Coming into this season, the FA Women’s Super League was ready for a slug-fest between Chelsea and Manchester City.
The pair had been the dominant forces in English football since 2015, when the (London) Blues won their first WSL title and the Sky Blues were fresh off the back of their first major trophy since the injection of cash into the club’s operation*.
*NB: City fans, and former players, will be keen for it to be made clear that the club has had a women’s side since the 1980s, something which wasn’t common at the time. City and football historian Dr Gary James has done, and continues to do, work documenting this, for example.
The pair were first and second in every season from 2015 to 2018, including the WSL Spring Series that took place as the league switched from a summer to winter schedule in 2017. Arsenal, the once-premier force in the women’s game (they won nine league titles in a row between 2003 and 2012), were relegated to third-place. Perennial bronze medal winners, the new-money pair even muscling into the Gunners’ stranglehold of the FA Cup, which they have won 14 times since 1992/93.
But at the start of the 2018/19 season, everything seemed to have changed.
It took Chelsea four games to score their first league goal (granted, their opening match had been against City). Not long after, they were thrashed 5-0 by Arsenal, who were rolling over anything and everything in their path. Manchester City had had a slow start too, including a disappointing 2-2 draw to Bristol City.
With expected midtable clubs like Birmingham City and Reading enjoying good starts, Chelsea and City found themselves in a congested pack behind the Gunners.
Back to normality, and a three-horse race
Now, though, the league has shaken itself out. City are top by a point, albeit having played one game more than Arsenal who sit in second. Joe Montemurro’s team also have a game in hand over Chelsea, who are a further two points back in third.
The weird thing is that each of these three teams have their own distinct story. You have Arsenal, the behemoths rearing their head after a brief slumber, a monstrous footballing phoenix. Chelsea, the slow starters. And City, the moneyed club with a stadium of their own** and a target on their back, who’ve shown rare signs of weakness.
**All 11 teams in the WSL are affiliated with a professional men’s team in the English professional leagues, but most do not share match-day facilities with them. Many play at local(ish) stadiums of a different men’s team that is in the lower professional leagues or non-league (for example, Arsenal play at Boreham Wood’s ground; Chelsea, AFC Wimbledon’s). Manchester City play at a purpose-built stadium for City’s academy and women’s teams on the club’s ‘Etihad Campus’, a couple of minutes’ walk from the main 55,000-seater Etihad Stadium. There is an argument that playing at an unfamiliar ground to fans of the club is a factor in holding back attendances, and playing on the same site as the men’s team, accessible by the same car parks and tram stop, would appear to be an advantage in encouraging a live audience for City’s women.
If this wasn’t professional football, everyone would have stopped playing with Arsenal because they’re too good. They’ve made whipping posts of everyone, and their performances have matched the results.
Expected goals is a stat that judges the quality of chances that teams have. The difference between Arsenal’s expected goals and their opponents’ in individual matches has given them an expected goals difference of 2.0 or more in six of their 12 league games.
It’s only once been negative once, in their recent 2-1 win over Chelsea (and even then, only just, -0.17).
By rights, Chelsea should probably have enjoyed a similarly hot run of results to the Gunners though.
Emma Hayes’ team created chances worth 4.66 expected goals in their opening run of three goalless games.
They, like Arsenal, have had six games where their expected goals total has been over two (although four of these have come in their last five). Their only games of struggle have been against the other two of the Big Three.
Manchester City, though, have genuinely struggled against the two teams in the next tier of the league, Birmingham and Reading.
Nick Cushing’s City have now played Birmingham - who were coached by new Orlando Pride manager Marc Skinner - home and away. City’s expected goal difference across the two games against the Midlands side is just +0.45. Chelsea and Arsenal both beat that in one match.
Similarly, when City drew 1-1 against Reading, the expected goal scoreline read 1.56-1.08; in other words City created more, but only just, and a draw was a reasonable result. Meanwhile Chelsea won their only meeting with the Royals so far 1-0, though expected goals suggests the scoreline could have been much larger, and Arsenal deservedly whomped Reading 6-0. Looking at expected goals created per match against other top five teams, City has clearly one much less in attack than their two competitors for the league.
Fans of City will be bemoaning these performances, but fans of women’s football as a whole will probably be encouraged. Birmingham and Reading are proving that it’s not just the big guns, backed by copious amounts of money, who can compete (Durham, one of the few teams to halt Manchester United’s dominance of the second-tier, the FA Women’s Championship, are an encouraging example of this too).
The title race
The three teams are clear behemoths at the top of the league and, with the table so tight, every match counts.
This weekend sees Arsenal travel to Reading and Chelsea host Birmingham (under new manager Marta Tejedor); City will be hoping that the WSL middle-class will slow their rivals down. It isn’t long until the next crunch match at the top either, with the Manchester side due to welcome Chelsea on February 10.
The final game of the top three mini-league, Arsenal vs City, is scheduled for the last day of the season. It could well be a title-decider. It could well, if the edge that the Gunners’ underlying numbers are to be believed, be Arsenal’s first league title since 2012.
The WSL is the title race you should be keeping an eye on.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association