After the dramatics of the World Cup and an eventful summer of player departures and arrivals, the Women’s Superleague is back in action this weekend and it looks like it’s going to be the biggest season yet, as established dynasties meet the teams looking to break the stranglehold of the big three. FA Player commentator Paul Wheeler takes an in-depth team-by-team look at what could be a seismic season in the WSL this year – with a musical twist. Teams appear in alphabetical order. And just in case you’re wondering or want to follow along, here’s a playlist in order for the songs for all twelve teams – why not listen along as you read?
“I’m building bonfires of my vanities and doubts to get warm.
Just like everybody else..“
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls: “Reasons Not To Be An Idiot”
The red half of North London had a summer of hype and excitement to the point some of their fanbase had seemingly convinced themselves the WSL Championship was already won. A transfer window that saw Cloé Lacasse, Amanda Ilestedt, Laia Codina, Kyra Cooney-Cross and, in a transfer hyped more than the other four combined Alessia Russo arrive into what was already a strong squad means that Jonas Eidevall has almost an embarrassment of riches to play with. With Rafaelle Souza the only significant departure over the summer (all the others were already out on loan and clearly considered surplus to requirements) and the return of Beth Mead, Viv Miedema & Leah Williamson from long term injury the Gunners have a squad to envy.
The trouble is, it’s a fine line between “embarrassment of riches” and just “pure embarrassment” and crashing out of the Champions’ League to Paris FC after being semi-finalists with an arguably weaker squad last season is a smack of reality into the smiling, optimistic faces of preseason. Booking the Emirates for six UWCL nights now looks like hubris when all the club have to look forward to is Conti Cup nights midweek vs the likes of Reading and Watford, who with the greatest respect are not the same draw as Wolfsburg or Barcelona.
If you look beyond the hype and the “North London Galacticas” squad makeup there are questions about Arsenal, too. For all the hype and noise around her Russo is still a striker who has scored an average of ten goals per full season and doesn’t provide a significant upgrade on Stina Blackstenius up front. Mead, Miedema and Williamson are coming back from debilitating injuries, and even if they’re at full strength Jonas Eidevall needs to work out how to integrate so much new attacking talent into a system that looked pretty settled as it was. Keeping a squad sharp and happy when we’ve seen Arsenal waste players like Mana Iwabuchi will be a task the rest of the WSL are watching closely. And if Russo doesn’t fire in the goals, then others will very quickly take her place as the questions get asked.
On paper, Arsenal should and will be title challengers. With a fanbase that’s notoriously demanding, rivals who have strengthened and kept pace, The pressure is well and truly on the Gunners now because a trophyless season will be considered a failure. There will probably be no hotter seat than Eidevall’s this season.
Key Player: Lia Waelti
It might be a surprise to pick the Swiss metronome out in such a star-packed squad, but Arsenal are who they are, and all the stars are expected to be able to play in their attacking pomp, because someone does the dirty, unappreciated work for them. At Arsenal, Lia Waelti is the heartbeat. She is the match that ignites the fire, the metal that the chain is forged from, the engine in the locomotive. Without her, nothing functions as well. She is the keystone, the vital cog, the spark in the plugs. Her consistency and sheer unflappability in the centre of midfield means that she often goes underappreciated, but she might as well be considered the conductor of Arsenal’s music – if she’s having a bad game or being outplayed by the opposition, Arsenal’s whole system falls.
Player To Watch: Kyra Cooney-Cross
It says something that with Beth Mead, Leah Williamson and Viv Miedema returning from injury, the arrival of all the firepower mentioned above and the stars that Arsenal have, that we’re still picking out Arsenal’s latest arrival as the player to watch, but the reason for that is that the young Australian is like a Swiss army knife of a player. She will nominally be competing with names like Frida Maanum and yes, Viv Miedema for Arsenal’s “number 10” role but she really can fit in anywhere, and has already proved it for Australia. The question for Jonas Eidevall will be – with such a versatile and talented midfielder, where does he see her playing? And who does she displace to play there?
With no UWCL to worry about Arsenal’s squad should not be stretched as much as perhaps planned for, and that means that finding minutes for all the talent that’s available. With Chelsea and Manchester United both having been sniffing around before Arsenal hijacked her move, will the Australian settle in North London or will she be left fighting for the scraps of minutes through no fault of her own? It’ll be an intriguing storyline to follow throughout the season
Three Burning Questions
- Can Jonas Eidevall keep everyone happy? At the moment Arsenal have ten international players all fighting for playing time in a front five that could easily put out a different combination each game…and none of them will tolerate periods on the bench. Rotating his squad while simultaneously finding enough minutes for players who will likely not accept merely being Wednesday night starters in the Continental Cup will be a big theme of the season, otherwise we could already see squad disharmony in January.
- Who is Arsenal’s number nine? With Alessia Russo arriving off a perhaps underwhelming domestic season that doesn’t provide much more on the stats sheet than the incumbent Stina Blackstenius and Viv Miedema also returning into a crowded field of number tens, there’s no clear candidate to lead Arsenal’s attack. Russo has come with all the hype but if she has a similar season to her last in Manchester, it won’t be long before the notoriously unforgiving fanbase turn on her. She has to perform, because Blackstenius will not give up her spot lightly.
- Can the injured stars return strongly? Mead, Miedema and Williamson is a trio of returning names that would be welcomed with joy by any team in the world, but with all three coming off ACL injuries, can they return to their best immediately? What happens if they don’t? And given that ACL injuries are notorious for recurring – what happens if Arsenal start more weakly than planned – the clamour for the three to return will only get louder, and the pressure to perform will only grow.
“We’re making a move,
We’re making it now
We’re coming out off the sidelines
Put your hands up, it’s a raid.“
If there is any team that looks like it’s about to break the monopoly of the top three teams in the WSL, Aston Villa are it. Under Carla Ward they’ve been building something special in Birmingham the past few seasons, and Villa are one of the poster teams for development over the past few years. It turns out the signing of Rachel Daly last summer was but the first shot in a concerted barrage of new arrivals, and this summer has built on that even further. Daphne van Domselaar in goal, Ebony Salmon and Adriana Leon coming in in attack, and permanent signings of Kirsty Hanson and Anna Patten show that more than ever, Villa mean business and are looking to take the next step this season. There is a quiet revolution in the West Midlands built at least partly from other team’s cast-offs. Mis-shapes, if you will. Certainly Leon is a prime example of that this season and we’ll talk about her in more depth shortly. But the fact we’re now talking about Aston Villa as one of the teams that could legit disrupt the WSL accepted narrative is a testament to one person – Carla Ward. Villa are no longer satisfied with being “the best of the rest” and this season, they will be going all out to step up a level.
Key Player: Rachel Daly
This is probably the easiest pick of the entire preview. When your team has the current top scorer of the WSL returning, they’re probably going to be pretty key to how your season turns out. However, this season the Leeds native, who is arguably England’s finest
left-back striker, doesn’t have to do everything by herself – Carla Ward has recruited reinforcements and with Ebony Salmon nipping at her heels for that number nine spot, Daly will know that if she has an off-game, someone will take up the slack. She’ll also have reinforcements when it comes to service, too.
On top of all of that, she’ll want to prove to Sarina Wiegman that she’s England’s number one as a number nine. If Daly can come even close to repeating her heroics last year, it could spur Villa on not just to a top four finish, but a title challenge.
Player To Watch: Adriana Leon
After the way she was treated by Marc Skinner at Manchester United last season, there will be no more motivated player in the WSL than the flying Canadian. A woman scorned by her manager to the point that she was what her compatriots call a “healthy scratch” from the matchday squad on multiple occasions, Leon is ready to prove that while hell hath no fury, she’s ready to unleash it on opposition full-backs. After Canada’s early exit from the World Cup she’s had a summer to brood and kindle the fire inside that sees her one of Canada’s all time best players. In an attack playing off Rachel Daly and with Kirsty Hanson on the other side, she’ll have all the opportunity to let that fire express itself in full effect, too.
Three Burning Questions
1. Can Villa make the leap? On paper there are all the ingredients at Villa Park now. A manager who is settled and trusted by both club and players, quality in all areas of the pitch, and a nicely-balanced mix of veteran talent and young guns. On paper, Aston Villa are the blueprint for a team to challenge the established order. But how good are they on grass?
2. Is Daphne van Domselaar the best young goalie in the world? After impressing hugely at the Euros and for the relatively small stage of FC Twente, the young Dutchwoman is one of the hottest properties in world football and was widely expected to end up at a “big 4” club. Coming to Villa she’ll have all the chances she could possibly want to be a game-winner, and take that “best young goalie in the world” tag for herself.
3. Is depth an issue? Whilst they’ve strengthened massively, Villa are still operating in a world where teams like Chelsea effectively have two full-strength starting lineups. The Villa squad do not – lose Daly or Jordan Nobbs, for example, and the next woman up, while still very good, may require adjustments to fit in properly. The Villa squad doesn’t have Europe to contend with but over the grind of a long season, will injuries derail a challenge?
BRIGHTON AND HOVE ALBION
“I’ll grab life by the throat
And make it my own
To rise above the ashes into the unknown“
Walls Of Jericho: “Fight The Good Fight”
After last season’s battle at the wrong end of the table and a season of turmoil that saw four different managers on the South Coast, this season Brighton look like a team determined to seize the WSL by the throat in a bit to improve. Under new coach Melissa Phillips, who worked wonders in her arrival last season and has now had a full preseason to build the squad her way, Brighton have raised eyebrows with a raft of very impressive arrivals. Jocelyn Carabali, Maria Thorisdottir and Tatiana Pinto are an impressive trio of defensive arrivals on their own, but when you add a raft of Aussie talent like Mackenzie Hawkesby, Madison Haley and then established and experienced international stars like Vicky Losada and Pauline Bremer, this is a Brighton team that means business. It is a team in transition, with many stalwarts having left over the summer, but the new Seagulls look like a flock who mean business at both ends of the pitch.
Key Player: Maria Thorisdottir
Every team needs a defensive anchor, and with the amount of churn in Brighton’s defence this summer including the departure of Victoria Williams, there was space for a new cornerstone on the South Coast. In signing the Norwegian, Melissa Phillips has stated an intent – this Brighton team will be strong, physical and imposing from their own penalty area onward. Thorisdottir is the experienced poster-girl of this defence now and the warm messages from Man United fans show just how much she was loved there. She will never be flashy, but alongside Jocelyn Carabali Thorisdottir, like Satara Murray for Bristol City, will be the solid rock that will allow the skill players in front of her to play.
Player To Watch: Pauline Bremer
Brighton had goalscoring talent last season – England’s Katie Robinson and Norway’s Elisabeth Terland are both very talented young attackers -but Danielle Carter’s departure left them desperate for someone to spearhead and allow them to play wide off her in Melissa Phillps’ preferred 4-3-3 formation, and also a runner who would profit from the creative efforts of Vicky Losada and the guile of Julia Zigiotti Olme. The German, who seems to have been around for ever but is still only 27 and just entering her prime years, is that player. A lethal finisher whose career has been blighted by injury so far, she scored 11 goals in 18 games for Manchester City in her last go-round in the WSL despite being out for many months with a broken leg, and a similar production this season will go a long way to improving Brighton’s league position this season. She has goalscoring help around her and will need to remain injury free, but with Katie Robinson feeding her and several other complimentary attackers, her arrival on the South Coast could precede a flurry of goals for a side who often had trouble scoring them last season.
Three Burning Questions
- Who protects the net? Brighton’s goalie position is in flux at the moment, with Megan Walsh leaving for West Ham, Nicky Evrard arriving on loan from Chelsea and Sophie Baggaley from Man United to join Katie Startup. Evrard will likely be the initial starter, but Baggaley has moved from United looking for more game time and Katie Startup is no mean goalie herself. With the ridiculous WSL loan rules meaning players loaned can’t play against parent clubs Baggaley is assured of at least two starts this season, but Evrard will want to cement her place as starter early. We’ve seen how goalies can lift a team and with several teams having new goalies this season, Brighton will be hoping that theirs hit the ground running, especially after the team’s early-season struggles last year.
- How do the new players mesh? This is a team that has seen a LOT of change over the summer, and Melissa Phillips has clearly targeted an all-over improvement in her recruitment. However, the players will all need to hit the ground running because with only a 22-game season there is precious little time to find footing in a new system, and we saw last year how a poor start can all but condemn a team to battling at the wrong end of the table – something that is the exact opposite of the intent signalled by Brighton’s busy summer.
- Who are these Seagulls? With so many long-standing Brighton players leaving the culture and identity of the Seagulls is open for a reset under a new manager – a process Mel Phillips clearly had already begun upon arrival. This, though, is now her squad, her players and her team. What are they going to look like? Do the players even know themselves yet?
It’s going to be fascinating watching Brighton develop as the season goes on.
“So it doesn’t hurt to hope and it will never hurt to try“
Svalbard: “Try Not To Die Until You’re Dead”
Returning to the WSL after two seasons away, Bristol City will be hoping that their stay is extended beyond next May. They will likely enter the season in the traditional position for promoted teams as relegation candidates in the eyes of many, but this is a very different Bristol City to the one that went down – one with a taste for winning, a settled and strong system and, most importantly perhaps, a battle-tested group who know and believe in their own capabilities. Abi Harrison is a lethal striker built for the rough-and-tumble of WSL defences, far better than the player she was a few years ago, and Amalie Thestrup will provide support. But it is the local spine of the team – Brooke Aspin, Naomi Layzell, and others, who are the lighthouses shining brightly around the Bristol Channel. Aspin’s days in Bristol are numbered after a sell-and-loan back deal but Lauren Smith is a manager who seems to have a rare ability to think ahead, and the arrivals this season of battle-tested WSL players like Megan Connolly alongside the permanent signing of Rachel Furness and international talent like Kaylan Marchese in goal and the colossus that is Satara Murray means this team is built for a battle and will fight and scrap to the end. Nobody in the WSL will fancy the trip to Ashton Gate, particularly with the vociferous cider-fuelled West Country roar behind the Robins. They will surprise a few teams this season. Home form could be the key.
Key Player: Satara Murray
You can’t miss Satara Murray. Her all-action play-style and powerful personality dominate any pitch she plays on, and she organises the defence around her like a general marshalling her troops. Leading by example, she could easily make a case for being one of the best centre-backs in the WSL. She is strong, positionally astute and the prototype for a modern centre-back in the women’s game…the foundation that the rest of the team can build on along with Aspin and either Irish international Chloe Mustaki or the aforementioned Layzell. She will be absolutely vital to the Robins as a defensive tone-setter this season.
Player To Watch: Abi Harrison
The Scottish striker is no longer the player who struggled a little last time the Robins were in the WSL – she’s one of a number of players trusted with spearheading Bristol and Scotland’s attack, strong and powerful in the air and with an ideal ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play around her. She may not get the space and time she had at times in the second tier but in a team that will likely be forced to soak up pressure and play a counter-attacking system she is the template of a lone striker, with the quality to take chances given to her. If she can get amongst the goals and get on a scoring run it will be crucial to the Robins’ chances of survival, but even if not she can be a battering ram that makes the space for others.
Three Burning Questions
- Can Bristol City score enough? The Robins have attacking options but none of them are really prolific so far at WSL level – Amalie Thestrup and Abi Harrison haven’t set the WSL goal totals alight yet and nor has Shania Hayles – in order to stay up the goals will have to come from somewhere and a scoring-by-committee approach may be the best hope Lauren Smith’s team have. Rachel Furness could be key with goals from midfield, for example.
- Can the youngsters handle the pace? Brooke Aspin and Naomi Layzell are fine defensive talents, but they’ll be tested like never before against WSL attacks week in, week out. The experienced defenders around them, like Satara Murray and Chloe Mustaki, will need to be guiding hands in the unforgiving spotlight of the WSL, and Megan Connolly will need to play a similar role for young midfielders like Tianna Tiesar, too.
- Kaylan Marckese’s time to shine? On loan from Arsenal after not really being given a chance so far in Borehamwood after signing last Jan, the American will face a season being expected to be the last line of defence for a team who will likely give up more chances than Arsenal…just how good can she be? We’ve seen how a goalie can change a season with Janina Leitzig’s arrival at Leicester – can Markese be this season’s version?
“And I know that we’ve still got time
But I do not think we’re invincible“
Enter Shikari: “Juggernauts”
Some songs just choose themselves in this preview. The blue juggernaut of Chelsea is once again firing up its engine to run roughshod over the rest of the WSL. The blue part of West London have once again used the logic of “if in doubt, throw money” in their recruitment this summer as Emma Hayes relentlessly chases the unicorn of the Champions’ League. Catarina Macario. Ashley Lawrence. Mia Fishel. Sjoeke Nuesken. Wieke Kaptein. The flashy international signings keep coming (and some get sent back out on loan) but this summer they were actually balanced with a significant departure or two in Pernille Harder and Magda Eriksson. The sheer depth of the Chelsea squad, with two starting lineups and often three international players at every position, is a walking advert to Mammon and the power of billionaire owners.
But despite a bottomless pit of money, despite the best striker in the world in Sam Kerr, despite giving arguably the best club manager on the planet in Emma Hayes the chance to play fantasy football with all of the women’s stars on the planet, Chelsea still haven’t won the Champions League, and the gap domestically is closing. Arsenal have adopted their own version of London Galactica football, Manchester United have invested, and maybe, just maybe, Chelsea are vulnerable. They’ve tried to build the next wave of talent this summer, but eventually the question will be asked…how long can they hold on at the top?
And the worst thing is, the stats show the inexorable narrowing of the gap. Whilst Chelsea still won the WSL last season, the “all dominant” Blues have never won the WSL by more than two points, Last season they conceded the most goals they ever had in a WSL season. Granted, that was only 16 in 22 games but that was 25% more than the season before.
There is no need to panic for Chelsea – not at all. But they do need to be wary. As other teams improve, their gains are proportionally more than Chelsea getting better. They have to be careful the obsession with the UWCL doesn’t hit them domestically, too – because when you’re the champions like Chelsea are, the only way is down.
Key Player: Sophie Ingle
You all expected Sam Kerr in this slot, didn’t you? Or Guro Reiten, or maybe Millie Bright. Or the returning Fran Kirby. Those are the easy picks, though. Everybody knows what they mean to Chelsea.
Sophie Ingle, however, might as well go utterly unnoticed, but like Lia Waelti for Arsenal, she is the metronome that keeps Chelsea’s machine ticking. She is the tick of the clock, the beat of the midfield heart. The Welsh international’s effect is most noted when it isn’t there. In a team full of creative midfield powerhouses, she was the player last season who received most touches of the ball in the midfield, despite not playing the most minutes. She does the work nobody notices, but without her, or someone else playing her role, the gears seize up. In a team full of players that scream for your attention, she is silent, but the effect of her silent work is very, very loud indeed.
Player To Watch: Lauren James
The World Cup this summer was, perhaps, Lauren James’ coming-out party. Emma Hayes knew how good she is already. So did regular Chelsea watchers. This past summer though, she announced herself to the world. At Chelsea, a team containing some of the best creative midfielders in the world and a multitude of number tens, James has still forced her way into first choice in that position, and now the rest of Europe and indeed the world knows her, if they didn’t already.
This season, the spotlight will be on James more than ever, and she’ll be walking a tightrope because even a slight loss in form will see Catarina Macario itching to take her spot and a returning Fran Kirby wanting it, too. She can be moved to the flanks and her versatility is a bonus, but she will likely be keyed upon by opposition teams in the WSL in a way she wasn’t at the World Cup or even last season in the WSL. How she deals with that will have a big impact on how dominant or otherwise Chelsea can be this season.
Three Burning Questions
- Can Sam Kerr fire again? Last season Chelsea managed to win the title with their star striker having her worst season in many years for production – mainly because Guro Reiten and Lauren James took up the slack. However, life is always easier with arguably the deadliest goalscorer on the planet on form. Emma Hayes does have options if Kerr struggles – Mia Fishel and Cat Macario can both step into that position…but Fishel is unproven and Macario is probably better used as a playmaker. If Kerr hits the heights Chelsea will once again be almost impossible to stop for many teams – but if she doesn’t, then it’s a ghost in the machine.
- What is Chelsea’s strongest team? With an embarassment of riches to choose from, Emma Hayes could probably throw a dart at a team list 11 times and pick a lineup that could beat most WSL teams. But she will need a structured approach and the demands of giving a team full of international stars who all want to play enough minutes to keep them happy is now harder than ever as international dreams rest increasingly on players playing regularly for their clubs. Managing her squad and picking the right players for the right opponent without risking leaving vulnerabilities will be harder than ever this season for Chelsea’s manager.
- Champions’ League or bust? At this point, the measure of success for Chelsea is so high, and the desire to win the Champions’ League so strong, that are we at a point where anything other than winning every trophy available can be considered a disappointing season for the Blues? What happens if at the sharp end of the season it comes down to a choice between playing your strongest team in a potential WSL-deciding game or a Champions’ League semi a few days later?
Eventually when battling on all fronts, something will have to give – the question with Chelsea this year is – as the standard of the chasing pack rises, is the clock ticking louder and louder on their dynasty? We shall see.
“Fairly certain I’m important
I’ve an arm and a leg in the doorway“
Pillow Queens: “Rats”
Everton have always had something of a neighbour problem. Whilst the men’s side have given as good as they got against the red half of Liverpool with epic battles throughout history, the blue half of Liverpool has had to watch its women knuckle under to the far more glamorous side that bears the city’s name for the majority of its existence. The high point of Everton’s history to date was winning the Women’s Premier League in 1995, which, for context, is before most of the current players wearing blue were born.
Whilst the red half of Liverpool has won WSL titles and had some of the most famous names in WSL history represent them, the blue half has had relegation to WSL 2 and, whilst they’ve had a fair share of stars of their own, many of them them have gone on to find greater fame elsewhere.
As the only WSL clubs with a dedicated women’s ground at Walton Hall Park, though, the Toffee Women have a charm all their own, and under Brian Sorensen they finished above their city rivals last season. The Scandi Revolution Sorensen has led is beginning to bear fruit for the Blues, although the loss of Gabby George to Manchester United will hurt this summer. In terms of transfer business in, the big name is Italian striker Martina Piemonte from AC Milan, to reinforce Katja Snoeijs and Nicoline Sorensen up front. Irish international Heather Payne joins as well as goalkeeper Emily Ramsey on a permanent deal after a loan last season, and Emma Bissell returns to England from NCAA football, but it has been a relatively quiet summer for Everton as they look to build on last season. They should be safe again this season, but in true Scandi tradition, they will go about trying to force their way into notice in a quiet, unfussy fashion, just placing their feet into the doors of every conversation and the consciousness of everyone watching the WSL, while the noise and pomp of their cross-city rivals rages away around them. They have an importance all their own, as the silence to Liverpool’s noise and fury.
Key Player: Hanna Bennison
In a team full of work-women and quiet, understated graft, the young Swede provides genuine game-breaking quality and fizz that is a joy to discover unexpectedly, like the vintage champagne hidden in a case full of supermarket wine. She has an absolute wand of a right foot and a love for scoring spectacular goals from outside the box for both club and country, and is possibly the major individual attraction in a side that relies on being much more than the sum of its parts. The hard work of the players behind and alongside her shouldn’t be underestimated but Bennison is the player who can singlehandedly change a game with a moment of magic and make the players around her shine bright.
Player To Watch: Martina Piemonte
Everton has always been a place that values goalscorers, but the women’s team needs one this season – its top goalscorer last year was Katja Snoeijs with 7 – nobody else got more than three. Piemonte is likely going to lead the line for Everton this season and has scored consistently in Italy at a rate of a goal every other game for Milan – Brian Sorensen and the Everton fans would take that this season because given the scoring-by-committee approach last season, a good season from Piemonte and contributions from her fellow strikers could see them once again in a position to finish above their red neighbours.
Three Burning Questions
- Will they score enough? It seems silly to focus on attacking talent in a preview then cite goals as an issue, but last season Everton scored only 29 goals in 22 games – for comparison, Tottenham, two places below them, scored 31. They are a team built on a solid defence but to win games, they will need goals, and even more so if that defence is breached. If they struggle to score, it could see an unwelcome slide into the lower reaches of the table and the margins are so narrow in the WSL those slides are often hard to stop, especially if the goals aren’t going in.
- What happens if they struggle? Previously Everton’s board has been a little trigger-happy on managers, with the disastrous reign of Jean-Luc Vasseur following the sacking of Willie Kirk a low point before Sorensen restored stability. If Everton aren’t getting results early in the season, do the board have the strength to trust the process, and have they learned from past mistakes?
- When and how will Toni Duggan return? The England striker missed last season as the first WSL player to take maternity leave, but a player of her skill could be the difference for a team like Everton this season if she can return rested and raring to go as effectively a new signing. It could be a huge boost for Everton’s chances of a comfortable mid-table finish this season if the lifelong Evertonian can return to the field.
“I‘ve been as low as it gets but I ain’t
Six feet deep yet“
Royale Lynn: “Six Feet Deep”
Leicester got a lot of stick last season. As a team that’s already on its third WSL manager since ascending to the top division two full seasons ago, they have often found life at the top tier something of a scrap. That’s sad for a team that’s never lacked in graft or workrate but is often overlooked when it comes to talking about quality. But somehow, Leicester have always survived.
Unkind voices would say that that’s due to always having at least one team in the WSL worse than them – Leicester, after all, have finished 11th, 11th and 10th in their time in the league. But under Willie Kirk this is quietly a team making strikes towards sustainability with some of the best young talent in the WSL
This summer has seen another season of influx and outgoings at the King Power, with the most important of all perhaps being the permanent signing of Janina Leitzig – the former Bayern goalie was a revelation last season after arriving in January and will be crucial again this season, though she will be challenged closely by new arrival and Dutch international Lize Kop. Experienced attacking midfielder Janice Cayman, German international Lena Petermann, along with Deanne Rose and Jutta Rantala join as attacking reinforcements for a squad that badly lacked goals last season, especially after arguably their main attacking threat Shannon O’Brien suffered a season-ending injury. Defensively the additions of Courtney Nevin and Julie Thibaud will reinforce a side that has lost Ash Plumptre and has seen a ton of players mostly leave for the second tier and abroad, but Leicester will be girding themselves for a fight in a season where mid-table stability and a run in the cup competitions would represent a success. That’s not to say they don’t have the power to surprise a few teams…
Key Player: Janina Leitzig
It simply can’t be overstated what an impact the young German goalie had on Leicester last season. When she joined in January, Leicester looked like a team already going down – they simply couldn’t keep the opposition out often enough to make up for their low offensive production. Leitzig won rave-reviews in every game she played and was arguably the most important signing of the season for any team, helping the Foxes scrape the vital points they needed from January on. Whilst she has support from Lize Kop this season, she will likely go into the season once again hoping to perform at the same level as Leicester’s last line of defence and let the improved attacking cast in front of her find a way to score vital goals at the other end
Player To Watch: Shannon O’Brien
Full disclosure – there is a slight bias here from your writer as a proud Coventry native who watched Shannon as she burst onto the scene at Coventry United in her mid-teens. But upon moving to Leicester the young striker, possessed of electric pace and movement and an engine that never stops running took the step up to the WSL in her stride – her first goal for Leicester was a stunning effort against Manchester United, no less, and in the 21/22 season she earned Player of the Year honours, and was a fixture in the Young Lionesses squad before injury. Coming back from injury this season revitalised and ready to go and capable of playing anywhere across the front line, she is poised for a breakout season and it’s surely not long before she moves on to bigger things, possibly at her beloved Liverpool. Certainly she has the talent to be one of Leicester’s stars once again this season.
Three Burning Questions
- Will the offensive reinforcements work? The attack is almost completely new this season, with Willie Kirk’s summer recruitment clearly focusing on ensuring the goals go in for Leicester more often. The simple fact is they have to if Leicester are to avoid being dragged into a battle at the bottom. The talent is there, but it needs to fire, particularly against clubs who will be around them in the bottom half.
- Can Janina Leitzig pull off heroics again? We’ve already talked about the effect the German had on Leicester last season – if she can come close to last season’s form it will be a BIG step for the Foxes towards mid-table security. If the goalkeeping struggles, though, then that’s a big safety-net removed.
- Is just staying up a success? There is no secret that Leicester’s first ambition is to stay in the division – but after three seasons at WSL level, is that all they should hope for? Certainly Willie Kirk’s preseason talk has been about growing and improving, but football is a brutal business, and it doesn’t matter how you stay up as long as you do so. Pragmatism may be the order of the day in the East Midlands.
“How long until the tables turn?
When will we ever (when will we ever) get what we deserve?“
A Day To Remember: “Mr Highway’s Thinking About The End”
Liverpool are a name to conjure with. Former WSL champions, carrying the names of some of the greatest players in WSL history in their list of former players, and a passionate fanbase that follows them everywhere. They’ve also got an experienced manager in Matt Beard, the resources of one of the biggest clubs in the UK behind them…and yet they are still a club on the road back from a fall from grace a few seasons ago that saw them spend two seasons out of the WSL.
Last season survival was relatively comfortable and victories against Chelsea and Man City were highlights, but they still finished below their city rivals Everton, which will have hurt. They are a team in transition, with longstanding players like Rhiannon Roberts and Leighanne Robe leaving over the summer and signings coming in who, in the main, are strong WSL players but not stars – such as Natasha Flint from Leicester City, Austrian international Marie Hobinger and Scottish defender Jenna Clark. The two names that really stand out, though, especially after losing American top scorer Katie Stengel back to the US, are one of England’s most exciting young talents in Mia Enderby and powerhouse striker Sophie Roman Haug, who look together like they could be a perfect compliment for each other – Enderby’s trickery on the wing is perfect to feed crosses into Roman Haug as a spearhead, perhaps with Shanice van der Sanden on the other side doing the same.
If Liverpool are looking to step up the table, though, they will need to start getting results against more than just the teams they’re expected to match in the WSL – especially with the increase in level of teams like Brighton, who they might previously have expected to be on a par with. Whilst survival was comfortable in their first season back up, this season is where the work really begins because now, other teams know what they’re about.
Key Player: Sophie Roman Haug
As the replacement for Katie Stengel, the tall Norwegian striker has been brought in very clearly to lead the line and be the focal point of the Reds’ attack. She is powerful in the air and with Liverpool a squad brimming with talented wingers, she will likely get the service any striker of her type craves. If she can find form then it could carry the Reds up towards the higher reaches of the table much in the way Rachel Daly’s goalscoring exploits did for Aston Villa last season – she is one of the most intriguing signings of the summer in the WSL and seems poised for a very good season coming off a fine showing at the Women’s World Cup.
Player To Watch: Mia Enderby
Mia Enderby is, by herself, an advertisement for why it pays to pay attention to women’s football in England beyond the WSL. Anyone who saw her play for Sheffield United the past two seasons can see the joyful exuberance and wealth of talent from the young Yorkshire girl, who puts one in mind of Lauren Hemp with her utter fearlessness and need to hunt full backs like trophies as she takes them on at every opportunity. It was only a matter of time before her mix of finishing and creative abilities meant that the WSL would pay attention, and it is Liverpool who have taken a shot at her. She is a fantastic young talent who can thrive at the highest level given the freedom to play, and she will get that in Matt Beard’s system.
Three Burning Questions
- Can Rachael Laws keep producing? One of the oldest goalkeepers in the WSL but also one of the most respected – Rachael Laws has been at the top of the women’s game for over a decade, and has spent much of that time in goal for Liverpool. Teagan Micah is the latest young pretender to challenge her but the calmness and experience of the Sunderland-born veteran will be vital for another season in a Liverpool squad that has seen quite a few stalwarts of the dressing room leave this summer.
- Goals, goals, goals? Katie Stengel’s goals were key for Liverpool during her time at the club, and her departure leaves a hole that Sophie Roman Haug will have to fill – one that the Norwegian is more than capable of filling. But should she struggle, the backup options look relatively thin on paper – Tash Flint has never scored prolifically in the WSL and the other striking options will be converted wide players rather than finishers – the plus for Liverpool is that in local-girl icon Missy Bo Kearns they have a player who can score from midfield if required.
- Defensive frailties? Whilst Liverpool’s defence is filled with very good players (as a WSL defence has to be) it’s also ageing, particularly at centre back. Gemma Bonner, Jas Matthews and Niamh Fahey are all experienced, wily defenders but they’re all also 30 and over – with the increased demands of a WSL season and Fahey in particular having had very little rest after a World Cup campaign, injuries may be a concern at Prenton Park and any one of those three being injured leaves a big gap at the back.
“The hope was to fool yourself
To suffer was worth the cause
As we’re drifting off to nowhere“
Chevelle: “Remember When”
The blue side of Manchester should, on paper, be going into this season with confidence. With a front three of Bunny Shaw, Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp they have what is on paper one of the most exciting attacks of the WSL. Behind her there are players like Yui Hasegawa, Mary Fowler, and Laura Coombs. There is talent on the blue side of Manchester but they have stayed still under Gareth Taylor this summer while almost every other club in the WSL has passed them by. The only arrival was a returnee – Jill Roord.
This is very much a prove-it season for Gareth Taylor – a manager who is unpopular with his own hands and has often looked like a man promoted far beyond his ability. If anything, he’s somehow managed to underachieve with a raft of the best talent in the WSL. This time round the squad hasn’t changed much beyond the aforementioned Roord, and that is not a good sign for a club that saw its worst ever WSL finish last season. This looks like a disappointed season waiting to happen.
Key Player: Bunny Shaw
In amongst the top scorers last season, and leading her country at the World Cup, Bunny Shaw is one of the best strikers in the world, only helped by having the likes of Chloe Kelly, Lauren Hemp and now Jill Roord around her. Vital in a way perhaps shared by no other player in the league, her goals can often be considered the only thing keeping Gareth Taylor in a job over the past 12 months or so. With no striking help brought in in the window she will once again be expected to carry the burden of finding the net for the Citizens.
Player To Watch: Jill Roord
As probably the highest-profile returnee to the WSL in some years and certainly the most expensive, there is a lot riding on the Dutchwoman’s shoulders in Manchester this season. She is the personification of “all the eggs in one basket” as far as signings go. An incredibly talented goalscoring midfield herself who knows the club well, there are worse baskets to put all your eggs in, but if she doesn’t perform to the level Man City hope, then the pressure may grow strongly – her return will be one of the storylines most closely followed in the WSL season.
Three Burning Questions
- Is a settled squad an advantage? With only one new arrival so far this season, the one thing that goes in City’s favour is that there’s no integration period for new signings – even the newest arrival will be familiar to the environment around Man City. That means City can hit the ground running
- Fixture scarcity paying dividends? With no UWCL competition this season, Man City will likely play less games than any of their traditional rivals – particularly after a World Cup summer, will this mean that the slightly extended periods of rest pay dividends towards the business end of the season, especially if Manchester United and Chelsea go deep into European competition.
- Hottest seat in the WSL? Gareth Taylor has been given a lot of leeway at Man City the past few years – some would say too much. With this season being the first without European competition of any kind and less pressure on the squad than some others, if Man City struggle again in the first half of the season, will the patience of City’s owners finally run out?.
“We are the thorn in your side
We are the thieves in the night
And we’re coming to take what’s ours“
Parkway Drive: “Wild Eyes”
“Hated, adored, never ignored”
This is a mantra that Manchester United fans embrace with pride – as one of the biggest clubs in the world the women’s team has grown from non-existence in 2017 to finishing second last year in the WSL, forcing their city rivals out of European competition, and boasting the loudest and most passionate fans in the WSL in the eyes of many. This summer they’ve never been out of the headlines – iconic stars leaving, questions over new arrivals, and living absolutely rent-free in the heads of fans from North London to…well, West London.
But desperate as their rivals might be to bury Manchester United or take solace in their struggles, anyone watching the red half of Manchester will consider that losing Alessia Russo and her ten goals last season might turn out to be a case of addition by subtraction, as United’s hierarchy have reacted to their arrival in the UWCL with a raft of signings. Geyse Ferreira from Barcelona, World Cup winner Irene Guerrero from Atletico Madrid, Gabby George from Everton and, perhaps most importantly, World Cup Golden Boot winner Hinata Miyazawa from Japan are the standout arrivals, though Scottish and English youngsters Emma Watson and Evie Rabjohn take care of the youth additions, too. On Deadline Day Phallon Tullis-Joyce arrived from OL Reign to provide competition and potentially even a replacement for the current best goalie in the world Mary Earps, too. It has not been a quiet summer and Melvine Malard gives another option at number nine to top things off.
The big news are Geyse and Miyazawa. Combined the two of them are creative forces that can join an already incredibly potent attack. Leah Galton is, after all, still a Manchester United player. So is Lucia Garcia. Both new arrivals will fit squarely into the flowing, pacy front line Marc Skinner seems to be trying to build – they are very different to Russo but arguably more complete players. The WSL media is often guilty of focusing too much on Lionesses as star talent but United are not in this for the PR any more – they are in it to win. The steel in midfield provided by players like Hayley Ladd and strengthening an already miserly defence are a statement of intent. This season, United intend to come full-force for Chelsea’s crown.
Key Player: Leah Galton
Mary Earps and Lessi Russo grab the headlines, but Manchester’s local legend Leah Galton is the greatest talent England can’t have. She would absolutely be in Sarina Wiegman’s squads had she not made the decision to step back from international consideration for her own mental health – one that she has stuck to despite many attempts from the FA to change her mind. As a fearsomely talented attacking winger who loves to come in from the flank and score goals with a scoring ability many strikers would envy (she hit the same amount of goals as Russo last season but with more assists) the Harrogate native is entering her prime at 29 and can both score and create at will. Many have tried to dethrone her as queen of Manchester, but she has been with United since the start and scores goals with the regularity of a metronome. Given players like Geyse and Miyazawa around her, another double-digit goal season is very likely indeed, but now she has a wealth of options to set up, too.
Player To Watch: Maya Le Tissier
In a team full of attacking talent it might seem strange to pick out a defender, and a young one at that, but there are very few defenders not just in the WSL but in world football as talented to watch as Maya Le Tissier. She flows like water across the turf in United’s backline, seemingly able to be in several places at once, and makes the kind of tackle on a regular basis that would make the football gods sing with joy. Her timing is exquisite, and her positioning almost faultless. It is frankly a mystery why she’s not in the England squad already, because she has the incredibly rare talent of turning the utilitarian science of preventing goals into an art form in the way only the truly great defenders do.
Three Burning Questions
- Will Marc Skinner use his resources to their full potential? The United manager was often criticised last season for simply wasting the talent available to him – he appeared to have favourites and his rhetoric around players like Vilde Boe Risa was sometimes confusing. With more games to play this season and far more positional options, will we see a much more fluid lineup allowing United to consistently have every player show what they can do?
- Who is the number nine? There is competition now for the tip of the Man United spear. With Russo gone, multiple options present themselves – Geyse, Lucia Garcia, Miyazawa as a false nine, Melvine Malard after her late arrival, or many other options. What will United’s spearhead look like – will the spear even have a recognisable head at all, or a false-nine? The options are exciting but right now, open for whoever wants it the most.
- Is a change in goal coming? A year ago it would have seemed unthinkable to even suggest that Mary Earps would not be in the Manchester United goal, but the speculation over her future has already begun with claim and counter-claim about whether or not she wants to stay at United – a situation which has seen the arrival of Phallon Tullis-Joyce, one of the best goalies in the NWSL last season, to challenge Earps or perhaps even take her spot. The goalie battle at LSV will be one of the most intriguing sub-plots of this WSL season by far.
“Burning up in the new daylight
Back from the dark side again
Did the black hole spit us out?
Bad taste left in its mouth
If that’s not the last time then when?“
Hot Milk: “Bloodstream”
If there is any team that needs a bounceback season this season, then the lilywhite half of North London is it. Completely new management in Robert Vilahamn, a changing of the guard at captain, the retirement of one of the stalwarts of Spurs in Kerys Harrop, and an ambition to not even consider the flirtation that relegation that occupied most of last season. Spurs are a team who were carried to safety on Beth England’s goals after the emergency situation in January saw them seize on England’s dissatisfaction of lack of game time at Chelsea, and this year they are looking to build on the momentum.
Signings over the summer have seen goalkeeping addressed with a new number one – Czech Barbora Votikova, although after her heroics at the World Cup for Jamaica Becky Spencer will probably have her eye on the number one jersey, too. Further forward, as you’d expect from a Scandinavian coach, the signings have been mostly pragmatic. Defence is reinforced by the signing of Liana Bühler and Olga Ahtinen has arrived to shore up the centre of the field.In what may prove to be a very astute pickup indeed Martha Thomas, the Scottish international, has arrived from Manchester United to provide support and competition for Beth England in the number nine position – she’ll get her chance early in the season with England recovering from injury sustained post-World Cup.
Robert Vilahamn has already spoken of wanting his side to play attractive football, but the priority may be fixing the -16 goal difference from last season first of all – Spurs have quality like Canadian Shelina Zadorsky and England’s Ash Neville available and with returning players like New Zealand’s Ria Percival and striker Kit Graham also set to take their place the talent is there – young Lioness Asmita Ale, too, will be exciting to watch develop further this season. This is a season Spurs will want to climb out of the darkness of last year back into the light towards the top end of the table.
Key Player: Beth England
The stats speak for themselves. No player scored more goals per game last season in the WSL than Beth England – 12 in 12 from joining Spurs on. She is the captain this season, too, perhaps unsurprisingly, but crucially for Spurs she is probably the best pure finisher the Lionesses have, by some margin. She scored nearly a third of Spurs’ league goals despite only playing half a season. With more steel behind her in midfield the foundation is much stronger than it might have been last season, and returning attacking players like Kit Graham from injury will also give her more service than last season along with the midfield additions. If she scores at even close to the incredible rate she did last season, then Spurs will not have to worry about looking down the table and can start looking up to mid-table and possibly beyond. A lethal striker can carry a team a long way.
Players To Watch: Olga Ahtinen/Celin Bizet Ildhusøy
Initially this piece followed many others in picking out Man United loanee Grace Clinton as a Spurs player to watch, but then I reconsidered – not least reading the sheer volume of reaction and frustration from Spurs fans that much of the media had taken the “obvious” pick.
Listen to Spurs fans themselves and the players they’re most excited to see are new arrival Ahtinen, who comes under the radar despite being the Player of the Year in the Damallsvenskan , and Bizet Ildhusøy – a Norwegian winger who joined Spurs last season and flies down the flanks , bringing the same flair to the women that the men’s team saw from marauding Spurs wingers like David Ginola. Whilst the Norwegian doesn’t quite have the flamboyance of her male historical counterpart, she has found her feet in North London now and will be an ideal supply-line for Beth England or Martha Thomas while capable of her own moments of magic. Olga Ahtinen will join her compatriot Eveliina Summanen in the Spurs engine room, meanwhile, capable of contributing at both ends and with a pedigree that could make her one of the most under-rated signings of the summer – a distinction several Spurs players are competing for.
Three Burning Questions
- Does Beth England have help this season? The signing of Martha Thomas from Manchester United went a little under the radar for Spurs this summer, but Thomas is a true number nine who was never really given the chance to show what she could do by Marc Skinner – Pedro Martinez Losa clearly believes in her ability while starting her for Scotland, though. With teams likely to key in on England, alternative options up front will be vital and Thomas could be key in providing that option, especially if she can contribute a decent number of goals. Ellie Brazil returning from injury is another option, too, in a suddenly deep-looking Spurs attack.
- What will this Spurs team look like? As mentioned above Robert Vilahamn has talked about wanting to play a similar attractive style to Spurs mens’ team, but it’s a step up for him as manager from the Swedish league to the WSL and nobody seems to quite know what a Vilahamn Spurs team will look like – which could be an hidden advantage in today’s data-driven world, particularly early in the season.
- Can the Spurs team lay the ghosts to rest early? Change takes time, particularly around a club trying to bounce back from a struggling season. Early indications show that there is positive change happening but it needs to be sustained both on and off the pitch, with Spurs’ efforts to build a fanbase for their women’s team sometimes meeting resistance last season. With the men’s team on the up this year, can that feelgood factor translate to better fortunes and more optimism for the women’s club, too? A first game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge is a heck of a challenge to begin the new era, but a draw or even a win could be massive in terms of morale..
WEST HAM UNITED
“Can’t keep believing
We’re only deceiving ourselves
And I’m sick of the lie“
Evanescence: “Call Me When You’re Sober”
Alphabetical order puts the Hammers last in this preview, and ironically they are probably often the WSL team last thought of by many outside of their own fanbase. That’s not meant to be an insult to them in any way, more a comment on how West Ham as a women’s club have just been…well, kind of there in the WSL. Plodding along, finishing just comfortably safe enough to not cause ripples of relegation worry but not making enough waves to really compete with those above them.
This season that inertia might cost them. The appointment of Rehanne Skinner as a new manager was a curious one given her struggles with Tottenham, and she comes into a team that has only won one WSL game in 2023 and but for five wins in ten games to start the season might have had a far more tense end to the season than they did. Attempts have been made this summer to inject new blood and excitement into the team, with the arrival of Japanese World Cup star Riko Ueki the highlight of an otherwise underwhelming window that has already seen one of their new signings, Katelin Talbert, go back out on loan in a window signing mainly prospects like Irish 18-year old Jessie Stapleton and likely backup goalie Megan Walsh coming in from Brighton. Losing heartbeat of the team Kate Longhurst was a sign that change is well and truly coming at West Ham, but it might be the bad kind of change.
When you look at West Ham’s squad, there is clearly a good level of player there – Riza Shimizu & Honoka Hayashi are both Japanese international team-mates of Ueki, Vivianne Asseyi is a useful goalscorer and Dagny Brynjarsdottir a massively underrated presence in midfield, although the Icelander will be massively missed this season due to her maternity leave.
But the trouble is, there’s nothing that really excites optimism that the Hammers are any more than a team simply looking to survive – they haven’t really taken the steps even teams around them last season have, and that could be fatal. Another season of finishing 8th will probably be considered a great success for the Hammers, and as the game evolves, that is not an attitude that will bode well. Up until now the Hammers have been able to rely on there always being teams worse than them in the league as a safety net. This season they don’t have that at all – and by the time the club hierarchy realise that, it may already be too late.
Key Player: Mackenzie Arnold
This pic would have been Dagny Brynjarsdottir if this preview was written a month ago, but the Icelander is missing this season on maternity leave – a happy event which is also the last thing West Ham will have wanted to hear. In her absence, Aussie goalie Mackenzie Arnold becomes even more important still, especially after the Gold Coast native’s outstanding performances for Australia in their run to the semi finals of the World Cup. With goals tricky to come by, keeping them out will be crucial because the better Arnold plays, the more chance the Hammers have of getting something out of every game. If she or Megan Walsh both struggle, it could be a long, long season.
Player To Watch: Riko Ueki
Vivianne Asseyi has led West Ham’s attack the past few seasons, but the arrival of the small, pacy Riko Ueki provides a different look for West Ham than they’ve had previously. The quicksilver forward impressed for Japan at the World Cup with her cunning and dancing feet, but she will likely be expected to fit into a very different system at West Ham. Given the time and space in the box she can undoubtedly score goals and that is no doubt what she’s been brought in to do, perhaps as a foil for the Frenchwoman. If she fails to find the net, though, it could see a struggle throughout the English winter for both her and the team.
Three Burning Questions
- If it isn’t broke, should it have been fixed anyway? The attitude at West Ham this season has clearly been “well, this has worked for us up until now, so let’s keep going with it”. With many other teams being especially bold this summer, will being conservative cost the Hammers far more dearly than any extensive transfer investment would have
- Second time lucky? Rehanne Skinner returns to management after (to put it mildly) struggling at Spurs last season. Will a change of scenery lead to a better season this time around or will the same mistakes be repeated with different faces?
- What happens if the goals continue to not go in? The Hammers scored the second-least number of goals in the WSL last season with 23, with only Leicester scoring less. Having only won one WSL game in 2023 so far, they have to change that and get goals on the board early on, because if not, then there is only one outcome and right now there are some indications the Hammers appear to have no idea they’re sleepwalking towards a potential disaster whatsoever.
Well, there you have it. 12 teams, 12 songs, 36 burning questions and nine thousand words later, the 23/24 WSL season preview is done. Thanks for reading – your writer is not going to make the mistake of trying to predict the table, except to say that Aston Villa and Brighton are his dark horses this season, Man City could be the most disappointing team, and Chelsea will likely have the toughest battle yet to retain their title.
It all starts on the first day of October – and whatever happens over the next eight months, it’s sure to be dramatic, exciting and, at times, almost unbelievable.
The talking is done. Let the season commence!