Ella Toone is back to her best! Lionesses star key to Man Utd’s chances of ending forgettable season on a high

Fans of Manchester United’s women’s team aren’t exactly filled with optimism right now. Out of the Women’s Super League title race, facing a nigh-on-impossible battle for a Champions League spot and in danger of losing more star players this summer, it’s hard to see this season as anything but a failure at this moment. But there is still the chance of them having something to shout about before the campaign comes to a close.

On Saturday, the Red Devils will be the favourites as they take on Brighton in the quarter-finals of the Women’s FA Cup, a competition they reached the final of last year. Just two wins from Wembley, there could yet be something to celebrate in a difficult season.

It won’t be easy. After all, even if they overcome a Brighton side that held them to a draw in a four-goal thriller earlier this season, Chelsea or Manchester City, the top two in the WSL, could be opponents in the semi-finals. But, as the old saying goes, anything can happen in the cup, and this United team still has plenty of talent to boast about, players who can produce match-winning magic.

Right now, few fit that description better than Ella Toone, who since opening her account for the season in that 2-2 draw with Brighton back in November, has found the kind of form that is responsible for the iconic status she already holds in English women’s football.

Ella Toone Man Utd Women 2023-24

If 2022 was Toone’s break-out year, owing to her performances for United but most notably her key role in England’s triumph at the European Championship, then 2023 was a tricky one. From late March to early November, until an incredible strike against Brighton, Toone didn’t register a goal or an assist in the WSL for her club.

“I always want to contribute goals and assists, it’s what I pride myself on as a No.10. It was quite difficult having a few games without them,” Toone said in December. “But I just had to make sure I was not putting too much pressure on myself to force things.

“I always set myself targets [before a season], but this term I’ve learned I can’t think about them too much. There are other things I can do to help the team. If I put that pressure on myself, the goals and assists are not going to come because I’m forcing things I normally wouldn’t. When I play with freedom, it all comes more naturally.”

Ella Toone Manchester United 2023-24

During that “difficult” spell, though, there were always glimpses of Toone’s undeniable talent, moments that made it clear – if it wasn’t already obvious – that she would rediscover her form sooner rather than later, such as her wonderful strike in England’s Women’s World Cup semi-final win over Australia.

And so it has proved to be. Since hitting the back of the net against Brighton, Toone has racked up five goals and eight assists for the Red Devils in just 17 games. She’s also scored twice and assisted another in four games for England in that time.

Her performances for the Lionesses last month were particularly impressive. Competition for the No.10 role with England has never been greater for Toone, but she certainly made a statement and reminded Sarina Wiegman just what she can bring to the table, with a wonderful volley against Italy her most eye-catching contribution.Manchester United's Ella Toone

Given her natural ability, it’s perhaps no surprise Toone has kicked on in the manner she has since opening her account for the season with a wonder-strike, considering the confidence she will have felt off the back of that. With all she has achieved in her career already, there’s always that extra pressure, and that goal will have no doubt relieved some of it.

Toone’s also had some rare, and well-earned, chances to rest. In October, she started on the bench in a WSL game for the first time in over three years, ending a run of 64 straight games in United’s starting XI. Throw in a genuine Christmas break and to see her looking fresh again makes sense.

Ella Toone England Women 2023

But when asked by GOAL about the 24-year-old’s fantastic form last week, United boss Marc Skinner was also keen to point to some of the extra work that Toone has been doing over the last few months that has contributed to her racking up such productive numbers.

“She came back in and me and her had a conversation around the final part of the assist and goal, and she’s worked so hard, and she’s continuing to work hard, at the contact she gets on the ball, whether that be how it is or her body shape before, so she’s really gone back into the detail of what her performance looks like in the finishing phase. That’s why you’re seeing [those numbers],” he explained.

“We often talk about players technically and tactically, but if you watch them just as they’re about to make the final action of whatever they’re doing, an assist or a strike, you can actually see if they’re zoned into it, and I feel that Ella is zoned right back into her performance. She’s had lots and lots of things thrown at her and yet she’s got straight back into performance. I’m really proud of her because I think she’s coming back into form that everybody wants at Manchester United, but I’ve always seen it. I think she’s got right back into the detail of her game and I’m really pleased with that.”

Ella Toone Manchester United 2023-24

It’s not just the details around technique that Skinner highlighted as being worked on, either. Toone was perhaps a slight unknown when she burst onto the big stage, both with United during their first steps in the WSL and as a super-sub for England. But everyone knows about her now, and if you’re an opposing team coming up against the playmaking midfielder, it’s likely that you’re going to focus on how to stop her pulling the strings.

“She’s got to keep readjusting, reinventing, because people stop you. As soon as you are on somebody’s radar, people find a way to stop you,” Skinner said. “They analyse you more, they know what foot you are, they know where you go, they know what moves you make. If you’ve only got two or three moves, they know them, so you have to keep identifying and realigning what you are as a player.

“You should never stand still as a human, so what I see is her moving forwards, I see her progressing and I’m really happy with her performances – but there’s still more to come. I’ve no doubt about that. I’m going to work with her closely to keep adjusting, keep progressing, keep nudging her in directions where people can’t make her predictable.”

It’s a reminder that Toone is still only 24 years old and will develop even further, despite hitting some pretty incredible highs already. That’s certainly something for United fans to be optimistic about, as although there is concern that players like Mary Earps and Lucia Garcia could leave this summer as their contracts expire, their No.10 has a deal until the end of the 2025-26 season. With all the talk about new owners INEOS, what they can do for the women’s team and where they can take them, Toone will be an important figure to keep around and build around.

But it’s not just about her or United’s future, it’s also about the present. It’d be nothing short of a miracle if the Red Devils were to turn around their fortunes in the WSL, but they could still have success in the FA Cup. Toone already has two goals and an assist to her name from her two appearances in the competition so far, and in her current form, you’d be brave to bet against her adding to those numbers this weekend.

Beyond that, she can’t single-handedly inspire a team with serious struggles to its first-ever major trophy. But there are some talented team-mates around her, too, and she herself has got the magic in her boots to give United a chance of salvaging something from a season to forget.

 

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