The English WSL returns this weekend, with Emma Hayes’ Chelsea side looking to win a fifth successive title. We preview the new 2023-24 season, posing five key questions ahead of the start of the campaign.
The 2023-24 Women’s Super League season gets underway this weekend following a busy summer for teams and players alike. Kicking off six weeks after the Women’s World Cup final, there has been little breathing space with players participating in the UEFA Women’s Nations League this week.
Arsenal have even managed to already get knocked out of the UEFA Women’s Champions League, with the first qualifying round taking place two weeks ago. All eyes will be on whether Chelsea can win a fifth consecutive WSL title, but with both Arsenal and Manchester City without European football, they will feel they should be able to challenge Chelsea’s four-year dominance at the top.
Five in a Row for Chelsea?
Chelsea won last season’s WSL title with a record tally of points (58), record number of wins (19) and an impeccable home record, winning all 11 games. They achieved that alongside reaching both domestic cup finals and a Champions League semi-final, in what was arguably their most impressive season record yet, particularly in the context of missing key players like Millie Bright, Pernille Harder and Fran Kirby for large portions of the campaign.
A key marker of Chelsea’s success in recent years has been their ability to take points off their rivals. Chelsea took 13 points from their six matches against Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal in 2022-23, losing only once, away at City.
Chelsea’s ability in front of goal has long been the key to their success, and despite Sam Kerr having a quieter time in the WSL than in previous seasons, they still outscored their closest rivals Manchester United by 10 goals.
Part of Chelsea’s skill is in creating great opportunities, with their non-penalty xG per shot of 0.11 the highest in the league. They finished the season with six players on five or more WSL goals (Kerr, Harder, Kirby, Erin Cuthbert, Guro Reiten, and Lauren James), two more than their nearest rival. They also turned opportunities into goals, finishing the season with the joint most goal-ending high turnovers. 3.3% of their high turnovers ended in goals, beaten only by Aston Villa, who finished off 4.0% of theirs.
Chelsea went through some big changes over the summer, with club captain Magdalena Eriksson departing alongside her partner, Harder. But they have recruited well, strengthening at full-back with Ashley Lawrence, midfield with Sjoeke Nüsken, and signing a second striker to replace Bethany England – who left in January – in Mia Fishel. With Catarina Macario also expected back from her ACL injury in a couple of months, it is hard to imagine this Chelsea team being weaker than they were last season.
Are Manchester City the Biggest Threat to Chelsea?
Manchester City were the team to miss out on the Champions League spots, and their fourth-place finish was the worst they had recorded since their first season in the WSL, back in 2014.
Having navigated a tricky start to last season where Gareth Taylor was forced to rebuild a side that had lost five starters over the summer, including his entire midfield, they go into this year incredibly settled. They have brought in just one more player – Jill Roord from Wolfsburg – while only having one player move on – Hayley Raso to Real Madrid.
Man City found themselves frustrated in a number of games last year when they were unable to take their chances. Losses to Arsenal and Liverpool towards the end of the season all but ended their hopes of UWCL qualification in matches where they were arguably the better team. City took more shots than any other side in the division (454) but had the fourth worst conversion rate (15.8%) and second worst accuracy, with just 34% of all shots hitting the target. More precision in front of goal will be key if they are to improve this year.
Finding more variety with their attacks could help. City were the most prolific crossing side from open play in the WSL last season, firing in 69 more than any other side (367). Taylor’s side have long prioritised getting the ball out wide to wingers Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly, with Bunny Shaw’s presence in the box a tantalising target to aim at. Shaw received 50 of these, 21 more than any other WSL player, while they created chances for teammates on 73 occasions – another league best tally.
But finding ways to attack through the centre more often could create more uncertainty in the minds of the opposition and force them to try and defend a little differently. Man Utd (20), Chelsea (17) and Arsenal (15) all made more open-play through balls than City (11) last season. The signing of Roord might allow more of this, as a player who likes to operate in the pocket between the forward line and the midfield, but Taylor might have to switch up his attacking plans to allow her to do so.
Can Brighton Jump Up the Table?
Brighton have a strong argument to say they are the team who have had the most eye-catching summer transfer window. The south coast club finished second from bottom last season as they tried out four different managers across a single year, but that has not stopped them from attracting some big names ahead of 2023-24. Former Barcelona captain Vicky Losada has joined, as has ex-Manchester City striker Pauline Bremer, along with nine other players making their way down to Brighton.
Will the recruitment be enough to change the team’s fortunes? Well, the underlying numbers suggest they didn’t have a huge issue creating chances last season – only the top five teams had a higher non-penalty xG total than them (21.8). The addition of Bremer – if she can stay fit – will no doubt help them only get better in that department. Her last season in the WSL at Man City back in 2019-20 saw her score 10 goals in just 12 appearances, while an injury-hit season for VfL Wolfsburg last term saw her play only 271 minutes of league action, but she still scored five times. Support from Elisabeth Terland and Katie Robinson, both of whom excelled last season, should ensure she gets plenty of opportunity.
While their attack impressed, they were let down by their defensive frailties. They conceded the most goals in the league (63), while they allowed opponents a higher non-penalty xG than every other club (41.6). Teams found it easy to build possession in good areas against Brighton too – they had the highest PPDA (opposition passes per defensive action) in 14.3, plus only bottom club Reading (748) enabled their opponents to have more touches in the opposition box than Brighton did (667).
This wasn’t helped by goalkeeper Megan Walsh having a difficult 2022-23 campaign. Based on Opta’s expected goals on target (xGOT) model, no goalkeeper in the WSL conceded more goals than expected, based on the quality of shots on target faced, than she did (10.6).
Brighton will hope the recruitment of Nicky Evrard on loan from Chelsea can solve that particular issue. Chelsea signed Evrard off the back of a spectacular Euro 2022 with Belgium, where she conceded just four goals (excluding own goals) from shots on target worth 13 xGOT – preventing nine goals with her 23 saves in the tournament.
Can Aston Villa Maintain Their 2022-23 Form?
Aston Villa were last season’s surprise success story, improving on their ninth-place finish in 2021-22 to end last season as the fifth best team in the WSL.
The starkest improvement came in attack. Their 47 goals were 19 more than in their previous two WSL seasons combined (15 in 2020-21 and 13 in 2021-22), while they also tallied 10 more shots on target last season (109) than in 2020-21 and 2021-22 overall (99). Rachel Daly was a big factor in their upturn in fortunes going forward.
Astonishingly, no Villa player had ever scored more than three goals in a single WSL season before 2022-23. Daly wasn’t content with only outdoing that, she absolutely smashed the club record, firing in 22 goals across the campaign and equalling Vivianne Miedema’s single season record in the competition from 2018-19. In fact, four other players also exceeded the three-goal mark for Villa in the competition, helping Daly along the way. One of those was seven-goal star Kirsty Hanson.
After a loan spell from Man Utd last season, Villa made Hanson’s move permanent this summer, with even more improvement expected from the 25-year-old left winger. In 2022-23, she was the club’s most creative threat from ball carries with 17 chances created following a carry – a tally only three players across the entire WSL could better.
Villa have also made one of the summer’s most eye-catching signings with Dutch goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar coming in. Former first choice Hannah Hampton moved to Chelsea in the summer, but Hampton’s relationship with manager Carla Ward had led her to being dropped for some matches.
Van Domselaar was the standout goalkeeper in the Dutch Eredivisie last season, with 15 clean sheets in 20 appearances for Twente. She only conceded six goals (excluding own goals) from 71 shots on target faced worth 20 xGOT – preventing 14 goals with her exceptional shot-stopping.
How Will Manchester United Cope Without Ona Batlle and Alessia Russo?
Manchester United had their most successful season as a club last year, finishing second in the league and reaching the FA Cup final.
It should have been evidence of the upward trajectory the club is on but instead they seem to have hit a roadblock, losing two of their best players over the summer in Ona Batlle and Alessia Russo. Manager Marc Skinner will have a stiff challenge on his hands in terms of replacing the quality that they brought to his side.
United’s success last year was very much based on their defensive strength, with the Red Devils conceding the lowest tally of goals (12) and expected goals (13.3). In fact, only four teams in WSL history conceded fewer goals per game in a season than Man Utd did in 2022-23 (0.55) – three of those teams won the league.
They very much led from the front in this regard with the best PPDA in the league of 9.0. As a result, opponents sat back – their average starting distance of teams they played against was 38.8 metres, the deepest in the league. Russo is an excellent presser of the ball, but replacement signing Geyse is also known for her enthusiasm to win the ball back high up the pitch. At Barcelona last season, she made 0.72 tackles per 90 in the final third, the third highest in the team for players with more than 900 minutes.
Part of the reason United as a squad were able to play in this way was because they did not have Champions League football. Skinner heavily rotated his side for their midweek Continental Cup matches, and they went out at the group stage as a result. Skinner used a very settled team throughout the season with a combination of luck and scheduling allowing him to have 10 players who started 19 or more matches in the league. Contrast that with eventual winners Chelsea who only had one player to start 19 or more games – Sam Kerr.
United have to play Paris Saint-Germain in a two-legged qualifying match before they make the UWCL group stages, but if they do progress, Skinner will have to adapt. He will not be able to rely on such a similar squad and will need to show whether he can rotate his team successfully to fight on two fronts.