Man United women's U21 team are lifting the gloom around Old Trafford

Why it’s not all doom and gloom at Old Trafford! Man United Women’s U21 team – with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s daughter Karna banging in the goals – have just won the double… but only investment from the Glazers will see them properly compete

  • Manchester United Women have just completed a double at under-21 level
  • Charlotte Healy’s side beat Chelsea 6-2 on aggregate to win WSL Academy title
  • They also beat Birmingham 4-1 back in March to lift the Academy Cup
  • Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s daughter Karna has shone with 15 goals this season
  • 18-year-old Maria Edwards has been excellent with 31 goals in 21 matches
  • Women’s set-up at United are playing catch up with City, Arsenal and Chelsea 

Amid the doom and gloom that has engulfed Old Trafford and Ralf Rangnick’s squad in recent months, there is a Manchester United team that has won the double this season.

The women’s U21 side, led by Charlotte Healy, beat Chelsea in a two-legged play-off to secure the national WSL Academy title. 

Both games ended 3-1, giving United a 6-2 victory on aggregate. Back in March, they beat Birmingham 4-1 to win the Academy Cup.

Manchester United Women U21 beat Chelsea to secure the WSL Academy League title

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer watched on as his daughter, Karna, lifted a second trophy of the season

And leading the line for the youth team is Karna Solskjaer, daughter of United legend and former manager Ole Gunnar. The 19-year-old has 10 more trophies to go to match her dad’s impressive haul of 12.

Solskjaer made her debut for United’s first team in January, coming on as a second half substitute in a 2-0 FA Cup win over Bridgwater.

A striker like her father, she has scored 15 goals this season. Solskjaer naturally stands out because of her family connections, but she is just one rising star in a team full of talented youngsters.

Maria Edwards, 18, has 31 goals in 21 games while Keira Barry took the limelight against Chelsea on Wednesday – scoring twice before 16-year-old Megan Sofield hammered home a third.

United’s U21 set up was only launched in 2019 after the women’s team reformed a year earlier. Before then, the club had a regional talent pathway but the players they produced were forced to find other clubs due to having no first team to progress to. However, many came back to the club in 2018.

Karna (centre)  has scored 15 goals this season and clearly takes after her father 

Both Solskjaers (pictured left Ole Gunnar) were in demand as they posed for photos with fans

Despite the excitement over the relaunch of the women’s team, questions have been raised over the owners’ commitment. 

Casey Stoney, who led United to the Championship title and two back-to-back fourth place finishes, left her role as manager of the first team last summer due to frustrations over investment and facilities.

Karna Solskjaer is one of several exciting players coming through at United

United replaced Stoney with Marc Skinner, but his late appointment impacted their summer recruitment. The Red Devils may fall just short of third place for a second season running and Skinner himself has hinted that more investment is needed if they are to compete with the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City.

‘There’s a gap. That comes from investment — continued investment — and time,’ Skinner said back in November.

‘I’ve been in the league a long time. I remember when Chelsea didn’t have Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby, Pernille Harder up front. I remember when Arsenal didn’t have Vivianne Miedema, Nikita Parris, and six forwards.

‘The concern is very logical. We need to invest in the players and continue to invest so we can be where we want to be.

‘The club has made no bones about that. We want to keep investing, we want to keep pushing women’s football and our team.

‘Of course, expectations are super high. I won’t diminish those expectations but we have to be realistic in terms of we have to have some depth.

‘I was never going to come in and wave a magic wand. We lost a lot of forwards in the summer. The talent is there, we just need more depth.’

First team boss Marc Skinner, pictured on the training ground at United’s Carrington base

Leah Galton celebrates with Katie Zelem after scoring a goal for United in the WSL

Skinner is right in that United will need to invest more to continue to bridge the gap between themselves and the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal. But having the strongest youth set-up in the WSL can also go a long way.

Barcelona currently have the best women’s side in the world and, in the last seven years, have completely revamped their academy and first team squad.

When Barca beat Real Madrid 5-2 in front of over 90,000 fans at the Nou Camp last month, their squad featured 10 players who had come through the club’s academy.

The Catalans are keen to emphasise their philosophy of building a first team full of academy graduates and have age groups all the way down to U11s. 

They have been built in the image of the men’s team and aim to replicate the ‘Barcelona DNA’ of a quick-tempo, through-the-lines passing game.

There have been calls for greater investment in the women’s team directed at the Glazer family, the owners of United. Avram Glazer is pictured at Old Trafford earlier this season

In a similar way, United have cultivated a development structure throughout their academy teams. U21 boss Charlotte Healy told Sportsmail: ‘In terms of playing style, we’ve got a player development red print. We spent two years writing it and it’s implemented across the whole youth section from Under 10s all the way through to Under 21s.

‘It’s principles based, it’s about the Manchester United way and how we want Manchester United teams to play but also within that how we develop individuals.

‘I speak to Marc [Skinner] every single day, I have contact time with him every day and we obviously have conversations around players.

‘Marc has come in and there’s certain ways that he wants to play and we will try and emulate bits of that. 

‘It’s not about what our team looks like and how our team players at this level, it’s about giving players pictures, it’s about giving them tools so that when they are on the pitch they have the understanding to apply what they think is right at that time.

Ella Toone on the ball for United during a Women’s Super League match against Everton

‘We’re really early on in our development. The first team was only reformed in 2018, we didn’t launch the 21s until 2019. 

‘There’s been an awful lot of work done in those last few years. It’s about making sure we have a way of playing but within that, making players better.

‘We’ve got a really good record that we’re proud of – since that women’s team reformed in 2018, we’ve never played a senior game without an academy graduate. 

‘Katie Zelem, Ella Toone, Kirsty Hanson, Millie Turner – we’ve got numerous players that have come through this pathway and whilst we know the gaps are huge, it’s a record we want to keep hold of and make sure that these 21s are ready. 

‘If not now, over the next couple of years and if we’re not providing players for our first team, we are populating for the WSL and the Championship as well.’

United’s victory over Chelsea demonstrated their ability to be adaptable – at times playing out from the back but also going long when necessary.

Barcelona fans packed out the Nou Camp for their recent Women’s Champions League ties

Barcelona thrashed Wolfsburg 5-1 in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final 

‘With academy football, it can be, at times, that everybody plays out from the back, everybody presses from the front – but that’s not the real game,’ Healy said. 

‘If you go and watch the Super League it doesn’t look like that. It’s about finding spaces, exploiting spaces. Sometimes we can play short, sometimes we have to turn teams and make them play in the spaces behind.’

The challenge for the likes of Healy and her team of coaches is bridging the gap between the academy and the first team. Some players have gained experience on loan at Championship clubs while others have stepped up to train with the senior squad. 

Solskjaer is one of the few to have made her debut this season while Welsh international Carrie Jones, 18, has been in and around the first team throughout the year.

‘There’s some real quality across our whole pathway and we know that,’ Healy added. 

‘The challenge is how do we step them up over that transition from 16-21 and then the older ones in this group, again, progress them from 21 to first team because the gaps are huge.

United still have a gap to bridge to match reigning Women’s Super League champions Chelsea

‘I think a big way of filling those gaps is experiences and making sure the girls do experience difficult games and the challenges that come with senior football.

‘This is an U21 team but ultimately our job as staff is to look at every single player individually as people and as players. Those journeys look different for every single person. What’s important for us it that we give players the right experiences and the right exposures at the right time. 

‘Yes, they go up and train with the first team, sometimes they might sit on the bench with the first team so they experience that, sometimes they might go on loan and sometimes they’ll get some really important minutes under their belt with us.’

It is not just Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who turns up to watch Healy’s side on a regular basis. United’s youngsters have a strong following of fans for their matches, both home and away. It is unique for academy football – especially in the women’s game.

The United first team celebrate a goal against Everton in front of a big crowd at Old Trafford

‘They [the fans] haven’t just turned up today, they travel home and away,’ Healy said. ‘They really help us because what’s important is providing experiences.

‘The reason we play in Altrincham’s stadium and the reason we try and play most of our games in the evening is so we can get a crowd in so it is under the lights and they’re playing, not under huge amounts of pressure but it closes that gap between playing in an empty stadium and playing in front of fans.

‘They’ve been excellent for us home and away this season. It’s great to have the first team watching as well. I know they care, we speak regularly. The first team players are really supportive of this pathway because a lot of them have come through it.’

The men’s team may be without a trophy for seven years while the women’s side are yet to build on their second-tier title from 2018, but there are perhaps brighter times ahead for the female youngsters being nurtured by Healy and her fellow coaches.

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