Manchester United will pay their first competitive game in almost a month on Sunday when they host Liverpool at Leigh Sports Village in the WSL.
The United players were granted time off to unwind at Christmas but have since been on a warm weather training camp together in Malta in the first half of January that included a 10-0 friendly win against local champions Birkirkara.
Marc Skinner spoke to the media on Wednesday at his pre-match conference, covering all manner of topics from the usual team news, to a developing rivalry with Liverpool to match the men, the recent departure of Lucy Staniforth, contract talks for Alessia Russo, Ona Batlle and Mary Earps, as well as extensively on the possibility of incomings in the January transfer window.
“It was a really good trip, built purposefully to get the players back together [after time off at Christmas]. With back-to-back tournament summers as well as a really competitive league, when you can get a moment to rest players, it’s really important that you help them. We’ve used this window to do that, but it’s really important to get everyone back on the same page and focused.”
“Aoife [Mannion] won’t be ready to start but is ready to be in squads and come into games. She’s not played enough competitive minutes – she got her first 45 when we played Birkirkara. It was really important to do that.
“We had a niggle with Leah [Galton], from which she is back running on the field today. We’re hopeful for the weekend. Apart from that, everyone is fit and ready.”
“I hope it rivals the men’s fixture going forwards. We know what a good team Liverpool are, how Matt [Beard] has them organised – they’ve got a really good, together group.
“This could be a really huge fixture. Not only geographically, but the more games you play [against each other] builds that history. We’re still building that history, but it doesn’t mean it’s a game we don’t look forward to. Liverpool are a very good team and we will not take our eyes off that.
“I believe in the future it will be very much the same as the men’s rivalry. Our job, both Matt and myself while we’re here, is to make sure that we put performances in that maintain that standard of that almost-derby game.
“It’s exciting for us and our fans. We’ve just had very different journeys. At this moment, it’s not us downplaying this type of fixture, especially against a very good team and a rival on the men’s side. It will be definitely be that on Sunday, there’s no doubt we’re not taking it lightly.
“What I’m trying to say is there is a slight difference. For us, the way our fans treat it is exactly the way we will treat it, so there is no difference in that. It will take a little bit of time to build the history that the men’s games have had, but we’ll try and play it at that intensity and I’m sure Liverpool will do the same.”
“[Fans] are always the biggest part. We are at about 8,300 [tickets] sold, so that could break our record again at Leigh.
“We’ve talked about there not yet being that rivalry [on the pitch], but our fans make that rivalry, right? The performances on the field will make that, but the fans will make that too.
“You know how loud the Manchester United fans are. We have to make [Leigh] a cauldron, we’ve made it a fortress anyway and have to continue that with our performance and give Liverpool nothing. But [fans] help set that tone and are the most important thing because we have all played in empty stadiums and they are no fun.”
“I’ve always said we are looking to be active in every window. It’s a nice way to boost the successes we’ve had in the first part of the year. We’ll wait and see if any of that happens.
“We’re in a good space. There are potential incomings and outgoings.
“We’re just looking to build what the next part will look like for us. The reality is, if it works for the club in the progression we want going forwards, we’ll look to be active. That’s our plan.”
“We’re working hard for what today looks like. I think we’re well prepared for today – we’ve built a squad that is ready for now and the journey we’re taking. It’s important we continue to look at that [and] we’re still in the renegotiation phase of the players we want to keep.
“There is no frustration on my part if I can see the progression. Nothing fits perfectly – you would ideally like [new signings] to have come to Malta with us. If that’s not the case, they integrate anyway and we’re going to work towards bringing them in. If that is right for the club and the player, we’ll have players that last with us for a long time.”
“We’re not looking for just the here and now, I think that’s really important. We’re looking for beyond this moment too. There is the potential that [signings from North America or Scandinavia] won’t be ready [to play immediately], but we’ve identified areas we need to improve in.
“Everybody sees positions and they attach a position to a player. For us it’s about the skillset the players brings in a position, it’s not necessarily one set structure we can play. We’re looking to evolve here.
“[Pursuing certain targets] fits within our timeframe, otherwise we wouldn’t be happy to progress with any of them. Whether it takes weeks or months, we know this league is getting more difficult to adjust, but the reality is we know we want these players because they’re going to add to what we can achieve.”
“I don’t talk about individual players [at other clubs]. For us, the player that has gone out is Lucy Staniforth, so we are looking at a position in midfield. I promise you that if we do bring a player in, I will talk extensively about them.”
“With the work we’re trying to do, Lucy’s time was becoming less and less. We agreed in this moment that [terminating her contract] was the best option for both club and player.
“It will work out to be fine for both. There is no issue from us with such a limited time left on her contract and limited playing time. Our team has done excellently well so playing time is going to be scarce. We wish Lucy all the best and our job is not to look at what Aston Villa do but what we do.”
“They’re not benchwarmers, they’re people who want to play football. Just because you don’t see it in the 90 minutes on the field, everybody is playing their part.
“Sometimes, increasing the competitions increases the quality of the output for everybody else. For us, that’s what we planned to do in the summer. It’s very difficult with the amount of games we have to consistently and rotate and play everyone.
“It’s about respect. I try to respect and listen to each player. We have conversations. We’ve got exceptionally talented people that want to play – I get that and have always said that is the hardest part of my job. They can only control their process, not my decision making, but their way into that is by performing to the best of their ability.
“What we’re trying to do is accrue different types of talent that unlock different types of games for us. In the second part of the season, there could be opportunities, so they’ve got to remain focused. If not, we review in the [transfer] windows and we make a plan going forward. It’s just giving them clarity of where they are at and being honest with them.
“But what we also do here very well is work with them every day to try and make them better at the things we need them to be better at. In the second part of the season, we will need different skillsets to unlock games.”
“[Plan A and B] and a C and D.
“Should we come to the end of the season and we’re in the Champions League and winning the way we expect, we open up a different realm and different type of player.
“There is loads and loads of interest in joining Manchester United. [Players] see the potential we have and how we are realising that potential.
“We have to plan around every eventuality. My job is to get the best players for Manchester United. Regardless of where that calibre is, we have to keep working. What I can promise our fans is that we don’t sit static. If we ever stand still, we’re dead, there is no point playing anymore.
“We’ll work hard to bring in the type of players our fans will be proud of and help us deliver the success that we’re after.”
“It complicates. If you know how agencies work, sometimes they have conversations before the legal time. These conversations have probably been ongoing for a while, but the reality for us is the players are very happy with what we’re doing at Manchester United. They understand where we are heading. There are parts we are continuing heavy negotiations with both Ona and Alessia. I am hopeful.
“We’re entering a different realm of women’s football, so it becomes more difficult. But we are working as hard as we can to retain the players and build on top of that.”
“Our [contract] options are for the club. We actually had the conversation with Mary about renegotiation too. It’s something we’re looking towards, she’s someone I personally have a lot of time for. We’re looking at that because she’s a huge part of what we do.”
“Everybody knows how I feel about Grace.
“Grace is definitely what we’re looking for in the future – her vision, her brain, the way I want people to play – she has it all.
“What we need to do in this window…there’s the potential for her to go out on loan because we’re looking at her playing consistent minutes that we can’t give her at the moment. What we asked her to do for the first six months [at United] is learn our principles and our expectations.
“Our plan was always there with Grace. It is likely she will go out on loan in this window. But only on loan to get playing time to put into practise what she can do.
“The reality is I’ve been impressed with Jess Simpson as well. We’ve got Keira Barry who played in that game [against Birkirkara], who we’re going to continue to work with to develop. Alyssa Aherne is also someone we’re continuing to work with, and obviously Saf [Middleton-Patel] in goal.
“We’ll trying to continue that wonderful tradition of Manchester United bringing youth through. But we’re going to build them all with an individual plan.”
“Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever way you look at it [the transfer has an impact]. But the growth of the game for the players, the infrastructure and the products for the fans to watch, it is going to be a positive. But when that happens, more expense comes into [the market].
“The clubs that can afford it will continue to grow. The clubs that can’t will have to find a different way.
“It’s exciting. I don’t know how much she went for – we always hear the figures but they aren’t always right – but the excitement around that helps the fanbase grow and is something to talk about. It will keep going that way and is not going to stop now.”
“We know that Arsenal have got five of those [six] head to head games [against the rest of the top four], we have played thee of them already. I think Manchester City and Chelsea have four of those, so there are already points to be dropped [by the others].
“We understand, but we don’t really care what Chelsea and Arsenal do at this moment – we have to focus on what we do against Liverpool. We would be foolish to be distracted. We’re just going to focus on Liverpool and I’ve got a lot of respect for Liverpool and Matt [Beard]. They make it very difficult for you to beat them, have lots of great counter speed and are good from set-pieces.
“We’ve got a big challenge of our own and will not underestimate Liverpool at all.”
“I’m sure Manchester City will have massive say in that as well. We’ve got big games coming and I think there is more focus from us.
“At the start of the time together, I talked about putting experience together and we now have experience where we have gone to Arsenal, taken the game and won it in the matter that we did. We’ve got more against Manchester City away at the Etihad, we’ve got more experiences that we can reflect on and don’t have to look back any further.
“We’re showing that we are more resilient, more together and know what we are doing. That has come out in our performances.
“There are 13 cup finals for us [until the end of the season], and that is without the FA Cup which we would love to have that and go to a cup final as well. [But] we don’t look past Liverpool, so we will be laser focused. There will be ups and downs for every team in the second half of the season – you look at Aston Villa’s and Tottenham’s [transfer] windows, they are working hard to bring in players to bridge the gap. By no means is anyone going to be safe. If they take their foot off the gas for a second there will be lots and lots of upsets. Focus is our word for 2023.”
“It has been a welcome break in terms of having a heavy summer with a lot of our international players. There is a balance. We’re raring to go with challenges coming up with Reading and Sunderland in the cup. We’re relishing that, but I think [the break] was welcome by our players.
“What we have to have is a foresight as well. Into the summer, we could potentially have three quarters of our squad, if not more, going to a World Cup. I’m trying to protect and work with them.
“Before the break, with Vivianne Miedema and Beth [Mead], those aspects where Jonas [Eidevall] is talking about the breaks and trying to find little moments. When you have international players, you have to try and look after them to the best of your ability.”