The WSL on Women’s Football Weekend: the season so far | Suzanne Wrack | Football

Debutants on fire

The Women’s Super League debutants Manchester United and Tottenham have shaken things up. Both have an extremely respectable three wins in five games going into the FA’s Women’s Football Weekend. Each recruited players with top-tier experience in the summer but key has been their ability to get the best out of the players who were retained and made the leap up. That has been down to the managers. The Spurs duo Karen Hills and Juan Amoros picked up the manager of the month award for September, and Casey Stoney was shortlisted for the October award.

Golden boot battle

The race for the WSL golden boot last season went to the wire. Nikita Parris chased Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema right to the close, finishing three behind the latter’s 22 league goals. With Parris swapping Manchester City for the Champions League holders Lyon, Miedema needs a new challenger and there are plenty of options. Ellen White’s first Manchester City start on her return from injury was marked by a goal against her former side Birmingham. Arsenal’s Daniëlle van de Donk and Everton’s Chloe Kelly lead the scoring chart with three apiece but it is the arrival of Australia’s Sam Kerr that really excites. She joins Chelsea in January, having finished as the NWSL’s top scorer for a second season in a row despite missing part of the season at the World Cup.

In the Championship the Sheffield United trio Katie Wilkinson, Olivia Fergusson and Jade Pennock have scored six, five and four respectively, but they sit behind Aston Villa’s Melissa Johnson, who has scored 10 goals in six starts.

Mixture on Merseyside

Manchester United and Tottenham have surprised with how they have hit the ground running but the bigger surprise is the turnaround of Everton. They benefited from the crisis at Yeovil Town last season, which kept them safe from the drop, but three wins and three draws across a 20-game season left many predicting Everton would be candidates for relegation. How wrong we were. The former Bristol City manager Willie Kirk, who joined Everton after six months as Stoney’s No 2 at United, has transformed the team. They have matched their win tally from last season in their first five games.

Their bitter rivals Liverpool, whom Everton play at Anfield on Sunday, are under intense pressure having picked up one point in their opening five fixtures. They have struggled to come close to their back-to-back title-winning form of 2013 and 2014 as the club’s interest in the women’s team has waned. There were signs this was changing but with transfers limited and Vicky Jepson seemingly unable to find a starting XI to challenge in a professional league things look grim.

Everton manager Willie Kirk gives instructions to players during the game against Manchester United

Everton manager Willie Kirk gives instructions to players during the game against Manchester United. Photograph: Paul Greenwood/BPI/Shutterstock

Game-changing January

There have been a number of game-changing moments in the growth of women’s football over the past year. Professionalism, the Barclays sponsorship deal and big-stadium games have played their part. The arrival of Kerr provides another defining moment. Not only is Kerr at the top of her game, with five consecutive golden boots across the NWSL and Australia’s W-League, but the 26-year-old’s decision to choose the WSL over other European leagues is a big statement. Now, England has the best league in Europe and, arguably, the world. The recruitment of Kerr is Chelsea laying down the gauntlet to their rivals. Arsenal and Manchester City in particular will need to up their investments to keep pace. Kerr’s arrival makes Chelsea favourites for the title.

Villa intent

Money and professionalism wins. This summer Gemma Davies made big changes at Aston Villa. Handed a budget that would help the team climb towards professionalism, with one eye on promotion, nine players with a variety of experience, including four from the WSL, came in. The move has paid off. Villa lead the Championship by a point and are the only team undefeated, with five wins and a draw.

Behind them are the newcomers London City Lionesses. Like Villa, though without a men’s parent club, they have been given the financial backing and facilities to provide a professionalism.

In third place, Sheffield United have one of the league’s smallest budgets but some of the best facilities, enabling them to recruit players out of favour at top-flight teams who are looking for an environment that will help them spring back up.

Every league can be bought to some extent but Tottenham and Manchester United showed last season that it does not cost much to win promotion from the Championship.

Big-stadium boost

The commitment of clubs towards their women’s teams seems to be at a turning point. Matches at Stamford Bridge, the Etihad, the London Stadium, Ashton Gate and the Amex, the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the Madejski and Anfield reflect a change in attitude. Beating the record attendance for a league game is becoming an arms race, and the attendance record for the entire 2018-19 league season has already been smashed.

What is most exciting is that these fixtures have been competitive. Every game on the opening day of the season was separated by a maximum of one goal. Where many expected Tottenham to be comprehensively defeated at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea were forced to work hard for a 1-0 win. Only Arsenal’s dismantling of Brighton and Chelsea’s win at Bristol have seen margins reach four goals.

Trouble at the top

With 12 teams in the league, every game matters. That Manchester City went unbeaten until the final day of last season but had already lost the league to Arsenal shows how tough winning the WSL is. Already both the reigning champions and City have lost one game apiece. The league is tougher, more competitive and easier to lose in than ever before. Chelsea have the advantage and Arsenal will find retaining the title very difficult with a small squad stretched over four competitions.

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