Checking In: The WSL Recap
The stop-start nature of this season’s Women’s Super League has seen teams struggle to find much consistency, and the gap at the top of the league has closed to just one point. That follows Arsenal’s surprise 1-1 draw with Tottenham, with Chelsea’s comprehensive victory over Manchester City allowing them to pull back two points from the Gunners. City have continued to struggle, as they find themselves in ninth place with as many points as Everton and Reading. Meanwhile Brighton and Tottenham are just about holding on to their positions around the remaining Champions League spot.
Slow & Steady City Losing the Race
For all Gareth Taylor has complained about injuries affecting his side, Manchester City are still performing well below what is expected from the XI’s he has been able to field. What is particularly noticeable about City this season is how unable they are to turn possession into pressure, with their 5-0 and 4-0 losses to Arsenal and Chelsea respectively seeing them have most of the ball. Game state is obviously part of possession statistics – Chelsea being gifted a goal by City a minute into the game made it easier to sit back – but the problem can also be seen in City’s passing sequences.
No side has had more passing sequences from open play containing 10+ passes than Manchester City – their total across this season of 79 puts them level with Chelsea. That seems fine, but not when there doesn’t seem to be any plan with what to do with those passing moves.
Reigning champions Chelsea have seen just under 27% of their sequences end with either a shot or a touch in the opposition box – way higher than City’s ratio of 16.5%. Despite regular periods of possession, City have been unable to get the ball into any areas of danger to the opposition on a regular basis – backed up by the fact that they are the slowest team at progressing the ball up field in the WSL this season, moving the ball up the pitch at a rate of only 0.88m/s.
Even when City have managed to get a shot away in 2021-22, their shots have been of lower quality than we’ve come to expect from them over recent years. Their average xG per non-penalty shot of 0.09 (essentially efforts with a 9% conversion rate expectation, based on the quality) is well below a consistent 0.13 average from recent seasons. This is particularly problematic when your striker is a player like Ellen White, who likes to poach from within the six-yard box. The fact that White’s average shots per 90 has not declined, but her shots on target per 90 has dropped from an average of 1.37 over the past two seasons to just 0.74 demonstrates City’s problem.
Not only is this “over-playing” effecting their attacking output, we’ve seen City concede goals at an alarming rate from turnovers of possession deep in their own half in 2021-22. They have already conceded a league-high five goals from high turnovers this season – the other 11 teams in the league have conceded nine as a combined total.
If Manchester City are to mount a challenge for the third Champions League spot, Taylor might need to change the style of play going forward.
There are not many teams who after scoring zero goals in their first four games, go on to score eight in their next three matches, but Reading have done just that in WSL 2021-22, turning their fortunes around.
Those eight goals have seen Kelly Chambers’ side pick up seven points – most recently snatching a last-minute equaliser in a 2-2 draw with West Ham, in which the East London side had dominated. However, if we look at the underlying numbers from this trigger-happy Reading team, all is not quite what it seems.
Despite scoring more goals than Everton, and almost as many as fourth place Tottenham, Reading’s expected goals is only 4.58. Whilst it might be understandable for it to be relatively low given Reading’s torrid start to the season, the fact that close to half of it comes from a 3-0 win against hapless Birmingham shows that the Royals’ recent form might have more to do with luck than judgement. A 3-0 win against Aston Villa came from an expected goals of 0.37 and the two goals against West Ham from only 0.31. In fact, the match against Birmingham aside, Reading’s numbers have sat consistently around the 0.2-0.4 mark.
If there is some sense of hope for Reading that they could continue this rather unlikely attacking streak it will likely be down to Deanne Rose’s involvement.
The 22-year-old Olympic gold medallist has seen her touches in the opposition box beginning to increase recently, and she looks set to be Reading’s brightest attacking spark this season. Her first four appearances saw her make just nine touches in the opposition box across 247 minutes, but in her two most recent games against Birmingham and West Ham, her tally has been 14 overall.
In Ingle We Trust
Although Chelsea went in 2-0 up at half-time against Manchester City, they had not managed to have control of large swathes of the first half, with their goals coming via an awful pass from Karima Benameur Taieb being intercepted by Jessie Fleming, and a Sam Kerr tap in from a counter-attack. Emma Hayes’ response was swift; she replaced Ji So-Yun with Sophie Ingle to stop Chelsea getting overrun in midfield.
Hayes has fiddled with the double pivot of her new look 3-4-3 quite a lot this season. With Ji, Melanie Leupolz, Fleming, Ingle and Drew Spence all picking up minutes in those positions, there is a sense that Hayes has not quite settled on who her preferred choices are.
The reality is that Hayes probably sees this very variable set of midfielders in different ways and is happy to select the appropriate one based on the situation. Against City, Ingle felt ideal to regain control in midfield. Despite a quickfire double at the start of the second half left Chelsea with plain sailing for the last 35 minutes, she has shown herself to be adept at bringing a sense of calm to Chelsea.
Of the 63 players to have attempted 200+ passes in the WSL this season, only 11 have done so with 85% accuracy or higher – one of these is Ingle.
Hayes clearly sees Ingle’s role in the Chelsea side as being a dependable player who will look to shield the defence and keep hold of the ball well. Whilst she might not be required to start every game, her role in Chelsea’s squad is indispensable.
Williamson Blow for Gunners
As frustrating as it was for Arsenal to drop their first points of the season against Tottenham in the north London derby, they were struck with another blow when the club announced that defender Leah Williamson will be out until the new year with a hamstring injury picked up during the game. Williamson has played in all seven of Arsenal’s WSL matches so far this season and is crucial to their build-up play.
Williamson’s ball-playing ability regularly sees her listed alongside Alex Greenwood, Millie Bright, and Magda Eriksson as one of the best centre-backs in possession in the WSL. She ranks second for Arsenal for proportion of the teams sequences she was involved in across 2021-22 (28%), behind only Noelle Maritz (30%). She has also made the most ball carries for the Gunners in the WSL this season, both overall (74) and progressively up field (57).
Brighton’s injury-time winner at the weekend condemned Leicester City to having the worst start of any WSL team since Yeovil Town in 2017-18. They have lost all seven of their league matches played so far and will be hoping their run of zero points does not stretch as far as Yeovil’s did three seasons ago when they lost their opening twelve games.
Astonishingly, Yeovil were not relegated in 2017-18, thanks to a reprieve as a result of Sunderland going into administration. Leicester meanwhile have Birmingham’s equally poor form to thank for keeping them even within touching distance of staying in the division.
However, the underlying numbers suggest that problems at both ends of the pitch may hamper Leicester more than Birmingham.
Leicester’s main problem is their defence, with the newly promoted side conceding a large number of high quality chances in every game. Their xG conceded per game stands at 1.93, which is the worst in 2021-22 but well below Yeovil’s average in both 2017-18 (3.49) and 2018-19 (2.82) and is even lower than Bristol City last season (2.31) and in 2019-20 (2.58). Since the formation of the WSL, Leicester (21) are one of only five teams to have allowed opponents an average of 21+ shots per game in a single season.
The reality for both Birmingham and Leicester is that this term will likely be a slow slog all the way until the end of the season to see who can pick up the most points. When the likely points totals are this low, any results can swing the table in a totally different direction, as has been the case with Reading suddenly picking up seven points in three games without much noticeable improvement. To do something like this, though, Leicester will need to significantly enhance their defending to stand any chance of not returning to the Championship.