From a change at the top of the tree to movement at the bottom, here are the talking points from the most recent weekend of Women’s Super League action.
1. Chelsea respond with victory…
Enduring a below-par season on the pitch in terms of performances, Chelsea’s dip in form finally caught up with them in the Conti Cup final two Sundays ago when the current WSL champions had no answers for the plethora of questions being asked of them by Arsenal. Yet with two games played since that 3-1 loss, Chelsea have responded well, picking up six points and climbing back to the summit of the table, two points clear of the chasing pair from Manchester — and with a game in hand on both.
In their match against United this weekend, the Blues were forced to concede the lion’s share of possession, having to sit back and strike on the counter. Indeed, the game could have been a microcosm of Chelsea’s season so far, wasting several good opportunities to either take the lead or make themselves more comfortable in the match, yet they once again found a way across the finish line. In the end, Sam Kerr did what she’s done so many times this season, scoring a brilliant goal to give the Blues all three points. Her clever finish over goalkeeper Mary Earps was just as nice as the play that led to it, with Lauren James’ perfect ball over the top finding the Australia international in stride.
Short-handed due to several injuries and a bout of sickness ripping through the team — Fran Kirby, Guro Reiten, Pernille Harder, Katerina Svitkova and Erin Cuthbert were all unavailable this weekend — simply getting over the line with a 1-0 win is no easy feat. However, it remains to be seen how long Chelsea can keep getting results without showing the rip-roaring football fans have become used to.
2. … but officiating remains the hot button issue
Denied two penalty claims away to reigning champions Chelsea in a 1-0 defeat, Manchester United boss Marc Skinner put the officials on blast for what is still a major point of contention in the league. What made his rant interesting was that he didn’t just highlight the two decisions he thought were “stonewall” spot-kicks during Sunday afternoon’s match, but multiple egregious decisions throughout the season involving other teams.
“When I look back over the balance of the last few games, Chelsea get a goal that’s offside the other day [against Brighton],” said Skinner. “These are decisions that will make and break where you finish in the table. We say it balances out, I’m hopeful that we see it. They’re stonewall when I watch them both.
“We have to invest in the officials, we have to invest in the surrounding technology that can help. We’ve come to the champions’ home ground and put our stamp on it, you need those things to go for you.”
It’s the third time in as many outings that Chelsea have appeared to benefit for an arguable decision after they were awarded a penalty at the start of their midweek match against Brighton, even though replays showed Sam Kerr was markedly offside in the build-up to that decision. Last Sunday, the Blues managed to avoid conceding a second penalty in their Conti Cup final defeat after Kadeisha Buchanan caught Arsenal’s Caitlin Foord late in the box.
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The issue was compounded later on Sunday when Arsenal were awarded a fourth-minute penalty against Reading for what appeared to be minimal contact in the box, raising the question of consistency across the league. The wider problem this season in the WSL is that the officiating, for all the increased review and investment going on off the pitch, seems to be getting worse rather than better, with managers repeatedly asking for a higher standard.
3. Unstoppable Shaw
Now up to 15 goals for the season in the WSL alone, Khadija “Bunny” Shaw has take a decisive lead in the race for the Golden Boot — Aston Villa’s Rachel Daly is second, with 11 goals, while Man United’s Alessia Russo lags in third, with eight — but more than her prowess in front of goal, the Jamaican international has become the key player for Man City in their pursuit of silverware this season.
Far more than just an elite finisher, Shaw uses her intelligence on the pitch to combine with teammates and create space for her team to attack, all of which raises questions as to what the Citizens would do without her. Shaw’s 15 goals and four assists account for half of City’s tally for the season, and the last league goal they scored that she didn’t have a hand in was their first against Arsenal in mid-February; the assist for their second goal that day came through her, as well as all subsequent five goals across their next two games.
4. Wonderful Williamson shows her class in midfield
Having lofted the European Championship trophy high into the Wembley sky last summer, it’s safe to say that England captain Leah Williamson is quite well-known to women’s football fans around the country. But the life-long Gooner is far from a one-trick pony and over the course of her career, she’s shown her aptitude when it comes to playing in different positions across the pitch.
After finally cementing herself as one of the best centre-backs in the league when Arsenal last won the WSL title in 2018-19, the 25-year-old Williamson found herself intermittently pushed back into the midfield for the reigning champions over the following season. Although back to playing in the heart of defence for her club team, central midfield was also where Williamson found a home in the England team under new coach, Sarina Wiegman.
Yet when fans were expecting her to start England’s Euro campaign in the middle of the park, the captain was again at centre-back, having expressed her discomfort at being higher up the pitch. However, over the weekend, fans were treated to seeing Williamson back in the heart of everything against Reading, where she played some of her best football in recent memory as the Gunners ran out 4-0 winners. Williamson wasn’t just taking up positions deep in midfield, either; the England captain repeatedly had license to streak forward and get into the box, even grabbing the fourth and final goal against a shell-shocked Royals side.
When everyone is fully fit and available for Arsenal, there is a sense that Williamson will be back in her typical defensive role, with sporadic forays into midfield more about coach Jonas Eidevall trying to balance out minutes and injuries. It’s not a bad thing; for the majority of her senior career, there has been something in how Williamson has carried herself that screams out “centre mid.” Between her passing range and calmness on the ball, should she manage to find comfort playing above the defence, there is a whole world of possibility — for her club and national team — that would come of her playing in midfield.
5. Seagulls show fighting spirit
Eyebrows were raised last Monday evening when Brighton announced they’d parted ways with manager Jens Scheuer after just six games, yet for the Seagulls, with teams around them improving and Scheuer’s impact yielding little in the way of an early turnaround, the decision seemed the most logical. Turning back to Amy Merricks who had taken charge on an interim basis after Hope Powell had departed earlier in the season, the team once again looks more solid.
Given something of a trial by fire in their last two games — away to Chelsea on Wednesday and at home to Man City on Sunday — the Seagulls have showed some of their best football, digging in with their defence against two teams in the top three and even scoring against both title chasers.
Although there is still a long way for Brighton to go in terms of securing safety in the top flight for next season, sitting just a point above last-place Leicester, they’re heading into a crucial part of the season with a renewed sense of belief and fight.