Marc Skinner praised the “spirit and togetherness” of Manchester United after Alessia Russo’s fine header late on in a fiery encounter with Arsenal took his team into the semi-finals of the Continental League Cup.
“I’m so proud of everyone and all the staff. They’ve worked tirelessly. But we’ve done nothing but get to a semi-final, we’ve got work to do,” he cautioned.
“We’ve beaten Arsenal but if you make that your mantle then you don’t ever grow because you’re only ever chasing teams. We have to focus on what we can do and how good we can be and see past the ceilings that people give us.”
Arsenal had introduced a clutch of new signings and returning players to swing momentum the home side’s way after a cagey opening half but were made to suffer a fifth defeat in six games after Russo rose highest from a free-kick in the 85th minute.
Arsenal have been on the ropes since the start of December. The Gunners’ sole match of 2022 prior to this – thanks to last Sunday’s game against Reading being postponed at the request of the Royals due to Covid and injuries – was a shock 2-0 defeat to the then bottom-placed Birmingham. Jonas Eidevall absorbed the blame for that disjointed performance but at a bitterly cold Borehamwood his side looked far more organised and he was somewhat surprisingly bright afterwards because of it.
“Today was a big step in the right direction, and that’s where your focus needs to be, on your own performances,” he said. “We need to build on that, and attack the next game against Manchester City.”
Boosted by the return from injury of Leah Williamson, who signed a new contract with her childhood club last week, and the USA forward Tobin Heath, who both made the bench, the home team matched the high press of the dynamic United. Also seated in the dugout were two of Arsenal’s three January recruits: the Sweden forward Stina Blackstenius and Austrian defender Laura Wienroither – the former a target of their opponents before their move was hijacked.
United may have just one win in five meetings with Arsenal, but the games have always been tight. Skinner’s team had won four games back-to-back in all competitions prior to their trip to London without conceding, with Saturday’s 5-0 defeat of Birmingham prompting the manager to say the team is now “moving in the direction we want to be in”.
In the second half tensions flared. A high foot from Martha Thomas on Beth Mead right in front of the Arsenal dugout prompted Eidevall to rage on the edge of his technical area while Thomas stared him down and United players swarmed round the irate manager. Both Thomas and Eidevall were booked for the confrontation. Shortly afterwards a late challenge from Ivana Fuso clipped Katie McCabe’s foot from underneath her much to the fury of the Arsenal fans nearby.
In a bid to shore things up Eidevall sent on Williamson and made a triple change not long after, with Tobin Heath, Wienroither and Blackstenius all thrown on. The impact was instant and Arsenal poured forward in search of a winner but struggled to find a clean shot on goal, while United continued to threaten on the counterattack.
It was as a result of a quick break that they scored. The substitute Russo outstripped the Arsenal defence, and Jen Beattie lunged in, conceding a free-kick on the right. United’s captain, Katie Zelem, sent the ball in and Russo rose above Beattie to head powerfully in at the back post in front of a rapturous away contingent.