Manchester United had beaten Arsenal twice before Saturday’s WSL showdown at the Emirates Stadium – once in the league under former manager Casey Stoney in November 2020, and once last season in the Continental Cup quarter-finals.
Both were narrow 1-0 wins and both were significant steps forward in the club’s brief history.
But United have equally had plenty of setbacks in such games in recent years, not just against Arsenal, but also against Manchester City and Chelsea too as they attempt to permanently bridge the gap on the established WSL elite.
Looking back to last season, they lost at home against Arsenal in the league. In the reverse fixture, they were on course for what would have been a landmark win but missed the chance to kill the game off and then conceded an equaliser against only 10 players.
There have been similar stories of not being able to put together a full performance over 90 minutes, bossing the big games only in part and ultimately coming away disappointed. The same was true against Chelsea on the final day of last season, twice leading at Kingsmeadow before the much more experienced and ruthless Blues eventually swept to victory.
When Chelsea visited Leigh Sports Village two weeks ago, it was an even game for an hour. But a brief lapse gifted Chelsea a goal and minutes later they had two.
There was so much riding on Saturday night at the Emirates. Regardless of five straight wins to start the campaign, United couldn’t afford a second defeat in quick succession against a main rival. Chelsea and Arsenal had both gone ahead of them after the last round of fixtures and Manchester City were coming in fast from behind – they grabbed a fifth successive win earlier on Saturday.
Everything was going well for United in the first half in north London. They had done more with the ball and deserved to be ahead at the interval after Ella Toone broke the deadlock. Yet the second half threatened to be the same frustrating story that fans have seen a number of times before.
Arsenal equalised within minutes of the restart and eventually started to ramp up the pressure. The Gunners then took the lead through Laura Wienroither with just under 20 minutes left to play.
United had previously tried to fight back upon going 2-0 down to Chelsea but it was too little too late, while memories of a second half collapse and ultimately a heavy defeat against Manchester City in last season’s FA Cup despite dominating the first 45 are still sore.
But at the Emirates this was a United side that had grown. They came back at Arsenal, with Millie Turner scoring a bullet header to equalise with only a few minutes left, and then Alessia Russo sent the travelling United fans wild by nodding in the stoppage time winner. Katie Zelem assisted both.
“I’m the happiest man on the planet,” manager Marc Skinner told Sky Sports immediately after the final whistle, having overseen arguably the club’s best and most important win to date.
“What we lose out on with the other big teams is experience. But nights like tonight make us have that experience. We got the ruthless nature, the brains, maturity and growth from the team.”
In the post-match press conference, the United boss elaborated on the psychological boost of a first ever WSL away win against one of the established big three.
“It’s huge in the sense of the experience,” he explained. “I think we decided we didn’t want to leave the game without showing our bravery and our personality.
“When I look at a Manchester United team that are famous on the men’s side, it’s about that never give up attitude. Our job is to bring the women under that same banner that we might go down but we’re never beaten. That is a huge shot in the arm for our experience.”
Now that they have this result and this performance under their belt, particular the nature of it, Skinner’s United have to take this and run with it. The confidence and belief they will take is not just about now, but will have a long-term impact after clearing a mental hurdle.
In the fight for the top three and Champions League football, maybe more, that is absolutely huge.
For more from Jamie Spencer, follow him on Twitter!