The January transfer window was another watershed moment for the WSL, from record bids and moves to Aston Villa and Tottenham proving their mettle in the transfer market.
Last window before the first £1m player?
If Arsenal are offering £500,000 for a player with six months left on their contract, then how much is a big-name player now worth when they’re committed to a club for longer?
Clubs are now trying to lock down players to longer deals in an attempt to maximise their values. For Manchester United to stand firm over Alessia Russo is a sign the market’s changed.
The current world record for a player is the £400,000 spent by Barcelona on Keira Walsh. That could seem like a bargain in the not-so-distant future.
The money being offered is a first for the women’s game, which is a positive sign according to former England forward Lianne Sanderson.
She told Sky Sports News: “To put it into perspective, in the men’s game, this is two weeks wages. In the women’s game, to see players like Bethany England and Alessia Russo being linked with this much money, it makes me so happy.
“Maybe I’ll come out of retirement, I don’t know how much I’d go for!”
Stars will emerge between now and the end of the season, especially at this summer’s World Cup. Watch this space because someone will become the first £1m player soon.
WSL must not let others be left behind
Of course, for their male counterparts, £1m for a player barely covers agents’ fees.
But the increase in money offered and paid – let’s not forget Tottenham also splashed out a British record £250,000 for Bethany England early in the window too – as well as increased integration between men’s and women’s teams could see accelerated fees over the next few years.
For example, if we consider Arsenal – the whole club, not just the women’s team – £400,000 for a player with six months left on her contract like Russo is a drop in the ocean. While we do not know the figures, Chelsea also offered a “substantial” sum to try and sign Katie McCabe from Arsenal.
The Chelsea men’s team had a net spend of £323.3m in January and, two and a half years ago, the women’s team broke the world record when they signed Pernille Harder for £250,000. Of course, that almost doubled with Walsh’s Barcelona move in the summer and could have been broken again in January.
However, you then have to ask if the already clear disparity between the “top” clubs and everyone else in the WSL will only widen as fees increase. The large offers for the players already mentioned – and explored in more detail below – are among the three clubs at the top of the table.
It is an issue that Man Utd manager Marc Skinner is wary of, saying after England’s move to Spurs: “Yes, it’s going to be a positive, but obviously when that happens there’s more expense that comes into it. You know, the clubs that can afford it can continue to grow, the clubs that can’t will have to find a different way.
“[But] the excitement around [England’s deal] just helps the fan base grow. It’s something to talk about. It helps our fans to grow, connect. I think [record fees] are going to keep going that way. It’s not going to stop now.”
Of course, there was movement between the other WSL clubs as well as bringing in talent from elsewhere, but for nowhere near the same fees. It may become harder for these clubs to navigate the transfer window as the money increases, and the league must be wary that some do not get left behind.
Days of selling to rivals are over
Chelsea wanted Katie McCabe from Arsenal. Arsenal wanted Alessia Russo from Manchester United.
Neither club had their wishes granted.
The value of winning competitions has never been higher, hence the intransigence of selling clubs when rival teams put bids in.
Yes, England, Jordan Nobbs and Lucy Staniforth were all granted moves so they can attempt to secure their World Cup places but these were also business decisions.
Tottenham and Aston Villa aren’t in contention to win the league yet so getting squad players off the wage bill to teams further down the division makes financial sense.
But clubs are now in a stronger financial position to reject the notion of making rivals stronger even when six-figure sums are offered.
This window feels like the first time that’s happened.
Why Aston Villa and Tottenham are the window winners
While much of the January attention has been on those teams challenging for the WSL title, it is in fact two teams hoping to push into the top three places that have arguably done the best business this window.
Let’s start with Rehanne Skinner’s Tottenham – their purchase of England broke the British record for a player, and they also landed 2011 World Cup winner Mana Iwabuchi on loan from Arsenal.
Two players with international and WSL pedigree, plus more importantly the ability to score and create goals. Tottenham have scored the third lowest number of goals in the WSL this season (12), and both players have already scored since their arrival.
But Spurs were trumped by Aston Villa’s January business.
After a complete summer overhaul – including the surprise arrival of Rachel Daly from Houston Dash – Villa have continued to add vast amounts of experience to their ranks. Nobbs left Arsenal for the Midlands club, while Lucy Staniforth joined on a free transfer.
The influence of such talent is already clear to see. They have beaten Tottenham and drawn with Manchester City since the WSL returned after the winter break, and look a force to be reckoned with this season.
Both Aston Villa and Spurs have proven to be shrewd in the transfer market, with a strategy to rival that of the biggest clubs. The players themselves too are not afraid to make moves away from the perceived “bigger clubs” to achieve their personal ambitions. No longer are the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City the only draws in the WSL.
The last window before the World Cup – who will stake a claim?
Perhaps the most pertinent reason for the players above to have moved – and plenty more besides across women’s football – is the upcoming Women’s World Cup this summer, now only five-and-a-half months away.
England, Nobbs and Staniforth will surely be eyeing a spot in Sarina Wiegman’s England squad. For Euro 2022, Staniforth was named in the initial 28-player team, but a season blighted by injuries saw her miss out on a place in the final 23-player squad.
Nobbs found herself injured once again while England, although part of the squad, only played a few minutes. With the likes of Ebony Salmon, Lauren James and, surprisingly, Daly now eyeing places up front, England must be at her best to make it into the final World Cup squad.
Iwabuchi too, while a seasoned international, will want to keep her fitness up ahead of the tournament in Australia and New Zealand. Japan will be one of the favourites in Group C, along with Spain, Costa Rica and Zambia.
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