May 30, 2023

I’ve recently talked about the state of play at the bottom of the Women’s Super League (WSL) and the four teams who look to be in early danger, but what of the four at the top of the table?

Man United need time

“What a difference a day makes,” as the song goes and for football fans who watch teams rise and fall, trading positions as they score or concede, it’s much more about 90 little minutes than 24 little hours. Heading into Sunday’s action, it was the red half of Manchester that sat atop the table, albeit only holding down first place on goal difference. Now, less than 24 hours later they’ve been kicked down to third and will be given a stern test when league play resumes after the international break with a trip to Arsenal’s Borehamwood home.

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After United’s nervy 1-0 win over Leicester City last month, manager Marc Skinner, who has struggled to win over fans since taking charge of the Red Devils at the start of last season, was keen to impress that football isn’t always glorious “We’re not always going to perform brilliantly, I’ll stress that to the fans. We want to perform brilliantly, but we’re not always going to.”

Indeed, what’s all too often forgotten about Manchester United Women is that the team is just four years old and they played in the second division for their first season — the only professional club in the Championship at the time. Compare them with an Arsenal team that was winning titles before some of the United players were even born, or a Chelsea team that have spent a decade with current manager Emma Hayes alone, or even a Manchester City team that was brought under the wing and enjoyed fast investment just eight years ago.

In short, United have always been playing catch-up and quickly; where Arsenal, Chelsea and City could all grow into leagues that weren’t fully professional, investing at their own pace, the Red Devils have tried to race to the front and stay there. As any decorated distance runner will tell you, it’s about race management and not going too hard, too soon; the analogy gets a little murky when transposed onto football, but success is quite simply something that needs to be viewed in the long term.

It takes time, too. Women’s football is riddled with teams that poured huge sums of money in too quickly and soon went bust — from Champions League runners-up Tyresö FF (2013-14) or the Italian what-could-have-beens, A.S.D. FC Sassari Torres, or any of the 60% of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) teams who were dissolved during the five-year existence of the precursor to the top U.S. league, the National Women’s Soccer League.

For Skinner and United, the gap to the top two or three is closing, that much is clear, yet as seen at Leigh Sports Village yesterday evening, the hosts can’t be relied on to go 90 minutes with the WSL champions and finish on top. It was about the quality Chelsea could bring into the game, about the experience of those who’ve won the title multiple times; the game was a close [and sloppy] one but the result was a fair one.

Man City on the rise

If there’s one way to guarantee a reversal of fortunes, it’s to get an ESPN journalist to write about them — the Citizens have racked up four wins from four (in all competitions) with 14 goals scored and one conceded since someone on here rubbished them.

The football has been steadily improving on the blue side of Manchester, too, but most of that is down to the way their forwards are combining. The best example of the flow between the attacking trio was their third goal against Reading over the weekend: the full integration of Bunny Shaw into the centre-forward role has been hugely profitable for a City team who never fail to create out wide.

That said, it shouldn’t be news to anyone that Shaw has a tremendous scoring ability — the Jamaica international is now up to 16 goals in 15 games in the WSL, including six games so far this term — and it doesn’t take a maths prodigy to tell you not all of those goals are from this season. Much like last year when City started putting results together, it was about the pre-existing partnerships and settled players doing the heavy lifting; this is the case again here, with the newer players to the team and league still looking for firm ground beneath their boots.

Furthermore, if we look at their last two games, even though they dominated possession as we’d expect them to, there is still the feeling that this is a team stuck in a lower gear, and simply revving their engine loudly won’t stop the Arsenals and Chelseas from overtaking them on the track. Against Liverpool, the hosts needed a strike from Hayley Raso 15 minutes from time to come away with all three points and against Reading, the match was all but decided by two own goals from the Royals before Shaw added a late third.

The good news for City is the stickiest part of this season, when they’ll face Chelsea and Arsenal the following week, isn’t until the Spring, though the last two months will likely end up defining their campaign. By which time everyone should be settled, and the team should be playing their best football.

Chelsea still waiting to hit top gear

Much like the two teams from Manchester, there’s something verging on “box ticking” from Chelsea going on this season. They’re a team with flashes of greatness, but often looking like they’re going through the motions.

It would be too simple to say that the team are simply missing Hayes in the dugout while she is away from the team following a hysterectomy. As she said in her statement, “we have built a tremendous team over many years and we’ve adopted a very multi-disciplinary approach so that if situations like this arise, we are capable of being able to respond to the challenge. We have full confidence in Paul [Green], Denise [Reddy] and all of the staff. We also know the team are very special and we have no doubt they’ll do everything to maintain their high standards.”

While it may be true that everyone at Chelsea is of the same ilk and that the combination of Green and Reddy is enough to keep the team ticking over, there is also something to be said for how much of a permanent fixture Hayes has been at Chelsea throughout their success, and how she has rarely been away from the sidelines. With the team not quite hitting the high notes they’re capable of, that charismatic presence on the touchline could be what they’re missing; it could also be simple growing pains that come with integrating new players or, more likely, a combination of factors.

The Blues ran out 3-1 winners against Man United on a cold and largely forgettable day in Leigh to leapfrog their opposition, but the game was far from their — or United’s — best. Instead, it was littered with what we once would have called “uncharacteristic errors,” but errors that are creeping into their matches more and more. Other than a jaw-dropping 8-0 win over Vllaznia in the Champions League, Chelsea are yet to really show their quality on the pitch this season, rather they’re getting over the line in fixtures; taking three points without showing the calibre that has helped them win five WSL titles in the last seven years.

Arsenal again gunning for glory

Finally, we come to the table toppers who have yet to take a misstep domestically or in Europe. Meet the leaders of the pack: Arsenal.

At the start of December 2021, less than six months into Jonas Eidevall’s tenure as Arsenal manager, the team began to wobble, their football often grading on a sliding scale from shaky knees to full-blown earthquake. The team had finally hit a clear point of transition away from their old style, preached by former coach, Joe Montemurro, based on possession and smooth passing that enhanced the individuals in the team. Now, they’re recognizable in Eidevall’s more physically taxing style that boasts more rigidity and is about achieving wins through pressing and high tempo play.

It was a clear struggle for the Gunners to say goodbye to the old and step into the new, but after a raft of uncomfortable games — namely the ones in which Arsenal ultimately dropped enough points to allow Chelsea to spring beyond them and claim the title — they finally settled. This season, the team has taken the next step, one of the rare few that took care of their key signings over the last winter window rather than the summer one; it ensured that by the start of this season, Stina Blackstenius and Rafaelle were already settled in England.

From the small technical players of the Montemurro era to the tall and built ones Eidevall favours — save for the still-diminutive midfield — Arsenal looks a world away from that of the team that won the title in 2018-19. It’s a style that allows the players Eidevall has brought in, like Frida Maanum and Blackstenius to thrive, a team that’s been fine-tuned to punish their opposition. There is no better example of this than their Champions League outing in Lyon, when they attacked with a near-perfect accuracy. This team is more of a battering ram than ever before, yet there is still that almost surgical touch and pin-point precision from Montemurro’s time at the helm.

The biggest concern for Arsenal, as it has been so historically, is injuries. Indeed, when the Gunners lifted their last title, they had to somewhat crawl over the finish line. This season, things aren’t so grim (so far), yet they are without both starting centre-backs, forcing Eidevall to play full-back Steph Catley — who was in flying form — at the back with Lotte Wubben-Moy. It’s an easy solution, but also one that clearly weakens the team in both attack and defence and potentially signals a crack in what looked like solid foundations.

Six games (or seven if you’re Chelsea) into the season, and so far it looks like the title won’t be moving from London. Where in London is a different matter.

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