Manchester United have just days left to strengthen their squad before the January transfer window for WSL clubs closes on Thursday night and are in desperate need of centre-back cover.
Concerns at the start of the 2021/22 campaign were primarily focused on whether United would score enough goals to compete at the top end of the WSL table, as we saw five forwards depart during the summer and only one arrive by way of replacement.
But Ella Toone has taken her game to the next level this term, while Alessia Russo has been like a new signing after shaking off the injury troubles that dogged her debut 2020/21 season. Both have been a PFA Vertu Motors Fans' Player of the Month so far this campaign.
In recent weeks, United have also seen electric winger Leah Galton return to top form after struggling with injuries in the second half of last season. Summer arrival Martha Thomas is now starting to make more of an impact, while fellow newbie Vilde Boe Risa has also settled and is making a name for herself as an intelligent link player between midfield and attack.
What it means is that United’s attacking output is no longer the team’s weak point – 27 goals in 12 games is 2.25 per 90 minutes. This is not far off matching the prolific averages recorded by Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, the league’s established ‘big three’.
Conversely, defence is what could threaten to let United down in the second half of the season. Having had a comparable defensive record to the big three in their first 18 months as a WSL club, the Red Devils are potentially weak in that area now. Arsenal and Chelsea have conceded fewer than half as many goals so far in 2021/22, while Tottenham, Reading and West Ham are all tighter at the back.
On the face of it, four consecutive WSL clean sheets since the start of December is an excellent record. But a stretched squad is already skating on thin ice.
Player health and wellbeing absolutely comes first and key defender Millie Turner has been ruled out for an ‘indefinite’ period of time while the necessary care is taken with a medical issue.
Aoife Mannion and Maria Thorisdottir are the only available centre-backs in the squad. Hayley Ladd has been known to fill in at the back in an emergency, but it is no coincidence that her return to a regular starting position as box-to-box midfielder has underpinned recent results.
Even if Turner was available, three specialist centre-backs is still not enough and the situation as it is leaves no room for error as one injury or suspension could be very costly.
Across town, United have clearly seen how defensive injuries can wreck a season, with Manchester City only now just recovering from that kind of trouble.
The concern for fans is that, despite manager Marc Skinner speaking optimistically about the possibility of new arrivals before the window began, no additions have been made a little over 48 hours before the transfer deadline.
“We are trying to be active in this window if the right players come up that will match the kind of level of performance, as well as the good personality. I want this team to be so tight knit,” Skinner told Sky Sports News in late December as he looked ahead to this window.
After rapid growth under former manager Casey Stoney, many predicted this season would be the year that United went backwards during a transition phase. But Skinner’s team has found its rhythm to go second in the table, two points off the top, albeit having played more games than their rivals. If the wheels come off through a lack of depth and recruitment, it would be a hard pill to swallow.