Women’s professional football in England is growing at a rapid rate. The world’s best players and managers are starting to take the Women’s Super League by storm, propelling the competition into the limelight.
Despite suffering the same fate as many other sporting competitions around the globe with a premature ending in 2020, the English Women’s Super League has bounced back with force.
The summer of 2020 was filled with uncertainty, but WSL clubs embarked on their biggest spending spree during a transfer window, highlighted by the signings of great international footballers, including the world’s most expensive player, as Chelsea snapped up Pernille Harder from Wolfsburg for a fee in excess of £250,000.
“The English league has developed a lot over the past years, and, in this moment, might be the strongest in Europe – or maybe the world.”Pernille Harder
In tandem with those transfer fees have come larger audiences, high profile television deals and in truth, more entertainment. With plenty to still be decided in the campaign, we pick apart the crucial moments from the WSL so far this season.
The Great Emma Hayes
With Emma Hayes on the touchline, it’s unsurprising that Chelsea are one of the most successful clubs in the women’s game.
Her vast experience at the top-level can’t be understated, having taken charge of 143 Women’s Super League matches – the most of any manager, and having also celebrated at least 20 more wins than any other coach (93).
Following her link with the AFC Wimbledon men’s managerial role earlier this season – something she quashed with intention very quickly – it looks like she’s here to stay and is clearly a pioneer for the increased demand for the women’s game to flourish.
Alongside fellow London rivals Arsenal, Chelsea have won the most titles (3) since the Women’s top-flight division became the Super League in 2011. The Blues’ three championships have come in the last five seasons, and their dominance has only continued into the 2020-21 campaign. They sit top of the tree after 18 games and look on course to be crowned the first back-to-back WSL champions since Liverpool in 2013 and 2014.
Before their surprise 2-1 defeat to Brighton in early February, the Blues extended their unbeaten run – a sequence which started in February 2019 – to 33 games (W26 D7), setting a new unbeaten competition record.
Hayes’ side scored 109 goals across this impressive run (3.3 per game), conceded just 22 times, and earned themselves 16 clean sheets – ranking first across all those categories over this period.
Even after their humbling defeat to Brighton, Chelsea have since won five consecutive league matches without conceding a single goal, further highlighting their strength in mentality. With only Fran Kirby (12 goals, nine assists) having a direct hand in more goals than teammate Sam Kerr (14 goals, five assists) in the division, you’d have to be a brave person to bet against Emma Hayes’ side from winning a record fourth Super League title.
Since their promotion to the top flight in 2014, only Chelsea (88) have won more Super League matches than Manchester City (87). Indeed, following their weekend victory over Reading, the Citizens have enjoyed a run of 11 straight wins in the top-flight – the first time any side has managed over 10 victories on the bounce within a single season.
Despite having to contend with the departure of Nick Cushing – the coach who oversaw not only their promotion, but each of City’s first 104 WSL matches – in February last year and a stuttering start to Gareth Taylor’s reign at the beginning of this season with just three wins in his first seven matches, they have started to dominate the opposition in every way, with Taylor’s methods starting to come to fruition. During their record-breaking winning run, City have attempted more shots than their opponents in each of those games, accumulated a higher expected goal total, forced more high turnovers (resulting in six goals) and enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in all but one of those matches – versus Arsenal in February.
While their success is clearly independent from the men’s side, Manchester City as a collective club have embarked on a holistic approach with all of their sides across the last few years, launching the Same City, Same Passion campaign back in January 2018 in order to bridge the gap between men’s and women’s football. The two sides have since demonstrated their shared fearless, winning mentality, with only Chelsea (156) picking up more points than they have (152) on the women’s side of the game, and Pep Guardiola’s men’s side managing more than any other team (285).
Not only do Taylor’s and Guardiola’s players yearn for silverware, they aim to do so in a similar manner – playing easy on the eye, high-intensity football on the ball, whilst almost squeezing their opponents to death off it. In fact, both sides hold the record for the highest number of successful passes in a single game in their respective top-flight competitions, with the men’s side managing 942 against Swansea in April 2018 (Premier League) and the women posting 810 during their 7-1 WSL victory over Brighton back in January.
1 – Manchester City now hold the record for most successful passes in a Premier League match (2003-04 onwards) and a Women’s Super League match (all-time):— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 24, 2021
942 vs Swansea in April 2018 (Premier League)
810 vs Brighton today (Women’s Super League)
With England captain Stephanie Houghton at the back – the only player in WSL history with over 100 wins to their name (111) – three FA Cup titles in the last four seasons and finishing in the top two of the Women’s Super League in each of the last five, Manchester City look like a machine that is showing no signs of slowing down.
When it comes to forwards in the women’s game, there are few better than Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema and Manchester City’s Ellen White. Both women are the only two players in WSL history to scored 50 or more goals in the competition – with the Dutch forward reaching the tally first in October 2020, and the English star just a month behind in scoring her 50th goal in early November.
In truth, both players will probably leave the same goalscoring legacies, just at very different rates. Miedema, who notched up her 50th goal on her 5oth appearance, averages just under a goal per 90 (0.97) compared to White (0.57), who took much longer to register her half-century of goals, doing so on her 106th appearance in the WSL.
White, who actually played in the inaugural WSL match almost 10 years ago (Arsenal 1-0 Chelsea, April 2011), has appeared in almost double the number of matches as her rival, and that longevity and experience at the top is something Miedema will surely aspire to.
Indeed, White has had a direct hand in the joint-most WSL goals (81 – 56 goals. 25 assists), whilst on the international stage – where household names become legends, the 31-year-old finished as the joint-top scorer at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France (6) and in the process became England’s top scorer in WWC history with seven goals – leaving little doubt that she’ll be considered as one of the all-time English greats.
Comparing the pair like-for-like probably isn’t fair, though. Without taking anything away from White, Miedema is a different proposition altogether.
The 24-year-old scored 10 goals across her first five appearances this season, including a hat trick against arch-rivals Spurs – the first of which was that 50th WSL goal. No player has ever scored more goals after five games of a WSL season, or any five-game period for that matter. Though she has only netted five times in 12 games since, she leads White by one in the all-time scoring charts with 57 goals.
Arguably the most memorable WSL performance to date was back in December 2019, when Miedema’s Arsenal side recorded the heaviest ever Women’s Super League victory – an 11-1 thrashing of Bristol City.
During the record-breaking victory, the Dutch striker either scored (6) or assisted (4) every one of Arsenal’s first 10 goals, becoming the first player in WSL history to net six times in a game, assist four times in a match, and record 10+ direct goal involvements in a single appearance – leaving the field in the 70th minute with a match ball (or two?) and probably, the blueprints to an inevitable statue.
Arsenal legend Ian Wright has since said, “We are lucky to watch her,”when talking about Miedema, and when her time comes to an end at Arsenal there is no doubt she too will enter the Gunners hall of fame.
There’s a reason than Steph Houghton is the current England and Manchester City captain. Not to mention her on-the-ball attributes, her leadership, perseverance and strength in mentality are just a few of the traits that make up such a desirable skipper for club and country.
Houghton was one of the first female players to be offered central contracts from the FA back in 2009 and has since become one of only 11 English women to reach a century of caps for the national team (121) – and there will most likely be more.
She has had to bounce back from both a broken leg and a cruciate ligament injury, missing out on the consecutive tournaments in the 2007 FIFA World Cup and the 2009 European Championships. Having only won a handful of caps before those injuries – making her debut for England in early 2007 – to still achieve over 100 caps (and counting) is a testament to her character, but also to her footballing prowess.
On the opening day of the 2020-21 campaign, her Manchester City side travelled to newly promoted Aston Villa, with Houghton sat on 99 WSL wins from her 139 appearances. Two early goals from Georgia Stanway paved the way for a comfortable afternoon for City and with the full-time whistle, came Houghton’s century of wins in the competition – the first player to manage the feat.
Considering Houghton played alongside Ellen White in the very first WSL match with Arsenal in 2011, her rapid stroll to 100 wins was quite remarkable. Indeed, of the 38 players to have appeared in at least 100 games, she has the highest winning ratio (72%, alongside Ji So-Yun) – a mentality that has followed her throughout her career at Sunderland, Leeds, Arsenal and Manchester City.
Something less known about Houghton is her fantastic record from direct free kicks. She has 20 WSL goals in total – a tally only 28 other players can better – making her the highest goalscoring defender in the competition history. Nine of those goals have come from direct free-kick attempts – at least three more than any other player in the WSL. Indeed, Houghton is responsible for 14% of all direct free kicks scored since the competition began in 2011 (9/63).
From the Land Down Under
When Chelsea signed Sam Kerr in November 2019, goals were expected.
Upon signing for the Blues, Kerr had just claimed her third successive NWSL Golden Boot (2017, 2018, 2019) having scored 57 times from her debut in the competition – nine more goals than any other player during her time in the US.
Kerr’s predatory instincts have produced a fantastic a goalscoring record in her career to date, a timeline that includes an international debut for Australia at the age of 15. She’s since become her country’s second highest scorer (42) behind only Lisa De Vanna (47).
Despite only joining halfway through last season, Sam Kerr has appeared in more WSL matches than any other Australian player (22). Only current teammate Ji-So Yun (South Korea – 37 goals) has scored more often in WSL history than Kerr (15) among all non-European players, further highlighting how the Women’s Super League is slowly starting to open up to different parts of the world.
After completing her move to Chelsea, Kerr has had to deal with niggling injuries and a suspension of the 2019-20 campaign, meaning she only appeared in four matches last season. However, it has been a completely different story this time around, with the Australian hotshot appearing in each of Chelsea’s 18 league games so far.
Kerr has fired the third highest number of shots (61), scoring the opening goal on more occasions than any player (7), whilst also netting the winner in six different matches – no WSL player has managed to do so more often in 2020-21.
Of players to have scored at least five non-penalty goals in WSL 2020-21, Kerr has averaged the best quality chances (0.21 xG per shot) and has accumulated a league-high 0.93 xG from non-penalty shots per 90 minutes. Not only is she adept at getting in the right positions to attempt her shots, she does so on a very frequent basis.
Another two goals at the weekend against Aston Villa (both assisted by Fran Kirby), moved Sam Kerr onto 14 league goals this season, just one behind the current leader Vivianne Miedema (15).
Indeed, no Chelsea player has ever scored more in a single campaign in the Super League, whilst her second goal on Sunday meant she set a new competition record for the most goals by a player in their first full season in the WSL, taking the title from Rachel Williams in 2011 (min. five games played).
Kerr in full swing spells joy for Chelsea as much as it does danger for defenders, and when you coincide her goals with her blossoming relationship with Kirby – a partnership that manager Hayes compared to “Yorke and Cole” over the weekend – Chelsea possess one of the best double acts ever seen in the Women’s Super League.
Following those two goals against Villa last time out (scored by Kerr, assisted by Kirby), they moved onto nine combined top-flight goals this season, breaking new ground for the most goal combinations between two players in a single WSL campaign.
Kirby (21) and Kerr (19) lead the way for direct goal involvements in this season’s WSL, and keeping their dynamic duo fit is something Chelsea know will be paramount if they are to not only retain their domestic title, but also in their quest to become just the second English side to lift the Champions League trophy (after Arsenal in 2006-07).
Chelsea have a crucial period coming up, with a two-point lead in the WSL over Manchester City and a Champions League semi-final tie with Bayern Munich on the horizon. They’ll need Kerr and Kirby in their best form, that’s for sure.