Jessy Parker-Humphreys gives a preview of the 2020/21 Women’s Super League.
The Women’s Super League prepares to open on Saturday aware this is the most crucial season of its development yet. There have been false dawns before. The years after international tournaments are often heralded as opportunities to win the public over.
This season’s success looks to be achieved by winning players over.
It is easier to feel excited for the season ahead when the usual debates have become redundant. The hand wringing about crowd size is defunct in the face of empty stadiums. Fears about the financial support of parent clubs have been pushed aside as high-profile signing after high-profile signing has flooded into the league.
Now there is the opportunity for those signings to be the face of the WSL, demonstrating it to be a global, competitive league showcasing the highest quality of women’s football.
With all the change that has taken place over the summer, it has been easy to sideline the tussles that were taking place last season. Vivianne Miedema and Bethany England will no doubt once again battle to be the most dominant centre forward in the league. The fight for first will be carried out based on the slimmest of margins.
The signings Chelsea and Manchester City have made has led some to believe that it will be those two fighting at the top of the table. Both teams have added eye-catching players to their squads but neither is infallible.
Chelsea conceded first in eight games last season, which shows long it took them to get into their rhythm. They also struggled against low block teams – they drew with both Liverpool and Brighton. Defensively, they rely heavily on their two first choice centre backs – Magdalena Eriksson and Millie Bright – with little to support those players if they picked up an injury.
Manchester City have similar defensive question marks with captain Steph Houghton beginning to look like she struggles with the pace of top teams. Meanwhile Ellen White is their sole centre forward who is still yet to impress in a Manchester City shirt, and is particularly injury prone. They might yet add Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood to their squad, but neither player will help in those departments.
Arsenal meanwhile seem to be flying under the radar, with arguably the most balanced squad of the three. They have strengthened in both fullback positions with one of the most highly rated left backs in the world in Steph Catley, and Noelle Maritz, who was Arsenal’s brightest spark in a drab Champions League loss to Paris St-Germain. Their key weakness is probably their ability to bring game changers off the bench.
The reality of how small the margins are in the WSL means that realistically any of these teams could win the league. Last season, Arsenal won every game against teams outside of that top three, but their results against Manchester City and Chelsea meant they finished third. There is no reason to assume that their team has got weaker – it will be their performances against City and Chelsea which will matter. For the past two years, the team that finished third the year before has gone on to win.
However, the teams below them will want to upset the applecart. More and more of them have the ability to do so.
Manchester United were unlucky to not get any points against the top three last season. They lost 1-0 to all three and were due to play them all again before the season was curtailed. They are yet to really strengthen their team this season – although rumours that Tobin Heath and Christen Press will join persist – but they have plenty of young players who now have WSL experience under their belts. Leah Galton and Lauren James in particular were both affected by injury last season but could really take the league by storm.
Everton’s loss of Chloe Kelly has been more than made up for with the signings of Valerie Gauvin and Ingrid Moe Wold, whilst Izzy Christiansen who signed from Lyon at the start of this year looks to now be fully fit. Under Willie Kirk’s leadership, Everton are a team who clearly have aspirations to make it to the top of the WSL.
The American exodus has also allowed weaker teams to sign match winners. Jess Fishlock’s arrival at Reading and Rachel Daly’s at West Ham mean that both teams now have players of an incredibly high pedigree who can turn a game on its head.
All of this means that there are a number of teams who will see a victory against the top three as a prize in itself.
At the bottom, former Sheffield United manager Carla Ward has the tough task of attempting to keep Birmingham City up as they will likely battle it out with Bristol City to avoid relegation. Ward is a shrewd recruitment from a Birmingham team that stagnated last year under Marta Tejedor, and were lucky to stay up in the end.
The unknown quantity in all of this is Aston Villa. Manchester United showed last season that it is perfectly possible to be the ‘best of the rest’ in your debut WSL season, but they were able to do that by predominantly retaining the side which saw them storm to the Women’s Championship title. With Eni Aluko at the helm as director of football, Villa have added guaranteed WSL experience with Anita Asante as well as exciting new blood with Diana Silva. Yet they have also lost their top scorer from last season, Melissa Johnson who opted to join Sheffield United. Their ability to challenge the league is likely to be determined by how quickly young manager Gemma Davies can bed new signings in.
The headline signings at Manchester City and Chelsea will attract most of the press but what is most exciting about the season ahead is just how many teams have managed to strengthen. There was a period during COVID-19 where the integrity of the league and the teams within it looked seriously under threat. There may be further ramifications to come, but the Women’s Super League is emerging from its time away into brilliant sunshine.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph