Manchester United return to WSL action after the international break on Sunday when they host Brighton at Leigh Sports Village for only a second home game of the new season.
United have started the 2022/23 league campaign in fine form with back-to-back wins over Reading and West Ham, scoring six and conceding none. They hit a slight snag in the Continental Cup before the international break when they were held to a 1-1 draw and then lost a penalty shootout, but Brighton are an opponent that Marc Skinner’s side beat home and away last season.
Skinner spoke to the media on Wednesday on a number of topics, including the latest United team news, the qualities of Ona Batlle, Mary Earps and Katie Zelem, as well as darker subjects like the situation regarding the Spanish national team and the Yates Report into abuse of players by coaches in the NWSL, a league where he previously had a spell at Orlando Pride.
This is everything he had to say…
“It’s her first session back on the training field today. She won’t be available for this game, but we’re actually progressing really, really nicely and I’ve been really impressed by her attitude to this [injury].
“She’s grown up massively and I’m so pleased with the way she has approached it and performed in training. To have her back on the field even this morning with a smile on her face is a really nice thing.
“We’ll make sure she’s looked after and then she can come into the games when we know she’ll be fit and healthy.”
“We’re always concerned [about player fitness], I’d imagine all coaches are.
“[Our international players] have still not reported [back] so we’ll do a screening test for them on Friday to see where their [physical] strengths and weaknesses lie, coming back in. Some are post-match, some are matchday plus two, some haven’t played. We do a report and track and monitor them throughout all of the games that they play away.
“Vilde [Boe Risa] got called up late and has gone into the [Norway] team and played against the Netherlands. It helps people that maybe have not had as many minutes, but then it drops down. It’s always a minefield when we come back and having another international window in November is also another difficult one around some really important [club] fixtures.
“We can only manage and the whole reason we have a squad is to try and balance that. We’ll play the players who are freshest and focused going into this game because Brighton is going to be a tough ask.”
“I’ve seen the Arsenal game that was a little bit different. Watching the Reading game, it was such an open game from both teams, [Brighton] trying something slightly different as well, in terms of a rotational back five where they progressed into midfield. You watch the Birmingham game [in the Continental Cup] and it’s even more expansive.
“Maybe they’re trying something different this season…maybe personnel dictates what Hope [Powell] is doing there. I just think they’ve got some very good players and we’re going to have to be super vigilant and aware of the threats they can give, while also exploiting the moments they give us. We’re very strong at home and we like to put that onto a team. Hopefully we can dictate what goes on, but for sure [Brighton] are doing things that are slightly different this season.”
“[Last season] it was a 1-0 win at home, but we dominated the game and Brighton were very good on the counter attack. We beat them 2-0 away, but were quite dominant and should have had more goals. I don’t expect them to be different in terms of principles, coaching and organisation, but I expect them to be a little bit more expansive with the ball.
“I think they’re trying things I’ve not seen them try before. As anybody knows, we don’t just go in working on ourselves, we use the opponent to how we can exploit them through the way that we play. I suppose part of the evolution of a coach is the evolution of tactics and when I see Hope’s teams, I’m starting to see them evolving again. It will be different and difficult on Sunday because I see the qualities they have.”
“Ona is part of my leadership group – I have four leaders. The reason [she was captain against Aston Villa] is she offers a different type of leadership to the others. She very much leads by example. She, without doubt in my mind, is one of the best right-backs, if not the best right-back in the world.”
“She’s a great, great leader, great character and wants to win everything that she plays. She’s got everything to be a captain and we’re obviously working hard to try and keep her at the club and progress with her even further.”
“I look for little triggers with Mary. There was a camera in the tunnel before [England] came out [against Czech Republic] and Mary is just zoned in. Everybody is looking around, to the left, to the right…she is just [looking] straight ahead.
“I know that Ian [Willcock], the goalkeeping coach, and Mary, and Sophie [Baggaley] who pushes her, Saf [Middleton-Patel], and [Emily Ramsey] when she’s here and obviously Fran [Bentley] before that, have done so much work. Their game is psychological. Their focus, attention, concentration…and I think Mary excels at that.
“I’ve worked with Mary before at Leicester and Birmingham and as a coach against her, [but] I’ve never seen her so focused. That always impresses me with a player because she knows what she wants, how to do it. She is layers of focus at the moment and I’m so pleased and proud of her for what she’s doing.”
“Whenever I speak to Sarina [Wiegman], I think there is an absolute respect for the qualities that Katie brings. I think [Sarina] understands just how she gels people together.
“What I think in midfield, it’s all about balance and playing the right player with the right player. Katie can only do what Katie keeps doing.
“Because she’s my captain I’m probably overly harsh on her and trying to raise her standards of herself so that she can continue to push her qualities…and I think you’ve seen that this season. She takes it on board so brilliantly, links and connects people so brilliantly, set-piece specialist. Her qualities and how she sees the game are so amazing.
“If you get 10 minutes to speak to her about a game, she’s really ingrained with what her thoughts are about it. She can just keep being her and I can just keep pushing her in training and she’s a great, great professional.”
“I’ve been super impressed with her. We’ve not seen her back yet [from England Under-23s]…she comes back on Friday. She’s playing every minute and she’s so mature for someone so young. The best thing about her, I think even when you see her interviews, she’s driven, focused, but fun and she remembers her age. She plays above her age, but she remembers how old she is – it’s a lovely delicate balance.
“Hope [Powell] and Brighton have done so many wonderful things for her. I was at Birmingham where we produced a lot of younger players who went on to play for different teams and there is such a great launchpad for careers like that. But Brighton have bigger aspirations than that and you can clearly tell with the club structure and how Hope is trying to set up the team.
“They’ve had a massive part in what Maya is and we’re reaping the rewards of that. Our job is to help continue that growth. But she’s a great character and we’re hoping to get good things out of her this year.”
“Niamh [Murphy] trained [with the first-team] today and has been involved. Becs [May] has been involved for the last three or four weeks. We’ve had Jess Simpson up who has been doing well, and obviously Saf [Middleton-Patel]. We’ll progress when it’s right.
“There’s a difficulty in term of squad cap, so to place people into contracts is not always easy. I think it’s something we need to address where we can potentially get some of the more experienced younger players, not quite ready for the first-team, but maybe more contract options for them.”
“We’re always going to keep them open. I’ve said to Niamh today – I’ve just finished the session and Niamh has done extras – it’s the psychological jump to a first-team because they all want to pass to the senior players and the stars of the team they’ve seen on TV, when really it might not be the best option. They have to make their own decisions [and] I think that’s the biggest gap, bridging that experience and psychology.
“Once they get that, they’re ready for the first-team. I’m not worried about age. If you look through my pedigree, in Orlando, we had youth team players. In Birmingham, we gave a lot of people their opportunity to play. [Age] doesn’t bother me, they’ve just got to be ready to play in this team.”
“I hope not! We will only tell when the game comes. But what I would like to say is in that moment, if you really want to be a successful team, you got to make sure that you create your own momentum. That’s something we’re working hard on behind the scenes.
“The biggest game for us, we’ve added players in [and] we keep evolving, but we have to be psychologically ready when the moment comes. The best teams very rarely drop the ball and we have to run with it. We have to create our momentum and know that we are the spark for that. Our fans remind us every single time we’re on the field and their energy is a great reminder of that.
“We cannot drop the ball at any moment. We’ve got to try and focus and re-focus and that’s the biggest ask for us. That’s where we will judge ourselves this year…do we switch back on when momentum maybe slows up for a second?”
“I always message players before games and I watched part of both of those [Scotland & Wales] games while watching the England game as well.
“I think they’ll naturally be down…Wales fought so hard and the thing is, it’s crazy that in-season that Hayley Ladd, for example, has played in two 120-minute games in such a short period of time. Once you get to that level of exhaustion and then don’t get the result, it can be hard.
“I know the characters that are there – obviously Martha [Thomas] as well – they’re tough characters. Whatever they need when they come back, we’ll make sure we support them. If they want to get straight back into it, brilliant. We’ll only know that once we physically assess them.
“It’s tough for them, but I’m sure they’ve been through tougher times and they’ll bounce back and Scotland and Wales are getting better…and congratulations to Ireland as well. That’s a tough ask, but we can’t forget what they’ve done [qualifying for the World Cup].”
“The situation with any international team is something we can’t really control. But what we can do is support the players through that process.
“Honestly, Ona and Lucia, when it first came out and that was the decision of the [Spain] squad as a group to do that, I felt that they dealt with it the most appropriate way. They didn’t overhype it…they want action but want to do it in a professional manner. Of course, the Spanish federation have retorted and spoken about it the way that they need to.
“All we can do is make sure we support our players in anything they need – it might be off the field. But we’ve had them in training this week [during the international break] and their attitude has been exceptional. I don’t feel it has affected them on the field as much.
“Off the field, they had a couple of days off this week, you know the international girls very rarely get time to breathe mentally. So I think that was good for them too, where they could actually see and think and just relax for a little bit. I don’t think it’s finished, but what we can do is keep supporting them throughout this process. I’ve said to them, anything they need, we’ll try and do our best to support. So far, they’ve performed brilliantly throughout.”
“Time will tell [whether they go to the World Cup]. It’s still pretty fresh, the first international window where this has happened. I would hope now with a little bit of time before the next international window that the parties can get together and discuss an outcome. I feel it’s heading towards them wanting an outcome together, rather than ‘us and them’.
“The federation and the players need to come together and try to find a solution for all parties, I think that would be great. The Spanish team has clear talent…look at the games they have played [this month without many big-name players], but I think if you’re a player of the level of the two we have, they back themselves regardless. They would love to play for their national team, there just has to be some coming together and making sure they iron out all of their problems together.”
“It’s a tough read. We get to select how we view it from my perspective and just to support all of the players that have been through what they’ve been through – and just how brave they are to have those conversations. That must have been the hardest thing in the world.
“For me, as a coach, who respects the individuals I worked with regardless, it’s always tough. I think it gets quite emotional from that perspective. I just want to congratulate them on their bravery, on speaking up. I think we have to show our support and solidarity [with the players affected] in this moment, because we’re part of the coaching and playing community.
“More importantly, we have to continue to change, adapt and evolve, and make sure nobody goes through this. We cannot allow players to go through this…or anyone involved in a workplace. At Manchester United, what we will continue to do is make sure we have the players at the centre of what we do and that we support them in the most and appropriate manner.
“For everyone that has spoken up, or maybe hasn’t spoken up, we support you and want to make sure that you feel that love from across the sea.”
“It’s safe to say we have to keep evolving the coaching qualifications and support around coaching. There are clear rights and wrongs, we know that. From me, I try to practice where there are no grey areas. I’m lucky enough to have been a teacher and to have gone through the strict protocol in there.
“Do I believe this is a worldwide thing and we can all improve? Yes, absolutely, we have to continue to improve. I think we can only start with ourselves and my responsibility to my players and those that have experienced the things that have gone on is to promise the right support and that we’ll do our part in changing the perceptions.
“I think it’s important that coaches and players continue to call out misbehaviour, so I think that’s how we can continue to evolve this conversation and not just see it as a moment in time. We have to have a responsibility. Anybody involved with vulnerable adults or children coming into the game, that we have to be responsible for that, to speak up and not allow anybody to go through the same things.”
“In all honesty, no. Although I was over [in the United States], it’s not like [I had] that close connection to the coaching fraternity. I wasn’t part of the American part of that, if that makes sense. I didn’t do my coaching licenses in America, so I didn’t have a longstanding relationship with those coaches.
“For me, maybe the reason it has gone on for so long is that you didn’t always appear to see it…maybe it was well hidden. If I see that, I am responsible to speak about it and make sure players don’t go through that. Unfortunately, in this moment, I wasn’t able to hear that and see that.
“From this day forward, I will continue to make sure I’m vigilant and don’t allow that to happen to anybody under my care or that I know.”
“I haven’t been on a coaching course per se for a few years because as you progress, you’re into work and you’re busy and so on. But I think we can continue to be educated as coaches. Education really is the only way forward.
“We’re human, we know rights and wrongs. You should know that going into a job like this. I would like to see continued education…I need to continually update myself and the onus is on us as coaches to do that.
“The modern game is adapting and evolving so quickly, we cannot take our eyes off it for a second. All I’d say is, we talk about being ‘woke’, right? I don’t think you have to be woke in this…it’s not a woke moment. I always try and treat people how I’d like to be treated and that’s my basis of how I do anything.
“Continued education and evolution of education within the coaching structures, but also us as leaders, we can impart that and don’t feel bad for being able to report something. We have to have that and I think it would help massively. But also ownership of that…we have to own that. I know what my role and responsibilities are, so I have to own that. I’m going to make sure I do that and affect every one of my players and staff members that are under my care.”
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