Frustrations over training facilities led manager Casey Stoney to quit in May and it took the club 11 long weeks to appoint a successor, during which time the squad had approached the PFA to seek advice and express concerns over a perceived lack of organisation.
Key players also left and recruitment was delayed, although fans are generally happy with those new faces that have been brought in, even if more arguably needed to be done.
Ultimately, it has been far from the ideal preparation for a United side that has so far only ever known forward progress since the club was re-formed in 2018.
TransfersIn: Vilde Boe Risa, Hannah Blundell, Sophie Baggaley, Aiofe Mannion, Martha Thomas
Out: Jess Sigsworth, Jane Ross, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Amy Turner, Lauren James, Abbie McManus
2. Martha Harris (DF)
3. Maria Thorisdottir (DF)
5. Aoife Mannion (DF)
6. Hannah Blundell (DF)
7. Ella Toone (FW)
8. Vilde Boe Risa (MF)
9. Martha Thomas (FW)
10. Katie Zelem (MF)
11. Leah Galton (MF)
12. Hayley Ladd (MF)
13. Ivana Fuso (FW)
14. Jackie Groenen (MF)
17. Ona Batlle (DF)
18. Kirsty Hanson (FW)
20. Kirsty Smith (DF)
21. Millie Turner (DF)
23. Alessia Russo (FW)
24. Carrie Jones (MF)
27. Mary Earps (GK)
32. Sophie Baggaley (GK)
37. Lucy Staniforth (MF)
United frustrated their fans and players with the lengthy search for a new manager to replace Casey Stoney, settling on Marc Skinner. The ex-Birmingham boss is back in the WSL two years after leaving for a job in the NWSL with Orlando Pride. It didn’t work out for him in the United States but his record in the WSL with Birmingham was impressive.
Defence has been United’s greatest strength since the club was formed in 2018 and, although a new manager is now in charge, that will remain a solid foundation. Millie Turner is crucial to that, especially given that senior defender and namesake Amy Turner has gone to Orlando Pride.
25-year-old Turner, who has made more United appearances than any other player, reads the game so well and leads by example at the back. She is one of the best centre-backs in the WSL and has played her way onto the fringes of the England setup over the last two years.
Chances are United will struggle to score enough goals so they must be tight at the back.
Young player to watch
With a year of settling in under her belt and a debut season beset by injury now in the rear-view mirror, Brazil international Ivana Fuso is like a new signing for United.
The 20-year-old forward originally arrived from Basel last summer and has been promisingly involved in pre-season. If she can stay fit, chances will come her way given the number of attacking players who have left since last season, then it is about whether she can make the most of them.
England talent Alessia Russo is in a similar position, while 17-year-old midfielder Carrie Jones made her senior United debut in March and is another to keep an eye on.
Live TV broadcasts have been chosen for games up to 10 October, other dates and/or kick-off times after that point remain subject to change. All games except those chosen for live TV broadcast will be available to stream free via the FA Player.
3 September 2021 – 7.45pm – Manchester United vs Reading (Sky Sports Premier League)
12 September 2021 – 2pm – Leicester vs Manchester United
26 September 2021 – 12.30pm – Manchester United vs Chelsea (BBC Two)
3 October 2021 – 6.45pm – Birmingham vs Manchester United (Sky Sports Football)
9 October 2021 – 1.30pm – Manchester United vs Manchester City (BBC One)
7 November 2021 – 2pm – Tottenham vs Manchester United
14 November 2021 – 1pm – Everton vs Manchester United
21 November 2021 – 12pm – Manchester United vs Arsenal
12 December 2021 – 2pm – Brighton vs Manchester United
19 December 2021 – 12pm – Manchester United vs Aston Villa
9 January 2022 – 3pm – West Ham vs Manchester United
15 January 2022 – 12pm – Manchester United vs Birmingham
23 January 2022 – 12pm – Manchester United vs Tottenham
6 February 2022 – 3pm – Arsenal vs Manchester United
13 February 2022 – 2pm – Manchester City vs Manchester United
5 March 2022 – 12pm – Manchester United vs Leicester
13 March 2022 – 2pm – Reading vs Manchester United
27 March 2022 – 12pm – Manchester United vs Everton
3 April 2022 – 12pm – Manchester United vs Brighton
24 April 2022 – 6pm – Aston Villa vs Manchester United
1 May 2022 – 12pm – Manchester United vs West Ham
8 May 2022 – 12.30pm – Chelsea vs Manchester United
Compared to the standards that United have set themselves over the last two years, they are going to struggle this season. Top three is almost certainly out of the question and even holding on to fourth place will be a massive challenge because of the way Everton have improved.
The squad is still decent and there is hope that players who struggled with injuries last season will almost act like new signings – Alessia Russo and Ivana Fuso, for example. But there is no denying that failure to convince USWNT stars Tobin Heath and Christen Press, who were apparently surprised by how the facilities compared to what they knew back home, to stay is a major blow. Top defender Amy Turner is also another massive loss, as is generational talent Lauren James.
United have recruited some good players. Norway midfielder Vilde Boe Risa brings international quality to the squad, while Aoife Mannion was deemed good enough for Manchester City in 2019 and previously played her best football under Skinner at Birmingham.
Hannah Blundell is a four-time WSL champion with Chelsea, Sophie Baggaley was in the 2018/19 PFA team of the year and will provide competition for Mary Earps in goal. Striker Martha Thomas has also shown promise as a goalscorer with both West Ham and Scotland.
It is whether it is enough to improve. A lack of goals compared to Chelsea, City and Arsenal over the last two years is what has stopped a usually defensively strong United from cracking the top three. That was already an issue, yet three key forwards, five in total, have left and only one has come in.
It is time for lofty ambitions to make way for some hard realism.