Who’s Impressed in the WSL this Season?
As the 2021-22 Women’s Super League season draws to a close, we look at five standout stars from the campaign. This isn’t a list of the greatest players in the WSL and not all names are obvious choices, but they’ve made a big impact for a variety of reasons.
Given the role that Erin Cuthbert has played in this Chelsea side over the years, it’s easy to forget that she is still only 23 years old. Concerns about whether she gets enough minutes in a squad brimming with talent have been assuaged, as her continued reliability has seen her play more 1201 minutes for Chelsea in 2021-22 and only 192 off her record in a single campaign with four games remaining.
Emma Hayes has used Cuthbert in various positions on the pitch this season, as injuries have often left Chelsea stretched. But over the past couple of games, she has settled on a role that could end up becoming Cuthbert’s long-term home.
Chelsea have struggled to conclusively decide on a midfield double-pivot partnership this season with both tactical considerations and player availability leading to numerous combinations being trialled. The recent pairing of Sophie Ingle and Erin Cuthbert, however, is one that Hayes seems to believe offers Chelsea both defensive solidity and progression.
Cuthbert’s wide variety of skills means she can do a lot for the team from this position. Her 13.3 carries per 90 rank her in the top five for non-defenders in the league, meaning she can progress the ball forward for Chelsea, but she also leads the side for number of tackles (37) and only Millie Bright and Jessica Carter have made more interceptions and regained possession more often than Cuthbert for the club in the WSL this season.
Cuthbert’s ability both on and off the ball makes Chelsea look like a much more energetic and dynamic side. The pairing with Ingle has been tested against both Manchester City and Arsenal, and in neither match did Chelsea concede. If Hayes is happy to stick with it long term, Cuthbert might finally have found a position where she can settle.
Katerina Svitkova is one of a host of West Ham signings from last season who have finally come into their own under Olli Harder. Having played as a central midfielder under Matt Beard, Harder converted her into his left-sided wing-back when he replaced Beard halfway through the 2020-21 season, and she has taken to the role with aplomb.
Svitkova’s ability in transition has made her an important attacking outlet for West Ham.
She’s been involved in a team-high 50 of West Ham’s open play attacking sequences this season in the WSL, with 15 of those as the player to create the chance – another high for the London club.
Overall, she leads West Ham in terms of chances created (22) as well as completing more dribbles (14) than anyone else in the squad, while, overall, only five players in the league have completed more dribbles than she has.
Her ability on the ball allows her to release pressure by getting out of tight situations defensively, as well as drive her team forward into more dangerous areas. Rather than trying to move the ball into the area, Svitkova tends to cross it in.
This plays to West Ham’s strengths, as they like to use late runners from midfield to overpower the defensive team in the box. Only Lauren Hemp (65) has made more crosses from open play than Katerina Svitkova (51).
With West Ham overtaking their highest ever WSL points total, Svitkova has been key to them establishing themselves as a mid-table side.
Whilst Arsenal tend to get a lot of praise for their attacking riches, Jonas Eidevall’s side are currently on track to concede their fewest number of goals in a WSL season since it became a 10-team league. This is despite the mid-season defensive wobble, which can be attributed in part to Leah Williamson’s injury, and Arsenal have Manuela Zinsberger to thank in particular for this.
Zinsberger has rarely been heralded as a goalkeeping star in the WSL; such praise has tended to be focused on Ann-Katrin Berger at Chelsea and Ellie Roebuck at Manchester City. But with Berger currently out of favour in West London and Roebuck having been replaced by Mary Earps as England’s first choice goalkeeper, Zinsberger has clearly been the standout woman between the sticks this season.
In terms of expected goals on target conceded, Zinsberger has let in one more goal than the model would expect her to, but those are the best numbers in the league of any keeper to have played more than 60% of their team’s minutes. Her save percentage of 80% is also the highest of any goalkeeper playing that amount of time.
But Zinsberger’s importance to Arsenal does not end at shot stopping. After all, the clubs at the very top of the league are looking for their goalkeeper to do a lot more than that. Zinsberger has made more successful passes than any other goalkeeper in the league (503), while she’s also been involved in the build-up to 22 shtos in the WSL this season – only Man Utd’s Mary Earps has been involved in more (23).
Zinsberger has always been seen as a goalkeeper who has potential – this season, she is fulfilling it.
No player has played more minutes for Manchester City this season than Alex Greenwood, with the defender starting every single league game for them.
In a year where defensive calamity has plagued City, leaving them fighting to even get into next season’s Champions League, Greenwood has been the consistent shining light, with Gareth Taylor’s decision to view her as a centre back rather than a left back one of the most tactically astute decisions in his time at the club.
Greenwood is undeniably a central defender who thrives off having the ball. She’s the only WSL player with over 1000 unique open play build up sequence involvements (1023), while she also leads the league for starting these sequences (244) in 2021-22. 67 of these have ended in a shot for her team, another league high.
Greenwood’s ability with long, lofted balls help City quickly switch play and make use of their fast-paced wingers in Lauren Hemp, Hayley Raso, and Jess Park. Her successful passes – which average 20.4 yards in length, have contributed to Manchester City making the highest number of direct attacks in the WSL this season with 29.
The fact that she is so good with the ball at her feet also means she has a big role to play in set pieces for City, with her corner-taking helping to give her the second highest expected assists total within the entire Manchester City squad (2.3). However, even accounting for chances created from open play, Greenwood is City’s third most productive with 18.
Manchester City’s league season might still end in disappointment, but it will not be because of a lack of effort on Greenwood’s part.
There are only three players younger than Shannon O’Brien to have played more than 1000 minutes this year in the WSL. The 20-year-old forward joined Leicester in the January before their promotion and has been one of the Foxes most relied upon players this season.
It is not always easy for a young player to stand out in a team who are fighting to stay in the league, but O’Brien’s commitment has shone through.
With 12 chances created for Leicester this season, only two other under-21 players in the league (Hanna Bennison and Maya le Tissier) have created more for their clubs. At Leicester, only Jemma Purfield (1.53) has a higher expected assists total than O’Brien (1.13) – impressive in her first top-flight season at such a young age, while playing for one of the struggling clubs.
Leicester have all but guaranteed their safety, despite heavy recent defeats to Chelsea and Arsenal, giving Lydia Bedford the chance to really stamp her mark on the team next season.
O’Brien’s experience already at this level, despite her age, means she could become a key component of this Leicester team as they look to grow.