In this week’s column, Rich Laverty is impressed by the bright starts made by an array of WSL teams this season. Could we be witnessing the most competitive WSL season so far?
There’s a certain sense of regret now looking back at Manchester City’s thrilling 3-3 draw with Chelsea back in February.
Undoubtedly one of the best games the Barclays Women’s Super League has thrown up in its 10-year history, how much greater would it have been had we known its pending significance?
As it turned out, it became a title-decider, the COVID-19 pandemic ensuring no more domestic league games were played after the Continental League Cup final a week later.
It always looked to be a thrilling end to the season, with City and Chelsea both looking capable of going the distance, and with the extra spice of wondering how the 2016 champions would cope after the sudden departure of then head coach Nick Cushing.
With four goals and a missed penalty in 15 explosive second-half minutes, just imagine the carnage had we known then what we know now: that what was unfolding before our eyes would decide the destiny of the 2019-20 title.
Toni Duggan’s stunning strike on the final day of the 2014 season has always gone down in folklore: not just because it was a stunning strike, but for the dent it made in Chelsea’s title challenge on what was the most dramatic day of action the league has ever seen.
Beth England’s quite frankly ridiculous strike less than two minutes after Georgia Stanway had seen a penalty saved would probably have moved forward with similar status, had the fate of last season been foreshadowed. But it is what it is – that’s 2020.
Fortunately, the new season looks every bit ready to make up for what was, in the end, an anti-climactic end to a promising campaign (though of course irrelevant in the midst of what has unfolded around the world in the months since).
As we head into the international break, things in the WSL are beautifully poised. Arsenal, despite their annual injury crisis, have looked flawless so far, but are yet to face up to any of their four major rivals. They’ll be restless in the knowledge that they’ve failed to defeat two of them in cup competitions already this season.
Many, including myself, scoffed at the possibility Everton could realistically bother the top three too much this season despite a summer overhaul, but their campaign has so far shown much promise, with the added gloss of an FA Cup final to come – the club’s first in six years.
A disappointing draw at home to Brighton on Sunday is a blot on the copybook, and manager Willie Kirk will feel they should have matched Arsenal’s 100% record start to the season – especially knowing they too have yet to face any of their major rivals in the league this season.
In third, Casey Stoney’s Manchester United have progressed steadily. They too have only dropped two points in a promising 1-1 draw against champions Chelsea on the opening day. United haven’t hit spectacular levels since, but with a new-look attack beginning to click, they are picking up points in games they stumbled in last time around.
Chelsea, should they win their game-in-hand against newly-promoted Aston Villa, will also sit on 13 points from 15, ensuring the current top two are likely to only be split by two solitary points, with Manchester City further adrift.
It’s been a difficult start for new head coach Gareth Taylor. Barring a frustrating draw with Brighton, City have been exemplary at home, including an impressive win against Arsenal to book themselves a spot in the FA Cup final, a win which will lift a lot of the pressure surrounding Taylor as City look to climb back towards the European spots.
But two away games in a row and just one point to show for it is disappointing. Ellen White has managed just one goal in five league games, and most of their spark has come from new signings Chloe Kelly and Sam Mewis.
It was the USA midfielder who rescued a point at Reading on Sunday, while they were reliant on just a penalty away at Chelsea in a game where a 3-1 scoreline didn’t flatter the hosts one bit.
Cushing was subjected to a similar start to life at the club, with the team failing to win any of their opening four games, but the scrutiny and attention on women’s football back in 2014 was minimal compared to 2020.
Taylor should and likely will get time to implement his style on a team which saw many of its new arrivals join very late in the window – most not even ready in time for the first weekend of the season.
It’s a tantalising set up, and given many of the top contenders are yet to face each other, that brings us nicely into what should be a blockbuster November.
Taylor will be relieved somewhat to know his side host Bristol City, who have endured a torrid start to the campaign, in a chance to get much-needed points on the board. He’ll be hoping they have a new shiny FA Cup to show off before the match, too.
On the Sunday, Manchester United host Arsenal and record-breaking Vivianne Miedema, while Chelsea host Everton, their kryptonite in the recent FA Cup quarter-final which largely forged the Toffees’ path to Wembley.
One week later brings around the first designated women’s football weekend of the season, with big games once again placed in men’s international windows to give full exposure to the women’s game.
It means that, off the back of facing Arsenal, Stoney’s United side once again are the hosts, this time to local rivals City. Meanwhile Arsenal themselves host London rivals Chelsea, a game they’ve had minimal success in recently.
Incredibly, Joe Montemurro’s Gunners haven’t drawn a league game since the end of the 2017-18 season, a game they should have won against Yeovil Town.
Of the team’s six league defeats since then, five have come against Chelsea and Manchester City, a record the Aussie will need to turn around if they are to maintain their early advantage over the chasing pack, given they also have to travel to the City Academy in December.
All in all, as of now it is impossible to predict which way the league is going to go. Quite often there has never been more than two leading contenders during a single season, three if those involved feel like spoiling us.
Just potentially – and whisper it quietly – it could even be a five-horse race this season. How about that?
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty