With the distraction of pursuing a long-awaited Champions League trophy for Emma Hayes seemingly the only hope of toppling Chelsea’s league dominance, there may be hope this season for Arsenal and Manchester City. But a strengthened Tottenham and star-studded Manchester United could finally push into the upper echelons of the WSL, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.Embed from Getty Images
Any WSL preview worth its salt can guarantee the same opening paragraph, exhorting that this will be the biggest season for the league yet! But it is impossible to imagine a better platform to begin the 12th ever Women’s Super League than England having won the Euros on home soil.
To end 56 years of hurt against Germany was a celebration that stretched across the country, from diehard football fans who had never watched a women’s game before, to people who had never watched football but wanted to support the Lionesses. But now the real work begins. With only one member of the England squad not involved in the WSL, and only one WSL team not having had any players feature in the Euros, the recognition of key players across the league should be higher than ever before.
The unique schedule of the men’s season might also open up an additional platform for the WSL. With the World Cup in Qatar beginning in November, three rounds of WSL fixtures will take place during the tournament. The time difference means that the World Cup games are in the evening, allowing the daytime weekend schedule to be prized out of the clutching hands of the Premier League and handed to the WSL. Until 6pm arrives, women’s football will be the Main Event™. Whether fans are boycotting the tournament, missing live football, or just waiting until the World Cup kicks off, there will be extra opportunities to grab attention.
The usual hand-wringing about attendances and media interest will undoubtedly continue (17.4 million watched the Euro 2022 final – I think we can conclude that they care), but the most pressing footballing question will be whether anyone can overhaul Chelsea’s recent domestic dominance.
The West London club led by Emma Hayes have won the last three WSL titles as well as three of the four domestic trophies available to them. They have strengthened over the summer, with more recruitment potentially still to come before the transfer window closes on Thursday. The most eye-catching is the signing of Kadeisha Buchanan who left Lyon as a free agent. The 26-year-old Canadian has shown herself to be one of the best centre-backs in the world, but Hayes will have to fit her in with Chelsea’s established centre-back pairing of Millie Bright and Magda Eriksson.
If teams are to really challenge Chelsea, they might have to hope that Hayes becomes distracted by her white whale: the Champions League trophy. Manchester City will have no such distractions, having already been knocked out of the competition by friend-turned-foe Caroline Weir of Real Madrid, exiting at the hands of a Spanish team for the fifth consecutive year.
This could be a make-or-break season for Gareth Taylor, who has lost four of his starters from last year in Weir, Georgia Stanway, Lucy Bronze, and the recently retired Ellen White. With Keira Walsh joining Barcelona for a world-record fee of £400,000, City have lost the entirety of their first-choice midfield. Taylor has plenty of options as to who fills those spots, with signings like Deyna Castellanos, Laia Aleixandri, and Mary Fowler all eye-catching names. But with only 12 teams in the league, there is little room for a slow start, a fact Taylor himself can attest to.
Jonas Eidevall is another man who might be feeling the pressure as he starts his second season at Arsenal. They forced Chelsea to pull out a nine-game consecutive winning run to secure the title, but will still feel they were the ones who let it slip out of their grasp. Eidevall has opted to stick closely to the squad he worked with in his first season, with Swedish forward Lina Hurtig their only main signing. It leaves them with 20 players, in comparison with City’s 22 and Chelsea’s 23. The lack of cover for holding midfielder Lia Walti will be the most obvious concern – Arsenal came unstuck pretty quickly when she got injured last season – but as Chelsea can tell you, holding midfielders are not exactly in abundance in the women’s game right now.Embed from Getty Images
Attempts to break into this top three have been reminiscent of Arthurian legend. Potential challengers have simply not been strong enough (Everton), or have given up just as it seemed to budge (Manchester United), but no team has managed to unseat Chelsea, Arsenal, or Manchester City since 2014. United and Tottenham will be the favourites to see if they can find the ‘honour, decency, and inner strength’ to pull the sword of Champions League qualification from the stone.
Marc Skinner might have got less points than Casey Stoney at United, but he made a creditable start in the job, and arguably his biggest asset will be the players he held onto. Interest from Barcelona for Ona Batlle was rebuffed whilst Alessia Russo and Ella Toone return to Manchester no longer exciting young prospects, but bonafide superstars.
The other Skinner – Rehanne – has clearly been backed by Tottenham, strengthening her squad with experience (Angharad James, Amy Turner, Drew Spence), and youth (Ellie Brazil, Celin Bizet). Tottenham will need goals if they are to truly make a challenge and they will be looking to 6ft Polish striker Nikola Karczewska to help them out there. The fact that the ‘Skinner derby’ takes place on opening weekend should give us an early indication of which of these two are up to the task.Embed from Getty Images
Perhaps the most intriguing team this season is the returning Liverpool. Led by the experienced Matt Beard, they stormed the Championship last season with a team full of WSL-quality players, and look set to be very comfortable in the league this season. It is hard to imagine them suffering the fate of other recently-promoted sides and finding themselves sinking under the standards of the top division.
That is what befell Leicester, and they look no better placed to deal with it this year. Despite appointing former Everton manager Willie Kirk as their Director of Football, their recruitment has been limited and it is hard to see them making up enough ground to save themselves from relegation, now they no longer have the buffer of Birmingham City below.
Can you call a league that has been in operation for over a decade nascent? The fast-moving development of the women’s game means that with every year, the WSL takes an additional step forward. Better pitches, better players, more eyes, higher expectations. We say it every year because it is true – this will be the biggest year of the WSL yet.
Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph