Of the four biggest name clubs in the WSL, Manchester United had the most to gain from a good January transfer window and also the most to lose from a bad one.
Determined to break into the Champions League for the first time after fading last season and narrowly missing out, United had gone into January hopeful of being productive in the market.
Manager Marc Skinner spoke positively and optimistically in late December, insisting that the club was ‘trying to be active’ and even specifically hinting at the American market, which he personally knows from his two years in charge at Orlando Pride in the NWSL.
The month began with United expected to land Sweden striker Stina Blackstenius, who was the hottest player on the market after deciding not to renew her BK Hacken contract that expired on New Year’s Eve following the end of the domestic Swedish season.
In the end, Blackstenius opted for Arsenal, who could offer her Champions League football immediately in the second half of this season, rather than simply the hope of achieving it.
After that, United fans began to feel a little uneasy as days and weeks passed by without news of progress being made with alternative targets.
The primary issue to address this month was depth. United, while proving at various times over the last two-and-a-half years that they can go toe-to-toe with Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City on a given day, didn’t come into the 2021/22 season with a squad with enough options to allow them to compete consistently with those clubs over the course of a whole campaign.
Injuries caused problems in the second half of last season and perhaps made January of 2021 a missed opportunity. The summer then saw a change of management, a number of established players leave and only a handful come in as replacements.
United started the season well enough with successive WSL wins over Reading and Leicester. But at that time, it seemed like Ella Toone was carrying the team, with fellow starlet Alessia Russo still building her fitness after months out injured, other new arrivals like Vilde Boe Risa needing time to settle and previously established stars like Leah Galton and Hayley Ladd also not fully fit.
Millie Turner was added to the injury list with a dislocated kneecap in September and the fact that United were stretched to the limit showed in the autumn’s results. They collapsed against Chelsea and beat only struggling Birmingham in a run of six games over a period of two months – that included failure to build on leads against both Tottenham and Everton that became draws.
The situation had changed by December. Toone was still on fire but Russo was also reaping the rewards of a run of games to get match sharp, while others were back in action and Boe Risa was starting to show why the club had been tracking her since last season.
United’s best XI is objectively very good and proved that on the pitch. Back to full strength, the wins started coming again – four league games across December and January produced four wins, 12 points, 15 goals and four clean sheets. Postponements and Arsenal and Chelsea dropping points unexpectedly saw Skinner’s team climb as high as second in the table as a result.
Yet there remained that nagging concern about depth in the way that an Arsenal side who can turn to Jordan Nobbs or Nikita Parris off the bench, or Chelsea who can replace Sam Kerr with Bethany England, don’t have to worry about. Manchester City, meanwhile, were able to let Jill Scott go to Aston Villa after getting over their injury crisis and climbing rapidly back up the table.
Turner’s sudden ‘indefinite’ absence, the result of the necessary care and caution following the discovery of a problem with an artery in her neck threatened to expose a lack of depth all over again, leaving only two available centre-backs in the first-team squad.
That didn’t show against Tottenham recently, with Aoife Mannion and Maria Thorisdottir dominating at the back. But it meant that even one injury or suspension could spell disaster going forward and it wouldn’t have taken much to bring about a return to the poor autumn results.
What the club achieved with three deadline days signings, particularly with the arrivals of centre-back Diane Caldwell and midfielder Jade Moore, is the depth and cover that had been missing. Both players came from the American market Skinner alluded to over a month earlier.
In 33-year-old Caldwell, the club has captured an experienced 84-cap international with experience of top flight football in Germany, Scandinavia and most recently the NWSL. Moore is a proven WSL player with 50 England caps to her name, having worked with Skinner at both Birmingham and Orlando. Neither will necessarily command a place in United’s best team, but what they represent is the ability to rotate and rest starters, lessening the hitherto very real risk of fatigue and injury.
It is worth pointing out that in addition to battling for a top three WSL place, United are also in the final four of the Continental Cup and are now getting started in the FA Cup as well. They have a chance to win either or both cups but competing in three competitions and not also losing ground in the league would have been a struggle without any additional reinforcements.
The arrival of Signe Bruun is slightly different. The 23-year-old Dane has joined on loan from Lyon and perhaps offers more in the way of healthy competition for a vibrant core of largely young attacking players over pure cover. United have scored more than expected this season, spreading goals around, in light of losing five forwards during the summer and Bruun will only strengthen that.
Coming from European giants Lyon, she has played with the likes of Ada Hegerberg, having also won a league title with Paris Saint-Germain last season. What’s more, she is reigning Danish player of the year, taking the honour from Chelsea’s Pernille Harder who had won the previous six.
On top of her own talent, Bruun’s extended exposure to the elite mentality at clubs like PSG and Lyon will be a major boost to United in itself because of what else she may bring.
The worst thing for United fans would have been to see the season fall apart again as a result of an avoidable lack of recruitment and depth. Instead, the club is ready to seriously challenge the WSL’s established ‘big three’ for a European place in the remaining four months of the season and they have equipped themselves superbly in the January transfer market to make that a possibility.
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