Full-back cover is a must for Man Utd in January transfer window

Man Utd lack specialised cover for Ona Batlle
Man Utd lack specialised cover for Ona Batlle / James Gill - Danehouse/GettyImages

Manchester United risk going into the second half of the WSL season without sufficient depth at full-back if they don’t secure cover in the January transfer window.

Rewind 12 months and it was centre-back that was a concern, with Millie Turner ruled out indefinitely at the start of the New Year. Veteran defender Diane Caldwell was drafted in and it proved vital because Aoife Mannion succumbed to an ACL injury only weeks later.

Even then, both Hayley Ladd and Katie Zelem still had to fill in at the heart of defence at various points before the end of the season, removing them from their own positions in midfield and therefore weakening United at a crucial stage of the campaign.

Adding depth was a key theme of the summer transfer window and United recruited heavily, bringing in seven new faces altogether. But attackers were deliberately prioritised then given the way the team had failed to kill off multiple games in winning positions last season.

Maya Le Tissier, who made her name as a right-back at Brighton but has been performing near flawlessly as a centre-back since joining United, and Aissatou Tounkara arrived in summer. But full-back was not an area that was strengthened.

United said farewell to both back-up full-backs in Kirsty Smith and Martha Harris during the summer after neither got much of a look in last season – Smith has since been a regular starter for West Ham, while Harris would have been one at Birmingham but for injury.

Without sourcing direct replacements because attention and resources were primarily focused on other areas of the pitch, as well as successfully transitioning Le Tissier into a centre-back, it has left Ona Batlle and Hannah Blundell as the only specialised full-backs.

Both players have suffered injuries this season, which has forced reshuffling at times. Blundell was briefly carrying a problem in October, while Batlle was on the sidelines for three WSL games as club staff carefully managed her recovery from a concussion.

What it meant was Maria Thorisdottir, typically far more comfortable in the centre of defence, covering out wide. The Norwegian earned praise for her performances in the circumstances, notably away against Everton, but she is a temporary fix.

Manager Marc Skinner is well aware of the need to recruit, although is still covered in an emergency by Le Tissier’s versatility given her background. Yet in the same way that reshuffling last season pulled Zelem and Ladd out of midfield, it seems a bigger risk to upset what has been a very successful central defensive pairing with Turner.

Leah Galton has also finished more than one game this season at left-back, which is passable because she does a conscientious job, but not ideal. Again, it removes her from where she is most dangerous and effective at the top end of the pitch.

Crucially, full-back recruitment is on the agenda for United. That much has been confirmed. The formal addition of Polly Bancroft to the staff as head of women’s football in October also no doubt helps in the short-term and the long-term in that respect.

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Skinner has always expressed confidence that the club have the ability and desire to go out and sign players as long as they are the right fit for the squad – the incredible harmony that exists in the squad this season is testament to that due diligence on personality.

Given that Batlle is among the best in the world in her position and Blundell is a consistent and reliable WSL veteran, the right player in these circumstances has to be one not necessarily expecting to start regularly, but who could still least add competition to the squad and have the belief that they could genuinely earn a place in the team.

Hanna Wijk, 19, from BK Hacken is one such player linked with United in recent weeks that may tick those boxes. She was a regular for Hacken during the 2022 season in Sweden and has already played Champions League football in recent months.

Another player touted as a potential target is Canadian Olympic gold medallist Jayde Riviere, a 21-year-old not more than a few months out of the college game – United have hit that market before, notably bringing Alessia Russo back to England in 2020 when she finished at North Carolina. Riviere is coming off the back of injury though and may take a little time to get up to speed.

Because of the way the calendars work, the Scandinavian and North American markets are always obvious ones to look at in this transfer window. Those league programmes run until November or December, which means players can become available in January between seasons. United did precisely that 12 months ago when recruiting Jade Moore and Diane Caldwell following NWSL spells, while Chelsea were able to get Sam Kerr in January 2020 for similar reasons.

Skinner himself has particular experience of the American market following his own spell in the NWSL coaching Orlando Pride and he didn't think January 2022 offered the most effective use of either that or Scandinavia as a result of still assessing the needs of the United squad at that stage. It is however, worth noting, that he has previously expressed frustration over red tape when recruiting overseas players in the current governing body endorsement (GBE) system.

Something else that feeds into looking at American and Scandi-based players is the fact that United don’t plan recruitment on a year-to-year basis. Rather, they go window-to-window and are always planning ahead because of the opportunities that January can present in certain markets. But they are still not necessarily the only options at this time of year.

The underlying factor in United’s recruitment plans is that the project remains unfinished. Despite a strong start to the season, Skinner’s repeated message in recent months has been that the squad is still a work in progress and the drive to add to what he has is ‘no way near done’.

Full-back is just one area in the grand scheme of things and the summer of 2023 is likely to be another busy one when it comes to incomings and outgoings due to the contract situations of several players and the possibility of Champions League football. But, as far as the short-term is concerned, landing at least one, maybe two, in full-back positions is vital.