Manchester United have three key players out of contract at the end of this season: England internationals Alessia Russo and Mary Earps and Spain right-back Ona Batlle.
The club are yet to agree fresh terms with any of the trio, despite Ella Toone — whose deal was also set to expire this summer — signing a new three-and-a-half-year contract in November.
All three want to compete at the highest level and play Champions League football. United, however, have finished in fourth — outside of the European qualification spots — in each of the past three seasons. It means that when it comes to holding on to their best players, the club are competing against sides who can offer Champions League football and the higher salaries that come with it.
The core of United’s squad were signed by Casey Stoney, who left as manager in May 2021. But the women’s game has developed hugely over the last 18 months and the contracts from back then are no longer representative of the players’ market values.
Steve Deaville had always been responsible for negotiating women’s contracts at United, but in October the club appointed former Brighton & Hove general manager Polly Bancroft as head of women’s football (a newly-created role that involves dealing with player contracts). However, she has inherited a tough situation.
United started their women’s team very quickly in 2018 and since their promotion to the Women’s Super League have shot up the rankings. As a result, they have top players who are seeking better deals. The club has to decide if they want to invest in these talents and commit to becoming one of the best WSL teams.
United made the most money of any English women’s team during the 2021-22 season, according to Deloitte’s Football Money League report. They generated a revenue of €6million (£5.3m; $6.5 m) and that was without qualifying for the Champions League.
With a 40 per cent soft salary cap, that means they could spend up to €2.4m (£2.1m; $2.6m) on player salaries. A recent report conducted by Analytics FC found that salaries in women’s football are growing between five and 10 per cent on average each year and United have to keep pace if they are to keep their best players.
Qualifying for the Champions League would be a clear financial benefit to the club. Not only will current squad members be more tempted to stay, but other top players would be attracted to United.
“We’re entering a different realm of women’s football, so it becomes more difficult,” United head coach Marc Skinner said recently. “But we are working as hard as we can to retain the players and build on top of that.”
So what is the state of play with the trio?
Russo, a 23-year-old forward, has attracted interest from top clubs both abroad and in England, including Arsenal and Chelsea.
Her two-year contract with an option to extend (which was triggered last summer) was agreed with Stoney when she joined the club in 2020 from American College team North Carolina Tar Heels.
But that contract does not reflect her current value and a lot has happened since then. Talks started before the 2022 European Championship and Russo (top image) turned down United’s offer before the tournament in the knowledge that her worth may increase.
She was proved right.
Coming off the back of a successful domestic season in which Russo was United’s top scorer (with nine WSL goals), the striker was instrumental to England’s triumph. Manager Sarina Wiegman used her to great effect as an impact substitute and she scored four goals, one of which — her backheel in the semi-final win against Sweden — was nominated for the FIFA Puskas award for the best goal of 2022.
Following the Euros, Russo’s footballing and commercial value increased and she has maintained her performance levels — scoring five goals, including the winner against Arsenal at the Emirates in November, as well as playing a key link-up role in the team.
Conversations with United are ongoing leaving her at a crossroads at a pivotal moment in her career.
Discussions with Batlle are also taking place. The 23-year-old is happy in Manchester and both parties are doing their best to move negotiations forward.
The best European and American clubs wanted to buy the Spain international last summer but United made an offer in September in the knowledge that, as of January 1, teams abroad could sign pre-contract agreements with players for the summer.
Top sides have again shown interest in Batlle during this transfer window and could offer United a substantial transfer fee.
United signed right-back Jayde Riviere last week on an 18-month deal which sparked speculation the Spaniard would leave in January, but she is likely to remain at the club. She will assess her options further down the line as a free agent in the summer, can pick her next club if she wishes to leave United.
The former Barcelona academy graduate wants to be part of a competitive project and Champions League qualification is likely to prove pivotal.
Goalkeeper Earps’ situation is slightly different. Her contract expires at the end of June and although she is free to speak to other teams, United have the option to extend her deal by one year.
The club have been in talks about renegotiating a new contract for their No 1 — who became the first goalkeeper to keep 50 clean sheets in the WSL against Reading on Sunday — since the Euros, but a decision regarding her future, like with Russo and Batlle, may only be made once the WSL table is finalised at the end of the season.
(Top photo: Morgan Harlow — MUFC/Manchester United via Getty Images)
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