Football Features

The perfect title race: Eight things learned from the Women’s Super League so far

By Harry Edwards

Published: 16:12, 12 October 2019

The FA Women’s Super League returned this weekend following the recent international break, and the competition is hotting up.

Manchester City started the fourth round of fixtures win another win, this time beating Birmingham City 3-0 to remain top of the table. They sit three points clear of champions Arsenal, who face a London derby against third-placed Chelsea on Sunday afternoon.

Elsewhere, newly-promoted sides Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United have enjoyed decent starts sitting in fifth and sixth respectively, while Liverpool prop up the table.

But, what have we learned from the 2019/20 FAWSL campaign so far?

1. Manchester City and Arsenal kicking off perfect title race

Arsenal won the 2018/19 Women’s Super League fairly comfortably in the end, finishing seven points clear of second-placed Manchester City, dropping just six points in total.

Already it’s looking like it will be a much closer title race this season with both Manchester City and Arsenal yet to drop points.

City’s perfect record comes in four games, including their 3-0 win over Birmingham City on Saturday afternoon thanks to goals from Keira Walsh, Tessa Wullaert and Lee Geum-min. Nick Cushing’s side have also earned victories over Manchester United, Everton and Reading, scoring seven goals without conceding – the perfect record.

Arsenal meanwhile are perfect after three games, scoring seven and conceding once – West Ham United the only team to score against the Gunners in a 2-1 defeat at the start of the season. A slender win over Manchester United and then 4-0 rout of Brighton & Hove Albion followed, but Arsenal’s perfect record will be put to the test when they travel to face Chelsea on Sunday afternoon.

But it’s not just the records. Both sides are putting on strong performances, albeit with room to improve further, either earning routine wins or grounding out victories in true champions style.

Manchester City’s win over Birmingham saw them initially struggle but finally take control after Walsh’s opener, giving their opponents very little joy.

2. Birmingham City missing Ellen White

Birmingham finished fourth in the FAWSL last season, with Ellen White scoring six goals in eight appearances after missing the start of the campaign through injury.

As well as earning her an England call-up, White’s form caught the attention of Manchester City and a move was agreed – with the striker out of contract at Birmingham – though she is yet to feature for her new side due to injury.

And while Man City have been getting on just fine without White, Birmingham are struggling. The Blues are currently bottom of the table having lost all of their opening three games. Conceding five goals, Birmingham are yet to score this season and don’t really look like ending their drought anytime soon.

Although they gave Manchester City some difficulties early on, it was a midfield contest, with Birmingham’s forward having very little impact. Ellie Roebuck in the Manchester City goal might as well have brought a chair and a book to keep her occupied, such was the ease of her afternoon.

3. Two heads are better than one

The role of the football manager is so much different now than in years past, given the rise of backroom roles such as sporting directors. But Tottenham Hotspur Women may be setting a new trend.

Rather than going with the standard manager and assist duo, the newly-promoted side have two equal head coaches and it appears to be working. One of the favourites for relegation, Tottenham are currently fifth in the FAWSL having won two of their opening three games – losing only to Chelsea on the opening weekend.

This has earned the partnership of Karen Hills and Juan Carlos Amoros plaudits, including September’s Manager of the Month award, with the pair beating Manchester City’s Cushing, Emma Hayes of Chelsea and Arsenal boss Joe Montemurro.

Hills and Amoros will be looking to continue their fine start this weekend when they face fellow newly-promoted side Manchester United.

4. Manchester United showing they deserve to be in WSL

There was a lot of conversation surrounding Manchester United going into the new season, given their recent rebirth and demolition of the FA Women’s Championship in their debut campaign.

How would they cope against the best women’s teams in the country, in a league where they don’t dwarf the opposition? The answer to that is, not too badly.

The Red Devils could not have been handed a tougher start to their debut FAWSL campaign, going up against last season’s top two in their first two games. Manchester United lost both games 1-0 but their performances gave fans something to be hopeful about, especially the impact of young Lauren James.

The performances of Casey Stoney’s side finally got the result they deserve prior to the international break, with a 2-0 win over Liverpool including a wonderful goal from James. Although it is still very early, Manchester United do look like any relegation worries can be put to one side, with the Red Devils outperforming a number of FAWSL regulars.

5. Liverpool’s decline continues

In 2014 Liverpool were celebrating a second consecutive FAWSL title, pipping Chelsea on goal difference in a dramatic end to the season.

Fast forward five years and the Reds are looking up at the rest of the division, currently sitting in 11th without a point. But it’s not a sudden slump. In the year following their title win, Liverpool finished seventh out of eight teams only saved from relegation by Bristol City’s disastrous campaign.

They followed that up with some improvements, finishing fifth and then fourth in the 2016 and 2017 campaigns. But the change in format to a winter league, to run similar to men’s football in England, has seen Liverpool drop again.

Sixth and eight-placed finishes have come in the past two campaigns, with the league’s expansion always keeping Liverpool fairly safe from relegation.

But now the Reds do look in serious danger, underperforming in their three defeats so far including two to the newly-promoted sides. Like Birmingham, the only team below them, Liverpool are yet to score this season though they will be looking at Sunday’s fixture against Bristol City as a potential game to kickstart their campaign.

6. Chelsea prove that sometimes minimal transfer business is best

While their rivals were bolstering their squads, Chelsea brought just one new player in during the summer transfer window. This came as a surprise to some given the Blues’ disappointing 2018/19 campaign having looked set to dominate women’s football in England.

But the new arrival, Guro Reiten, has been an excellent addition to the Chelsea side and has giving Emma Hayes’ team something that they were missing last season.

The Norwegian international has already scored two goals in three games and is building a fine understanding with the likes of Bethany England, Ji So-yun and Erin Cuthbert. Reiten’s performances earned her a nomination for September’s Player of the Month and if she continues at the same level she has started, Chelsea will be title challengers once more.

7. Everton putting last season behind them

Everton were fortunate not to be relegated last season, after Yeovil’s demise was confirmed via a points deduction. But, in response, the Toffees had a busy summer and a full pre-season under Willie Kirk, setting the club up to fight.

And it has worked excellently. The Toffees currently sit fourth in the FAWSL after three games, with two wins and just one defeat – to Manchester City last time out.

Chloe Kelly has been at the heart of that form, scoring two goals in three games, earning her September’s Player of the Month award ahead of Chelsea’s Reiten, Pauline Bremer of Manchester City and Arsenal defender Leah Williamson.

Everton need worry no more.

8. Defending is the difference this year

Although England’s national team have been struggling to inspire with their defensive problems under Phil Neville, the FAWSL’s top sides are giving fans a reminder of what solidity at the back looks like.

As previously mentioned, league leaders Manchester City are yet to concede a goal in their opening four games. But the remaining four sides in the FAWSL top five have conceded just one goal each, sharing eight clean sheets between them.

Even looking further down the table, Manchester United and Reading have both conceded just two goals each – with the latter only falling to Manchester City.

Maybe Neville could take some tips from the FAWSL managers?