By James Reid
Few would have expected to benefit from the coronavirus pandemic that has swept world in the past six months. Unless, perhaps, you had significant shares in hand sanitiser or face masks, it has been a tough time with seemingly few positives.
For a while, it looked like the Women’s Super League (WSL) would fall in that category too. While the men’s top-flight restarted in June to finish their season, there were no such efforts for the women’s game.
Instead, points-per-game (PPG) was used to hand Chelsea the title by just 0.1 point over rivals Manchester City. When the next season would return was not clear.
Unlike the men’s game, the women’s game is not awash with cash. There were genuine fears that the pandemic would do severe damage to a game that was on the crest of a wave after the popularity of the World Cup in the summer of 2019.
Yet the women’s game is back and better than ever. The new season kicks off this weekend amidst seemingly more attention than ever before.
Much of this is thanks to the influx of foreign stars that have joined the WSL this summer. One of the few positives of COVID-19 has been that a number of American players have arrived.
Manchester City’s signings of Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle bring genuinely world-class players to the league at the peak of their powers. Both women have won the World Cup, with Lavelle being named in the 2019 FIFPro World XI.
Compatriots Tobin Heath and Christen Press are also rumoured to be in talks with Manchester United, while England international Rachel Daly has joined West Ham on loan from Houston Dash.
There are arrivals from Europe too. Chelsea reportedly broke the world record transfer fee for Pernille Harder. The Danish forward joins from Champions League finalists Wolfsburg, having top-scored in the Bundesliga last season. England duo Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood look set to sign for Manchester City from Lyon.
All this has created a great deal of excitement around the new season. Not least due to the fact that many were not sure that it would arrive as soon, and as damage free, as it has.
The general wisdom is that the title will be a three-way battle between Chelsea, Man City, and Arsenal, with a chasing pack led by Manchester United still likely to be some way behind.
The big three did not drop a point against any of the other teams in the league, a demonstration of the significant gap that the likes of United, Everton, and Reading are looking to bridge.
Their task has likely been made more difficult by the summer’s transfer activity. While foreign players have joined teams throughout the league, the top three – Chelsea in particular – have had their pick.
Emma Hayes’ champions go into this campaign with arguably the strongest squad ever assembled in WSL history. Harder is joined by German international Melanie Leupolz, and Canadian Jessie Fleming who has 77 international caps aged just 22.
The new recruits join an already incredible squad of talent including WSL second top-scorer Bethany England and the mercurial Ji So-yun. It is a squad that speaks of Chelsea’s ambition not just in the WSL but in the Champions League too.
However, the Blues are not without stiff competition. City have bolstered their own midfield with the aforementioned additions of Americans Mewis and Lavelle, as well as the signing of exciting youngster Chloe Kelly from Everton.
They’re joining an already strong squad that boasts some of the finest English talents in the WSL, including captain Steph Houghton. The additions of Bronze and Greenwood would create a fearsome backline.
Arsenal too will likely challenge. In Vivianne Miedema they have last season’s finest player and will be looking to her again to fire them to the title. The absence of Champions League football may aid their domestic hopes.
Manchester United are competing in just their second WSL season but have big ambitions. They have a strong mix of youth and experience and have added England international Lucy Staniforth in a bid to add much needed creativity and goals.
Reading and Everton have both lost key players in Jade Moore and Chloe Kelly respectively. However, both have made significant additions in their attempt to close the gap between themselves and the top three.
Jess Fishlock joins the Royals on loan from OL Reign. The Toffees have made a number of additions, the most significant being England international Izzy Christiansen from Lyon and French international Valérie Gauvin.
It is unlikely, however, that any will be able to break the stranglehold of the top three, this season at least. They should, though, finish above the likes of Spurs, Brighton, West Ham, and new arrivals Aston Villa.
The relegation battle last season was notably tight, with Birmingham and Bristol narrowly surviving at the expense of Liverpool. Birmingham in particular have failed to make any significant additions and both clubs will likely struggle again.
The real winner however, to impart a cliché, is football. There were genuine fears that we would not be here, on the cusp of a new season so quickly.
The fact that we are is a real victory for the women’s game which has grown so much in recent years and is continuing to do so. It’s continued success will be vital looking ahead to the European Championships in 2022, which are being held in England.
While claims of the WSL being the best in the world are premature, it is certainly a league trending in the right direction. It can only have a positive impact on both the national side and the women’s game in England as a whole.
Image: Katie Chan via Wikimedia Commons