Football Features

The five most exciting Women’s Super League players to watch this season

By Harry Edwards

Published: 14:39, 2 September 2021

The 2021/22 Women’s Super League campaign is here and it’s promising to be the biggest one yet with Chelsea looking to win a third consecutive title.

Although the summer did see a number of the United States contingent return to the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League), there are still so many stars in the WSL looking to make a name for themselves in a league that has been boosted by a new broadcast deal.

Every club has a star, or 10, and it’s so hard to cover everyone that is worth keeping an eye on over the upcoming campaign. But we’ve picked five players we’re excited to watch in the WSL this season, be it new signings, those trying to break into their teams or more established stars looking to keep pushing forward.

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1. Jessie Fleming (Chelsea)

When Jessie Fleming signed for Chelsea last summer there was a lot of excitement, especially from Canadian fans seeing one of their country’s young stars making her first senior move to the reigning WSL champions. But Fleming had a tough first season as, despite being in every matchday squad for Chelsea across all competitions (the only player to do so), she amassed just 877 minutes, 439 of which came in the WSL.

Despite her lack of playing time at Kingsmeadow, Fleming was part of Canada’s team at the Olympics and scored two goals to help her country win gold, netting penalties in the semi-finals and final, and another in the shootout victory over Sweden to make history. Even when putting the goals aside, Fleming was an influential player for Canada, providing support for the attackers but also helping press in the defensive side of her game — she can basically do everything and is a manager’s dream.

Now, the onus is on Emma Hayes to try and fit Fleming into her team this season or risk the 23-year-old potentially getting fed up on the bench. It would be a big call for Hayes, as she would have to drop one of her big attacking stars (most likely Ji So-yun), but now is the time for the Chelsea manager to make the most of the high Fleming will be riding.

She’s fantastic, so we’re looking forward to seeing her become a bigger part of this title-chasing Chelsea side.

2. Hanna Bennison (Everton)

Everton have been busy this summer and look to be the dark horses of the 2021/22 WSL season — they won’t win the league, as the gulf between themselves and the top two is still too much, but the Toffees could cause an upset and snatch that final Champions League spot if Willie Kirk gets things right.

Arguably their most exciting arrival (sorry Toni Duggan) is Hanna Bennison, who had a summer to remember winning Olympic silver with Sweden and was one of the most sought-after players in the transfer window. Bennison, who is now Everton’s club-record signing, is only 18 but has been playing senior football for three years having broken through at Rosengard, helping them win the league in 2019.

Bennison is a talented midfielder, who was named the Damallsvenskan’s breakthrough talent in 2019, having started 16 of Rosengard’s 18 league games en route to the title, scoring three goals and recording two assists. But what makes her arrival in England even more exciting is the fact that football fans were robbed of watching her play for most of 2020, as Bennison had a long spell on the sidelines due to injury.

The scariest thing about Bennison is that, despite all her current talent, at 18 she is only going to get better and could become one of the best players in the world if she continues on her current trajectory. As part of this increasingly exciting Everton side, Bennison could feast in the WSL.

3. Lauren Hemp (Manchester City)

Speaking of young talents, last season’s Young Player of the Year Lauren Hemp is expected to be among the favourites to win the award for what would be the fourth time. The English winger, who only recently turned 21, first won the award as a Bristol City player in 2017/18 and then became the first two-time winner in 2019/20 before scooping it again last season.

To put it simply, Hemp is magic. She is already one of Manchester City’s best players and especially shone last season in a team boasting the likes of Sam Mewis, Chloe Kelly, Caroline Weir and Rose Lavelle. She carried that form over to the English national team and Team GB at the Olympics, one of the standout stars for Hege Riise’s side despite the disappointing exit to Australia in the quarter-finals.

In the WSL last season, Hemp was directly involved in 14 goals in just 15 games for Man City, missing the start of the season due to injury problems. She scored six goals and recorded eight assists (0.51 and 0.68 per 90 minutes), the latter only bettered by wing-partner Kelly — the pair of them running down the flanks was enough to frighten even the best of full-backs when facing Man City.

With Kelly still out injured, more responsibility will fall on Hemp to provide service for summer signing Khadija “Bunny” Shaw but there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she can do it.

4. Fran Kirby (Chelsea)

The winner of the main Player of the Year award last season was Fran Kirby and all eyes will be on her to see if she can replicate that form this season. Kirby’s fantastic season in 2020/21 came after she missed almost a year due to serious health issues and when the English forward returned at the start of the campaign, no one knew if she could raise her form again.

Well, she more than raised it. Kirby had her best personal season in the WSL, scoring 16 goals and recording 11 assists in 18 appearances, with only teammate Sam Kerr (29) being directly involved in more goals than the Englishwoman.

Kirby scooped all of the awards and was backed by many to win the Ballon d’Or this year, though her chances took a hit (as seen by the UEFA awards) due to Chelsea’s defeat in the Champions League final. But we’re only focussing on the WSL right now and the thought of Kirby hitting the ground running once again is mouthwatering.

The best thing about Kirby is that she isn’t just a flat-track bully (with no shade on any other player intended), scoring important league goals against Man City, Manchester United and Arsenal en route to the title — though Reading did feel her wrath conceding six goals including four in one game.

5. Ona Batlle (Manchester United)

Finally, a player that was somewhat under-appreciated by the masses last season, Man Utd fans will be hoping Ona Batlle can have another excellent season after her debut campaign. Batlle, 22, arrived at Man Utd from Levante last summer a relatively unknown entity among those who weren’t clued in on the Primera Division (which can be hard to follow in England) but it didn’t take long for them to see just how good she is.

The Spaniard slotted straight into the Man Utd team at left-back in their 1-1 draw with Chelsea on the opening weekend of the campaign, keeping her side of the pitch under control. It was a level of performance she would mimic on so many other occasions across the campaign, whether that was at left-back or right-back, switching flanks with minimal impact on her game.

Batlle was so good that her exclusion from the award shortlists at the end of the campaign came as a surprise to many, especially those who had fallen in love with her at Man Utd. She did, at least, win Man Utd’s Women’s Player of the Year award, as the standout star of the Red Devils’ team.

Man Utd had a tough summer having to watch a number of their key players from last season move on, not to mention the departure of manager Casey Stoney who was unhappy with the backing from the club’s hierarchy. But perhaps Man Utd’s best business was keeping Batlle at the club, and we’re looking forward to seeing her push on to become one of the best defenders in the league this season.