Four winners and three losers from the WSL opening rounds
The FA Women's Super League season kicked off this month to much fanfare and international attention, driven in part by the excitement over the influx of world stars who joined the league this summer. So let's check in on the big winners and losers from the opening two matchdays.
Most of the chatter coming into the season treated it as a two-team race for the title. Arsenal certainly didn’t feature as many flashy signings over the summer as their competitors. But there’s strength in stability, and it’s not like the Arsenal roster is weak. They came out ready to prove a point, scoring 15 goals while absolutely flattening Reading and West Ham. Things will get tougher as the season progresses, but the chip on their shoulder isn’t going anywhere and should help them stay motivated. And while they obviously can’t count on Jill Roord to score a hat-trick every game, her emergence as a serious goal-scorer adds yet another layer to an attack that was already probably the most fluid and diverse in the league.
Winner: Competitive equity
Over the entire 2019-2020 season, the bottom nine teams in the table managed two measly points against the top three. This year, they’ve already managed that much in the opening two weeks, with Manchester United and Brighton each earning quality draws against Chelsea and Manchester City. We’ve also seen excellent performances from Everton (2nd in the table at the moment). After getting kicked around by Arsenal, Reading came back strong with a clear 3-1 win over Villa. Spurs have only managed a point, but have kept both games tight, and have Alex Morgan waiting in the wings. It’s all very encouraging!
Loser: Competitive equity
That said, the opening two weeks have also seen some outlandish scorelines. 9-0 for Chelsea, with nine different goal-scorers. Arsenal putting 9 past West Ham and 6 past Reading. After two matches, Bristol’s goal difference is already -13. And while many teams have taken advantage of the opportunity to bring in NWSL talent to solidify their squads, the vast majority of those deals are short-term loans which will run out mid-season or at the end of the year. That compares to the signings at Chelsea, Arsenal, and City which are long-term and sustainable. The hope is that a ‘rising tide lifts all boats,’ but there’s no guarantee. The risk is that the big sides continue to invest while the rest fall further and further away.
Winner: Manchester United
Coming into the season, there was a lot of talk about whether United might be able to bust into the ranks of the top three. It will still be a tall order, but they certainly laid down a marker in the opening two matches. United earned their first point against the big three with a draw against Chelsea and followed it up with a 5-2 demolition of Birmingham. They’re already a quarter of the way to their total goals-scored number from last season. And that’s without the addition of Christen Press and Tobin Heath—their two star Americans who are still waiting to go through quarantine. They’ve done very well to integrate new players like Ona Batlle, but the core of the team remains the young talent which is all developing together. I’d still bet on them falling away from the top three as the season progresses, but developing teams do sometimes hit a new level quicker than anticipated.
Loser: Manchester City
There’s no denying the quality of City’s roster. They were already stacked at the end of last season, and they’ve added quite a few world class players since then. But they also have a new coach who will need to integrate those new players and impose his own style in the process. That’s never easy, and might be even more difficult in a league where every point feels essential and the pressure is sky-high. What’s more, even with a stacked roster in almost every position, they are short on out-and-out strikers. Ellen White is great, but she’s not quite at the sky-high levels of the league’s best strikers. And they really don’t have anyone else. They're still creating plenty of chances (their xG over two games is a very creditable 6.6), but you still need someone to finish. And in two games against mid-table opponents, they’ve only managed two actual goals—both from catastrophic defensive errors. That’s nowhere near enough when your competitors are putting in eight or nine per game.
Everton doesn't have any of the big splash American signings, but they still did some very nice business over the past year. And they already had a great core to build around. That's shown in the first two weeks, as Everton are the only team besides Arsenal to open with two wins out of two. They started by taking apart Bristol City in a 4-0 rampage. But beating up on the worst team in the league is one thing; more impressive was their comprehensive performance against Spurs on Sunday. The final tally was only 1-0, but Everton dominated the game: choking off the Tottenham attack for most of the game while staying smooth and collected when in possession. Everton will almost certainly drop off from the top three, but there's enough quality here to legitimately challenge for fourth. Izzy Christiansen dominated the midfield against Spurs, playing as a wide-ranging box-to-box midfielder with license to pop up virtually anywhere on the pitch. Lucy Graham played everyone else off the pitch against Bristol. The Danish contingent (Nicoline Sørensen and Rikke Sevecke) have settled in very well. And they've still only gotten 33 minutes from Valérie Gauvin. This is a really good team!
Loser: The officiating
Refereeing in the WSL is a tough job. The pace of game is lightning fast and the play is physical. What’s more, the officials aren’t professionalized. The league claims to be working on improving the quality—and may well be serious about those efforts. But so far, the results are less than encouraging. It isn’t productive to fixate on the officials themselves. They’re obviously doing their best. The problem is a lack of overall support. This certainly isn’t a unique problem for the WSL; every women’s league in the world is dealing with some variation of this problem. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be addressed. A professional league deserves professional referees. And the referees deserve the support to make that possible.