FAWSL – How it’s Shaping Up… (2)

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 in alphabetical order, continuing with Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City. 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 everything you need…

Chelsea FC Women (3rd)

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

Guro Reiten (top left), Sam Kerr and Bethany England – getting the balance right.

Chelsea are the only unbeaten team in the FA Women’s Super League this season. They have dispatched Arsenal twice (2-1 and 4-1), Manchester City (2-1) and Manchester United (1-0). The last of these results was achieved albeit with the help of a fortuitous penalty award with fans of both sides arguing about it for days on social media – something that’s definitely starting to feel like men’s football. Good or bad thing?… I digress…

Last year the Blues showed that they had a championship standard defence, but their attack was prone to misfiring. Consequently, they finished the campaign 24 goals shy of title winners Arsenal.

With fans perhaps expecting a smattering of new arrivals, Emma Hayes kept her transfer business brief over the summer. Ji So-yun put pen to paper on a new deal and Chelsea then signed just one new player ahead of the World Cup – Norwegian Guro Reiten from Lillestom SK. The tournament would reveal enough to suggest she could tear up the WSL week-in-week-out. Quick, skilful and creative, Reiten has done exactly that, delivering great performances, goals and assists.

Chelsea kicked off their campaign with a 1-0 win over new arrivals Tottenham Hotspur in front of 24,564 fans at Stamford Bridge; Beth England rifling in from 20 yards. Inexplicably they drew with Brighton in the next fixture and fans would have been forgiven for thinking: “here we go again, unable to put a bottom half side away…”

But not so. They won their next five, scoring 16 goals and conceding just two. Then, having watched everyone else play their cards in the transfer market, Hayes announced the signing of Jamie-Lee Napier from Hibernian and Matildas’ super striker Sam Kerr from NWSL side Chicago Red Stars. Napier, at 19 brought pace and tenacity on either flank. Kerr brought a ton of international experience, three consecutive NWSL Golden Boots and last year’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award.

The Australian’s contract started officially at Kingsmeadow in January; a nifty new year’s present to Chelsea fans. It was a good moment to inject some extra goal threat. The Blues had found themselves huffing and puffing their way to a 1-1 draw, this time at basement dwellers Liverpool just before the Christmas break. Hayes went easy on her charges, but was distinctly unimpressed with the Reds’ Prenton Park pitch – (try saying that and eating your half-time Ginsters…)

Kerr made her debut against Reading and nearly scored with her first touch of the ball in English football, but alas she had to make do with two assists, finally getting her first WSL goal in the 4-1 win at Arsenal.

Meanwhile, Kerr’s new strike partner, Bethany England, had been simply outstanding as the lone centre forward. She’s converted 10 league goals to date and given every central defender she’s faced a turbulent 90 minutes. Strong, great movement off the ball, good in the air and quicker than you might think, England has led the line brilliantly. Early signs are that she’s going to develop a good understanding with Kerr giving the Blues a genuine front two option.

Led on the field by ice-cool captain Magda Eriksen, Chelsea remain a physically strong and mentally resilient group that has rallied from losing positions in matches to win against both their title rivals, as well as turning a 0-1 deficit into a 3-1 victory versus Reading. The downside to that, I suppose, is that they’ve shown they can be scored on and maybe don’t find their groove early enough in some games. But they have an embarrassment firepower now, with Hayes rebalancing defence and attack to forge a side with so much depth that they can pick opponents apart in a variety of ways.

Just a point behind the top two with a game spare, Chelsea have it in their own hands. They play Manchester City on the 23rd February which looks like the pivotal encounter. They are on a roll and if they sustain their current performances the Blues are well placed to repeat their 2017/18 triumph.

Everton FC Women (5th)

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Chloe Kelly – A break out season for the 22-year old

Merseyside bragging rights are currently with the Toffees’ ladies. Everton beat the Reds 1-0 at Anfield back in November and currently reside six places above their city rivals in the WSL table. Having already doubled the number of wins they achieved across the whole of last season, they must be considered the Super League’s most improved side.

Here was a club really struggling over the last two years. So, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d go pragmatic and build one of those robust, stubborn units, sitting back, hard to beat and looking to get what they could whacking the ball forward to a physical striker. Mercifully, manager Willie Kirk has been entirely more progressive, putting together a young, hungry and attack-minded group (most of whom are only in their early 20s) and taking teams on.

They counter at speed use the full width of the pitch and get plenty of bodies upfield to support the forwards; supplementing this with a genuine threat at set-pieces and encouraging players to try their luck from outside the box – which has had its moments.

Simone Magill remains a handful to defend, but it’s really midfield and wide areas where Everton look so much better this year.  Lucy Graham, at just 22, took the captaincy having joined from Bristol City over the summer and she’s been a significant driving force in the group – scoring three goals so far including the winner against their Merseyside rivals and a belter of a half-volley against Reading. She’d been a key target for Kirk having worked with him at Hibernian. It’s paying off.

But the player having what could be termed her ‘break out season’ is Chloe Kelly. Injured for a significant chunk of the 2018/19 campaign, Kelly’s looking like she has a point to prove. She can operate wide of a front three, in an orthodox winger role, or as an out-and-out striker and has the kind of pace and directness that always worries defenders. But this year the 22-year old is adding goals to her game – six league strikes to date, including a hat-trick against Reading that showcased her composure, her movement and her ability on the dead ball.

All this (and more) has seen the Toffees climb well clear of the relegation mire and, while they are still far from challenging the top three, Everton have never looked less than a solid, top-half team.

Kirk, clearly eyeing opportunities to improve the squad further in the January window has brought box-to-box midfielder Izzy Christiansen back to England from her underwhelming spell in Lyon and signed hard-working and skilful winger Hayley Raso – most recently at Brisbane Roar and the Portland Thorns. Raso, an Australian international, has been a starter everywhere she’s played; Christiansen was a bolted-on Lionesses squad member. So, competition for places is increasing at Haig Avenue.

There is still some uncertainty about who their best keeper is. Kirstie Levell and Tinja-Riikka Korpela started the campaign, but Kirk has since added Sandy MacIver who played College football in the States and made her first start against Reading recently.

Liverpool FC Women (11th)

Rinsola Babajide – all the attributes, but the 21-year old needs to put away some of her chances in the league.

In a season of fine margins week-to-week, Liverpool have been coming out on the wrong side of them over and over.  By Christmas, then, the club was anchored firmly at the bottom of the WSL table with no wins and just three goals. 

Manager Vicky Jepson is nothing if not steadfast. She’s patiently insisted throughout the campaign that performances have generally been good, and that major surgery is not required on their style, tactics or personnel. And she’s backed herself with very little transfer activity during January. Liverpool have only signed Rachel Furness from Reading, and moved to bring in 21-year old, Canadian born keeper Rylee Foster who has just completed her studies at West Virginia University.

Six of their results this season have ended 0-1, including fixtures with Arsenal and Manchester City. No one, yet, has beaten the Reds by anything more convincing than a 2-0 score line in the league, so it’s fair to say that, defensively at least, they’re not too bad.

It’s converting their opportunities at the other end that’s been the problem. Nowhere was this more evident than at Anfield back in November, with a sell-out 23,500 spectators watching their match with Everton. It was like a campaign in microcosm: Liverpool moving the ball well, looking the better side for long spells, creating a few chances, missing them and then being beaten on the one error they made – in this instance keeper Anke Preuß spilling a routine pot-shot from 25-yards into the net.

Fast forward to goal number four in Liverpool’s WSL season and, lo, was that the faintest of heartbeats we could hear starting up in Jepson’s squad? Furness’s arrival was the very definition of timely, scoring the game’s only goal against relegation rivals Bristol City and providing not only their first victory of the season, but propelling (ok, perhaps not propelling)… enabling the Reds to climb above the Vixens and out of the league’s one relegation spot.

Now the hard work starts. There are good players in this group, but they need to click in the final third. Courtney Sweetman-Kirk has been a bit-part player, with Rinsola Babajide the preferred choice to lead the front line. Babajide has ‘flattered to deceive’ a little, looking a strong, physical competitor and getting into good positions but failing to hit the net in the Super League. Liverpool’s 8-1 win over Blackburn in the FA Cup last week, then, may be just the confidence boost that she needs in front of goal, scoring 4 times.

Melissa Lawley and academy graduate Niamh Charles both offer attacking threat from wide areas although their final ball could be better at times. Charles, at 20, has looked a good prospect and has scored five goals in all competitions.

The club are now looking to “reset” for the second half of the season and the Bristol City victory has got the blood circulating again. February is a big month. They host Birmingham next and have road trips to Everton and West Ham United, either side of Arsenal’s visit to Prenton Park. If they can somehow replicate their cup scoring exploits Liverpool are more than capable of accelerating clear of the drop zone.

Manchester City WFC (1st)

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Lauren Hemp (left), Pauline Bremer and keeper Ellie Roebuck – Mission: to provide selection problems for the new manager.

The biggest story surrounding Manchester City recently has been the announcement that manager Nick Cushing’s is heading off to men’s soccer in the MLS after nearly seven years at the helm. Their next managerial appointment, then, will be crucial in determining whether the title heads back to the blue half of Manchester. The squad is certainly good enough to win the WSL, but equally Cushing’s departure could be an unwelcome turning point.

Following Chelsea’s decimation of Arsenal in the round of games before the FA Cup break, City moved into the top spot, equal on points with the Gunners but with a miniscule +1 superior goal difference.

Even under Cushing, though, there’s been an issue. They haven’t shown up for the really BIG games. Based on the campaign to date, City have effectively been ‘flat-track bullies.’ I acknowledge some will feel it’s somewhat lazy and oversimplified to describe them as such, but if the cap fits…

Here’s the thing: Proper thrashings have been handed out to West Ham, Bristol City, Spurs and Brighton, but these clubs aren’t financed or resourced at anything like City’s level. Little wonder they’ve beaten nearly everybody in the WSL, nearly everybody. 

The exceptions are the other well-monied clubs Arsenal and Chelsea to whom the Citizens suffered 0-1 and 1-2 defeats respectively. It’s also not lost on observers that they were unable to make the last eight of the Champions League, crashing out to Atlético Madrid. So, bottom line? They have beaten some good teams this season but not any great teams.

They could make me eat some of those words above in super quick time, though; this week in fact, with Arsenal visiting the Academy Stadium on Sunday for the second of their league meetings. It will be the second time the teams get to match up this week, having already met in the Continental Cup semi-final on Wednesday night.

Arsenal won that: 2-1.

The squad remains excellent, of that there is no doubt.  And it’s been great to see some players have come to the fore who weren’t widely observed to be the outstanding talents in the group prior to the season starting.

German striker Pauline Bremer is one such player. She has an uncanny knack of showing up in the penalty area at the right time, staying composed under pressure and finishing a high proportion of her chances.  She leads the City attack with nine league goals, which is no mean feat in a team with World Cup Bronze Boot winner Ellen White, Caroline Weir, Tess Wullaert and Georgia Stanway on its books – they have 13 WSL goals between them by the way.

I’ve also enjoyed watching Lauren Hemp’s contribution on the left of City’s attack.  She’s old skool – yes, with a ‘k’ – haring up and down the flank beating a defender, fizzing crosses in and, importantly, getting on the back stick to contest crosses coming in from the opposite wing to ensure she chips in with the odd strike of her own.

Then there’s young keeper Ellie Roebuck, deputising for injured Lioness Karen Bardsley, and prodigiously making her own claim for England’s number one jersey. Roebuck featured for City in the WICC tournament over in the States prior to the season and hasn’t looked back since.  City have conceded the fewest number of goals so far and Roebuck’s shot-stopping ability – which hinges on good positioning, sharp reflexes and extraordinary agility – has played a big part in that statistic. 

There’s always the counter that any keeper would look good behind central defenders Steph Houghton and Gemma Bonner, but the Daily Telegraph reported earlier this month that: “Roebuck is currently the best goalkeeper in the Women’s Super League, finishing the first half of the season with a save percentage of 90.9 per cent.” Not my words, Katie Whyatt’s – a proper writer.

Before the season started this blog (un)boldly predicted that “any team that finishes above City should win the league”. That holds, but they are good enough to claim the spoils for themselves outright. Two things need to happen – the club has got to get the next managerial appointment right; someone who can pick up where Nick Cushing left off without disrupting the group. Then City must figure out how to beat their closest rivals. That’s got to be the clincher because the rest of the league has presented them with very little resistance…

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, 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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