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Friday, January 27, 2023

WSL report cards: Top marks for Manchester United but Tottenham must do better

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The Women’s Super League is into its winter break and domestic league action won’t return until January 14.It is not hyperbole to say that the league looks set for one of its most thrilling finishes yet. Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United will all enter 2023 having suffered just one league defeat, with Chelsea three points clear at the top having played one game more than the other two.There is less uncertainty at the bottom of the table. Only one team will be relegated but Leicester have failed to pick up a single point from their nine matches and are seven adrift of second-bottom Brighton — it’s not looking great for their chances of survival.Here are The Athletic’s half-term grades for all 12 clubs.ChelseaChelsea started the season on the back foot with a shock defeat to Liverpool and a string of very nervy defensive performances, especially from new signing Kadeisha Buchanan. The Canada international was signed from Lyon to bring some Champions League-winning experience to Emma Hayes’ side but even if she has struggled at times, the defensive unit has looked more confident as the season has progressed, with Hayes moving between a back three and a back four.Ann-Katrin Berger is still pulling off spectacular saves but also making big errors, such as last weekend’s slip-up against Reading. But despite all that, Chelsea have recorded four clean sheets in their 10 games. Sam Kerr has not hit the scoring heights this season (Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images)There has been concern about star striker Sam Kerr’s form, as the back-to-back Golden Boot winner has only managed five WSL goals. However, the Australian’s expected goals (xG) per 90 figure is only marginally less than it was last season (0.59 compared with 0.68), when she finished with 20 league goals.Three consecutive WSL titles should be enough to prove that this team know how to win even when they might not be playing at their best. That ruthless championship ethic has yet to be matched by the rest of the WSL.Grade: A-ArsenalArsenal started the season emphatically, going on a six-game winning streak that led to questions of an “Invincibles” campaign. But manager Jonas Eidevall rightly downplayed any unbeaten talk and most who had seen the team’s performances knew a point was probably going to come when they stuttered. That came against Manchester United at the Emirates a month ago when Arsenal conceded a late winner and looked particularly uncomfortable defending crosses and set pieces.It’s not surprising the defence is a little bit shaky as they lost Leah Williamson and Rafaelle Souza to injuries from October until the start of December. It’s been injuries that have once again been the thorn in Arsenal’s side as Beth Mead ruptured an ACL that day against United and Vivianne Miedema did the same in a Champions League defeat to Lyon last week. The injury issues have not been helped by the poor form of Stina Blackstenius, who hasn’t scored since November 6 (a run of six games). There’s some relief coming in the new year for Eidevall, though, as Kim Little is back training after a spell out and Lina Hurtig has just returned.Arsenal have muddled their way through parts of this season and that leaves questions about whether, with big names out of action long-term, they can mount a title chase and potentially win their first trophy since 2019.Grade: B+Manchester UnitedUnited have been the most impressive team in the 2022-23 WSL so far. Third place in the table doesn’t really do Mark Skinner’s side justice.They had an amazing start to the season, winning five in a row and conceding none. Admittedly, their early schedule was kind and that optimism was punctured by their first big test against Chelsea at the start of November.That 3-1 defeat seemed to scream “Same old United”. But that disappointment was followed up with a huge away win over Arsenal, a 5-0 smashing of Aston Villa at Old Trafford and a 1-1 draw in the Manchester derby at the Etihad. United will be disappointed they didn’t claim a first league win over City, a result that could have put them into second place, but overall the team are well and truly in a title race.The starting XI is well-balanced with youth and experience. New signing Maya Le Tissier looks at home alongside Millie Turner and Ona Batlle, one of the best full-backs in the world. The attacking line of Alessia Russo, Ella Toone and Leah Galton has been impossible for most WSL defences to handle and is key to United’s success. Katie Zelem and Hayley Ladd have been consistent battlers in midfield, breaking up opposition play and providing a threat from dead-ball situations. Alessia Russo has been in fine form for Manchester United (Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images)At the start of this season, the expectations were to finally seal the WSL’s third Champions League spot but now things may have shifted slightly as Skinner’s side have proved that they can compete and beat the best in the league.All eyes will be on those big return fixtures with Chelsea on March 12, Arsenal on April 23 and City in the second-last round of games in mid May.Grade: A+Manchester CityConsidering the exodus that Manchester City suffered in the summer, things could have been a lot worse for the 2016 champions.City lost Georgia Stanway, Keira Walsh and Caroline Weir in the transfer window on top of seeing Jill Scott and Ellen White retire, and back-to-back defeats at the start of the season would have prompted concern.The team have regrouped since, going on a six-game winning streak before a draw with United in the derby, and Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw is in unbelievable form, topping the WSL scoring charts with eight goals to go with two assists.City still look a bit lost in terms of style of play and identity, though. They rely on the strength of wingers Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly but lack ideas elsewhere. Laura Coombs’ consistent and impressive performances have been a lifeline as she has taken on the Stanway role with ease. Yui Hasegawa isn’t a like-for-like replacement for Walsh but has shown she has some of the skills needed to choreograph City’s midfield.It remains to be seen whether City can again steamroll their way to the third Champions League spot in the second half of the season and maybe even secure another domestic cup to go with it. But their fans will be happy they’re still around the European places, given how bleak things were looking in the summer.Grade: B+West HamWest Ham are the WSL’s ultimate Jekyll & Hyde story. Ending 2022 in fifth is a big achievement for a side with nowhere near the budget of the top four. But inconsistency is their ultimate enemy. They have won five and lost five of their 10 games so far: sometimes they’ve been hot, sometimes very cold, such as their 2-0 defeat to Liverpool at the start of December.Built on a hard-working, high-intensity and pressing system, West Ham are always entertaining, and often a little bit chaotic. The biggest challenge is picking up points against the top four teams. They’ve shown they can get out-gun the bottom half of the table but a true test of their growth will be getting more of a return from those tougher matches.Honoka Hayashi has slotted into the midfield with ease and looks to be a real gem of a signing, especially important since the club lost Japan team-mate Hasegawa to City.West Ham’s big summer signing, Viviane Asseyi, has four goals and three assists — impressive in a team who don’t create a lot of opportunities. West Ham rank eighth for xG in the WSL (15 goals from an xG of 8.9) and are massively overperforming compared to their rivals. They also concede far too many chances — their xG against figure of 17.7 is highest in the league.Their priority in the new year must be a nice cup run and finishing in the top six.Grade: B- Honoka Hayashi (right) has been a fine addition to West Ham (Photo: Harriet Lander/Getty Images)EvertonI’m still not quite sure who or what Everton are. A wealth of young talent, some of whom only there on loan, has made them an exciting and dynamic team to watch this season. But, like West Ham, there’s not a lot of rhythm and flow to their performances.Brian Sorensen has done well to stem the chaos that was Everton over the previous 18 months and to be in the top six after last season’s shambles is a big achievement. But it’s still tough to work out what’s par for a team stacked with talent who could eventually knock on the door of the top four again.Everton are second-bottom when it comes to xG (10 goals from a 6.8 xG number), with only last-placed, zero-points Leicester creating fewer chances. Jess Park, on loan from Manchester City, has been their best player, but also made them a little bit one-dimensional going forward. Gio Queiroz, on loan from Arsenal, is another impressive young talent, but Everton really lack a focal point and versatility in attack.They have done well to master the art of beating the teams they need to and disappearing against bigger sides when the result won’t necessarily affect their league position. This is a foundational year for Sorensen and it will be interesting to see where he can take this team in 2023.Grade: B-Aston VillaAnother of the WSL’s hot and cold outfits, Villa have made huge progress from last season’s disappointing league campaign. The summer signings of Rachel Daly and Kenza Dali have completely transformed Carla Ward’s side and it looked like it was going to be a sensational season for Villa when they began their campaign with a 4-3 win over City.The high-pressing aggressive style that Ward has brought in and is led by Daly, who has eight WSL goals to her name, is tough to handle. But a mistake-prone defensive unit is still Villa’s downfall. Chopping and changing between Anna Leat and Hannah Hampton in goal hasn’t helped a sometimes shaky back line.They finished their 2022 with back-to-back games against sides in the top three, losing heavily to United and Arsenal, and that put a dampener on what has been an impressive first chunk of the season.Next year should be about game management, clean sheets and defensive durability. If Villa can add that to their impressive attacking game, they will be really hard to beat. It will also be interesting to see what Ward adds in January to potentially lift them even further up the table.Grade: B+ Rachel Daly has helped transform Aston Villa (Photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)TottenhamEighth seems generous for a team who have looked particularly poor so far. Tottenham head into the break on a four-game losing streak that has seen them go from beating Brighton 8-0 at the end of October to conceding nine goals in those four games.Rehanne Skinner’s side have always lacked goals but their defensive organisation has normally been key to securing success. This season, that has completely escaped them as they look messy and toothless. A traditionally hard-working team who would force turnovers to create goals on the break now look a tired group.Ashleigh Neville was a bright spark on the right wing at the end of last season and the start of this one, but her red card in a 3-0 defeat to Everton recently seemed to sum up Spurs’ problems at the moment.Skinner will welcome the winter break as the pressure was starting to mount and her team desperately needed a chance to regroup.Tottenham needed a striker in the summer and didn’t find one, so this January window will be crucial if they’re going to stop the slide.Grade: C-LiverpoolLiverpool will be disappointed their final game of 2022 was postponed due to bad weather as they had a chance against lowly Leicester to claim their first back-to-back victories of the season.A crucial win against West Ham a couple of weeks ago felt like a turning point for a team who hadn’t quite found their feet after that shock win over Chelsea on the opening day in September.Liverpool have actually been creating plenty of chances and are sixth in the WSL for xG per 90 minutes, but an injury to striker Leanne Kiernan and the slow return of fellow forward Shanice van de Sanden put a dent in their goalscoring efficiency. The improved form of Katie Stengel should provide a lift heading into the new year.Realistically, Liverpool should be safe from relegation straight back to the Championship, as a few points here and there should keep them well beyond Leicester’s reach. But Matt Beard will be hoping his side can start to build some form in the second half of the season to really re-establish this team in the WSL.Grade: C+ Katie Stengel (left) is coming into form for Liverpool (Photo: Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images)ReadingReading were one of the favourites for the drop alongside Leicester but Kelly Chambers’ side have shown once again why they will not be moved.The only side in the WSL not backed by a men’s Premier League club, Reading cannot come close to competing with the budgets of their rivals. But Chambers establishes a way to win or, at least, make her team hard to beat.Losing Deanne Rose to an Achilles injury was a huge loss at the start of the season as she was their main attacking outlet, but Chambers has done well to regroup and use her ever-reliable squad to cause problems where they can, such as stealing two quick goals against Chelsea in their final game of the year.Like Liverpool, Reading should be safe as Leicester’s woes look unlikely to end, but Chambers will need to be careful that her team do not go on a losing run as that sort of momentum could be hard to arrest.Grade: C+BrightonIt’s been a miserable season for Brighton. Having finished seventh last season, they started this one by losing four of their opening five games.The fourth defeat of that run, an 8-0 defeat to Spurs in October, proved to be head coach Hope Powell’s last game in charge. She had brought Brighton up from the Championship in 2018 and made them an established part of the WSL but a big summer exodus and failure to replace key departures ultimately undid her.Brighton have managed to regroup slightly, with Powell’s former assistant Amy Merricks taking four points from three games.This team look like they have what it takes to get themselves out of the bottom two and once a permanent manager comes in, things should continue to improve.Grade: ELeicesterThe writing has been on the wall for Leicester as they didn’t fix the issues that saw them just scrape to safety in 2021-22.The lack of a) goals, b) WSL experience and c) quality were not rectified and Leicester end 2022 with zero points from the first 10 matches and only two goals scored. The gap to Brighton and Reading on seven points seems too great to be overturned, as Leicester are struggling even to compete in most games.Lydia Bedford left her role as head coach at the start of November and director of football Willie Kirk, who was previously head coach at Everton, stepped in.Unfortunately for Kirk, no amount of coaching experience seems like it will be enough to rescue this team. Leicester need a huge January window to have any chance of safety. It’s a shame as the club’s foundations, with the women’s team moving into the men’s team’s former training ground, and ambitions are impressive, but the recruitment just hasn’t matched up.Grade: F(Top photos: Getty Images)

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