With the Women’s Super League‘s (WSL) transfer deadline day fast approaching in January, Arsenal thought they had pulled off a coup by signing Manchester United forward Alessia Russo for a world-record fee of just under £500,000. Unfortunately for the Gunners, the deal broke down 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 this June. And that’s just what happened. Along with reports of interest from the NWSL, the 24-year-old’s potential move to Arsenal has been placed 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 bright prospect who had made herself a key part of the United team wasn’t hard enough for the Red Devils, news of Russo’s departure was swiftly 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 number of deals actually involving fees at all, there is understandably a degree of added scrutiny around what reads as a failure by United. Russo is one of the sport’s brightest stars but is leaving as a free agent.
Yet the Red Devils are certainly not the only club in the world, or even just the WSL, to watch their star players leave this way after their contracts expire. This summer alone we’ve seen champions Chelsea lose their captain Magda Eriksson and two-time UEFA 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 tidied up her defensive frailties, the lure of Barcelona was a familial one; the La Masia graduate wasn’t shy in admitting her affection for her hometown club. There was always a sense that as soon as she left Levante to join United, she would one day return to Barcelona, though United had hoped to delay the inevitable via a late offer to extend her deal.
Although easier to replace in terms of statistical output, Russo — who scored 10 goals in a possession-dominant United team last season — is a lifelong United fan who was one of the first names on the teamsheet. Her move has been rumbling on all year and, after months of failed negotiations, there was talk that United’s offer to keep her simply came too late, which raises more questions than it answers.
For a relatively young side like United, losing players who have been involved since the team’s early days in the WSL will cut a little deeper, as they’re so intertwined with the growth and successes of the club. Yet seeing players move on after three seasons in one place isn’t an oddity — far from it — and there are a plethora of factors that go into a player’s decision to leave.
The focus for United shouldn’t be so much about the players they’ve lost, as turnover is normal in men’s and women’s football alike, but about the wider structures of recruitment and squad building.
As well as already having a tailor-made 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 get much time on the pitch. With France international Aïssatou Tounkara left to warm the bench for all but four league minutes this year, United made the odd choice to sign fellow French defender Estelle Cascarino in January.
Rather than being built with a clear vision, this United team seemingly has a disconnect between the players the club want to sign and the players the manager wants to play. Rotation is also fairly low on Marc Skinner’s list. Heading into a busy 2023-24 season with increased pressure to perform following their second-place finish this season, as well as more games thanks to their Champions League qualification, greater questions will be asked of the squad both in terms of depth and quality.
Should United fail it would be easy enough to rue the loss of Russo and Batlle, yet for all their quality neither player is irreplaceable. The question for United, especially embarking on their maiden European campaign, is if the club are well placed to live up to the lofty expectations that come with their name.
What losing Alessia Russo, Ona Batlle means for Man United