FA WSL Preview – Aston Villa

The 2020/21 FA Women’s Super League kicks off on the weekend of the 5th / 6th September. D2B is here to preview all twelve teams in the title race and assess their chances. Last year we went alphabetical in presenting the teams, but this year we’ve plumped for reverse order of where each club was placed when the league was finally abandoned due to the COVID-19 crisis. That means we start with WSL ‘newbies’ Aston Villa who, as winners of the FA Women’s Championship, replace relegated Liverpool…

Aston Villa Women Football Club

Exciting times at Aston Villa – making their first foray into the topflight of Women’s Football.

Last Season: Winners of the FA Women’s Championship

Nickname: The Villans, The Villa, The Lions

Founded: 1973, as Solihull FC – officially licensed as Aston Villa women in 1996

Home Ground: Bescot Stadium, Walsall (capacity 11,000)

This year sees Villa’s first foray into the Women’s Super League. Regionally, the club has usually been competitive but their recent commitment to invest in their women’s team and facilities has paid quick dividends on a national level. It should be pointed out they aren’t ‘pot-less’. Back in 2013 Villa secured the Women’s Premier League Cup, beating Leeds United in a penalty shoot-out – but winning promotion to the WSL has put them on a broader radar for fans of the women’s game.

Last season they won the FA Women’s Championship at a canter (13 wins and a draw), generating a six point gap between them and main rivals Sheffield United before Coronavirus put paid to all women’s football across the country.

With Gemma Davies at the helm they’ve come a long way in a short time. On the opening day of the 2018/19 Championship season they hosted the newly formed Manchester United and got battered 12-0 for their trouble. Eighteen months on Villa were running away from the rest of that same division scoring an average of three goals per match and operating at 2.86 points per game. Davies’ side certainly looked nailed on to secure the title outright but the season (regrettably) will always have an asterisk next to it after the FA disappointingly chose to abandon the league programme.

So, if we were make a quick comparison with last season’s two promoted sides, do Aston Villa look more likely to be akin to a Manchester United or a Tottenham? On the face of it, matching Spurs’ first WSL campaign would look like a good year.

One of the challenges of assessing teams coming up from the FAWC is the lack of footage available to really get a feel of what they are about. Fortunately, D2B did get to see Villa in action last season during the Continental Cup knock out stages. Unfortunately, this was against Chelsea who ran riot despite the modest looking 3-1 score line. On that frosty night at Kingsmeadow, Villa central defender Nat Haigh made as good a fist as anyone did last season of attempting to cope with Beth England, limiting the troublesome Lionesses striker to a single assist.

Whether Haigh will get her chance to shine on the opening day, though, is not clear. Villa were good last season defensively, but didn’t boast the best back line in the division. And it’s going to need to be robust in the WSL. Arsenal have already handed them a pre-season thumping (5-1) and Manchester City lie in wait on the opening weekend of league fixtures.

There’s been a fairly rigorous shuffling of the playing pack.  Eight players were released in June and Gemma Davies has found seven replacements at the time of writing.  On the defensive side veteran centre back Anita Asante has arrived bringing all the know-how that comes with 70 England caps and 180 top flight appearances for clubs in England, the USA and Sweden – although she only featured in cup matches for Chelsea last season.

German goalkeeper Lisa Weiß (Weiss) has also joined the Villans. Weiß played 169 league games for SGS Essen in her home country which raised sufficient interest for Olympique Lyon to take her on, but the now-32-year old was unable to break into their first team on more than a handful of occasions.

How the midfield will shape up is difficult to gauge. Box-to-box attacking midfielder Ramona Petzelberger is one of four German players in the squad. She is reputed to be bringing technical quality and the kind of pinpoint passing necessary to unlock defences, having made over 190 senior appearances for SGS Essen, Bayer Leverkusen and Bad Neuenahr respectively. She could chip in with goals too; she’s accumulated 30 career strikes.

Meanwhile Chloe Arthur has joined up with former teammate Freya Gregory. Both midfielders switched from cross-city rivals Birmingham, who struggled last year. Arthur has over 100 senior appearances and has also played for Bristol City in the WSL. Gregory is still very young so may not see much game time. Last year she made four substitute appearances to the tune of 114 minutes.

A massive test for all new WSL teams is figuring out how to score enough goals to survive; just ask the team Villa are replacing. Liverpool had the division’s 5th best defence last season but just couldn’t put the ball in the net enough. And Villa are heading into their maiden top flight campaign without last season’s top scorer Mel Johnson who was released and has since joined Sheffield United.

As with nearly all WSL clubs these days, Davies has looked overseas for answers and Villa fans must be looking forward to seeing how the new recruits slot in alongside the already established Shania Hayles. Portuguese striker Diana Silva certainly knows where the goal is. The 25-year old netted 165 times in 226 domestic appearances and has been playing for Portgual’s national team since 2011! Alongside her Danish forward Stine Larsen comes in, having maintained close to a 1-in-2 ratio for Brøndby IF, and then scoring a slightly less explosive 4 goals in 14 league games for FC Fleury 91 before COVID intervened.

Eni Aluko following her arrival at Aston Villa to take on the role of Women’s Sporting Director.

One of their best 2020 signings, however, may well end up being an off-field addition. Eniola Aluko retired from the sport and returned to the city of Birmingham – where she grew up – to join Villa as Women’s Sporting Director back in January. With over a century of England caps as a player, media experience and her background in the legal profession Eni brings bags of experience and character that will surely impact positively on the team and drive the club forward.

“The clubs commitment, investment & ambition towards building a leading women’s program of excellence is exciting and I am proud of this opportunity to lead within the historic Villa family. I feel it’s something that I’m ready for at this point in my career. I’ve always been passionate about the women’s game, its development and setting cultures that drive excellence.”

Eni Aluko, Aston Villa Sporting Director, via the Guardian 22/01/2020

Up until the end of last season Villa played their home matches at the Trevor Brown Memorial Ground in Boldmere St. Michaels – and it was the very definition of a home fortress.  Only Durham managed to get out of there with a league point. This season they are going up in the world (no disrespect to Trevor intended) and moving to Walsall FC’s Bescot (Banks’) Stadium which has hosted Lionesses internationals as well as the Saddler’s annual EFL programme.

So, it’s an exciting time (allowing a small caveat for the fact that they must play the Red Devils again at least twice this season!). No doubt the club will want to emphasise that they are not just about survival; not just there to make up the numbers. But should Villa end up occupying a spot above the bottom four, well that would certainly represent a creditworthy achievement…

Departures

  • Sophie Maierhofer, Defender
  • Kerri Walsh, Forward
  • Mel Johnson, Forward
  • Jade Richards, Defender
  • Alice Hassall, Midfielder
  • Phoebe Warner, Midfielder
  • Charlotte Greengrass, Defender
  • Daniela Kosinska, Goalkeeper

Arrivals

  • Anita Asante, Defender
  • Chloe Arthur, Midfielder
  • Diana Silva, Forward
  • Lisa Weiß, Goalkeeper
  • Caro Siems, Defender
  • Ramona Petzelberger, Midfielder
  • Stine Larsen, Forward

Earlier this year, we charted 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. 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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