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Chelsea go top of the table, whilst trouble continues for Tottenham
This weekend really highlighted how much there still is to play for at both the top and bottom of the table. Despite Chelsea’s win over Manchester United, all four sides will still feel they have a shot of winning the league whilst Tottenham’s loss will only have further convinced Leicester that they can escape the drop. With eight matches to go for most sides, this is arguably the most even WSL season yet.
Chelsea 1 - Manchester United 0
There was always the chance that this top of the table clash was going to lean more towards cagey than exciting. Settled by an early Sam Kerr goal, United felt very much outmanoeuvred.
Some pundits post match suggested United dominated this game; presumably their possession statistics were the key piece of evidence here. The reality is that Chelsea restricted United to their second fewest shots and expected goals this season. The only side who has been more defensively robust against United were…Chelsea, when they played away in November.
This did not happen by accident. Emma Hayes set out with a specific game plan to neutralise Manchester United’s midfield, mainly by using Jessie Fleming as an enthusiastic presser of the ball, whilst keeping her side sat deep to limit space for United’s attackers. It worked. Within 20 minutes Sam Kerr had gone through one on one with Mary Earps twice, both times as a result of Chelsea looking to quickly play the ball in behind United’s defence. Within 23 minutes, they had scored from the exact same move - Lauren James’ long-range pass lofted high into the air, chested down perfectly by Kerr like a cricketer situating themself below a catch. The chip over Mary Earps was just the cherry on top.
Most of the football that Chelsea played was not pretty. The aim was to break up play as much as possible, hoof the ball if they needed to (standard practice if Millie Bright is part of your defence) and make the most of catching United out as they advanced up the pitch. The fact that it wasn’t pretty doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.
But equally questions should be asked as to the limitations Marc Skinner found when he was trying to overcome it. Part of being an elite manager is game-planning for specific opponents, and dealing with those challenges in-game. Exactly a week after Hayes was exposed in this way, she came out on top here to send Chelsea two points clear.
Liverpool 2 - Tottenham 1
Rehanne Skinner made it nine consecutive WSL losses as, despite going 1-0 up thanks to a rare goal from Rosella Ayane, goals from Emma Koivisto and Missy Bo Kearns saw Liverpool get a crucial win which probably pulls them out of the relegation battle.
For Tottenham and Skinner the question surely just has to be: when? Almost no other coach in the WSL can claim to have had as much spent on their squad in the past year but Skinner has left the team two points off the bottom. There is no discernible structure to their play and any claims to being defensively solid have long gone. On multiple occasions in this match Liverpool were able to calmly pass through the whole squad.
Spurs play Leicester on Wednesday and it looks like Skinner will remain in post for that game at least. But it is close to unbelievable that after this run of games, she has a job at all.
Brighton 1 - Manchester City 2
On a pitch that looked barely fit to play Sunday league on, Manchester City eventually picked up a deserved three points against Brighton. It was the story of the season for this City team who create opportunities for fun but are still struggling to put them away at the pace their rivals do. Their open play expected goals of 27.84 across the season far outstrips anyone else in the league, but they have found themselves all too regularly only just getting games over the line, rather than blowing teams away.
Here it was Bunny Shaw they had to thank, as it so often has been this season. Shaw scored her 25th and 26th goals of the season to set a new record for the most goals in a single season scored by a City player. Shaw’s development over the course of this season has seen her go from a player who some people had doubted to a bona fide star. Her xG per 90 is currently the fourth highest in the WSL since 2017/18 (which is when Opta started collecting expected goals data), with Shaw averaging 0.9 per match.
For Brighton, there is also still hope. They do look more galvanised under Amy Merricks with the team unity clear to see after Elisabeth Terland scored their equaliser. Terland and Katie Robinson continue to be threatening going forward. If Merricks can find a bit more defensive control for this team - with goalkeeper Megan Walsh managing to bring the level of the performance she did at the weekend - Brighton should be able to stay up.
Leicester City 0 - Everton 0
Part of what should be most concerning for Tottenham’s recent run of form is the way that Leicester are slowly showing themselves to be, at the very least, a well organised team. This 0-0 draw maybe emphasised more heavily how much Everton are still missing a goal scorer but the fact that Leicester were able to come away with a point demonstrates how much their self-belief has grown. They have picked up seven points in their last five games and suddenly, despite a mediocre squad, they look like they could cause a massive upset and send someone else down.
West Ham 1 - Aston Villa 2
On the face of it, neither of these teams have much to play for anymore but this result meant that West Ham have now gone five matches without a win in the WSL. It was not necessarily a comfortable win for Aston Villa who benefited from a Grace Fisk error to allow Rachel Daly score their first before Jordan Nobbs turned in from a wonderful team move, but it more than got the job done.
West Ham did have their moments going forward but it is defensively where they should still be concerned. Admittedly they will probably be safe this season given the quality of the teams below them, but they continue to look very open defensively. Paul Konchesky’s debut season in charge has looked good on the surface but lift the lid and there has to be concerns for next year.
Arsenal 4 - Reading 0
Arsenal ran out with a routine win over Reading thanks to goals from Kim Little, Frida Maanum and Leah Williamson, as well as an Emma Mukandi own goal. Illness and injury meant that Jonas Eidevall had to give his starting XI a little reshuffle with Leah Williamson moved into midfield and Frida Maanum pushed up to play as the 9.
Maybe the strangest bit about it was that I thought Noelle Maritz looked… good at left back? Okay Arsenal were playing against Reading but with Maritz and Katie McCabe dovetailing on the wing, they felt much more unpredictable than they had recently.
Williamson also played one of her most effective matches for Arsenal in midfield. Honestly it’s hard to say whether that’s because she’s settled more into the role over a couple of recent appearances there or if it’s because Arsenal were playing Reading but in conclusion - Arsenal got the job done convincingly and looked good doing it.