31 Aug WSL Preview: Aston Villa
Aston Villa gained promotion to the second tier of women’ football, then known as the the WPL National Division in 2011. They won the FA Women’s Premier League Cup in 2013. Villa remained in the second tier, renamed the WSL2 and then the Women’s Championship, until they won promotion at the end of the 2019-20 curtailed season.
Last season’s WSL campaign was the club’s first year of full-time professional women’s football.
10th place – 3 Wins, 6 Draws, 13 Losses, 15 Points
Like most newly promoted teams, the first year of WSL football was a challenge for the Claret and Blue. With an abridged pre-season due to COVID, and the need to recruit heavily to deal with the caliber of the WSL, the first year was always going to be a challenge.
Villa started the season with three losses and then stopped play for most of October due to the quarantining of the team after two positive Covid tests. While they were able to register their first WSL win upon their return in November, a continued slew of negative results saw the club make a managerial change mid-way through the season.
A good end to the season which included five consecutive draws including a tie against Arsenal, the only bottom five club to take points against a top five club, saved Aston Villa from relegation. They finished tenth in the league with fifteen points, three ahead of relegated Bristol City.
Chloe Arthur was not shy about what Villa encountered last year. As a new team in the league she was not candid describing the last campaign as a difficult one. However, she stated that the team learned a lot, especially defensively with the lessons the team learned as a whole. Natalie Haigh echoed this, stating the team’s test of character which ultimately kept them from relegation.
Off Season Changes
The biggest changes for Villa in the off-season were the departures of the club’s women’s managerial section. Gemma Davies who was demoted from her position as head coach mid-season last year, and interim head coach Marcus Bignot who replaced her, both departed the club.
Sporting director Eniola Aluko also left to pursue an opportunity with future NWSL franchise Angel City FC.
Villa quite remarkably recruited their cross-town rival’s head coach Carla Ward as their new permanent head coach. Ward had a difficult season last year as Birmingham’s head coach, encountering a number of off field challenges.
Despite these challenges, she managed to keep the Blues from relegation and was shortlisted for WSL Manager of the Year. The appointment of the respected and proven manager was essential after the departure of Davies, Bignot and Aluko at the end of last year.
Speaking of the appointment Natalie Haigh described her new manager as a professional, open and honest person who has your back, one who is full of energy whom players can fight for.
Chloe Arthur, who is in her second season with the club, described this year’s squad as a brand new team. During the offseason a total of ten players left the club: Asmita Ale, Ella-Franklin Fraiture, Emma Follis, Nadine Hanssen, Mana Iwabuchi, Stine Larsen, Caroline Siems, Diana Silva and Lisa Weiss and Amy West.
The departures of Ale, Weiss, Follis, Siems, Silva, Hanssen and Larsen are particularly difficult as most played nearly every single game for Aston Villa last season. Their absence will change how Villa will operate this year. Iwabuchi’s departure for Arsenal is also a major loss as she is a creative and offensively minded player who adds versatility and attacking prowess to any team she is in.
To replace the duodecet Villa have recruited heavily during the offseason. Attacker Ruesha Littlejohn, goalkeeper Hannah Hampton and midfielder Sarah Mayling all followed their former manager from crosstown rivals Birmingham. Striker Alisha Lehmann and Max Pacheco made a claret and blue swap from West Ham.
Also recruited from the WSL and WC was midfielder Remi Allen joined from Leicester City, attacker Chantelle Boye-Hlorkah from Everton, defender Meaghan Sergeant from Bristol City and Gemma Davison from Tottenham Hotspur. Villa also went abroad and signed Australian international Emily Gielnik from Damallsvenskan side Vittsjö GIK on the last day.
While Gielnik, Davison and Littlejohn do add talent and experience to the team, one has to ask if enough was done to strengthen the squad during the offseason. Villa has brought in a few players with pace, but they will need to increase those players to convert on the attacking side of the game to rise in the rankings this season.
The Aston Villa preseason left something to be desired. Three losses out of three meetings to Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea was a tough preparation. While all three teams finished last season in the top half of the table, the sole preseason goal may have some fans worrying about the upcoming 2021-22 goalscoring prospects.
When discussing preseason Arthur did describe the preseason as really hard physically but also with good content in their sessions. Due to the significant changes in the squad, she specified the importance of learning to know the new players, somethings she stated had been going really well.
This is a statement echoed by Haigh. While she iterated that the performances had been difficult, and a learning process but the positive was the ease with which the new players were integrating.
Arthur described that their aim this year is to get results, from the get go. Speaking of the support that the women’s has gotten from the totality of the club, she stated that Villa women hope to turns things around and do themselves justice as a team.
For Villa to do this they will need to not only find the back of the net more, but also remain in games for longer periods. The introduction of Carla Ward should lead to more stability in the team, after a turbulent first WSL season management wise.
Villa’s first game did show positives. A win against WSL debutantes Leicester City saw a team that was not only well organized, but one that found the back to the net twice. The next face West Ham and Brighton & Hove Albion, both teams who finished lower and mid table in the league.
This progressive increased difficulty should provide a good base on which the team can build, and maybe continue to find early season success. As Haigh stated if the team can gain momentum and confidence, it will put them in a better position to start the season than last year.
FA Women’s League Cup 2021-22 – Aston Villa are in Group A of the League Cup and will face Championship sides Blackburn Rovers, Liverpool, Sheffield United and Sunderland. The group stage takes place from October 13 to December 16, 2021.
FA Women’s Cup 2021-22 – Aston Villa will once again enter the 2021/22 competition at the fourth round stage, along with all other WSL and Women’s Championship clubs.
Opening FA WSL Fixtures
September 4, 2021- Won at home 2-1 Leicester City
September 11, 2021 – Away v West Ham
September 26, 2021 – Brighton & Hove Albion
While the initial opening match was promising, a first opening game at home against a newly promoted team was also arguably one of the easier match-ups this season.
Aston Villa have the manager to lead them to a higher finish than last season, but to do that their largely newly reconstituted team will need to learn how to work together quickly. Having score only 15 goals all season last year, the lowest in the league, an improvement on the offensive end of the pitch will be required if they wish to rise in the rankings.
Without this Villa could be looking at another relegation battle.