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Can United move on without Alessia Russo and Ona Batlle?
To lose one star player may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness. But Manchester United are heading back from their most successful season ever without two of their best players: Alessia Russo and Ona Batlle. Neither move came much as a surprise in the end with Ona returning to her childhood club Barcelona at the end of her contract, and Russo making the move to Arsenal. Both players had been integral to United’s development as a team over the past three seasons, and both had made it clear for a while that they were unlikely to sign a new deal.
The ins and outs as to why that was the case, and why fellow United stalwart Mary Earps also wanted out of the club this summer, will probably never entirely come to light, but there have been plenty of hints in the past that the club is run a bit haphazardly. Agents this summer described United’s handling of transfers as one of the ‘worst processes’ they had seen, whilst Casey Stoney’s departure two years ago came under a cloud of complaints about the support the club had given her. Meanwhile the way that United handled the Mason Greenwood situation was also reported to have caused understandable consternation within the women’s team.
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Whatever was exactly behind United’s inability to keep hold of Ona and Russo, the fact remains that Marc Skinner is heading into the 2023/24 season having to replace two of his most talented players. How well set up are United to succeed without them?
Let’s start by looking at Batlle. There is no doubt that in her time at United, Batlle developed into one of the world’s best fullbacks. As comfortable in defence as she was going forward, and able to play on either side of the pitch, the 24 year old got nine assists for United last year. Only Chelsea’s Guro Reiten got more, and she was playing on the left wing.
As well as her defensive capabilities, United are losing someone who was effectively an auxiliary attacking outlet. She made the second most progressive passes (137), had the second most passes into the penalty area (39), and the second highest expected assists (4.8). But she also made the most blocks (33), the second most tackles and interceptions (78) and the second most attempted challenges (29). If something needed doing in this Manchester United team, it tended to be Ona Batlle doing it.
The fact that United were unable to hold onto Ona does not really feel surprising. Ona had long suggested she would like to return to Barcelona where she played as a youngster, and in fact she may never have ended up at United were it not for a compensation clause which made her prohibitively expensive to Barcelona when she left Levante.
United’s January decision to sign Jayde Riviere, therefore, felt like a savvy move. Riviere had made 36 appearances for the Canadian national team before she had even signed a pro-deal having been playing previously as part of the Michigan college programme. She did, however, miss close to a year of football having been sidelined with a hip injury that required surgery, meaning she featured for Manchester United for just four minutes last season in a WSL match against Tottenham.
There is no doubt that Riviere is a promising player but any benefit they might have had in terms of bedding her into the team before Ona left was lost due to injury, with her fitness also unclear right now as she did not participate in United’s two most recent pre-season matches. They do have the option of playing Maya LeTissier in the role but that would mean breaking up their centre-back partnership which helped them be statistically the best defence in the league (12 goals conceded from 13.8 xGA, both the lowest). Equally with the signing of Gabby George, they can move Hannah Blundell to the right and use George on the left. George demonstrated last season that she can be an attacking threat, albeit playing as a wingback in Everton’s back three system. Realistically though, no one player is going to immediately offer anything close to Ona’s output; very few players in the world would be able to match her influence. They will be hoping for enough players to pitch in to make up for it.
United seemed more convinced that Alessia Russo might change her mind late on and sign a new deal, but as it was she chose to head to domestic rivals Arsenal. It seems fair to say that Russo is not necessarily yet the kind of striker that really terrifies defenders in the way that Sam Kerr or Bunny Shaw might. That is unless they are Arsenal defenders - Russo has scored 4 goals in 5 games against the Gunners - a handy benefit of her signing for them. However she was a key part of United’s attack over the past two seasons, starting 19 WSL matches in both with a return of 19 goals and five assists. Across all competitions for United, she scored 27 goals in 59 appearances.
Intriguingly United have replaced her with quite a different player, signing Geyse from Barcelona for a reported £250,000. Geyse had only played one season with Barcelona but she had struggled to impress with the UWCL Champions, although most players do take time to find their way within the Catalan’s system. The DAVIES model reckons she was still pretty good, although playing as a forward for a team as dominant as Barcelona no doubt helps.
Barcelona had signed her off the back of a stunning season with Madrid CFF where she won the Pichichi Award for being top goalscorer. That year she scored 22 goals in 29 games in all competitions but where she really excels is with her dribbling.
She struggled to do as much of that in a Barcelona team where almost everyone wants to defend as far back as possible but is something that Manchester United sorely need. They ranked fifth in the league when it came to progressive carries per 90 and the player who led them within the team was Ona Batlle. Russo offered 1.8 - it simply is not the way she likes to play. Geyse managed 4.12 p90, meaning she was ranked 8th in Liga F for players with more than 900 minutes played - Mariona Caldentey was the only Barcelona teammate ahead of her.
One area where they will be missing out without Russo though is her aerial ability. 9 of her 22 WSL goals have been headers - in fact, she only has one more with her right foot. She won more aerial duels than any other Manchester United player last season (28). Geyse won only three.
United have also bolstered their attack with the World Cup Golden Boot winner Hinata Miyazawa. Whilst on the face of it, this might seem as with Geyse an attempt to replace the goals being lost with Russo’s departure, Miyazawa managed more at the World Cup than she had in all but two full seasons of her career. She is not, traditionally, a goalscorer, and nor is she really a number 9. Alex Bishop, who covers Japanese women’s football extensively, describes her as predominantly playing on the left side of a front three, but also being able to play on the right, as a 10 or even as an 8. Interestingly, Bishop also highlighted that Miyazawa has previously prioritised game time in order to secure her place in the Japanese national team, with her decision to join United instead of her original suitors Liverpool particularly intriguing in this regard. There is no obvious open spot in United’s front four, although the right wing position is maybe most up for grabs with neither Nikita Parris or Lucia Garcia seeming to have entirely nailed down that stop. Of all of United’s attacking signings, Miyazawa is the one who’s impact is currently trickiest to predict.
Finally, on deadline day, they added Melvine Malard, signing her on loan from Lyon with a reported option to buy. The 23 year old Malard had a breakout season for Lyon in 2021/22 when she scored 13 goals in 17 starts in the league but seemed to fall out of favour last year as some long-term absentees returned. Predominantly playing off the left, Malard is very adept at getting into fantastic positions in the area, and there is no doubt that she is incredibly talented. However, realistically she needs minutes right now, and it is hard to see where they are going to come from with Leah Galton a nailed on starter off that left hand side.
The departures of Alessia Russo and Ona Batlle are undoubtedly a huge blow for United but their biggest challenge this season might simply be regression to the mean. Of the top four teams last season, United had the lowest xGD/90 with a significant overperformance in expected goals propelling them to their second placed finish.
Russo, Galton and Garcia all overperformed significantly in front of goal and it seems likely that United will have to create more whilst maintaining their solid defensive record if they truly want to compete again at the top of the table. Under Skinner, they have always used their defensive solidity to make up for any attacking deficit and there is a high chance they will keep that kind of robustness, having held onto goalkeeper Mary Earps and maintained their centre-back pairing of LeTissier and Millie Turner.
One player United will likely now look to is Ella Toone. The 24 year old faded into the background somewhat last season, recording her fewest goals and assists since her first season in the division as a United player. Under Casey Stoney, Toone got into much better attacking positions, averaging close to double the xG per 90 (0.36 npxg/90 under Stoney vs 0.19 npxg/90 under Skinner). She has continuously been a creative force with an expected assists per 90 that puts her in the top 10 in the league, and the highest for a player who is not playing from a wide area. But bringing Toone back as an additional goal threat would be a huge boost.
On the face of it, the players that United have brought in are good players. But the turnover has been significant - their ins and outs during this summer window have far outstripped those of the rest of the top four.
Marc Skinner will have to settle these new players incredibly fast as they face a tough start to the season. Their WSL campaign begins away at Aston Villa before they host Arsenal. They will then have a double header against Paris Saint-Germain in order to qualify for the Champions League group stages. Given how close the WSL has been in recent seasons, it is no exaggeration to say that if these matches fail to go well, the most crucial elements of United’s season could be over before the end of October. There are plenty of pieces, but Skinner must turn them into a complete puzzle.
How do you think Manchester United will do this season?