Jessy Parker-Humphreys looks at the competitiveness of the WSL.
High scoring one-sided games in men’s football tend to be greeted with a mixture of excitement and curiosity. If Leicester beating Southampton 9-0 had been in the women’s game, we could expect to see it derided as an example of arrogance on Leicester’s part. Pundits would have been lining up to argue the result showed that Southampton simply were not up to the challenge of playing professional football. They may say the result showed that no men could play football competently.
These are the lingering concerns that proliferate around a result such as Arsenal’s 11-1 drubbing of Bristol City over the weekend. A WSL record win was dominated by Vivienne Miedema’s six goals and four assists, enough to leave anyone scratching their head as to how a player currently averaging 1.5 goals and one assist per 90 minutes only managed to come fifth in the Ballon d’Or.
But is the Women’s Super League uncompetitive? And which direction is its competitiveness going?
When the Women’s Super League first went professional at the start of the 2018/19 season, the assumption was that the gap between teams at the top and bottom of the division would begin to close with clubs committing to supporting squads financially to train full time. That first professional season seemed to have little impact on this as the gap between the league’s winner and loser went from 42 points in 17/18 to 47 points in 18/19, not even considering Yeovil’s points deduction. The percentage of goals scored by the top three (Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal) rose from 47% to 50%, although the percentage of goals conceded by the bottom three did decrease from 46% to 40%.
We are yet to even reach the halfway point of the season but early signs suggest that not much has changed. 46% of goals scored this season have been from the top three and 40% of those conceded have been from the bottom three. The margin of victory has seemed like it might be shifting, with the number of victories by two goals rising from 14% last season to 24% this season and the number of 3+ goal victories falling from 28% to 22%.
Last season, Manchester City men’s team averaged 2.5 goals a game, whilst Arsenal women’s team averaged 3.5. Liverpool men’s team averaged 2.3 whilst Manchester City women’s team averaged 2.65. So last season perhaps the dominance of the leading women’s teams did exceed that of the men’s equivalents. Yet in their record breaking 17/18 season, Manchester City men’s team averaged 2.8 goals a game. That same season, their women’s team averaged identically the same and still finished second despite scoring the most goals. Sometimes it feels like when a men’s team dominate a league, they are seen as exceptional, whereas a women’s team are seen as domineering.
So, what explains this recent run of high scoring results? Perhaps smaller teams are feeling tired and getting sloppy as we move towards the Christmas break. Even though the WSL is a professional league, it would be foolish to assume this equates to an equal playing field. The bigger teams are still much better placed to focus on things like recovery in order to deal with the number of fixtures. Until two weeks ago, no team had won by more than four goals. Since then, Manchester City have won by five goals in back to back games, Chelsea by six and Arsenal by 10.
Despite this recent run of results, the WSL this season has felt more equal. Whether that is because Manchester United and Everton have demonstrated a best of the rest mentality to show they will be stiff competition for Chelsea, Manchester City or Arsenal, or because Liverpool, sat bottom of the league, have shown a defensive tightness which means they are actually yet to lose by more than two goals even though they have lost all but one game. Maybe it’s because West Ham and Reading have proven themselves as adept comeback teams in different situations to overturn two goal deficits and give us evenly matched five goal thrillers. The numbers suggest that whilst the playing field is nowhere near level, it’s certainly not going backwards.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph