Women’s World Cup fever may have now passed following a great tournament this summer, but the domestic game has returned. While the major women’s leagues across Europe returned in September, the English WSL is set to kick off this weekend.
As the league continues to become more and more popular, it’s attracted some of the best stars from across the world and is now arguably one of the greatest showcases for the women’s game.
This summer saw plenty of money spent by WSL sides in order to tailor their squads for both domestic and European competition football in 2023-24, and we’ve seen some exciting new arrivals to the English top flight.
Ahead of the campaign, we pick out five new signings to pay close attention to in 2023-24.
Hammarby to Arsenal
Kyra Cooney-Cross became a household name during the World Cup, helping Australia secure their best finish at the tournament. She soon after became one of the most expensive women’s footballer of all time with her transfer to Arsenal.
The 21-year-old midfielder helped Hammarby become a force once again following her move from the Australian W-League in 2021. While at the club, she helped Hammarby win the Swedish Cup in 2023, ending a silverware drought of 28 years, before helping them reach the top of the league at the time of her departure.
The Australian international has deputized across midfield and forward positions throughout her career but is seemingly being nurtured as a deep-lying midfielder. Here she can serve as a press-resistant, ball-carrying midfielder who is excellent in tight spaces and a very valuable line-breaker. Her spatial awareness when receiving the ball and taking on players allows her to create space for her side.
She’s known for her lung-busting ball carries from the midfield, and at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, she recorded the most carries with a take-on (8) and the second-most progressive ball carries of 10+ metres (18) (behind only the World Cup Golden ball winner, Spain’s Aitana Bonmati (20)).
Cooney-Cross has great distribution and vision on top of her ball circulation qualities, making her suitable for any play style. She can unlock set defences with her passing and adds goalscoring from midfield.
Her delivery from dead-ball situations (… pay close attention to her tendency to shoot straight from corners) is a further value add.
Without the ball, Cooney-Cross reads the game well to disrupt opposition attacks. While her defensive acumen has come on since her early days, there still remains room for improvement in this area of her game.
Cooney-Cross promises to be a pillar to build around for the Gunners in the years to come. She will add press-resistance, ball carrying and creativity in equal amounts for Jonas Eidevall’s side.
Barcelona to Manchester United
Manchester United found themselves competing for the WSL title on the final matchday last season, but eventually fell short as Chelsea won their fourth successive crown. They defeated Arsenal twice in 2022-23 and were unbeaten against rivals Manchester City too, which helped them secure their best WSL finish and secure a place in the UEFA Women’s Champions League qualifiers this season, thanks largely to their defensive improvements.
United conceded the fewest number of goals (12) and expected goals (13.3) in the WSL last season and their non-penalty expected goals conceded per 90 dropped from 0.9 in the 2021-22 season to just 0.6 in 2022-23. So impressive was their defensive record that only four teams in WSL history have conceded fewer goals per game in a season than Man Utd did in 2022-23 (0.55), and three of those teams went on to win the league. If they replicate that defensive solidarity this season, luck could fall their way.
However, Marc Skinner’s side lost two integral players this summer. Alessia Russo, a focal point in attack, moved to Arsenal while right-back Ona Batlle rejoined Barcelona. Both players were heavily involved in United’s final third actions and their departures left the Reds with a mini rebuild on their hands.
On paper, they seem to have done well in addressing their needs, opting to revamp their attack with the signings of Geyse and Hinata Miyazawa. The duo, along with Lucía García, have a lot of appeal, with the Brazilian in particular a purchase that has excited fans.
Geyse had the joint second most direct goal contributions (four goals and five assists) for Barcelona in their Champions League winning run last season, despite coming off the bench for five of her 10 appearances in the competition.
Her threat within the box is particularly notable. The Brazilian averaged 5.3 shots per 90 in the UWCL last season – only Asisat Oshoala (6.0) averaged more among players with more than 300 minutes played. Her 0.89 non-penalty expected goals per 90 was only behind Oshoala (1.32) and Stina Blackstenius (0.94) in the competition last season.
A feisty presence on the field, Geyse is notorious for being carded. The last three seasons of league action have seen her pick up 23 yellow cards, but Manchester United will look to the 25-year-old’s electric presence to solve their attacking dilemmas and lead the side to greener pastures this season.
Sophie Román Haug
Roma to Liverpool
Roma have been on the rise in Italy over the last few seasons, with their Serie A title win in 2022-23 ending a five-year reign of dominance by Juventus – a team that Roma pipped to top spot by eight points after finishing five points below them in 2021-22. One of the key protagonists in their rise to the top was Sophie Román Haug.
The Norwegian moved to Italy from LSK Kvinner in January 2022 and has now secured a transfer to WSL side Liverpool for 2023-24. She enjoyed an impressive summer, deputizing for an injured Ada Hegerberg at the World Cup and finished the tournament with four goal involvements, including a hat-trick versus the Philippines.
The striker was directly involved in 10 Serie A goals for Roma last season (seven goals, three assists), averaging a goal involvement every 68 minutes – only Tabitha Chawinga (every 64 mins) was involved in a goal more frequently in the competition in 2022-23 of those that played at least 500 minutes.
Her combined non-penalty expected goals (xG) and expected assists (xA) average of 0.73 per 90 was the second best among players at Roma last season, behind only Daniela Sabatino.
But it was her presence in the box that will excite Liverpool fans for the season ahead. Only two players in Serie A last season to play at least 500 minutes averaged more touches in the opposition box per 90 than her (7.8), which is double any Liverpool player in WSL last season (Katie Stengel had 3.9 per 90).
She uses her 5-foot-10 frame intelligently to dominate opposition defenders and attack crosses to win the first contact. This not only makes her a viable box threat but also adds a valuable outlet for her teams. She has very good back-to-goal play, making route one football a feasible Plan B for teams, while she is also able to hold up the ball and bring her teammates into play with smart lay-offs.
She scored the most headed goals in Serie A across 2022-23 (six) and had the most headed shots (22). No player averaged more aerial duels won than the Norwegian (4.3 per 90) in the Serie A last season, with Haug winning 33 of her 56 contested aerial duels.
Matt Beard’s Liverpool scored more of their WSL goals via headers (29%) than any other team in the league last season, while they also relied on headed shots more than everyone else, with a quarter (21/84) of their shots on target coming via headers.
All of this bodes well for Haug, whose strength lies in her aerial ability. A fractured nose from the second game of the UEFA Women’s Nations League with Norway might keep her out at the start of the season but Haug will be causing opposition defences problems in no time.
Daphne van Domselaar
FC Twente to Aston Villa
Aston Villa were one of the biggest surprises of last season under manager Carla Ward. While the former Birmingham City manager has a reputation of building a solid defensive unit, it was their attack that blew everyone out of the water last season.
The Villains outperformed their non-penalty expected goals by a margin of 17, an overperformance behind only Chelsea (22) and Manchester United (19). Rachel Daly equalled Vivianne Miedema’s single-season goalscoring record in the WSL by scoring 22 goals from an xG of 12.7, the biggest overperformance in the league, on the way to winning the Golden Boot.
While these unsustainable levels of overperformance in their underlying attacking numbers was at the crux of their performance in the league in the 2022-23 season, the Villains have recruited well to help them overperform on the other end of the field with Daphne van Domselaar, a well-regarded goalkeeper who has a history of overperforming between the sticks.
After replacing the injured Sari van Veenendaal at the Euros last year, van Domselaar has gone on to establish herself as one of the top shot stoppers in the world. The young Dutch goalkeeper was part of the best defence in the Vrouwen Eredivisie last season, conceding just six goals in 20 games with Twente.
Over the three seasons in which Opta have data for the Vrouwen Eredivisie, van Domselaar has prevented a league-high 10 opposition goals with her saves, based on our expected goals on target model, with 42 goals conceded (excluding own goals) from an xGOT total of 52. She’s also kept the most clean sheets, with 31 in 59 appearances for Twente over that period (53%).
The 23-year-old also impressed at the FIFA Women’s World Cup and produced some incredible performances, most notably against South Africa where her seven saves helped the Orange Lionesses progress to the next round.
Her reflex saves from close range papered over the gaps in the Dutch defence. Van Domselaar has amazing hand-eye coordination and does well in one-on-one situations to defend her goal.
When your country’s top goalscorer is singing your praises on social media, you know you’re doing something right…
Eintracht Frankfurt to Chelsea
The departures of captain Magda Eriksson and the talents of Pernille Harder would hit any team hard, even the reigning WSL champions. However, Chelsea have done a splendid job of refreshing their squad this summer following some big-name departures.
While the headlines were grabbed by their goalkeeper window shopping and the big-name arrival of USWNT star Catarina Macario, a 23-year-old German is arguably their most sensible coup in the summer.
Sjoeke Nüsken has been an ever-reliable and versatile presence for Frankfurt across the last two seasons. Having spent years as a midfielder, she is an able deputy at centre-back, a role she exclusively played last season in Germany last season.
Nüsken played the second most minutes (1,965) in the Frauen Bundesliga last season, behind only Bayern Munich’s Glodis Viggosdottir (1,980). Over the last three seasons, Nüsken has never played fewer than 77% of the available league minutes, starting every single game in the last two seasons.
While her availability is impeccable, her importance to Frankfurt went beyond that. She was at the heart of their possession-based sequences and gave her side the ability to build out from the back.
The young German is also excellent at reading play and can be frequently seen regaining possession for her side. No player started more open-play sequences in the Frauen Bundesliga last season than Nüsken (384), highlighting how she recovered the ball and kickstarted things for the German side. Nüsken also ranked fourth for open play build-up involvement (1,140) in the league last season.
Her distribution is on-point as well. A tennis player in her youth, she is quick to identify and look for direct options in behind. She ranked third in the Bundesliga last season for long passes per 90 (13.2) and fifth for forward passes per 90 (29.2). This bodes well for Chelsea who have increasingly shown an affinity for playing a direct style to feed the talents of Sam Kerr in attack. During the 2022-23 season, Chelsea averaged 89 long passes per game, the highest in the league, while only Arsenal (62.4%) had a better completion rate than the Blues (62.0%).
Hayes has been vocal about the quality of Nüsken and has hinted towards seeing her in a midfield role for the side. With the qualities of the German, this seems like a happy marriage between the two.
The WSL has seen a massive influx of talent this season. Beyond the aforementioned names, there are players all throughout the league that guarantee to improve their respective sides.
Finnish box-to-box midfielder Olga Ahtinen and Swiss centre-back Luana Bühler will be vital assets to Spurs, adding passing verve to the side’s play. Belgian Justine Vanhaevermaet and two-time UWCL winner Janice Cayman will add experience and depth in equal quantity for Brian Sorensen’s Everton and Willie Kirk’s Leicester City respectively.
Cooney-Cross isn’t the only W-league export ready to make waves in the WSL this season with Mackenzie Hawkesby, a versatile and well-rounded midfielder, joining Brighton as well.
Another spectacular season of the Women’s Super League awaits.