WSL 2021 review: Looking back on 12 months of mixed fortunes and to New Year’s resolutions clubs should stick to

The end of a year is often a time we use to reflect on the 12 months prior, as well as considering what we can improve about ourselves for the coming year.

The WSL has returned to some kind of normality after being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, with fans flooding back to the grounds in September. The end of the 2020/21 season saw Bristol City relegated with Leicester City being promoted in their place, while Chelsea won their second consecutive title. Indeed, the Blues won every domestic trophy available this calendar year — a dominance that several teams may want to end as one of their New Year’s resolutions, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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Arsenal

Arsenal’s tricky start to 2021 saw them only pick up one point in their opening three games, and probably marked the final nail in the coffin for manager Joe Montemurro who announced he was stepping down from the club in March. The arrival of Jonas Eidevall for the start of this season seems to have sparked an immediate change in fortunes — the opening-day victory over Chelsea only slightly dampened by the FA Cup final loss in December. They end the year top of the WSL, four points clear of holders Chelsea, and currently unbeaten.

New Year’s resolution: Win the Women’s Super League for the first time since 2018/19.

Aston Villa

Aston Villa opened the year in surprising fashion by demoting their Championship-winning manager Gemma Davies in order to let Marcus Bignot steer the ship. Stuck in a relegation battle, the decision ostensibly paid off with Villa staying up thanks to five consecutive draws to end the season, although Bignot only picked up one more point than Davies. Both left the club at the end of the year to be replaced with former Birmingham City manager Carla Ward whose bright start at the club has faded as the cold winter nights have drawn in.

New Year’s resolution: Rediscover the opening season form that saw them take seven points from their opening three games.

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Birmingham City

No club had 2021 throw more at them than Birmingham City, even if much of their issues were part of the club’s own making. Somehow Carla Ward weathered the storm in order to keep Birmingham in the league, although in the face of player complaints about standards, it is no surprise that she chose to move on at the end of the season. New manager Scott Booth could not even make it until December before being sacked, with Darren Carter now left with the unenviable task of trying to keep Birmingham up. Despite bright patches of play (and spirit), the recent loss to fellow strugglers Leicester City will be hard to surmount.

New Year’s resolution: The great escape.

Brighton & Hove Albion

When it comes to women’s football, Brighton epitomise the phrase “slow and steady wins the race”. While other clubs have spent big and struggled to adapt to life in the WSL, Brighton’s approach has seen them improve year on year. And 2021 was no different. Ending Chelsea’s two-year unbeaten run at Kingsmeadow would surely have been a highlight, while there was also a run to the FA Cup semi-final to enjoy. Brighton’s Fliss Gibbons said that repeating last season’s sixth-placed finish would be an achievement in itself, but as they end the year in fifth, they might have their sights set on something higher.

New Year’s resolution: Aim for 5th.

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Chelsea

An incredibly successful year for Chelsea has ended tinged with frustration as they crashed out of the Champions League group stages and fell behind in the WSL title race. Despite a clean sweep of every domestic trophy available, the Blues’ loss to Barcelona in the Champions League final was a rude awakening and they have not felt totally fluid ever since then. Sam Kerr continues to score buckets of goals — she has managed an astonishing 36 for them this year — and her decision to sign a new contract might rate as one of the club’s highlights of the year. Emma Hayes will be looking for some more consistency though as Chelsea attempt to spoil Arsenal’s party.

New Year’s resolution: Find the bite that saw them take the clean sweep last year. Then do it all again.

Everton

With Everton having had a fairly predictable first half of the year, the drama that has ensued on Merseyside since seemed to come out of nowhere. Having finished a perfectly respectable fifth, the club splashed the cash in the transfer market, bringing in experienced WSL heads like Toni Duggan and Kenza Dali, as well as Swedish wunderkind Hanna Bennison. A tough opening run, however, saw Willie Kirk become the first WSL manager to be sacked this season, with former Lyon boss Jean-Luc Vasseur being appointed in his place. However, Vasseur has taken one point less than Kirk in the same number of games and with much easier fixtures.

New Year’s resolution: Figure out a starting XI that actually works. And play Hanna Bennison more.

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Leicester City

Clear winners of the Championship, much excitement surrounded Leicester’s promotion to the WSL with manager Jonathan Morgan adding players like Jess Sigsworth to a squad that looked well supported and invested in. The return of Natasha Flint to the top division of women’s football also seemed well overdue with many wondering if Leicester could have the same impact Manchester United had when they first got promoted. Yet the Foxes had to wait 10 games to pick up their first WSL points, beating Birmingham City in the final match of 2021. With Morgan having been sacked in November, Lydia Bedford will be leading the side into 2022.

New Year’s resolution: Keep their noses in front of Birmingham in order to stay in the WSL.

Manchester City

Perennial bridesmaids of the WSL, Manchester City were once again unable to do any better than a second-placed finish, although given the nosedive the rest of 2021 took for them, that position is currently something they would die for. The departure of the three Americans — Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, and Abby Dahlkemper — perhaps suggested that all was not rosy at the Academy Stadium but a host of impressive summer signings left many picking out City as Chelsea’s main title challengers. Yet injuries have derailed their season with Ellie Roebuck, Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton all long-term absentees. Finishing the year in sixth place, Gareth Taylor has looked flummoxed about how one is supposed to manage a football team, but fortunately for him, the Manchester City hierarchy have looked equally flummoxed about how to replace a manager.

New Year’s resolution: PLAY BUNNY SHAW.

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Manchester United

Having ended 2020 top of the Women’s Super League, it has hardly been plain sailing for United over the past year. They were unable to hold onto a Champions League spot as their league form was affected by injuries to key players, before Casey Stoney announced her shock departure as a result of a lack of support from the club. The exits of Tobin Heath, Christen Press, and Lauren James only added to the bitter taste of Stoney’s resignation. However, the continued development of Alessia Russo and Ella Toone is a bright spark, and while new manager Marc Skinner has been divisive, results in December have shown that he is starting to make his mark.

New Year’s resolution: Capitalise on their Manchester neighbours’ misfortunes to secure Champions League football.

Reading

Reading’s 2021 was bookended neatly by two games that could see them become known as WSL party poopers. They opened the year with a 1-1 draw against Arsenal which saw any title hopes for the Gunners firmly slip away and closed it with a 1-0 win over Chelsea which could put paid to their aims of retaining the title for a third consecutive year. In between, Kelly Chambers’ side has often been confusing, oscillating between being organised and leaky. An awful start to this season has picked up over recent matches, mainly thanks to new signing and Olympic gold medallist Deanne Rose, but Reading are yet to show they are anything more than the ‘best of the rest’.

New Year’s resolution: Establish themselves as a top-half WSL team.

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Tottenham

The end of 2021 marks 13 months for Rehanne Skinner in the Tottenham job and in top-flight management, and there is an argument to be made that she has been the most impressive manager in the league this year. Despite winning only three times in the first half of 2021, Spurs ended the year in third, including a historic draw against Arsenal which saw them gain their first ever point in a league North London derby. However, the rather binary nature of Tottenham’s results do raise a slight question mark as to how long this form can be continued. The loss of Kit Graham for the rest of the season could also be a significant blow.

New Year’s resolution: Score more than one goal per game.

West Ham

West Ham only managed one league win in the first half of 2021, but the club continued to show faith in Olli Harder and his side have certainly improved. A 2-0 win over Manchester City in October was the highlight of their year, while a number of players have continued to show fine form in a West Ham shirt, particularly Hawa Cissoko and Mackenzie Arnold. The additions of Lisa Evans and Yui Hasegawa over the summer has given the side an extra spark this season, but a proven goalscorer would elevate this West Ham side even further.

New Year’s resolution: Cut out conceding last-minute equalisers.

Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph

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