All to Play For: WSL 2021-22 Preview
The Women’s Super League kicks off this Friday with more eyes on it than ever before. Thanks to an unprecedented television deal in the United Kingdom with Sky, never will a season have had more focus on it.
Reigning champions Chelsea will be looking to secure an historic third consecutive title win, with Arsenal and Manchester City most likely to stand in their way. No other side has broken into that top three since 2014, but can someone new upset the party at the top of the table?
The WSL title has only ever been won by three teams in back-to-back campaigns: Arsenal in 2011 & 2012, Liverpool in 2013 & 2014, and Chelsea in 2019-20 & 2020-21. No side has ever managed to win it three times in a row and given how tight it is at the top – the league has never been won by a margin of greater than eight points, it would be a remarkable feat from the Blues to do so.
But the WSL is less about the dominance of one team and more about the entrenchment of three. Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City may swap around but not since 2014 has any side been able to nick a top three spot off them, and Manchester City were not even in the league that year. This is mainly because all three of them have proved very hard to beat.
Days Since ‘Big Three’ Defeats to Other WSL Sides
Manchester City: 1206 days – Liverpool (A) on May 18, 2018
Arsenal: 291 days – Manchester United (A) on November 8, 2020
Chelsea: 200 days – Brighton & Hove Albion on February 7, 2021
Looking at the table from 2020-21, Manchester United came close last season with a gap of just a point between themselves and Arsenal in third. In a mini-league including just games between those four teams, Manchester United won more points (5) than Arsenal (4) – so if there is a chance of breaking the hegemony of the “big three” then this could be it. However, United’s expected goal difference was 20.3, far behind that of Arsenal (34.7), Manchester City (43.7) and Chelsea (41.9). The drop off below Manchester United was even starker; Everton’s in fifth was only 1.4.
Can the Top Three Hegemony be Broken?
There are two teams in the WSL who look to have the potential to break into the top three: Everton and Manchester United. Despite United coming close last season, they have since lost manager Casey Stoney as well as their American World Cup winners, Christen Press and Tobin Heath.
Everton’s bright start to last season faded fast but they have recruited significantly this summer, strengthening their squad. However, to have any chance of reaching the Champions League places, they will have to improve significantly against Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal.
Everton are very good at taking chances when they are presented to them. They converted 13.8% of open play shots – the best outside of the big three, and their big chance conversion rate of 64% was higher than any other team in the league. The problem is that they create nowhere near enough of those opportunities, particularly against the top teams.
Across six games against Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal in 2020-21, they only managed an expected goals (xG) total of 2.46. But even more problematic is their lack of defensive prowess against these sides, conceding an average of 3.5 goals per game and allowing the opposition an xG of nearly six times what they managed themselves. They will need to tighten up at the back to have even a fighting chance of reaching the top three.
Meanwhile, if Manchester United are going to improve on last season’s performance, they might not need to look across the Atlantic for their answer. 21-year-old Ella Toone was one of the most productive attacking players in the league last season.
Across the entire WSL last season, only Vivianne Miedema (144) and Sam Kerr (143) were involved in more attacking sequences than Toone (141), either attempting the shot, creating the chance or being involved in the build up to the shot. Toone’s tally was by far the highest at Man Utd, with the next best being Leah Galton on 78, nearly half the tally of the 21-year-old creative star.
Toone created 35 chances from open play in WSL 2020-21 – a tally that only three players bettered, while her non-penalty expected goals total of 6.48 put her in the top ten players in the league. No United player had better opportunities in front of goal than her and none of the players above her in the ranking across the entire league was as young as she is.
With new manager Marc Skinner coming in, the way United might look to play may change. But getting the ball to Toone will be key if the side are going to compete for the Champions League spots once again.
Kerr vs Miedema
Last season saw a contest for the Golden Boot that was almost as fascinating as the title race, as Sam Kerr pipped Vivianne Miedema to the Golden Boot in the final week of the season. Miedema had more goals than the Australian throughout the whole campaign, until Kerr’s brace against Spurs on May 5 took her past the Dutch hotshot.
Kerr became the first player to win a Golden Boot across three different continents as she added the WSL top scorer accolade to her others collected from the NWSL in America and the W-League in Australia. Miedema – who was looking to win her third consecutive Golden Boot, scored 10 goals in her first five appearances of the season, but with just eight in her following 17 WSL games, she had to settle for second place in 2020-21.
2020-21 was Miedema’s worst WSL season since her first (2017-18) in terms of goals per 90 (0.87) and non-penalty xG per 90 (0.74), while her shot conversion rate dropped to 17% from 28.6% in 2019-20. However, it’s worth mentioning that Miedema’s “worst” can still outdo quite most player’s efforts – that npxG of 0.74 last season was still the second highest in the WSL behind only Sam Kerr (1.03).
They now look set to reignite their competition but there is also a new kid on the block: Khadija “Bunny” Shaw. Shaw joined Manchester City during the summer, having scored 22 goals in 20 games for Bordeaux in the Division 1 Feminine in France last season. Not since Nikita Parris left have Manchester City had a standout scorer in their team, but with Shaw in situ it looks like Miedema and Kerr’s rivalry will become a triumvirate.
It’s yet to be seen if Shaw will partner Ellen White in attack or simply be a direct replacement, with White looking really reaching the heights of his performances on the international stage in the WSL in recent seasons. The 32-year-old might currently be the second-leading scorer in the history of the competition with 57 goals, but her two league campaigns at Man City have produced just 16 goals from 34 appearances – only the fifth-most in this period and less than half of Miedema’s total (34 goals).
Carla Ward’s Inter-City Move
At the bottom of the table, the focus will be on Carla Ward and her move to Aston Villa. The highly rated coach kept rivals Birmingham City up last season in extraordinary circumstances, having only had eight players available to her when she arrived.
Ward’s focus at Birmingham was organisation, with her side making only two errors leading to goals the entire season. Contrast that with Aston Villa who’s six errors was the most in the league.
At Birmingham, Ward was happy to let the opposition have the ball. Birmingham’s PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action) of 15.7 was the lowest in the league, but more will be expected of her at Villa.
Despite a disappointing first season in the WSL, they have invested significantly in their team over the past couple of years. Under Gemma Davies, Aston Villa sacrificed defensive solidity in favour of more attacking football, averaging an expected goals of 0.85 per game. Her successor Marcus Bignot utilised a dour style in order to keep them up, averaging only half that at 0.43 a match. Villa will be hoping that Ward can marry the attacking vigour of Davies with her own organisational capabilities.
Harder Times Ahead for Hammers?
West Ham’s inaugural WSL season in 2018-19 saw them finish seventh, before slipping to eighth a season later in 2019-20. Ahead of 2020-21, there seemed to be a real danger of relegation for the Hammers – especially following a 1-0 defeat to Brighton on November 15 that left them on four points from seven games.
Their decision to part ways with Matt Beard following that defeat and employ Olli Harder saw them shore up a defence that had conceded 20 times in seven matches under Beard in 2020-21.
True, results didn’t improve – only eight points and one win were secured in 13 matches under Harder, but they did become tighter at the back by switching to a back three. The Hammers conceded 16 times in those 13 games and kept four clean sheets in their last six matches of the season. Their solitary victory under Harder was impressive, as the 5-0 win against Reading in April demonstrated their potential going forward.
The top-level numbers looked encouraging for the Hammers under Harder but looking deeper it seems that this defensive improvement may well have been a stroke of luck. They allowed their opposition an average of 1.71 xG per game under their new coach – the third-worst average in the league behind only Birmingham City (1.80) and Bristol City (1.83).
Grace Fisk will be central to West Ham’s plans if they are to arrest their gradual decline. The 23-year-old central defender made her debut at the start of last year and has improved considerably in that time. Fisk played more minutes than any other defender in the WSL last year (1980) and stands out in duels with the second-best duel win ratio (68.9%) and seventh-best aerial duel win ratio (68.2%) of defenders to play at least 1000 minutes in 2020-21. She looks to have a bright future ahead of her.