The 2020/21 FA WSL Title Race
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For the second season in a row, there’s a nail-biter of a title race as we enter the home straight of the season, with Chelsea just edging out Manchester City at the time of writing.
Table courtesy of https://womenscompetitions.thefa.com/
We’re going to focus on the battle at top and what can now be tentatively suggested to be the league’s 'Big Four', having seen the same teams occupying the top four positions last season too.
Arsenal find themselves adrift now, but were very much in the conversation back in October after winning all five of their opening fixtures at an aggregate scoreline of 29-4. Vivianne Miedema, league top scorer in 2018-19 and 2019-20, scored 10 goals in those opening five to go a long way towards securing the accolade for the third season running, ably supported by Netherlands compatriot Jill Roord who netted back-to-back hat-tricks from central midfield in Arsenal’s opening two fixtures.
The Gunners scored at nearly double their expected goals, but racking up 16.7 xG in five games – a rate of 3.34 per game – put a warning out to the rest of the league.
As always in the WSL though, it’s results against your rivals that make the difference between a title challenge or not and Arsenal dropped points to all of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United in three of the four fixtures immediately following that start, losing to the two Manchester clubs and hosting a London derby stalemate with Chelsea. Further defeats to City and Chelsea in the return fixtures have cut them adrift.
After a fourth-placed finish in their inaugural top flight season in 2019-20, there's been a discernible progression in Manchester United.
Casey Stoney’s side were closer to mid-table than they were the title race last time out, but an uptick in their attacking output has seen the team emerge as stronger contenders in 2020-21.
There’s an element of chaos around United games this season with the side leading the league for both High Press Shots, shots generated within five seconds of a turnover in the opposition half, and Counter Attacking Shots, shots generated within 15 seconds following a turnover in the team’s own half.
United also come out on top in StatsBomb’s Directness metric, a ratio of the distance to goal from the start of a possession that ended in a shot, divided by the total distance travelled in the build-up to that shot. In layman’s terms, United look to play forward and towards goal when on the ball.
Two-time World Cup winner Tobin Heath’s form had been living up to the marquee-status greeted by the signing, providing a direct goal threat and creativity from the wing during United's 10-2-0 start to the season that had them firmly in the title race.
Heath’s January injury coincided with back-to-back defeats in the first two rounds of February, which, along with a defeat to Chelsea a few weeks prior, has seen the Red Devils lose touch with the top two with six games to play.
After missing out on the title by points-per-game last season, Manchester City’s summer recruitment drive was hailed as one of the best in the division, seeing Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis, Alex Greenwood, Chloe Kelly and Lucy Bronze join the club.
Bronze returned to England following a trophy-laden spell with Lyon in France including three consecutive Division 1 Féminine and Champions League doubles, as well as a host of personal honours, including winning ‘The Best FIFA Women's Player’ in 2020 (Bronze wins Gold, etc, etc...)
Ex-manager Nick Cushing ended his seven-year association with the club for a role with New York City FC in MLS, so management-rookie Gareth Taylor was promoted from a role in the Manchester City academy to take on the mantle.
It's so far, so good for Taylor who, results-wise, has picked up where Cushing left off. A rocky start saw them go 3-3-1 in their opening seven fixtures, but Taylor has swiftly steadied the ship and that run has been followed up by a steamrolling nine game winning run. City now look set to go at least as close to regaining the title from Chelsea as they did in the last campaign, with City currently two points off top spot.
Taylor’s tinkered with the setup to great effect, with the surface-level metrics looking even stronger than last year. xG per game has shifted up from 1.94 to 2.22, their xG conceded has dropped from 0.83 to 0.56 – and the changes in process that has led to those upgrades is evident.
For starters, City are now pressing higher up the pitch. Their PPDA – Opposition Passes Per Defensive Action – has dropped from 10.30 to 6.30, and their Defensive Distance – the average distance from a team’s own goal from which it makes defensive actions – has increased by nearly five(!) metres, up from 48.9m in 2019-20 to a league-high 53.6m in 2020-21. For context, Chelsea have the next highest in 2020-21 at 49.9m.
City are looking to keep the play in the opposition territory as often as possible and ideally in possession of the ball themselves – possession has risen from 55% to 65% - in order to utilise the creative talents of Georgia Stanway, Lauren Hemp, and Chloe Kelly.
Kelly has transferred her Everton form into City colours after her summer move, completing the most dribbles in the division so far (2nd only to Chloe Arthur or Aston Villa on a per 90 basis) and creating the third-most xG assisted in the league from the right-flank.
Looking to retain their title and in pole position to do so are leaders Chelsea.
Despite the improvement in Manchester City’s metrics, it’s still the Blues who look the strongest side in the WSL this season, with virtually nothing between this season and last in either their 'xG For' numbers in attack or 'xG Conceded' numbers in defence.
2019-20 WSL Player Of The Season and Player’s Player of the Season Beth England signed a new four-year deal in the summer and has picked up where she left off, supported by the returning Fran Kirby, world record signing Pernille Harder, and speedster Sam Kerr. The form of all four has powered Chelsea to the top of the table with each of them registering at least 10 goals and assists combined by the three-quarter stage of the season.
You get a clearer sense of how devastating the Chelsea frontline have been when you consider than three of the top four players in the league for expected goals and expected goals assisted come from the London club.
It’s not just the attackers that deserve credit, though. Defensively the Blues have been imperious too., conceding just 8 goals in 16 games, a total that just about tallies with their xG conceded of 8.8.
The form of the defensive unit as a whole has been high but on the rare occasion they do get breached, goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger has been there to bail them out. Berger has faced just 15 shots on target in her 12 appearances this season, shots that have a post-shot xG value of 6.3, taking into account the shot location and shot placement. So on average we'd expect Berger to have conceded between 6-7 goals from the shots she's faced - she's conceded just three (plus one penalty and one own-goal).
Assuming neither side slips up elsewhere, all eyes are on the top of the table clash between Manchester City and Chelsea on April 25th, which at this stage looks to be the title decider. You don't want to miss it.
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