The return of the Women’s Super League following a winter break has been hampered by the frequent postponement of matches due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some teams are yet to even play a game in the competition in January, with the table looking more skewed week-by-week.
Despite this, there are still some interesting storylines to catch up on in the WSL.
Life After Viv
The uncertainty surrounding Vivianne Miedema’s future at Arsenal has hung over the club for the past couple of seasons, with the Dutch striker being typically forthright about her interest in pursuing new challenges at some point. With her contract up at the end of the season, Arsenal have used the January transfer window to sign highly regarded Swedish striker Stina Blackstenius. It certainly seems like there are those of the club who have an eye on the future.
On the field, though, there is also a sense that Miedema’s influence at the club is waning. On the face of it, scoring seven goals in nine starts is hardly poor form – only Sam Kerr has scored more this season. However, underneath there is a noticeable decline in the quality of opportunities coming Miedema’s way – by her impeccably high standards, at least.
Like 2020-21, her overall goals per 90 average has dropped off from the heights of 2018-19 and 2019-20, but it’s still at 0.86/90 this season – an average not to be scoffed at. Both her non-penalty expected goals/90 and expected assists/90 are the lowest they’ve been since her debut WSL season in 2017-18, but just to show how much we’ve come to expect of the Dutch star – only Sam Kerr (0.92) has a higher npxG/90 than her this season in the competition.
There’s little doubt that she is one of the best players the WSL has ever seen, and by looking at all outfielders per season since her debut campaign in 2017-18, it’s clear that not many players can consistently perform at her level season after season.
Comparing Miedema’s shot map this season to last season, it’s clear that she’s not been able to find those deadly positions within the six-yard box, like she was with regularity in 2020-21. This could have been a result of the change in Arsenal management that took place over the summer.
Joe Montemurro’s possession-based style has been replaced with Jonas Eidevall’s much quicker transitional style. Consequently, Miedema, who is well known for dropping deep, is not as able to advance as far up the pitch before an attacking sequence comes to an end.
Arsenal’s opening six WSL games of 2021-22 saw them outperform their xG total by 11.1, but in the four games since then this overperformance is just 0.4 which includes games against Spurs (one goal from 1.56 xG) and the defeat to Birmingham (no goals from 0.56 xG) where they found their performance in front of goal didn’t reflect the quality of chances presented to them.
These results have now given Chelsea the initiative in the title race, so they need their guaranteed goals more than ever. Supplying Miedema with higher quality chances will be key if they are to win their first WSL title since 2019.
The New Manager Bounce
Back in November, Birmingham City and Leicester City sacked their managers within one week of each other. Both sides were struggling in the league having picked up a combined total of just one point, but the new appointments of Darren Carter and Lydia Bedford seem to have immediately revitalised both City clubs and the relegation battle with it.
Birmingham began life under Carter with intent, after they twice took the lead against Manchester City before eventually losing 3-2 at St. Andrew’s thanks to an 89th minute winner from Ellen White. However, their first league victory of the season finally came on 9th January in surprising circumstances, beating league leaders Arsenal 2-0 in a well organised display.
It was Arsenal that offered Bedford her first challenge in the WSL as Leicester boss, but the Gunners ran out 4-0 winners at Meadow Park. However, the following match against Birmingham on 19th December – at the time billed as a crunch relegation six-pointer, saw Bedford pick up her first points in charge with a 2-0 win. Since then, they have also gone on to beat an out-of-sorts Brighton team 1-0, last weekend.
Before the arrivals of both Carter and Bedford, it seems that both clubs would have to be set scrapping draws and focus on beating one another in the WSL this season to achieve survival. However, those wins against Arsenal and Brighton have shown that they can collect a surprising result.
It’s certainly been a baptism of fire for Carter since his arrival, with fixtures against Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Manchester City. Leicester come up against Aston Villa this weekend, and a win would take them to just a point off their opponents in 10th position.
Birmingham and Leicester meet again in the competition on 6th February, with both knowing that a win is vital to any chance of survival.
A Tale of Two Midfielders
The current London-based dominance of English women’s football has surely been frustrating for both Manchester clubs. In the past three seasons, only two trophies have been won by a team not from London, with Manchester City winning the FA Cup in 2019-20 and 2020-21, although that is predominantly because Chelsea have won the rest.
Yet with the WSL title race looking set to be a two-horse race between Chelsea and Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United will surely be determined to make sure that it is not Tottenham who pick up the third and final Champions League spot. Fortunately for them, both sides look like their form has been rejuvenated thanks to two of their midfield star performers.
At United, it’s undoubtedly Vilde Bøe Risa that seems to have been revealed as the missing piece of Marc Skinner’s puzzle. The Norwegian midfielder was highly sought after in the summer transfer window following spells in both her home country and Sweden, but she found game time hard to come by following an ineffective start as part of a midfield pairing alongside Katie Zelem. In those matches, United’s midfield ended up isolated, unable to link up defence and attack.
It looked like Bøe Risa’s impact on the WSL was not going to be as strong as expected – until Marc Skinner moved her to a more advanced position on the pitch.
With Hayley Ladd now installed alongside Katie Zelem, Bøe Risa had licence to make more runs into the box. Speaking to the Manchester Evening News in December, the 26-year-old even accepted that her form earlier in the season stemmed from a struggle to transition to life in England; “This league is very different to what I have been used to and it’s much tougher now but I feel I can run more and be very offensive and do the runs in-behind.”
She immediately made use of that to record seven shots in her first game higher up the pitch – against Brighton in December, with all of them hitting the target.
In fact, Bøe Risa ranks ninth across the WSL for shots on target (9), despite only having played three games so far this season in a more attacking role. Since her move forward at the start of December, she also has the highest non-penalty expected goals of any United player (1.18). Whilst her role means moving Ella Toone out to a wing, it also takes some of the opposition focus away from Toone, who’s so far this season shown herself to be United’s creative lynchpin.
It remains to be seen how Skinner’s new midfield combination will hold up against more robust opposition, with United having so far only played Brighton, Aston Villa, and Birmingham City in this formation. Forthcoming fixtures against Arsenal and Manchester City in February will indicate whether this is a long-term solution for United.
On the other side of the city, Manchester City have recently been bolstered by the returns of long-term absentees Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton, with a similar uptick in results against lesser opposition as Manchester United. But it is not the returnees who have been eye-catching, so much as Georgia Stanway.
The 23-year-old was previously seen as the future of this City side, until her rise was eclipsed by Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly. However, recent performances have shown why she was so highly rated – if she gets played in a position that suits her.
It’s hard to not believe that Stanway’s progress has suffered somewhat in recent years due to her versatility. At both City and England, there is a tendency to use her to plug any gaps that might arise whether across the front line or the back line of a team. And whilst she is someone who can be relied upon do those jobs competently, they are rarely done exceptionally.
As a result of this, it has not always been clear where exactly Stanway has been best suited. She ostensibly came through as a number 10 but recently it is in the number 8 role where she has looked best. The position allows her to combine the best aspects of her defensive and attacking play, and she has scored three times in the two games she has recently played there, helping her to equal last season’s goal tally already.
Of players to have played at least 500 minutes in the competition this season, only teammate Alex Greenwood and Everton’s Kenza Dali have carried the ball further per 90 minutes than Stanway, with her ball carrying skills proving a useful outlet for her club.
She has led the City team in terms of shots in each of their past two games, with six against Brighton and four against Aston Villa. The range of her shooting also means she is well-suited to the differing opportunities that open to her from the midfield position.
There is a large amount of competition within Manchester City’s midfield with Keira Walsh and Caroline Weir both guaranteed starting positions when fit, leaving Vicky Losada, Filippa Angeldahl, Laura Coombs, and Stanway to compete for the third spot. However, as it stands, Stanway looks like City’s best option given her combination of skills. That is, until someone else gets injured.
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