Ona Batlle: A crucial part of the transformation
There were a lot of rumours around the future of Spanish full-back Ona Batlle during the summer transfer window, especially after June 22nd when she announced that she was going to leave Levante following the expiration of her contract, and become a free agent. A return to her former club Barcelona, where she spent her youth career, was a real possibility for a while, but a move there was made impossible due to the compensation clause the Association of Women's Football Clubs (ACFF) and the Association of Spanish Football Players (AFE) had set on certain young Spanish talents. This clause inflated the fee necessary for other Primera Division clubs to sign allocated players as free agents, and Batlle's compensation was set at €500 000, an extraordinarily high fee which Barcelona was unable to pay.
On July 13th, Manchester United announced that they had signed Batlle on a two-year contract with an option for a further year. Batlle had been heavily linked to United before the official confirmation of the move, and the announcement was met with a lot of excitement. However, there were also some question marks over how much time Batlle needed to integrate into the squad, adapt to the WSL, and if she should go straight into United's starting lineup or not. After pre-season training and pre-season games, Casey Stoney put her straight into the lineup in the opening WSL fixture against reigning champions Chelsea. Since then, Batlle has shown that she didn't need much time to adapt and taken the WSL by storm, putting in brilliant performances whenever she has played. After her arrival, Batlle has transformed Manchester United and already become a crucial player for the team, maybe even undroppable. Manchester United almost look like two different teams when she plays and when she doesn't. Having said this, let's take a closer look at Ona Batlle's impact on Manchester United, what she brings to the team, and how she has become an integral part in changing United's playing style from last season to this season.
What does Batlle bring to Manchester United?
Ona Batlle is one of the best and most exciting young full-backs in the world. She is mainly a right-back, but is versatile and can comfortably play on both sides, something she has proven both for her previous club Levante and Manchester United. Batlle is a very modern, attacking full-back with an ambitious playing style. She is very fast, great on the ball, and likes to move forward to link up in attack. Her great ability on the ball includes good technique, which combined with her fantastic pace allows her to play the way she does, often using her pace to run past players with the ball or play off pressure. Batlle often makes good decisions with the ball and likes to play forward to combine with the winger, striker, or a central midfielder. Her good technique helps her to control the ball quickly, be well oriented, and then play forward and out of pressure to get attacks going. The fact that Batlle is so comfortable high up the pitch and moves so much forward, has really helped Manchester United's play this season.
"Ona is an exciting young full-back with fantastic pace and a real attacking mindset, her style of play fits perfectly with the philosophy we have at the club." - Casey Stoney on Ona Batlle
Batlle thrives offensively but is also very strong defensively. From a defensive perspective, Batlle has good reaction and awareness. This means that she quickly perceives danger and reacts to it fast. She is very aware of opposition wingers making runs in behind her, and her pace helps her to recover and catch up should she be caught out of position. Due to her attacking mindset, she will often be caught high up on the pitch, but she is very good at tracking back and track runs from attackers. Another thing to note with Batlle's defensive game is her aggression and intensity. She is very intense when pressing, both when it comes to getting close to attackers and not allowing them to turn, or using her pace to jump in front of attackers to intercept passes. This is both a strength and a weakness, as it can result in her mistiming and leave a lot of space behind her, seen in the first half against Manchester City. Her 1v1 defending is relatively solid, although her aggression can cause her to mistime tackles. However, her timing is often good. Batlle is quite small and not physically imposing, but in 1v1 duels, she is able to use her physicality smartly. She can get bullied though, and her aerial presence is minimal. She can get caught out of position at times, either being caught too high up due to her attacking nature, breaking out of the defensive structure to intercept passes or tuck too far inside. However, she is good enough and smart enough to adjust. Lastly, she can stand off the attacker a little too much when defending crosses. This allows the crosser time to pick out the cross because Batlle hasn't closed her down enough. This could be an area of improvement, but she's still young and has time to improve. Batlle has already shown her qualities and contributed a lot both offensively and defensively to United's unbeaten start to the WSL season.
Manchester United's playing style
Looking at Manchester United's playing style, they are a team with great variation in their attacking play. In possession, they like to keep the ball and play out from the back using their goalkeeper, two centre backs, full-backs, and two central midfielders, with one dropping deep and with the other one a little further forward. This is usually the base they use in their build-up to play through press and move forward. They like to use the ball and are not afraid to play backwards to create space before playing forward again into the space they managed to create. This ideally results in free-flowing attacking football but relies on a player getting the ball whilst facing the opponent's goal, whether it being a midfielder or a full-back. Passes through the lines or long balls in behind from the centre backs are also methods United use to start attacks.
When facing the goal, United can both play passes to the no. 10 into space between the opposition's defence and midfield, and in between the lines, and play out wide. When receiving the ball, the no. 10 can then either advance with the ball and take a shot, play through the other attackers, or set up combination play. However, this is not the only way United attack. They also like to attack with width and get their wingers or full-backs into good crossing positions. The wingers are usually the ones who end up crossing, but the full-backs play an important role as support for a backpass or for overlapping/underlapping runs. Combination play between the wingers, full-backs, and one central midfielder is not uncommon either.
Without the ball, United applies a high press with a lot of intensity to win the ball back quickly. They push the team forward to cut out passing lanes, and then press the player on the ball intensely. This is a tiring way to play games, but they are good at adjusting and changing the press throughout games. United is also able to sit deeper in a low/middle defensive block and allow the opposition team to have the ball. In that scenario, their defensive structure is in a 4-2-3-1 designed to really limit space for the opponent to exploit, and they use pressing traps to win the ball back. This means that they invite the opponent into specific zones before trapping the player on the ball by moving players into that zone to cut out passing options, press the ball carrier, and win the ball back. As explained, United plays with a lot of intensity in defence and have great variety in attack.
Small tweaks have led to great success
The playing style we're currently seeing from Manchester United isn't something new. It's based on the same principles as last season, and it was possible to see some of the same patterns of play then as we're seeing now. However, there are a couple of major differences between United's two WSL seasons; the approach to games has changed and their playing style has evolved with the new approach and new signings.
Whilst the 2019/20 WSL season was an impressive showing and a success for Manchester United, there were some problems that needed to be fixed before the current campaign. The first one being their approach to games, and especially the big games against the top 3. The set up was mainly a 4-2-3-1 with the main focus being a solid defensive structure and not allow space that could get exploited to create goal-scoring chances. Offensively, United tried to effectively use counter-attacks and be efficient when those chances arose. This approach against the top 3 teams worked relatively well, as all the games ended up being pretty tight affairs, but it didn't accumulate any points in favour of Manchester United. However, it must be said that it was United's first season in the WSL, and a more defensive game plan against the top teams is understandable.
The second problem for United last season was the lack of attacking contributions from their full-backs. Throughout the whole season, Stoney set the team up in the 4-2-3-1 no matter the opponent, although the formation wasn't necessarily the problem. The issue was mainly the personnel, especially at full-back. Amy Turner, who is a centre back by trait, and Martha Harris, was Stoney's most trusted players in the full-back roles. Both Amy Turner and Harris did good jobs defensively when the play was in front of them, but struggled when they were challenged on pace. Neither of them is attacking full-backs either which resulted in very few contributions offensively, something which became an issue for United's attacking play. The wingers got very isolated as both Harris and Turner sat back for most of the time. They did provide an option for backpasses, but without making overlapping/underlapping runs forward, United's wingers ended up with no support and therefore struggling. Another issue could be seen in United's build-up play last season. United are a team that likes to play out from the back and often relies on their full-backs to get attacks started. The problem with Harris and Turner is that their on-the-ball ability is too limited to play that way. Upon receiving the ball, they often played a long ball forward into space, hoping a forward would latch on to it, but more often than not it caused United to lose the ball. They were too limited on the ball to play through a high press as well, often opting to play a backpass or that long ball forward to no one when getting pressed as they didn't have the ability to take the ball past the player pressing them, or taking too long on the ball to get oriented and find the best solution.
However, Casey Stoney has fixed both of these problems for the 2020/21 season by changing her approach and mindset and signing Ona Batlle. Stoney has developed as a manager, and combined with her new signings, she has further developed United's style of play, something which has already been on display. United have gone toe-to-toe with Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City by being brave, playing their own game when in possession, and pressing intensely and high without possession. This has resulted in the team picking up points in these big games with draws against Chelsea and Manchester City, and a win against Arsenal. After 8 games, United sit top of the WSL with 6 wins and 2 draws, and Ona Batlle has played a crucial part in this transformation. Batlle's attacking contributions, on-the-ball ability, pace, and solid defending has solved United's full-back problem from last season. With Batlle in the team, United is able to play out from the back and through a high press. The occasionally long ball is still being played, but United look more composed and comfortable on the ball. They use their full-backs a lot in the build-up play, and with Batlle's abilities with the ball, it almost always works a treat. Batlle has the required composure and technique to play this way and is very eager to get the ball forward. She plays a lot of passes to the winger in front of her, into a central midfielder or into the no. 10 and striker. The winger on Batlle's side doesn't get isolated either as she loves making runs forward but is also smart enough to figure out when to make a run and when to be an option for the backpass. She is always high up the pitch and doesn't lack anything in the areas Turner and Harris did last season. She is also better than both of them defensively and has really become an integral part of Manchester United by fixing all the problems at full-back from last season.
Ona Batlle's season stats so far:
5 games played
254/327 passes (77,7% completion rate)
22 shot creating actions
1 goal creating action
Applied pressure 97 times
11/21 dribbles completed
84 ball recoveries
3 aerial duels won
(stats from fbref.com)
After her arrival, Ona Batlle has taken the WSL by storm. She has proven that she's one of the best young full-backs in the world, and with her qualities as a player she has fitted in at Manchester United seemingly effortlessly. Batlle really suits the way United play and United's playing style suits her. She has an attacking mindset, and with Casey Stoney changing to a more attacking approach this season, Batlle has massively contributed to United's unbeaten start to the WSL. Even after just five games, she has become almost undroppable and a crucial part of the transformation in playing style. The reason being that Batlle has solved all of United's problems at full-back from the 2019/20 season and the difference is huge. Manchester United looks like two different teams when she plays and when she doesn't., and even after just five games, one can conclude that Ona Batlle has already had a massive impact on Manchester United, and become a crucial part in the way they play.