The Women’s Super League title race has never been so exciting. Going into the closing stages of the season, the top four teams are separated by just three points. Manchester United lead the way with 41, while Chelsea are on 40 with a game in hand. Arsenal and Manchester City are both on 38, with Arsenal having played a game less.
It’s been an unpredictable race so far, full of twists and turns, and no doubt with more still to come. Here, we analyze the four contenders and assess their chances of lifting the WSL trophy.
Last weekend’s 2-1 come-from-behind win over Manchester City was crucial for Arsenal. Defeat would probably have spelled the end of their title hopes, but victory will act as a further confidence boost following big wins against Bayern Munich in Europe and Chelsea in the Conti Cup final.
Jonas Eidevall has found a way to compete without his star forwards, Vivianne Miedema and Beth Mead. His basic setup remains the same, but shifting Frida Maanum into a more advanced role — essentially filling the Miedema void — was an excellent decision. Maanum not only scores and creates, but she gives great support to Stina Blackstenius in pressing.
Arsenal’s high press is a fundamental part of their strategy and probably the most significant tactical signifier separating Eidevall from his predecessor, Joe Montemurro. At their best, they suffocate their opposition, winning the ball high up the field. Greater ruthlessness when finishing in transition would help them to maximize that strength.
But the Gunners have a tough fixture list that sees them play four of their remaining six WSL games away from home, two of which come against title rivals Chelsea and Manchester United. The intensity of those games, not to mention the travel, could be challenging for an already depleted squad also competing in the Champions League semis.
Something in Chelsea’s favor is that they have been there and got the t-shirt — they are reigning champions, with three consecutive WSL titles under their belts. Emma Hayes usually finds her best lineup during the season, and has a good record against her domestic rivals. However, in recent weeks, her team has looked muddled.
Hayes has developed a habit for making early changes in big games, signalling an unhappiness with the way the match started. Her Plan A faltering so frequently is not a good sign. And while players like Guro Reiten and Erin Cuthbert have stepped up this season and taken on pivotal roles, the team is more reliant than ever on Sam Kerr to lead the line up top.
In January, Chelsea sold Beth England to Tottenham Hotspur. England was a reliable backup, an unfussy but competitive striker who could rotate in when Kerr was tired, or even partner the Australian in a front two. Chelsea did not sign a replacement for her, and with Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder out with injury, Kerr has a heavy burden to shoulder.
As the only member of the WSL top four to be competing on three fronts (WSL, FA Cup and Champions League), Chelsea’s squad may be stretched to a breaking point. The good news is that four of their six remaining league fixtures are at home, four are against bottom-half opposition, and they face only one title rival — Arsenal, at home.
Unsuccessful in both domestic cups and eliminated from the Champions League at the qualifying stage for a second successive season, the WSL represents Manchester City’s last shot at glory in 2023. It could be head coach Gareth Taylor’s last shot at extending his tenure, too — as things stand, his contract expires at the end of this campaign.
But things have been looking up of late, with City enjoying a 14-match unbeaten run in the league, recovering from a poor start that saw them lose their opening two games. As a team that sticks rigidly to its principles, playing in specific patterns, they rely heavily on good form and fitness, and have benefitted from both in recent months. Still, it remains to be seen how they recover from the 2-1 loss to Arsenal.
Bunny Shaw has unquestionably been the star of the show, at times single-handedly running the attack with a sublime first touch, physical strength, skill and ability to finish on the ground or in the air. Meanwhile, Yui Hasegawa’s reinvention as a deep playmaker is perhaps the finest personnel decision Taylor has made. At their best, with these players in full flow, City are capable of scything attacking soccer.
With no European competition or FA Cup games to get in the way, City can focus their efforts completely on the league. Their fixture list looks promising, too — four of their five remaining games are almost certain wins. The last big test will come away to their city rivals, Manchester United. Win that one, as well as the others, and they have a chance. Drop points, and it’s game over.
Top of the WSL table at the time of writing, Manchester United just cannot stop scoring. Manager Marc Skinner has gotten the best out of Alessia Russo and Leah Galton, who are tied as the team’s top scorers on eight apiece. Lucia Garcia has hit six, and 11 other players have made a contribution of some sort. Over half of United’s wins have been by four goals or more. They are undoubtedly the title race’s most entertaining side.
Considering the fact that they also have the league’s meanest defense, with just nine goals conceded in 17 games, it’s fair to suggest that this may be the year United go from pretenders to serious contenders. Previously, they always finished in fourth place, one way or another, but it’s hard to imagine them falling down the table so dramatically at this point.
Then again, this is an inexperienced team. Many of their most important players — Russo, Ella Toone, Maya Le Tissier, Ona Batlle — are still in their early 20s. And they have arguably the most grueling run of fixtures out of the top four. Not only must they welcome both Arsenal and Manchester City, but they will travel to take on Aston Villa, one of the league’s in-form teams, and on the final day, Liverpool, their fierce rivals.
Ultimately, the title may be a step too far for a developing team. A more realistic step forward for them would be sealing a first-ever top-three finish, and Champions League soccer next season. And they will still have a chance at silverware in the FA Cup, where they meet Brighton in the semi final.
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