Batlle for the title: Why “Spanish wonderkid” is key to Man United’s FAWSL campaign
There is no doubting that Manchester United Women, under former England captain Casey Stoney, have had a brilliant season so far, currently sitting second in the WSL, behind Chelsea Women on goal difference. The reason for this has been the excellent recruitment at the club, bringing in the likes of USA stars Tobin Heath and Christen Press, as well as talented young England striker Alessia Russo, all of whom joined last summer. However, one player who is not talked about as much is young Spain defender Ona Batlle, who also joined last summer, moving from Levante UD Femenino. Capable of playing on the right or left, she has established herself as one of the most consistent full-backs in the league so far, and is an integral part of the Manchester United squad.
In this tactical analysis, we will see just how Batlle fits into Manchester United’s tactics. We will examine how she closes down defenders, positions herself well on the pitch, and look at some areas the 21-year-old can continue to work on as her career progresses. The scout report will also look at some of her statistics for this season, showing just how much she brings to the field for her team.
Closing down opponents
The first thing we will look at is how she closes down defenders. This is a crucial and basic part of being a defender, so it is important for her to do it well.
As we can see in this image, Ona Batlle has the confidence to get tight to opposing attackers, causing them plenty of problems during the game. Here, against Everton Women, she has won the ball from Everton winger Hayley Raso, and is now turning to clear it. We can see how she has forced Raso into a small amount of space between her and the line, making it difficult for the Australia international to get the ball into the box for a teammate to meet. Therefore, by closing her down in this way, Batlle ensures that she always has the advantage in these 1-v-1 situations, and a better chance of winning and clearing the ball.
However, there is more to this than simply limiting the space an opponent has. Here, Everton’s on-loan West Ham United Women forward Alisha Lehmann has the ball on the nearside wing, and again Batlle has moved to close her down. However, we can also see the effect centrally of this, because, now that the potential ball into the box has been delayed, Manchester United have been allowed to get back and occupy the spaces in the box, giving them a bigger chance of winning the ball than Everton do. This all comes from Batlle’s ability to get tight to her opponents, positioning her body between them and the goal area, and making it hard for them to get a clear angle to cross from.
The thing that allows Batlle to get this close is her natural speed. She likes to match her opponents where she can, and we can see here how she marks Bristol City Women left-back Jemma Purfield closely, eventually winning the ball. This demonstrates again her desire to have the ball, and her ability to chase and match opponents. By doing so, she keeps them pinned tight to the sideline, meaning it is harder for them to find the ball into the box.
Defensive and attacking positioning
The second quality that Ona Batlle has is a good awareness of where to position herself on the pitch, ensuring that she always offers a good passing option for her teammates.
As a defender, and a player in this Manchester United Women team, it is essential that Batlle is adaptable, able to fit into Manchester United’s tactical structures, which have led to them being difficult to break down this season. When out of possession, they instantly become narrow, protecting the goal. This involves the full-backs coming inside and joining the centre-backs, as we can see here. Batlle therefore has to know when to stay out wide to close down opponents, and when to come inside and prevent any gaps appearing. In this image, by coming inside, she has made it difficult for Chelsea to play through Manchester United, and this awareness has led to her becoming a team regular this season.
However, she is equally as good with her positioning in attack, as can be seen in these two images. What is particularly important is her versatility, as she can play on either side, as mentioned at the start of this analysis. However, she will instinctively do the same thing on either side, which is to run forward and play on the shoulder of the defender, offering the passing option out wide for her teammate. When the ball does reach her, it means that her teammates can get into central areas, looking to receive the ball from her and shoot at goal. With Manchester United’s wide forwards always looking to cut inside and shoot at goal, Batlle plays the vital role of staying wide, ensuring that their opponents can’t access this space unopposed, and that is another reason that she has become a crucial player for her team this season.
This image highlights that last point, with Batlle, in the red circle, staying close to the wing, even though the ball is in the middle of the pitch. By taking up this role, she offers the passing option out wide, as mentioned, but she also stretches the pitch out, making it as big as possible. The effect on the defenders is that they now can’t pack in too tightly, because they would leave the wide space open for Batlle to advance into. Therefore, they have to spread apart more than they would like to or are comfortable with, which could lead to more gaps being available between the players; that is where Manchester United’s central attackers could then get through and behind the defence.
We have looked at how Batlle can play on the right or left, but she is also known to take up positions centrally on occasion when her team are attacking. This generally comes at corners and other attacking set pieces, but we can see how she has positioned herself in space outside the box, and is calling for the ball from her teammate. Bristol have not seen her, because they are concentrating on the ball’s position, and that means that Batlle can shoot at goal under little pressure, which she does here. The shot doesn’t miss by much, so that shows how the Spain international is not afraid to shoot at goal when she gets opportunities, even though it is not her job necessarily or her strongest point. However, it again adds another weapon to her game, and is another reason why she is such a promising young player.
Areas to improve
However, whilst we have praised her strengths so far, there are still a couple of areas where Ona Batlle can improve her game as her career advances.
Firstly, due to her desire to have the ball, she sometimes rushes towards it, but doesn’t win it. However, because she has gone forward, as the red arrow shows, the space has opened up behind her, allowing her opponents to simply play the ball around her. Therefore, she needs to be careful to time her runs forward in these situations, because, as we have seen, when she does get them right, it limits the space opponents have to use the ball in. This is just a case of continually working hard in training to improve this, and Casey Stoney, being an ex-defender herself, will be able to help her with it.
She also has a small tendency to not get back quickly enough when in attack, and her team lose the ball. Here, against Chelsea, this is particularly dangerous to do, because we know how Chelsea like to get players in behind opposing defences quickly. Therefore, opposing defences have to be organised against them, which means the full-backs have to track back quickly. However, because Batlle is out of position here, Chelsea forward Fran Kirby, in the blue square, can take the ball behind the defence, using her teammate on the nearside wing, who is just out of picture. Had Batlle been back in that position, it is possible that Chelsea would have lost that passing option, and may have had to move the ball backwards instead. Therefore, whilst we have already mentioned how she has a good awareness on the pitch, she can still improve it even further as she becomes more experienced.
Key data and statistics
We have looked at how Ona Batlle fits into Manchester United Women’s tactics, but we will now look at her key data and statistics.
From her heatmap, we can see that she does not change the way she plays, whether on the left or right. This highlights what we were saying earlier about her versatility, and the fact that she offers Manchester United a solid full-back option on either side, able to get up and down the wing well. She has a good on-pitch relationship with all of her teammates, meaning they trust her and pass the ball to her, knowing that she has the quality to use it however is best for the team.
However, her statistics are where things get interesting. Firstly, in attack, she is not a full-back expected to score goals, as her expected goals (xG) and expected assists (xA) values per game indicate (0.01 and 0.08 respectively). We have seen this in her positioning already, because we know she likes to stay wide and control the wing, allowing others to cut inside towards goal. However, by staying out on the wings, her crossing accuracy needs to be good; per game, it currently stands at 19%, so just under one in five are accurate. This is another area she could therefore look to improve going forward, particularly as we have seen that she likes to get into good areas when her team are attacking.
Where Batlle is particularly strong is in dribbling, with a success rate of 64.4%, and this demonstrates how she likes to have the ball at her feet and take it forward herself, rather than passing it. However, when she does make a pass, she has an accuracy of 78.9%, whilst her accuracy of passes to the final third sits at 67.8% and her accuracy of passes into the penalty area is 46.7% (just under half of these passes each game are accurate). These numbers show how she is comfortable moving the ball forward either by herself or by passing to a teammate ahead of her, so, again, she gives her team options during games.
Finally, in defence, where her statistics should be good, she makes 6.54 interceptions per game, which comes from her positioning and ability to anticipate where the ball will go. She also wins 65.9% of her defensive duels per game, and 48.1% of her aerial duels per game, showing how she is good in the air and on the ground, and we have seen how she likes to get tight to opposing attackers and win the ball off them; these numbers back that up. A final statistic worth mentioning is that she wins 33.3% of her sliding tackles per game, which is interesting because it again demonstrates her confidence to win the ball any way she can.
In conclusion, Ona Batlle is a promising young defender, and a solid option and mainstay in the team at the same time. She has some excellent qualities in defence and attack, but also has areas to work on in the next few years, which will help her to become an even better player than she is now. Our key points have been backed up by the statistics we have looked at, which have all shown how important she has become to Manchester United Women this season. There are plenty of good players in Casey Stoney’s side that get the plaudits from writers and analysts alike, but Ona Batlle is one of those who has gone a little under the radar this season, doing a lot for her team that tends to go unnoticed.