With the Women’s Super League (WSL) transfer deadline fast approaching in January, Arsenal thought they had pulled off a coup by signing Manchester United striker Alessia Russo for a record fee of just under 500,000 £. Unfortunately for the Gunners, the deal fell through as it was close to being finalized and United managed to keep hold of the England international.
It was a small slice of drama that dominated Deadline Day in women’s football circles but, with Russo’s contract expiring at the end of the season, it promised to bring more intrigue in June. And that’s exactly what happened. Along with reports of interest from the NWSL, the 24-year-old’s potential move to Arsenal was put back on the agenda as on June 16 she confirmed she was leaving Man United.
Although Russo’s next club has yet to be officially announced at the time of writing, almost all signs point to North London. But as if losing a brilliant prospect who had established himself as a key part of the United squad wasn’t difficult enough for the Red Devils, news of Russo’s departure was quickly followed by that of defender Ona Batlle.
With more eyes on the sport than ever before and a significant increase in both the size of transfer fees and the number of transactions actually involving fees, there is understandably an additional degree of scrutiny around what reads. like a failure of United. Russo is one of the brightest stars in the sport, but he’s leaving as a free agent.
Still, the Red Devils are certainly not the only club in the world, or even just the WSL, to see their star players leave in this way after their contracts expire. This summer alone we have seen champions Chelsea lose captain Magda Eriksson and two-time UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Pernille Harder to Bayern Munich without the Bavarians having to pay anything for the privilege. . Women’s football is still largely in a place of shorter contract lengths and far fewer transfer fees, so why does this feel like such a double whammy for United?
For Batlle, who made Manchester her home as she honed her game and cleaned up defensive frailties, Barcelona’s appeal was family; the La Masia graduate hasn’t been shy about admitting her affection for the hometown club. There was always the feeling that as soon as she left Levante to join United she would one day return to Barcelona, although United had hoped to delay the inevitable via a late offer to extend her contract.
Although easier to replace in terms of statistical results, Russo – who scored 10 goals in a possession-dominated United side last season – is a longtime United fan who was an early name on the team sheet. Her move has been rumbled all year and, after months of fruitless negotiations, it’s been said that United’s offer to keep her simply came too late, raising more questions than it answers. .
For a relatively young team like United, losing players who have been involved since the team’s early days in the WSL will be a bit more profound, as they are so linked to the growth and successes of the club. Still, seeing players move on after three seasons in one place is no oddity – far from it – and there are a plethora of factors that go into a player’s decision to leave.
United shouldn’t be so focused on the players they’ve lost, as turnover is normal in men’s and women’s football, but on the wider recruitment and squad-building structures.
As well as already having a bespoke replacement for Batlle in 22-year-old Canada international Jayde Riviere, the Red Devils have a number of players on their books who simply don’t have much time on the pitch. While France international Aïssatou Tounkara has left to warm up the bench for all but four league minutes this year, United made the odd choice of signing fellow French defender Estelle Cascarino in January.
Rather than being built with a clear vision, this United team apparently has a disconnect between the players the club wants to sign and the players the manager wants to play. Rotation is also fairly low on Marc Skinner’s roster. Heading into a busy 2023-24 season with increased pressure to perform after their second-place finish this season, as well as more games thanks to their Champions League qualification, bigger questions will be asked of the squad at both in terms of depth and quality.
If United failed, it would be easy enough to regret the loss of Russo and Batlle, but for all their quality, neither player is irreplaceable. The question for United, particularly at the start of their first European campaign, is whether the club is well placed to live up to the high expectations that come with their name.