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  • November 1, 2019

    Five games into the WSL and there's fun wherever you look

    By Mark Thompson
    Image Courtesy of Press Association
    Chelsea Women celebrate scoring
  • The Women’s Super League is five games in and we have a tasty, tasty title race on our hands.

    ‘The Big Three’ (as I’ve taken to calling them) of 2017-18 champions Chelsea, 2018-19 champions Arsenal, and 2016* champions Manchester City are separated by just one point at the top of the table.

    *Before 2017-18, the WSL was played on a summer rather than winter season schedule

    But England’s top tier of women’s football is not a three-team league and there’s plenty going on up and down it. Here are the broad headline trends before we take a proper look at the table.

    • The Big Three remain the Big Three for now, but Manchester United may be joining them soon
    • There’s a definite midtable group: by eye and by stat, West Ham and Everton are in there, as are Reading and Tottenham, although things get more fluid towards the bottom of this group and the top of the third group…
    • …this group is the bottom four in the current league table, who probably all deserve to be there. Bristol City, despite their sixth-place finish in 2018-19, appear to be really struggling looking at the stats.

    Here’s the table at the moment (NB: Reading and Birmingham City have had a match postponed):

    And we’ve also got the teams sorted by StatsBomb’s expected goals per game (a measure of chance quality, specifically with penalties stripped out as spot-kicks are extremely high value but can happen pretty randomly). Fixture schedule or a one-off tonking can skew the numbers a bit, but here we go:

    While the Big Three exists in terms of points and overall quality, there are some interesting quirks in how they play. Arsenal women are doing what Arsène Wenger would have been proud of the men doing back in the day: possession, and plenty of it. Joe Montemurro’s team average the most spells of possession per game that contain 10 or more passes (22.0), more than double the third-highest team on the list (Chelsea, with 10.6).

    Manchester City are the team sandwiched between them, but though City are pass-happy with the ball, they’re a slightly unexpected mix defensively. They’ll certainly press you if you get the ball in your own defensive third – only 20% of the possessions starting there against City have lasted long enough to string five or more passes together, giving City the second press-iest rate in the league.

    However, if you manage to make it out of the press alive, they seem to relent. They allow 8.6 possession sequences with 10+ passes per game, which is the second-highest amount in the league. It’s even more than the lowly Bristol City, whose opponents only manage an average of 7.8. City are, generally, surprisingly easy to pass through for a team challenging for the title, and their latest outing, a crunch match against Arsenal, was stark in terms of the difference between the two sides on the day.

    That win was a big three points for Montemurro’s Gunners, as had they lost, they’d have been six points behind City. A defeat to Chelsea in mid-October provoked wonders about the team’s ability to defend last season’s title and ire from Montemurro:

    The Australian manager has noted in the past how he prefers a small squad and, unlike the previous league campaign, he’s actually having to use it. Arsenal averaged the second-fewest changes to their starting XI from match-to-match in the WSL last season (1.3) but so far in 2019/20 they’ve averaged the most (2.25). The number of changes isn’t necessarily meaningful in and of itself, but that large a change certainly seems indicative of a team who had things going their way last season in a way that they aren’t quite this time around.

    That’s worrisome because Arsenal, and City for that matter, will have to be the the top of their game to keep pace with Chelsea this season. The Blues have the strongest numbers of the trio and no Champions League to contend with (although neither, after this week, do City). They’re built on a solid defensive foundation and have a great cast of attacking players to contribute to attack: Fran Kirby, Erin Cuthbert, Ji So-yun, striker Bethany England, and new signing Guro Reiten give a great strength in depth.

    And last season’s campaign, finishing third in the league and 12 points off winners Arsenal, will surely be a source of inspiration for the Blues. Being that far off first in a title defence year must have stung, not helped by a start to the season of three goalless draws but an expected goals balance of 4.67 to 1.49. This season they’ve had no such stumbles, and it’s set the title race up nicely.

    In terms of the midtable chasers we can talk about Manchester United another time – they will not be short of column inches this season – but Everton and West Ham look like they’re worth paying attention to. The Hammers are a solidly good side who turn up against the big guns and are led by Matt Beard, twice-winner of the WSL as manager of Liverpool in 2013 and 2014 (back before they were neglected into becoming relegation-battlers…). They have 16 players born outside the UK, the highest number in the league and a figure I’ve taken from a great article by Kieran Theivam on The Athletic about just how a WSL side deals with that (although one might wonder whether player settling services might be something that a club like West Ham could share between men’s and women’s sides).

    Everton, meanwhile, have a much more homegrown squad, including 21-year-old September Player of the Month Chloe Kelly, who currently leads the league on four goals in five games. Sure, she’s overperforming her expected goals, and that expected goals figure is inflated by a single near-open-goal shot against Reading, but she’s fun to watch.

    Speaking of fun to watch, Manchester City’s Janine Beckie has hit the ground running after spending the majority of last season out injured. The Canadian is currently averaging 2.53 successful dribbles per game and the highest xG per 90 in the league (0.62). The vast majority of her expected goals comes after receiving through-balls, a major chunk of the rest comes immediately after a dribble, and as much as I would prefer to big up players outside the major clubs, Beckie’s someone you’ll want to tune in for (even if she’s yet to score in the league).

    But in terms of pure influence for their team, few could rival Reading’s Fara Williams. The 170-capped England legend set up all three goals in the recent win over Everton and has the sixth-highest expected goals contribution per game in the league (0.64; 0.22 expected goals plus 0.42 expected goals assisted).

    The 34-year-old is helping to power a team who look like they’re trying to set-piece their way to victories. So far, they’re first in the league for expected goals per game created from dead-ball situations and only seventh from open-play. Granted, their set-piece defence is the second-worst in the league at this stage, but Williams’ delivery, and all-round quality and experience, is something that most teams would be very envious to have.

    One of which would be Liverpool, and given that I mentioned earlier that they were ‘neglected into becoming relegation-battlers’, I should elaborate on their situation (particularly given the success and positive press that the men’s team, and club as a whole as an extension, are receiving at the moment).

    Right at the start of last season, manager Neil Redfearn resigned, just three months into the job after previous manager Scott Rogers left. The intervening months had seen many players change one red shirt for another and join the then-newly formed Manchester United, while Redfearn’s sole game in charge was a 5-0 defeat to Arsenal. That the Gunners eventually went on to win the title makes that scoreline look a little less embarrassing in hindsight, but there’s no positive way to spin the rumours that the impromptu departure was down to dissatisfaction at how the women’s team was being run.

    Since last season, there has been a smidgen of a recovery. There is, at least, more stability in the coaching set-up and a relatively star player in Melissa Lawley, who’s arrived from Manchester City. Lawley is doing what she can – averaging over three dribbles and nearly six deep progressions (passing or carrying the ball into the final third) per game, as well as the longest average carry distance in the league – but she can only do so much. No-one in the squad is contributing more than 0.15 non-penalty expected goals per 90. For reference, Arsenal centre-back Leah Williamson is averaging 0.12, and Liverpool only have two players beating that.

    It’s certainly going to be a tough old season for the Reds, who are not only bottom of the league on one point but are also the only team yet to play one of the Big Three. Their next trio of league matches (starting on 17 November after an international break) are a Merseyside Derby at Anfield (that, on form, they look likely to lose); a trip to Arsenal; and a trip to Manchester City. They then have a home game against West Ham before hosting Chelsea, so it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility for them to go into Christmas still without a win.

    But let’s end this on a happier note. Now-Manchester United winger Leah Galton took a break from football in 2018 after having fallen out of love with football. She’s now back, is ripping up the league on United’s left, and made the news this week for having turned down a call-up to the England squad, though not for acrimonious reasons.

    Here’s United manager Casey Stoney: “Playing for your national team is something that Leah and other players dream of, however I am strong on a player’s needs coming first and seeing them as human beings. Leah is just starting to fall back in love with the game again and I fully support her in not being ready for that next step yet.”

    Manchester United took far, far too long to re-establish their women’s team after disbanding it in 2005, but it’s nice to see them taking good decisions since they’ve joined the party.

    Article by Mark Thompson