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Fox in the Box
Plus don't worry about Liverpool or Manchester United too much (yet)
The last round of fixtures before an international break can often feel like a series finale, making it very tempting to read grand conclusions into this set of fixtures, simply because teams have to wait two weeks to attempt to change those narratives. There was some hilariously fun football played in the WSL this week on top of a genuinely fascinating top of the table clash between Chelsea and Manchester United. Here is what went down.
Real Madrid 0 - Barcelona 4
I’m going to steer off the WSL path quickly to touch on the one game that I watched in-person this weekend which was Real Madrid vs Barcelona.
The gradual growth of the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona within women’s football has been very intriguing to see develop. Historically, Atletico Madrid are the Madrid team who have dominated within the women’s game with Real Madrid only being established properly at the start of the 2020/21 season having taken on the Club Deportivo Tacon licence. Yet obviously the historical rivalry between the two clubs has rolled over very quickly, and been turbocharged this season due to the club divide over players protesting the Spanish national team - (if you haven’t followed, this is a good explainer).
Last season, Real Madrid really frustrated Barcelona in a number of the games they played against each other with a growing sense that the more you played Barcelona, the closer you got to figuring them out. Real Madrid have not looked great at the start of this season but to be honest, neither have Barcelona. It felt like this could be an open game.
Unfortunately, Real Madrid sort of just capitulated. A combination of struggling with Barcelona’s press and some very poor set piece defending left them 2-0 down at half-time with no real sense that they had the mental fortitude to get back into it. It was annoying to see Real Madrid make these simple errors because there were points where they looked like they might have the key to unlocking Barcelona, mainly when they were able to use their right hand side to quickly play through Barcelona’s extremely front heavy press which tucked Claudia Pina in quite narrowly. But Mapi Leon had an excellent game and Madrid struggled to find a way to use Athenea del Castillo at all.
I’m still not convinced this Barcelona side have looked quite right since the Wolfsburg defeat in the second-leg of last season’s Champions League semi-final but Real Madrid did not get anywhere near proving that at the weekend.
Manchester United 1 - Chelsea 3
Chelsea ended Manchester United’s unbeaten start to the season thanks to goals from Sam Kerr, Lauren James (of course), and Erin Cuthbert, despite Alessia Russo pulling one back. There has been a big reaction to this match in assuming it shows that Manchester United are simply not able to compete at the top end of the WSL, which feels slightly knee-jerk. There is no doubt that Chelsea are absolute experts at punishing errors but the big mistake made by United (Millie Turner passing to Sophie Ingle ahead of Chelsea’s opener) was also made by Chelsea (Erin Cuthbert passing to Ella Toone ahead of United’s goal). It is stating the obvious to say that Chelsea are the more accomplished team with the better and more robust squad, but this was miles away from the 6-1 demolition that took place at the start of last year.
It will be very intriguing to see how United approach their next match which is against Arsenal at the Emirates, who they have historically had much greater success against. If they were to pull off a result there, and Chelsea were to beat Tottenham over the same weekend, all three teams would have lost one match each, setting up a very tasty title race.
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West Ham 4 - Brighton 5
Based on Opta’s data going back to 2012/13, this was the WSL’s first ever 5-4 game and it was highly entertaining because truly neither of these teams can defend. We already knew this about Brighton because, well, they lost 8-0 to Tottenham last week but this was a tough one for West Ham who are missing two starting centre-backs and a goalkeeper at the moment. Stand-in goalkeeper Sophie Hillyerd was at fault for a lot of the Brighton goals - it was a very tough day out for the 19 year old.
I do not think there is a huge amount to read into this for either side. West Ham should have Mackenzie Arnold back after the international break but they still have two games to play without the suspended Hawa Cissoko. Brighton need to learn how to defend and fast because they almost threw away this whole match. For now, just soak up the pure undiluted WSL. And shout out to Jorja Fox for getting her first WSL goal as part of Woodland Creatures FC.
Leicester City 0 - Arsenal 4
A slightly strange coup took place at Leicester during the week with Lydia Bedford being ousted from her role as manager just hours after telling the media she was confident her job was secure. It felt like the writing for this had been on the wall ever since former Everton manager Willie Kirk had joined the club in a ‘Director of Football’ role, although the choice to take up the position feels slightly strange given that Leicester’s problem feels predominantly like one of squad quality rather than managerial tactics.
It was a routine win for Arsenal - no new manager bounce for Kirk - whose only slight concern might be their ever increasing injury list. Lina Hurtig went off with what looked like a hamstring issue, promptly pulling out of the Swedish camp, whilst Jordan Nobbs also did not go to England either. With Kim Little seemingly set to be a long-term absence due to a MCL injury and no time frame set on Leah Williamson or Rafaelle, there are not a whole lot of other players to go round.
Reading 0 - Manchester City 3
It is still hard to figure out whether this Manchester City team is actually moving in a positive direction but this was a very solid win from them in a match where they were able to rotate a lot of their team with Ellie Roebuck, Alex Greenwood and Chloe Kelly all being benched. Yui Hasegawa is also looking increasingly comfortable in that no 6 role vacated by Keira Walsh and whilst it still might not be the position which gets the best out of Hasegawa, her playing there certainly supports City’s style of play. The thing is we never doubted that City could beat teams at the bottom of the table - we will probably have to wait until the Manchester derby to see if they have actually improved from their start.
Liverpool 0 - Aston Villa 1
Liverpool still have not won since their opening day victory over Chelsea, losing against Aston Villa to a Rachel Daly penalty (yes the Alisha Lehmann penalty taking coup has been officially ended). Ostensibly this seems pretty bad for Liverpool who are sat on three points with Reading, just above Leicester but I still think we are going to see them go on a good run of form pretty soon. Their expected goal difference per 90 is -0.35, which puts them 8th, hovering pretty close to Everton who are on -0.29 in 7th, and quite a way ahead of the teams between 9th - 12th. Shanice van de Sanden got another run out in this match which will also be a big boost so I feel like there should be an uptick in results post international break.