With the WSL about to start, Neil Evans previews Liverpool Ladies forced to rip it up and start again as they look to bounce back from last season’s disappointing title defence.
Team: Liverpool Ladies FC
Home: Select Security Stadium, Widnes
Manager: Scott Rogers
2015: 7th WSL1
Liverpool began the season as the back-to-back defending champions, and ended it in complete disarray, dispatched 4-2 by a Bristol Academy side that was already relegated. To say that the Reds’ defence of its title was lame would be the mother of all understatements. In short, it was pathetic, given the full-time status of the club, and when measured against the standards they had set themselves. A second successive and disappointing Champions League exit against Brescia compounded the Merseyside misery. Manager Matt Beard had already announced his intentions to coach in America, and it seemed that the whole club simply went through the motions after exiting the Continental Cup.
Time for a rethink – Scott Rogers was announced as the new manager/head coach, appointed from within in the old Anfield ‘bootroom’ tradition. Rogers’ first task was to rebuild the squad entirely, to make it his team, and it is fair to say that no club in the WSL has had more comings and goings during the close season.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the skipper; Gemma Bonner has remained at the heart of the defence, and her leadership and connection with the club will be essential to the Reds’ success. Elsewhere, Siobhan Chamberlain has been recruited between the sticks. It was a curious 2015 for ‘Shiv’ – she enjoyed World Cup glory with England, but was unable to get a game at domestic level, firstly at her parent club, Arsenal, and then on loan at Notts County. It promises to be an important season for Chamberlain as she seeks to re-establish herself as Karen Bardsley’s main challenger as England keeper.
She’s not the only player with something to prove. Natasha Harding, who signed from Manchester City, will be keen to get her career back on track, and the mercurial Welsh winger should provide energy and ammunition for the strikers – as well as the odd goal or two – if she can stay fit. Elsewhere, it really has been all change, with Dutch centre back and captain, Mandy van den Berg signed to shore up a back line that conceded 24 league goals in 2015. And it’s a case of ‘Double Dutch’, as Rodgers acquired the services of winger/forward Shanice van de Sanden from FC Twente. Plenty of pace on both flanks to worry opposition defences, but just as important is the reliable Martha Harris, and full-back and set piece expert Alex Greenwood, brought in from Notts.
Following the demise of the Vixens, Liverpool wasted no time in cherry-picking their quality midfielders Caroline Weir and Sophie Ingle. Ingle is the captain of Wales, whilst Weir is an elegant playmaker, and, at just 20, an established Scottish international. Add to that Laura Coombs – a perfect defensive midfield foil for the more attack-minded players around her – on a season’s loan from Chelsea, and Liverpool possess quality all over.
Up top, it will be interesting to see how Swedish star Emma Lundh adapts to the pace of the English game. Rosie White is another fascinating prospect, and with over 70 caps for the ‘White Fearns’, the New Zealander is a player for Liverpool fans to get excited about. Kate Longhurst is an established WSL goalscorer, and there should be no shortage of goals throughout the squad. Asisat Oshoala’s future with the club has been in doubt, but at the time of writing, she remains another forward option and should be better following a difficult first campaign.
It has to be said that this year’s ‘Red Machine’ has been almost completely remodelled and reassembled. If there is a concern, it might be that there has potentially been too much change from top to bottom. As with every WSL1 club, international commitments hasn’t allowed the players to get to know each other as well as they might like to, so it’s possible that Liverpool may take a little time to gel as a unit. They have had some time together on a short tour of South Africa, which has allowed Rogers to see his players in competitive action, and the reports from those games augers well for the demanding season ahead.
With all that quality at their disposal, surely the only direction is up, and they would be a decent bet to secure a cup. However, for me, recapturing the league title this year will be beyond them. There is no reason why they shouldn’t push very hard for a top-two finish. Given that they play champions Chelsea home and away within a month, we should have a fair indication of just where Liverpool are.
There’s no doubt that this team will do a lot of damage with a group of players with points to prove blended with some exciting overseas talent, and we should see signs of a Reds Renaissance.
First Fixture: v Birmingham City Ladies (H) March 23rd
Player to watch: Mandy van den Berg
Likely Line-up: Chamberlain – Harris, Bonner, van den Berg, Greenwood – Longhurst, Ingle, Weir – Harding, Lundh, van de Sanden