FAWSL – How it’s Shaping Up… (1)

SO, EVERY team in the Women’s Super League has reached the halfway point in their fixtures schedule – some just beyond. With the next set of matches lined up for the weekend of 2nd February, we thought it was about time D2B took stock of the Women’s top-flight and looked back over the campaign so far…

How are things shaping up for the title contenders, the best-of-the-rest, the also-rans, and the relegation scrappers?  As with our pre-season previews it’s four teams at a time, starting with Arsenal, Birmingham, Bristol City and Brighton. We’re not going to cover the January transfer window in detail; so, if that is your bag, check out the excellent Girls on the Ball website which has you covered…

Arsenal WFC (2nd)

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Caitlin Foord – She’s a Matilda, and now she’s also a Gunner.

Arsenal have predictably sat in the top three of the WSL all season, but are not looking nailed on title winners; this despite striker Vivianne Miedema leading the goal-scoring charts with 16 league goals at the time of writing. At their best they play the best attacking football in the division but have lost their way in a few games where they’ve either scraped a win or just fallen apart.

Having made Meadow Park a fortress since September, the Gunners’ imperious home record was given a big kick in the pants in the last round of matches against Chelsea – with the hosts going down 1-4 and conceding three goals in the opening 20 minutes. The Blues had already beaten Arsenal at Kingsmeadow earlier in the campaign, but the good news is the Gunners bounced back from that defeat to edge a tight 1-0 victory over Manchester City – no mean feat. And it’s the table toppers that await Arsenal in the semi-final of the Continental Cup (tonight) and the next round of league fixtures on the weekend.

While Miedema’s extraordinary goal tally suggests manager Joe Montemurro relies too much on her for goals, there are plenty of other players that chip in when the Dutch international is off colour – to the tune of 20 strikes between them – more than every other team outside the top three has managed.

The Gunners continue to play a quick and technical brand of football – that hinges on fluid movement and rotation of the midfield players, making them very difficult to track. It’s extremely easy on the eye and suits key players like Kim Little, Jordan Nobbs and Daniëlle van de Donk.

Beth Mead took a knock earlier in the campaign, but has steadily made her way back to full match fitness. She’ll be key to sustaining Miedema’s supply of goal scoring opportunities from the left wing, as will wing-back Lisa Evans on the other flank.

Australian international Caitlin Foord (pictured) has signed from Sydney FC. She will be a pacey and swashbuckling addition to the Gunners’ attack, offering a threat from wide areas and the ability to play at centre forward if needed. But she’s unlikely to just walk into the starting eleven. Former German international, Tabea Kemme, announced her retirement this month citing persistent injuries as the reason she’s calling it a day.

Birmingham City WFC (10th)

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Lioness midfielder Lucy Staniforth in action for Birmingham – she’s key to their survival hopes.

Birmingham City were always likely to be one of the teams facing an increasingly difficult time of it this season, with more Premier League-backed clubs arriving from the Women’s Championship. Indeed, this blog predicted that a top half finish would be some achievement.

But their 65% win-rate and record WSL points haul from last season seems other worldly now and top-flight survival is becoming the name of the game.

Manager, Marta Tejedor likes to see her teams play through the thirds with the ball on the ground but has acknowledged that her team, while technically decent, is not yet experienced enough to successfully execute her ideas on a consistent basis.

Errors tend to arise when they go behind in a match and the players start to rush, make poor decisions and veer away from the game plan. Indeed, they’ve been blown out several times already. Chelsea won 6-0 at Damson Park and the Blues have suffered 0-3 losses to both Brighton and Manchester City.

While lacking any sort evident ambition against the top sides (Tejedor managed fan expectations recently by saying that a point against Manchester City at home was the only realistic aim), the good news is that they have at least been competitive against the mid-table sides and beaten two of their main relegation rivals Liverpool and Bristol City. These return fixtures are going to be key in the coming weeks and it’s worth noting that they also have a game in hand on those sides at the foot of the table.

Losing Ellen White to Manchester City has hit them hard, of course. Only Liverpool have scored fewer goals.  And here’s the thing with Birmingham: when they score league goals, they get league points. All defeats to date have been to nil.

Lucy Staniforth (pictured) remains the key player for the Birmingham Blues, driving the team from the heart of midfield. But she’s going to need support. Abbi Grant was nominated for player of the month in December and leads the way with two WSL goals. But Tejedor will be hoping that new arrival Emma Kelly can get her fitness up quickly and then hit the ground running in a team that has to find their goal scoring groove or face 2nd tier football for the first time since the Super League began.

Brighton & Hove Albion WFC (9th)

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Aileen Whelan – Top Scorer for Brighton at the halfway point of the season.

If you’d asked casual fans to divide the league into three groups of four in terms of where teams would be expected to finish, Brighton would likely end up in most peoples’ bottom four. So, it would come as little surprise that bottom four is exactly where they are. Led by former England Head Coach, Hope Powell the Seagulls are set up to be pragmatic and hard to beat against the top sides and a little more adventurous against the rest.

Indeed, this looked like a smart approach ‘early doors’. Following an opening day draw, they had Chelsea on the ropes in matchday two when Aileen Whelan scored with just four minutes left; only for Adelina Engman to break their hearts in stoppage time.

Since then their record against the top four has been terrible, getting a hiding from both Manchester sides and suffering identical 4-goal reverses to Arsenal. I was at the second of these and it looked such a mismatch out there on the field with the visitors dominating possession and getting an early goal to put Brighton on the back foot.

Mercifully, it’s not victories over Champions League contenders that will define Brighton’s campaign.

Only one side will be relegated, and the Seagulls have shown some resilience against their main rivals, beating both Birmingham and Liverpool. They also held Reading to an exciting 2-2 at the Broadfield Stadium, although again it was stoppage time despair for them when Remi Allen scored a scrappy leveller with the last kick of the game. This sets up a fascinating wait to see if that result ends up being two points dropped or one point gained.

Like last season they are not prolific – in fact their goals per game ratio is currently even lower than in 2018/19. Aileen Whelan (pictured) leads the way with three league goals at the time of writing. The remaining six have been shared out between five players. This dearth of goals is further compounded by the fact that only Bristol City has conceded more goals.

Three new players have signed up during January and Powell has looked to bolster her forward options. Winger Maxime Bennick joined on loan from Reading, and striker Rianna Jarrett has come in from Wexford Youths in Ireland. Jarrett will have built some familiarity with Megan Connolly’s game on international duty. Attacking midfielder Connolly has struggled with injury a bit in the first half of the season, but now appears to be match fit and ready to fire Brighton towards the twenty-odd points they will need to assure WSL survival.

Anyone questioning the mental strength of Powell and her group, despite a tough campaign to date, should acknowledge how well they did last weekend to avoid a ‘banana skin’ in the FA Cup by beating FA Women’s Championship pacesetters, Aston Villa, 3-2 on their own patch. It’s this kind of fortitude that can give supporters hope for rest of the season, but it’s looking like survival will be one of those ‘going to the wire’ situations…

Bristol City WFC (12th)

(D,L,L,D,L,D,L,L,L,W,L,L)

Promising young striker Ebony Salmon – she’s far more mobile ON the pitch…

It’s looking bleak for Bristol City at this point, but not completely hopeless. Like all the teams struggling near, or at, the foot of the table the Vixens have felt the full weight of investments in high quality international footballers being made by the runaway top-three clubs. It can only make it more frustrating when a good few of their former players are also tearing it up at these teams.

The 11-1 reverse to Arsenal at Meadow Park was simply horrendous and they’ve been on the end of several other hammerings at the hands of the title challengers.

With no wins on the board going into 2020, the new year immediately brought new cheer. Young striker Ebony Salmon (pictured), a kernel of success amongst the rubble of a tough fixture programme, sits on four campaign goals to date, including an unexpected (but very well taken) winner against her former club, Manchester United, at Leigh Sports Village.

Any thoughts of pushing on, though, were dealt a severe double blow in the next two Sundays with a thrashing away at Chelsea followed by the unthinkable: defeat to basement side Liverpool – giving the Reds their first WSL victory of the season and condemning the Vixens to the 12th spot of 12.

We’ve noted before on this blog previously how manager Tanya Oxtoby puts a strong emphasis on recruiting and working with young players and looks to provide opportunities for these players to develop their performance levels through first team opportunities.

So, the manager would have been hoping that individuals such as England U-21 striker Charlie Wellings would step up and replace some of the goals that former players like Lucy Graham would have delivered. These have not materialised, yet, with Wellings delivering just one WSL strike so far. So, while investment in fledgling talent is commendable, a lack of old fashioned know-how in a team built on a shoestring could prove costly come the end of the campaign.

This then may have prompted Oxtoby’s decision to supplement the group with several seasoned international players in Tottenham’s Welsh midfielder Megan Wynne (27, loan), South Korean Jeon Ga-Eul (31), and mobile Matildas’ midfielder Chloe Logarzo (25). Jeon and Logarzo both bring NWSL and Australian W-League experienced to a squad scrapping for its life. They might also get the attack firing to take some pressure off a backline that has leaked three goals per game on average.

Recently, we reached number 32 on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Then we went up to 27!  Anyhoo, check out the link above, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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