FAWSL – How it’s Shaping Up… (3)

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, concluding with Manchester United, Reading, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United. 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…

Manchester United WFC (4th)

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Leah Galton (right) – Considered to be the one of best left wingers in the WSL by her manager.

Manchester United’s first season in the WSL is going ok. Manager Casey Stoney had a reputation for demanding high standards of herself as a player and, no doubt, will be equally fervent when reflecting on her performance as a head coach. On the face of it she’ll see her side sat fourth, 14 points behind Chelsea, beaten five times, which may not sound all that exciting. But frame it another way and the Red Devils have been the ‘best of the rest’ up to this point.

The side has shown that it’s willing and able to take the game to Super League level opponents, moving the ball well and dominating possession. But Stoney has always been pragmatic about the step up – at least publicly – and has ensured that they do the basics right, remain well organised and have that bit of grit and nous to dig in when games aren’t going all their own way.

The fixture schedule was not kind to United at the start of the campaign – although it was brilliant for us casual observers. Manchester City at the Etihad was up first and Stoney’s side competed well, only losing out to Caroline Weir’s thunderbolt from outside the box. Then they hosted Arsenal and lost by the same score line.

Three games in they got their first victory, beating Liverpool 2-0 at Leigh Sports Village with Lauren James getting their first league goal. This result kick-started a good run where they won four of their next five league games – and, in fairness, it took a contentious penalty for Chelsea to beat them at Kingsmeadow.

A pattern seemed to be emerging: United would lose to the top three but beat everyone else. West Ham put paid to that idea and Stoney would have been disappointed to see her side throw away the lead twice at Rush Green and lose outright in the 90th minute.

But they reacted well and got the ship back on an even keel with an impressive 3-1 win over Everton with recently re-signed James bagging a brace and Katie Zelem firing in a penalty.  

As the weather turned postponements would start to break up the campaign. Birmingham had to call off their fixture prior to the Christmas break and it would be a full month between league games. Bristol City (who, incidentally, also had their previous match cancelled) were up next, at home. United were expected to win (comfortably), but the Vixens turned them over with a goal from, former player Ebony Salmon. Football, eh?

United had arrived in the topflight fully professional but had to integrate a few new arrivals who brought the WSL experience Stoney believed would enable the team to hit the ground running. 

Their midfield is very decent. The club brought in combative Welsh midfielder Hayley Ladd from Birmingham who sits in from of the backline providing security so that Katie Zelem can roam and dictate the tempo, also offering great dead ball delivery. Next to Zelem is the indefatigable box-to-boxer Jackie Groenen, who always seems to turn up where the action is.  Groenen, a finalist with the Netherlands at the 2019 World Cup, has brought drive and energy to the group, but will surely want to chip in with some goals.

Then there’s Leah Galton, an excellent footballer. She’s demonstrated everything you’d want from your left winger, scintillating pace, ball trickery and an eye for goal. Galton’s been key to providing service for James, Kirsty Hanson and Jess Sigsworth in the box – they have 10 WSL goals between them.

United looked to have top five potential over the summer and nothing this season has suggested they are likely to drop lower than that.

Reading FC Women (6th)

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Fara Williams – Enough said.

If you set out to build a stereotypical mid-table WSL team, then you might want to model it on Reading . That’s not meant to sound as harsh as it does. I’ve watched Reading live three times this season and thoroughly enjoyed each occasion. In fact, they’ve had numerous exciting games since September, so if you just fancy someone new to watch on a Sunday afternoon you could do a lot worse than getting yourself down to Adams Park. There will probably be goals!

Now in their second year as a fully professional club, manager Kelly Chambers will acknowledge that she’s not provided with the budget to afford the top female footballers around. But that hasn’t prevented her from being resourceful, integrating some very experienced, proven WSL players through the spine of her team and surrounding them with decent younger players.

They work hard. Really hard. Anchored by Angharad James, Remi Allen and Lioness Jade Moore in midfield this is a team with a ‘never say die’ attitude in games. The energy and work rate of these midfield players is key to Chambers getting the very best of Fara Williams, who can play a freer role at 10 or even as a striker. Donning the trademark number four shirt, Williams can still get around the pitch, but she’s not going to be doing it at breakneck speed in her 37th year. It’s her technical quality, experience and brainpower that brings value to the first eleven. And goals. Really good goals.

They’ve had a couple of ding-dong battles with Everton, winning one and losing one, and scored late strikes to retrieve points from losing positions in matches with both West Ham and Brighton. The Royals have dug out four goals in the last ten minutes of games, so nobody can switch off against them.

They have a threat going forward. Brooke Chaplen is a willing runner up front looking to get on to through balls and preventing defenders from getting too comfortable in possession. Amalie Eikeland came over from Norway in the summer and is an elegant player who can slot in anywhere across the front three. She’s found her goal scoring boots recently. That should give her some confidence going into the second half of the campaign; a nice complement to the type of ground speed that enables her to simply kick and rush through back lines that push too high.

Chambers may feel there’s some tweaking to be done at the back. While no one has hammered the Royals this season – a 0-3 reverse to Arsenal is the worse it has got – they do concede a few goals. They’re current shipping two per game on average. It’s a little bit odd then that Reading didn’t look to add depth at the back during the January window. So, fans will be hoping the manager’s got some tactical plans up her sleeve.

Tottenham Hotspur FC Women (7th)

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Tottenham’s Kit Graham – direct and skillful.

Tottenham were the beneficiaries of the top-flight’s expansion to twelve teams this season and, at the halfway mark, they are holding their own.

Joint Head Coaches Karen Hills and Juan Amoros had to face the age-old dilemma whether to stick with the players that got them promoted or opt to bring in proven individuals at the higher level. They plumped for experience and have integrated seven players brought in from Super League rivals. This has resulted in a group which contains some capable individuals getting rotated a fair amount; in turn preventing Spurs from realising that bit of consistency and, dare I say it, leaving them lacking identity as a squad.

They have enjoyed more big stadium days out than any other team in the division. Chelsea beat them 1-0 at Stamford Bridge on the opening day with 24,564 in attendance; Spurs saw off West Ham 2-1 in front of 24,790 at the London Stadium, but also had to endure defeat at the hands of North London rivals Arsenal at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in front of the league’s biggest crowd to date: 38,262.

Runners-up to Manchester United in last season’s Championship, Spurs still seem to have an inferiority complex when playing the Red Devils, going down 0-3 in both WSL meetings this year. These games aside, only their horror show versus Manchester City has been a blow-out (1-4) and it’s commendable that Hills and Amoros have built a side that can be competitive each week.  

Goals have been difficult to come by – just 12 so far in the league campaign. Half of these have been shared between Rianna Dean and Kit Graham, a forward duo that look, on the face of it, well matched with one another.

Dean, just 21-years old, is a penalty box player who is not afraid to put her head in where it hurts. She picked up a nice little brace in the FA Cup against Barnsley last weekend which should put her in a confident frame of mind ahead of this week’s fixture with Bristol City.

Graham, formerly with Charlton Athletic, can link midfield and attack and seeks to do more on the ball, driving at the heart of a defence. She’s adept at getting in behind aback line but, if that’s not working, she’s not frightened of having a dig from outside the box. As mentioned above, Bristol City are up next for Spurs and the Vixens know all about giving Graham room outside the box. Check out her two strikes against them earlier in the season which came within 90 seconds of each other down at Stoke Gifford. [4:00 in clip]

Of the ‘old guard’ brought in, well-travelled winger Gemma Davison still looks a ‘baller’ as the football types say but the challenge remains getting her fit and on the pitch. Generally, she gives the air of being disinterested in everything going on around her but maybe that’s a cunning way of throwing defenders off balance because she still comes alive when the ball is at her feet.

Tottenham kept their transfer business brief during the January window which suggests either that the management team are happy with what they have or there’s no money available for better players. Only left full-back Emma Mitchell has joined, on loan, from the Gunners – the type of deal that would be unthinkable in the Premier League. She scored on her debut against West Ham giving Spurs their first win-double of the season.

West Ham United FC Women (8th)

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Swiss attacker Alisha Lehmann (left) and Canadian winger Adriana Leon – there are 13 nationalities represented within the Hammers’ squad.

With the realisation that this update is becoming a mid-table mediocrity fest we turn our attention to West Ham United.

I’m feeling the urge to get all ‘statty’ in this paragraph. Matt Beard’s side finished last season in seventh with a points per game average of 1.15 and a 35%-win ratio. While they currently sit one place below that in eighth, they are pretty much on track to match, or even slightly improve, their 2018/19 performance (1.18 / 36.36%). They average 1.36 goals per game (versus 1.25 last year) but have conceded a round 2.00 goals per game (against 1.85). In conclusion? I’ve got nothing…

Striker Martha Thomas came out of the blocks quickest on the goal scoring front, converting 2 in her first 4 games for the Claret and Blue. But since then she’s struggled in front of goal.

Canadian winger Adriana Leon, German defensive midfielder Katharina Baunach and Swiss forward Alisha Lehmann have now all edged ahead on three. Leon, incidentally, has been on international duty this week with Canada and provided the assist for teammate Christine Sinclair to convert her 185th goal, surpassing Abby Wambach’s previous record and making ‘Sincy’ the all-time highest scorer.

It’s a multicultural group with thirteen countries represented across a 22-player squad. First team Manager Matt Beard asserts he has a talented group of internationals, but has been frustrated at some of their performances, particularly against the top half teams. Here, he senses the players lack belief and show too much respect instead of trying to enforce their will, particularly in the first half of matches where they’ve let the score get away from them.

Against the sides around them they are bolder which has made for more exciting games. They endured and then enjoyed the outcomes of two five-goal thrillers in consecutive weekends at Rush Green. In the first, they threw away a two-goal lead to Reading in the final fifteen minutes. They reacted the following week by coming back from 0-1 and 1-2 down to beat Manchester United with Baunach netting a 90th minute winner.

They’ve beaten Brighton twice, got their one thumping off a rampant Manchester City (5-0) and have had no league joy against Tottenham. Kenza Dali appeared to have salvaged a point with a 90th minute equalizer, only for Spurs to snatch a victory six minutes later.

Chelsea away is next up on the calendar and then it’s Manchester City’s turn to visit Romford. Beard will expect to see more courage from the players but has moved to shore up his back line with two defenders acquired during the transfer window. Grace Fisk has a lot of past experience at the Millwall Lionesses, but most recently played three years of college soccer in the States. Swede Filippa Wallén has arrived from IF Brommapojkarna.

It’s natural to assume damage control will be the order of business in early February. After that, though their schedule settles down and the happy Hammers can once again set about improving those averages from last year…

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 inexplicably 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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