It has been a difficult few weeks for the WSL amid the fallout from some players going on a trip to Dubai during the winter break. The trip resulted in positive Covid tests for a number of returning players, leading to games being postponed, and it brought into sharp focus the fact that the spotlight is so much bigger on these players these days. This is good news in many respects and this is what we have wanted for a long time.
But with greater scrutiny comes greater responsibilities and this has been a harsh lesson for these players in the past few weeks. I know they are very disappointed in themselves and that should mean that something like this will not happen again. It is about having empathy with the rest of the nation.
The Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes, said it was extremely important that the season continued and that teams should call on academy players to fulfil fixtures – but not all clubs are there yet. It is particularly difficult this season because many of the WSL Regional Talent Centres (academies) have been forced to close because of coronavirus and a lack of facilities but she is, as always, right to point out the improvements that need to be made across the league.
Finally, the process has not been visible or transparent enough from the FA about why some games have been postponed and why some have not and that needs to improve too.
Chelsea beat United to go top and may stay there
Manchester United came into the weekend top of the league but knew that Chelsea had won their last 12 fixtures at Kingsmeadow. There were world-class talents everywhere and the game showed how far these two teams have come since their first meeting of the season – a 1-1 draw in September – when Tobin Heath and Christen Press had not joined United and Pernille Harder made her debut with a late cameo.
On Sunday Chelsea had enough chances to win the game by half-time but Sam Kerr missed three great ones – and another after half-time – to allow United to stay in the game. In the end the quality came from Fran Kirby, who decided the game with a crisp finish, making it 2-1 after a brilliant individual goal from United’s Lauren James had cancelled out a close-range finish from Harder. Cue socially-distanced celebrations and a show of national empathy – you can’t hug so we won’t.
Chelsea are now top – with a game in hand – and have the squad depth to stay there. Against United, players such as Beth England and Guro Reiten were on the bench and came on as late substitutes. This hasn’t happened overnight – Hayes realised several years ago the need for a squad with pretty much two world-class players in every position if you are going to compete on all fronts. As a fan of the WSL it is exciting to see that she now has a squad to go out and challenge the best teams in Europe, including Lyon.
Arsenal struggling to keep up with the pace
Joe Montemurro’s team may have won their first five league games – scoring an incredible 29 goals in the process – but the 1-1 draw at Reading on Sunday means they are three points behind Chelsea having played a game more, and with City hitting form and United going strong they could well lose out on a Champions League place.
The squad is simply not deep enough for Arsenal to challenge on all fronts and the difference here to Chelsea is stark. Chelsea have had a long-term plan and are following it to get to where they want to while Montemurro’s side, it seems, are making more short-term signings.
It is a problematic place to be because if they miss out on the Champions League this season players could be looking to leave and it will be more difficult to convince players to join. The result against Reading was very poor considering the resources Arsenal have and they need to move on from that as soon as possible.
Praise for Reading, though, who bounced back from a 5-0 defeat against Chelsea last weekend to produce a fighting performance that led to a point.
Skinner off to a superb start at Spurs
Tottenham’s new coach, Rehanne Skinner, recorded her third straight WSL win on Sunday, defeating West Ham 1-0 after a goal from Lucy Quinn. Brighton and Aston Villa have also been beaten and it is a fantastic start for Skinner, who has mainly worked with national teams before. The result also showed the new West Ham manager, Olli Harder, that he has quite a job on his hands but he will be boosted by Emily van Egmond signing a permanent deal as she has become such an important player for them.
Elsewhere, the former West Ham coach Matt Beard lost 4-0 to Everton with his new side, Bristol City, where he has replaced Tanya Oxtoby, who has gone on maternity leave. Beard had only two training sessions with the players before the game and it seems only a miracle will keep them up now but there were flashes of positive for him to take.
Hayes or Stoney to coach Team GB at Olympics?
The news that Phil Neville will leave his role as England manager early means that there is a vacancy to be filled for the Olympics. The current Dutch coach, Sarina Wiegman, has already been appointed as Neville’s long-time successor but will start only in September, after the Olympics.
Here is a chance to give the role to Hayes or Casey Stoney, both having done so much for football in this country and both clearly so good at getting the best out of their squads.
The Olympics will also be at the forefront of many players’ thoughts this month as the transfer window has opened. Some teams have already made additions and the knock-on effect on the various squads will be interesting to see, although we don’t know yet the full impact of coronavirus and Brexit on the transfer market.
Manchester City, for example, signed the USA World Cup winning defender Abby Dahlkemper over the weekend and what will that mean for a player like Steph Houghton? City are a good example where competition is so high that some players – such as Gemma Bonner, Jill Scott and Karen Bardsley – may consider loan moves to other WSL clubs to get playing time in the second half of the season. It will be the same for a number of English, Scottish and Welsh players across the league so expect moves aplenty, even if they are only on loan.
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