All-out attack: Is the WSL suffering from a defensive dilemma?

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Nancy Frostick reviews the WSL as it heads into its first break of the season 

As the WSL takes its first break of the season following a highly anticipated set of opening fixtures, there is a chance to pause and evaluate the 2017-18 campaign thus far. With most clubs and players now turning their focus to the Continental Cup and international friendlies in the coming fortnight, squads will have a chance reflect and regroup before normal order resumes.

So, what have we learned from the opening few matches in WSL 1? For the most part, the table makes for familiar reading and is probably what most fans might have expected before a ball was kicked. Chelsea and Manchester City are already pulling away at the head of the table, both teams remain unbeaten. Bringing up the rear, Yeovil and Everton are still winless and pointless.The melee between third and eighth, however, is where things get interesting.

Arsenal and Liverpool’s slow starts – they sit sixth and eighth respectively – is a surprise, even with plenty of time to climb back up. The Gunners have been erratic in their results and performances, but their 5-2 hammering from title rivals Manchester City speaks to a wider theme from across the league.

The fact that Arsenal, a team that has brought in exciting talent throughout their squad in the offseason, could leak five goals in one match was a shock. However, what’s more alarming is that they have conceded eight goals in just three matches – a league high.

Across the division, teams have been conceding far too often. Games have been so free-scoring, in fact, that six of the ten WSL 1 teams currently have negative goal difference. Only Chelsea are yet to concede in the league, with Reading the next best record having shipped three goals so far. So, is this a problem for fans that enjoy free-flowing, attacking football? No, but it certainly raises the question of whether the league is faced with a defensive dilemma.

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It would be easy to credit the league-wide investment in attacking talent following the Spring Series as the cause for the surge in goals. Equally, a few freak scorelines, like back-to-back six goal victories for Chelsea, might skew the picture. Add to that Manchester City’s twelve goals in the first three games and there’s fair evidence of strikers running riot.

However, strikers can’t get all the credit, there have been some awful defensive displays. Arsenal have been unpicked too easily by all three of their opponents. In their 1-1 draw with Bristol City, they gave away possession and lacked cohesion and communication. Similarly, Manchester City have apparently let defending take a back seat in favour of playing to outscore the opposition.

Even though Nick Cushing’s side secured the points in entertaining fashion during their most recent 5-2 and 3-2 league wins, it is rather ominous to see the 2016 champions conceding so freely. With Champions League success an undisputed target for City, they’ll need to tighten up at the back in time for the next stages of competition where they are likely to meet tougher opponents than Austrian outfit St Polten.

Unlike the Spring Series, the 2017-18 season will be a long run affair – giving all teams plenty of time for much improved defensive performances. Big scorelines might be entertaining but they also show the disparity between teams in the WSL. Closing that gap – and how to do it – is an argument for another day, but Bristol City’s ability to hold Arsenal to a draw should come as a warning sign against complacency.

The onus is definitely on those clubs at the top of the table to tighten up at the back soon, but those further down aren’t exempt – even if there’s no automatic relegation based on performance alone this time. Putting the ball in the back of the net might be the aim of the game, but keeping it out is just as important. For now, the wait for the first 0-0 draw of the season continues.

Follow Nancy on Twitter at @nancyfrostick

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