Five Stories We’re Glued to as the WSL Returns
The Women’s Super League returns this weekend following its long winter break. We are not technically halfway through the season just yet, but it’s still a useful place to take stock of how the season is shaping up.
Chelsea and Arsenal are the slight leaders, having only lost one match each, whilst Manchester United and Manchester City will both still see themselves as in the mix even though the draw they played out in December did neither of them a favour.
Arguably the biggest surprise this season have been Aston Villa, who have pushed their expected goal difference per 90 from -0.74 last season to +0.11 this. Their offensive output has increased from 0.60 expected goals per 90 to an impressive 1.25 expected goals per 90, placing them alongside Champions League contenders Manchester United.
In the middle of the pack, it seems likely that Liverpool will pick up more points in the second half of the season than they did in the first, whilst West Ham’s league position is perhaps slightly deceptive right now.
Top of the Table
There is a blockbuster fixture to help kick off the 2023 matches as Arsenal host Chelsea at The Emirates. It is probably still too early to call this one a title decider but with both sides having only lost one match each so far this year, neither team will want to give up early ground to the other.
Right now, there feels like little to separate the two sides, although Chelsea may want to point to the fact that they won both their matches against the “top 4”, beating Manchester City and Manchester United, whilst Arsenal have lost their only one so far, a 3-2 defeat to United at the Emirates.
Arsenal’s headline issues this season have been around injuries, with Leah Williamson and Rafaelle Souza, Arsenal’s first-choice defenders, both missing large amounts of the season. Vivianne Miedema and Beth Mead have both suffered anterior cruciate ligament injuries, making it extremely unlikely they will appear again for Arsenal in 2022-23. That’s obviously a huge blow for Arsenal, giving how involved the pair have both been in Arsenal’s attacking output:
With the absence of Mead and Miedema, Stina Blackstenius will be expected to step. It would be an overstatement to say that the Swedish forward has disappointed since her arrival – she has managed four goals from an xG of three in the WSL this season – but the pressure will surely increase as we head into the second half of the season.
It is clear that Arsenal could do with getting Blackstenius more involved in the area. She often looks to receive the ball in central areas, but actually some of her best moments this season have come when she has found herself in different areas of the pitch. The number of touches Blackstenius makes in the box is quite low compared to other potent attackers around the league. It might be the case that if she is going to continue to look to play more around the edge of the area, Arsenal need to do more to encourage their other attackers to get into the box.
Her average shot distance this season is 14.6m, almost two metres further out than both Sam Kerr and Bunny Shaw who average 12.8m. Blackstenius’ underlying numbers are not bad at all, but she just needs to be increasing her shooting volume.
One interesting facet of this will be how Arsenal’s attacking play changes without Miedema. She seemed to finally be finding her feet as a No. 10 before she got injured, and leads the WSL in terms of progressive passes played per 90 minutes (players with over 300 minutes played).
Frida Maanum has been incredibly impactful, particularly with goal contributions, but it will be interesting to see whether Jonas Eidevall turns to new Dutch signing Victoria Pelova to deputise for Miedema. Pelova’s profile in terms of passing is a lot more similar to Miedema’s, but Maanum’s desire to get into the box might make her a better fit with Blackstenius.
New @ArsenalWFC signing Victoria Pelova has the highest open play expected assists total in the Vrouwen Eredivisie in 2022-23, both overall (4.7) and per 90 minutes (0.71). https://t.co/Oc3WMVtilw pic.twitter.com/Amiwvdmqwd— Opta Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) January 6, 2023
When Hot Streaks Go Cold
Chelsea have been dealing with their own attacking concerns, namely involving Sam Kerr’s lack of goals. Kerr is a victim of her own success (and potentially Bunny Shaw’s success) here. She has scored 10 goals in 16 matches, and her xG per 90 is almost identical to last season (0.68 in 2021-22 compared to 0.62 in 2022-23).
The real drop off actually takes place when you look back to 2020-21 where she was putting up a whopping 1.03 xG per 90. That was the season where the infamous ‘Kerr-by’ partnership struck fear into the heart of all WSL defences, but her outperformance of her xG last year meant her actual production was similar.
There’s no doubting the fact that Kerr is more potent with Fran Kirby playing with her. Since the start of last season, Kerr and Kirby have both played in 17 of Chelsea’s WSL fixtures. In those matches, Kerr has averaged 0.73 non-penalty xG per 90 minutes.
In the 13 matches over that period when Kerr has played but Kirby hasn’t played a part, the Australian striker has averaged 0.57 non-penalty xG per 90 – a drop of 0.16 xG/90 without Kirby than when she has also played.
Something that has changed over the past couple of seasons is where Kerr is shooting from. She’s only taken four shots from inside the six-yard box so far this season. This might be a result of where she is looking to receive the ball, as she now averages two more touches per 90 in the middle third of the pitch compared to last season.
Chelsea’s overall non-penalty expected goals numbers have declined slightly since last season from 1.96 to 1.70 but broadly, there is little reason to be concerned. Only Bunny Shaw has a higher open play xG per 90 than Kerr, so whilst she might not be playing at the best she ever has, she is still playing very well. Her impressive left foot finish from outside the area against Paris Saint-Germain in Chelsea’s final game before Christmas showed that a striker who can win the Golden Boot on three different continents does not suddenly forget how to score.
One key area to be aware of for Sunday is Chelsea’s right-hand side. It is one of Chelsea’s key attacking areas of control, where they frequently overwhelm their opponents. Emma Hayes has used a variety of players out wide with Lauren James, Fran Kirby and Johanna Rytting Kaneryd all being used in the right-wing position.
It is Lauren James who has caught the eye the most with her 11 dribbles completed this season more than double any other Chelsea player, and she is averaging 15 carries per 90, the second-most on Chelsea’s squad. These are long, bounding carries too as James’ average distance per carry of 13.3m is further than any other Chelsea player.
Yet it is not only her on-ball ability that makes her stand-out; she has shown she can also put in the defensive work required. Erin Cuthbert is the only player outside of the defensive line to have made more tackles than her.
The main criticism of James right now is that she does tend to still drift in and out of games. Our attacking contribution ranking of James (non-penalty shots plus open-play chances created) only puts her in the 77th percentile.
However, the flashes she does show are truly exceptional. If she can bring the level that she’s shown in glimpses on a more consistent basis in the second half of the season, Chelsea will have an extra prong of attacking threat.
I Don’t Want to Change the World, I’m Just Looking for Beth England
Tottenham have made the splashiest entry into the January transfer window, signing Beth England for a WSL record fee. Rehanne Skinner’s side certainly need fire power. For a team who supposedly had one eye on the Champions League, having the third lowest expected goals of any team in the league is not a great look.
In fact, outside of one rather spectacular 8-0 win over Brighton, they have only managed to score three goals this season.
There is no doubt that Beth England is a fantastic goal scorer. Even with limited minutes at Chelsea in recent seasons, she has continued to score regularly, with 16 goals in just over 23 full 90s in the last two and half seasons.
But do Tottenham need a goal scorer right now? The signing of Nikola Karczewska in the summer was supposed to be a solution here, with the young Polish striker having scored 10 goals in 21 appearances for Fleury last season. Yet she has struggled for consistent minutes, playing more than 45 minutes in a match only once. Her touch map shows a player who seemingly does not have a clear understanding of where she is supposed to be playing.
When she has actually got on the pitch, her numbers have been pretty good. A 0.55 xG per 90 minutes is off a tiny sample size but puts her at fourth in the league. Beth England has managed 0.56 in almost identical minutes.
But Tottenham’s bigger problem is not who is shooting, but where they are shooting from. Their average shot distance of 19.8m is the second furthest in the league (only Leicester shoot from a greater distance), and their xG/shot of 0.08 is the third worst in the league. Simply put Tottenham seem to either struggle to progress the ball into dangerous areas or shoot way too early rather than choosing to try and progress the ball further.
Maybe there is some outcome bias to this tactic – they have scored four of their ten goals this season from outside the box – but it is clearly not an approach that is going to bring them long term success.
Fortunately, Beth England might also be able to help with this problem. She is not just a goalscorer but a player who has shown in her time at Chelsea that she is also more than capable of creating for her team-mates. Her all-round technical ability means she is a strong passer whilst her hold up play and aerial ability has in the past seen her set the ball for team-mates to hit from the edge of the area – perfect for a side like Tottenham with a penchant for long-range efforts.
It will be interesting to see if Skinner considers pairing Karczewska and England up front. The second striker role is one England has been familiar with from playing with Sam Kerr fairly regularly at Chelsea, although often in those scenarios it would be Kerr who drifted out wide. England’s presence within the team will certainly be a big boost but they will have to find ways to get her the ball.
Sometimes when your luck is out, it is really out, and that has certainly been the case for Brighton this season.
Brighton are second worst defensive team in the league according to expected goals allowed, but while the ‘worst’ team on this metric, West Ham, have conceded 18 goals off of 17.9 expected, Brighton have conceded an astonishing 29 from 17.7 xG against.
The previously reliable Megan Walsh has struggled so far this season, whilst the defence has looked disorganised, switching between a back four and five. According to our expected goals on target model, Walsh has conceded almost nine more goals than she “should” have so far this season, which unsurprisingly is the most of any goalkeeper in the league.
It felt like the right time for Hope Powell to move on from the club and her replacement, Jens Scheuer, feels like quite the coup for the Seagulls, having previously won the Frauen Bundesliga with Bayern Munich. Scheuer was known at Bayern for focusing on stretching play out wide, and he certainly has the players to do that with Katie Robinson having been one of the outstanding performers in the first half of the season.
But it is not Brighton’s attack that Scheuer will need to solve. The recruitment of defenders Guro Bergsvand from Brann and Zoe Morse from the Chicago Red Stars shows a commitment to refreshing a defence that too often looked exhausted in the first half of the season. Teams average more shots and more shots on target against Brighton than any other side so restricting opponents’ opportunities will be the most important thing on Scheuer’s agenda.
Whilst the defence has been noticeably bad, Brighton also struggle to impose control in midfield, with opponents gaining the majority of touches in those areas. This has led to Brighton defenders tending to step out from the back line, causing disorganisation and leaving gaps for opposition players to exploit.
The reality is that with Leicester rooted to the bottom of the league, Scheuer will have the opportunity in the second half of the season to try and implement his style of play, without risk of relegation. The recruitment of both manager and players shows ambition from Brighton, but there is certainly a lot of work to be done.
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