FA Women’s Super League – Week 16 Review

Chelsea stay top with Kerr and England strikes; City win streak extends to nine matches against Everton; Red Devils back in the victory groove; Arsenal hit Birmingham for four; Brighton win third game on the spin; Spurs in four-game losing funk; West Ham still winless at home. Come on, step away from the Oprah interview. It’s week 16 of the Women’s Super League…

West Ham United 0-2 Chelsea

Chelsea striker Bethany England – Productivity remains high despite fewer minutes this season…

“The conditions of the pitch didn’t allow us to play our usual game of football, it was a really narrow pitch but we played the conditions well and the team executed the game-plan the way I asked them to. It’s just about getting the job done and we spoke about it at half-time so it was great to get two early goals in each half, that settled the team and we thoroughly deserved to win the game.”

Emma Hayes, Manager, Chelsea, via chelseafc.com

Chelsea held on to their slender two-point lead over Manchester City with a workaday win at West Ham United, who’ve yet to win a home game in the WSL this season.

Keeper Zećira Mušović would make a fuss-free WSL debut for Chelsea, while West Ham’s Icelandic international Dagný Brynjarsdóttir would have a busier time of it in the Hammers’ midfield. 

The Blues got off to the perfect start scoring inside seven minutes. Niamh Charles – in at right back – sent Bethany England to the by-line to clip in a cross that was virtually begging Sam Kerr to head it in from six yards. So she did.

Hammers keeper Courtney Brosnan, making her first start of the campaign, denied Pernille Harder from Kerr’s cross with a fine reflex stop, as Chelsea looked to replicate their opening goal.

But the joy the visitors were getting down their right flank bore more fruit two minutes into the second half. Kerr was alive to Charles’ long throw down the wing, outsprinted her marker and fizzed in a cross that demanded England bury it from six yards. So she did.

With over twenty minutes to go and the game looking done and dusted, Chelsea boss Emma Hayes turned one eye to Wednesday’s Champions League Ro16 second leg tie versus Atlético Madrid Femenino, and started to ring the changes.

In the 76th minute Jessie Fleming chipped in a cross from the right that sent a crystal clear invitation to fellow substitute Fran Kirby to power home from six yards. So she hit the bar. Wait… what?!!

Ji was first to scraps and teed up Guro Reiten, but Brosnan denied the Norwegian with a phenomenal stop at point blank range, somehow palming the ball up and over the goal.

Chelsea are going to have harder days than this as they move into the final third of the season, but they controlled the game for long spells and delivered a professional performance from front to back that limited West Ham to half chances and pot shots at goal.

Kerr moved on to 12 WSL goals and 5 assists for the season (in sixteen appearances), which isn’t bad for her first full foray into a European winter league. Kerr’s partner in crime for the day, Beth England, can now point to 6 goals and 6 assists, which again is good going for a player that has played the fewest minutes of the Chelsea strike force this year.

The Blues go to Everton next knowing the Toffees should present a sterner challenge, especially considering the headache they gave Manchester City in this round of games (see below). Before then, though, they have the small matter of a Continental Cup Final with Bristol City as they look to regain the trophy they secured last year. 

“It was obviously a disappointing result. We try to play every game to win or collect points, but we got zero today. Overall, however, it was a marked improvement. I thought aside from those two goals, and a wonderful save from our ‘keeper, they didn’t really trouble us too much. From that aspect, I was pleased, but obviously it is concerning when you’re conceding early goals because it does put you on the back foot. For us, obviously right now, the biggest hurdle for us moving forward is momentum. We need to create some momentum in the team.”

Olli Harder, Manager, West Ham United via whufc.com

West Ham remain winless under new manager Olli Harder. While it’s little surprise that they came up short against the current league champions, the Hammers now need a three-point haul – immediately, if not sooner.

Fans often talk of a new manager ‘bounce’ – the hope that a fresh face at the helm will get the players firing and the scoreboard moving again after the previous manager has made a mess of everything. Well, West Ham haven’t won since the 13th December and Harder wasn’t in charge that day. They continue to hover just above the relegation zone but only have a two-point margin of error over Bristol City (who are playing Reading tonight). West Ham host Birmingham City next. They sure could do with getting that first home win… 

Manchester City 1-0 Everton

Holding midfielder Keira Walsh – Sprinting into ‘nose-bleed’ territory to bag a late winner for Manchester City…

“We’ve had a couple of late goals in the season but I think that one was really needed. We played some good stuff but there was  bit of disruption in our flow and rhythm. But at this stage of the season with six games left it’s about results, and it was a big 3 points today. I was a little bit surprised to see [Keira Walsh] that high up but I think she was getting sick of everyone else missing chances and thought ‘I’ll have a go here’! Great technique, brilliant execution and it was key for us getting the points.”

Gareth Taylor, Manager, Manchester City, via mancity.com

Manchester City kept the pressure on the league leaders with a narrow victory over a resilient and well organized Everton side that may have achieved the shut-out had it not been for first half injuries to both full backs.

Captain, and left back, Dan Turner, then Norway international Ingrid Moe Wold were both withdrawn before the end of the first half, leaving the visitors a bit short on the type of personnel best suited to execute Willie Kirk’s ‘5-4-1 bus-well-and-truly-parked’ formation.

City boss Gareth Taylor, meanwhile, appeared to be taunting his opposite number by starting three full backs across his defensive line (Lucy Bronze, Alex Greenwood and Esme Morgan) and benching a World Cup winning centre back in Abby Dahlkemper.

Fresh from their midweek win in the Champions’ League over Fiorentina, City had the best of the first half opportunities, both of which fell to midfielder Sam Mewis. Caroline Weir’s free-kick cannoned off the defensive wall and Mewis arrived at the ball before keeper Sandy MacIver only to get her angles wrong and prod wide. Later she drove a left footed effort past the upright from 20-yards.

Even with attacker Hayley Raso at right wing-back and no Jill Scott – who was not permitted to face her parent club – Everton were sticking to the game plan and stubbornly refusing to let City breach their defences. Ellen White and Chloe Kelly both had shots blocked in the penalty area and when White did finally get in behind the visiting backline, she seemed so surprised that she screwed her effort wide.

Taylor sought to alter the pattern of the game, replacing the physicality of White and Mewis with movement, flair and creativity in the shape of Georgia Stanway and Rose Lavelle. But it would be the swapping of Lauren Hemp to the right wing and Chloe Kelly to the left that would later pay dividends.

Kirk made some changes of his own with around 20 minutes to go, bringing winger Claire Emslie into the fray for centre forward Valérie Gauvin and protecting recently returned defender Gabby George who was subbed for busy striker Simone Magill.  Any hope that the shape would be changing, though, was immediately rendered meaningless by the odd sight of Lucy Graham heading into central defence. Nonetheless, were we about to witness the first green shoots of a new attacking ambition?

Certainly Raso had had her reins loosened on the right. Nicoline Sørensen was bombing up field to support the substitutes. Passes were going forward, corners were being won, City defenders were having to… defend their penalty area.

And then City scored.

City captain Steph Houghton – making her 200th appearance for the club – released Hemp down the right with just nine minutes left on the clock. The young winger hared towards the by-line, cut inside Poppy Pattinson, got her head up and spied Keira Walsh arriving in support on the edge of the penalty area. Hemp played a simple pass into the space in front of Walsh and the City midfielder didn’t hesitate, making the perfect connection to curl the ball inside MacIver’s right hand post.

Kelly then conjured up a couple of chances to make the score line more comfortable near the end, but fired straight at MacIver on both occasions. In the end, City’s senior players decided it was more pragmatic to take away any wind left in Everton’s sails by playing in the corners.

Certainly City haven’t had to play many ‘games of chess’ with their opponents this season, but this was one and their eventual victory was as much to do with patience, belief and concentration as it was Taylor’s neat tactical adjustments from the side lines. Good sides always believe one more chance will come along. Once City had dispatched theirs, Everton never really looked like they had an equalizer in them, despite gallantly raising themselves for one last push.

“We came up with a game plan we hadn’t come up with before, a 5-4-1. It’s not the way we are going to play long term but we were pragmatic and wanted to make sure we had a really solid defensive structure in place to build attacks from. We had injuries in the first half but the players adapted to that and the different game plan and still ran them very close – I’m very proud. Our work rate was exceptional and our concentration was really good.”

Willie Kirk, Manager, Everton, via liverpoolecho.co.uk

For the Toffees, well it was a case of ‘so near and yet so far’. Willie Kirk’s approach worked a treat for eighty minutes. They’d weathered the worst of the storm and now were going to try the old ‘smash and grab’ routine.

Unfortunately, they lost their heads, just for a moment, when City broke away for the goal. All eight Everton defenders headed for the box to mark four City players. No one kept a watching brief on edge of the penalty area and that’s where Walsh turned up untracked. Nevertheless, Kirk’s side have to take the positives. This is the best league game they’ve given City for quite some time…

Manchester United 3-0 Aston Villa

Stan’s back: Well actually this is Stan’s front. But she’s back, in the team. I know what I mean…

“I think the early goal helped today. It settled us, especially against a team that’s going to sit in a 5-3-2 and not come out much and I think we can just settle into the game then. I’m seeing [competitiveness] in the training environment, I’m seeing that in the game, and obviously it was a good win going into the next game [with Arsenal].”

Casey Stoney, Manager, Manchester United, via manchestereveningnews.co.uk

Manchester United returned to winning ways with a convincing victory over shot-shy Aston Villa at the Leigh Sports Complex.

Midfielder Lucy Staniforth returned to action for the Red Devils, playing her first minutes since the 13th December (week nine) and helping to set up the first two of United’s goals.

‘Attack, attack, attack’ goes the mantra at Old Trafford and Casey Stoney was clearly on board with that philosophy, sending out an aggressively attacking midfield that didn’t contain a single recognised defensively-minded, ‘safety-first’ player.

Not that Villa would give defenders much to think about, failing to register any shots, record any corners, or keep possession of the ball for more than 27% of the time.

Villans’ keeper Lisa Weiß would see plenty of action, though. Her first action was to acrobatically claw away Ella Toone’s audacious, cushioned volley direct from a Staniforth corner.

But the stopper could do nothing about United’s opener in the 27th minute. Staniforth applied enough pressure on Chloe Arthur to get the Villa midfielder to pass the ball to Kirsty Hanson on the edge of the penalty box. The Scot shifted the ball on to her left foot and hit a shot that looped up off Nat Haigh and deceived Weiß before crashing in off the underside of the cross bar.

The home side made it 2-0 just before the break. Staniforth provided a trademark free-kick delivery from the right and Jess Sigsworth powered her header past the keeper.

Sporting the number 37 shirt, Staniforth was subbed off just after the hour. Her replacement, Hayley Ladd, set up United’s third goal in the 73rd minute. Katie Zelem started and finished the move that transitioned through Martha Harris and Sigsworth on the right, Ladd crossed and the captain headed home from three yards out. A headed goal and Katie Zelem: Bit of a collector’s item that one, surely?

So, Casey Stoney’s side maintain the six point gap between them and Arsenal in fourth. Neither of their American stars were available to them; Lauren James, Kirsty Smith and Leah Galton were also missing. Maria Thorisdottir was benched; yet this was as comprehensive a win as one could expect.

There’s more depth to the squad this year – Martha Harris came in at full back for instance – and this encounter was a great time to stress-test some of that depth, seal the three points and then focus on getting some of their stars back in time for THE crunch match: Thursday 18th March at Arsenal.

“We played very good opposition in Manchester United who are up there for competing for the Champions League. So, a difficult task. I just feel now our season starts now, being in a position now where we’ve had a good look at [the squad] for six weeks and we’ve had to draw our comparisons and our opinions against the very best in this league. You learn a lot in defeat and we’ve certainly learnt a lot.”

Marcus Bignot, Manager, Aston Villa, via birminghammail.co.uk

For Villa, another week, another top four team to try and hold off. Marcus Bignot’s side didn’t have nearly the same level of resolve as they demonstrated for an hour against Arsenal last week. The first goal was gifted to United through a combination of poor decision-making and sloppy pass execution; the second a failure to defend a pretty standard set-piece situation. 

They don’t have to face a top four side in their next fixture, but they’re still going to have to make sure they eradicate the basic errors. Brighton will arrive at the Banks’ Stadium on the back of three straight wins. Villa beat the Seagulls earlier in the season, but Hope Powell’s side have showed marked improvement recently – specifically, they are dangerous from attacking set-pieces, and have been clinical when presented with the odd defensive lapse.

Birmingham City 0-4 Arsenal

Strutting Matilda: Forward Caitlin Foord “finding her rhythm” with nine WSL goals so far this season…

“They were sort of putting a block of five in front of us. The reality was the spaces were really reduced, so we just tried to either get a player into a position where they could just play in the pocket or play one way, then go to the other side. That’s where we tried to get Viv [Miedema] peeling off the defensive lines to go to the other side and we got some success from it in the first half. Since [Caitlin’s] been here, I’ve been singing her praises. She’s been great and she’s getting the rewards and finding her rhythm.”

Joe Montemurro, Manager, Arsenal, via football.london/arsenal

Caitlin Foord led the way with a brace as Arsenal bagged a four-goal win for the second week in a row and put their troubling start to the year on the backburner.

Conversely the Blues were on the end of a second successive 4-0 drubbing at St George’s Park and could conjure up just one shot on target.

After a surprising number of corners for the hosts in the opening minutes the expected pattern of the match soon emerged, with Birmingham looking to contain Arsenal up to their defensive third and then press more aggressively thereon.

The Gunners nearly got an early lead when Vivianne Miedema headed Katie McCabe’s in-swinging corner from the right against the post.

The Dutch striker then drove over the bar after Arsenal had worked a neat short corner routine.  Leah Williamson and Lotte Wubben-Moy defined the term ‘centre-half’s finish’ when they each tried their luck from distance, but got nowhere near testing Hannah Hampton in the Birmingham net.

Caitlin Foord was guilty of missing a gilt-edged chance on 22 minutes when she chested down Jordan Nobbs’ left wing cross in the six-yard box but then lashed her half-volley into the fence behind the goal.

Nobbs fired wide after Daniëlle van de Donk had cleverly engineered her a couple of yards of space; then no one could apply a finish to Nobbs’ fizzing cross from the left. Hampton denied Miedema from close range and Wubben-Moy couldn’t convert the rebound. Miedema’s next effort was too high to trouble the keeper. The finishing was symptomatic of Arsenal’s first half hour – their quality wasn’t quite there, the passing and movement didn’t quite have the zip and finesse that one would usually expect.

It looked like an ugly goal might be required. One duly arrived in the 37th minute. Although, to be fair, it didn’t start out ugly, with Williamson hitting a fabulous forty-yard diagonal out to Nobbs on the left. The midfielder got her first touch wrong and the ball jumped into the air, so she improvised and crossed it on the full. Van de Donk couldn’t get enough purchase on her header but Foord was arriving at the back post to apply the finish. Only, she didn’t apply the finish. Georgia Brougham cleared off the line and the Australian did well to remain switched on and finished the job off with her head.

Confusion then abounded in the media box for a few moments as the commentator thought the goal had been ruled out. Hampton was down injured – was she fouled? Perhaps Birmingham had a VAR offside case against Foord on van de Donk’s header? But there isn’t VAR in women’s football. By the time the commentator had concluded his soliloquy, both teams had trudged into place for the kick off and the stadium announcer had announced Foord as the goal scorer. Who was referee Jane Simms to disagree?

Arsenal’s second goal, which arrived shortly after the restart, was slightly more straightforward. The ball was worked out to Beth Mead on the right who drove a low cross in behind the Blues’ backline. Miedema will say she dummied it, but it was totally an air-shot! Foord was in just the right spot behind her to convert her ninth league goal of the season from two yards.

Miedema looked in the mood all afternoon, though, and got her goal in the 76th minute when she picked up McCabe’s throw-in from the left, back to goal. She spun her marker left and ran the ball out to the ‘D’ of the penalty box before unleashing a fierce drive to Hampton’s right.

Lisa Evans came off the bench to score Arsenal’s fourth goal for the second successive weekend. Miedema turned provider getting on to Jill Roord’s pass and playing the Scottish international winger into the penalty area untracked.

So, Arsenal got to make hay while the sun shines, blitzing another opponent in the bottom half of the league. But their Champions League ambitions hang by a thread and any slip up from hereon in would pretty much derail their season. For half an hour in this match the pressure to win was very evident with some clunky execution by their standards.

It never looked like Birmingham could beat the Gunners – the hosts offered limited goal threat – but there was visible frustration in the body language of some Arsenal players after a couple of early chances went begging and the question arose: could Arsenal end up ‘beating themselves’ here? Suddenly, two goals in a couple of minutes, and they looked much more like themselves. But this is the state of play now. Whoever they’re up against Arsenal basically have to win through to the end of the campaign.

The good news is they only have more fixture against a top three team. And it’s up next; what could be a winner takes all match for the third Champions’ League spot. Manchester United visit Meadow Park on the 18th March and it should be a cracker.

“We weren’t happy with the goals that we conceded in the first-half. We had words at half-time and thought we were much better in the second-half and got the reaction that we wanted. 4-0 for me, doesn’t really reflect the performance. There are a lot of positives to take, I don’t think we’ve given Arsenal an easy afternoon by all accounts. The reaction in the second half, the changes we made. Everyone left everything out there. [That’s] rule number one.”

Carla Ward, Manager, Birmingham City, via bcfc.com

The Blues’ fragmented season of postponements and a recent enforced change of home ground really does seem to be hindering their progress. Two points from the last six games is not ideal but a bit of perspective and a cursory glance at their recent games shows that they’ve drawn with mid-table Brighton and Everton and only lost to top four teams (Arsenal twice, City and United).

Perhaps more concerning is the lack of goals. Their only strike during the period described above was Jamie-Lee Napier’s rebound from a saved penalty at Everton.

The omission of top scorer Claudia Walker from the starting eleven was a bit surprising and laid bare the defensive mind-set that Carla Ward had fostered to try and grind out a draw. Granted, Walker hasn’t scored since week seven but she’s a player that can keep defenders on their heels. The Gunners’ ball-playing centre halves, however, were largely camped just inside Birmingham’s half of the field. Walker came on in the second period and the Blues in general made a better fist of things, but the damage was already done and the Gunners always had a far more significant goal threat.

Ward’s side go to West Ham next which is an intriguing matchup.  West Ham desperately need to win. Birmingham, on the other hand, don’t, but they should certainly try to.

Brighton & Hove Albion 2-0 Tottenham Hotspur

Hope Powell – “We are not out of the woods…” Hmmm, we at D2B think you are.

“The next game is the most important game then the game after that is the most important game. The danger is that you can get complacent and you relax and we can’t afford to do that. We can’t afford to believe that we are out of the woods, we are not out of the woods, we’ve played more games than everybody else and other teams could catch us. We have to be on it, we have to be really hard to beat and we have to pick up points.”

Hope Powell, Manager, BHA, via fawslfulltime.co.uk

Attacking midfielder Inessa Kaagman struck twice in ten second half minutes as the Seagulls made it three wins in a row with a hard fought 2-0 victory over Tottenham.

It was to be a frustrating day for Spurs who were always in the game, but would rue missed chances with the ball pinging off the Brighton woodwork no less than three times.

The visitors shaded the first half. Their best opportunity fell to Alanna Kennedy, whose header was cleared off the line by Emma Koivisto.

After the break, returning full back Siri Worm swung in a free kick that Spurs defender Shelina Zadorsky controlled elegantly on her knee before volleying against the cross bar. The ricochet eventually broke to Kit Graham but her shot deflected off of Danique Kerkdijk on the goal line.

Brighton took the lead in the 54th minute. Aileen Whelan pressured Kennedy into squandering possession near the touchline. Half time substitute Nora Heroum immediately curled a deep ball into the box from the right, two defenders converged on Ellie Brazil but she won the flick-on, leaving Kaagman in all kinds of space to pick her spot on the half volley.

The Dutch international got her second ten minutes later. Lee Geum-Min combined with Heroum in midfield, the Fin clipped a bit of a hopeful ball into the box but Abbie McManus headed her clearance more up than out and and it dropped to Kaagman who thrashed it, right-footed, past Aurora Mikalsen from 12 yards.

“We’re in a much better position now, the three wins have made a big difference but we need to keep going, we want to look up the table and compete with the likes of Reading and Everton who are above us, we have done well but we know we can do better. Sunday was a tight game. We defended like lions, at the end we had people literally lying down on the line to protect the goal which just shows the togetherness and spirit we have as a group.”

Inessa Kaagman, Midfielder, Brighton & Hove Albion, via brightonandhovealbion.com

Spurs tried to respond. Worm’s corner from the right cannoned off the near post and a goalmouth scramble of almost mythical proportions ensued with Josie Green, Angela Addison and Kit Graham all failing to make the decisive finish.

Brighton continued to keep the Tottenham defence honest by threatening on the counter. Heroum, who made a tremendous impact as a second half introduction, tried her luck from outside the box but Mikalsen brilliantly tipped it on to the bar. Megan Connolly was well placed on the follow up, but her header looped up and hit virtually the same spot of the horizontal.

At the other end, Graham thundered a 25-yarder against the Brighton bar, before Ria Percival headed over Lucy Quinn’s cross from the right.

This result propels Hope Powell’s side to within a point of Reading (in sixth spot) and (we think) pretty much guarantees WSL football for the Seagulls next season, such is the gap to the sides in trouble. Ok, their goal lived a bit of a charmed life on the day, but they were clinical in key moments and defended for their lives to prevent Spurs from getting a foothold.

“It is a building process here at Spurs, I have come in in the middle of a season and there is always some ups and downs associated with that. The response from the players has been excellent and we are building a culture here that everyone is buying into which is really important and that doesn’t happen overnight. We have to keep being more consistent in terms of quality.”

Rehanne Skinner, Manager, Tottenham Hotspur, via tottenhamhotspur.com (pre-match)

Rehanne Skinner, meanwhile, may feel a bit aggrieved not to have come away from the Peoples’ Pension Stadium with a point, but sometimes the keenly contested matches come down to which side is better in and around both penalty areas. And that was Brighton today.

The manager started with the same front four that gave Everton plenty to think about last week, which suggests she’s getting comfortable with the attacking blend overall. Now they need a confidence boosting win, which realistically will need to come at Reading (Wednesday week) because Arsenal and Manchester City lie in wait after that Royals clash on the fixture calendar.

==

Last 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 or our Links page, 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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