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Guest post: Women's Super League mid-season diary
Yash Thakur looks at the goings on in the FA WSL
Hi, everyone. I (Grace) felt this week was the perfect time to bring back Yash Thakur to write about women’s football. Yash did a terrific job here, and I hope you enjoy it.
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It’s the season of restarts, new beginnings and resolutions. After a quick break, women’s football is back and the 2022-23 campaign is halfway out the door. Now begins the business end of the season, where awards and prizes are decided. With the January transfer window open, teams will add more firepower or look for stop-gap solutions in a bid to achieve their goals.
There will be a fight for silverware and survival and it will all unfold before our eyes when teams return to action on the 14th of January.
Before the guts and glory of the second half, we have to brush up on our memory about what has happened thus far. In this article, we will recap the story of the season so far. We'll dig into the standouts, the underperformers, the overachievers and everything in between.
Change from last season
A good way to look at how a team’s been performing this season and speak about their improvements (or lack thereof) is by focusing on the change in underlying metrics for teams. Goals scored and conceded are big factors in determining the standings in the table but a team’s performance on the field can be better gauged by looking at the underlying metrics.
In the visualisation below, we look at a team’s non-penalty expected goals created and conceded per 90 and see how those figures have changed this season in comparison, giving us the following ‘comet chart’.
A quick glance at this helps us understand how performances have changed this season in comparison to the previous one.
There is a clear demarcation between the top four and the rest for large parts. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United have all cemented themselves as the top dogs in the league. When looking at these four clubs’ underlying numbers, there are a few key pointers to note.
Manchester United, the newest member of the top 4, have shown improvement in terms of their defensive numbers while taking a step back in terms of offence.
Man City and Arsenal have slightly better attacking underlyings, but that is matched with slight decreases in defensive underlyings. None of the changes are significantly impactful at first glance.
Chelsea’s attacking underlyings have taken a small hit this season compared to last. Their non-penalty xG created of 1.6 this season is lower than their 1.9 in 2021-22. Their actual goals per 90 figure have largely remained constant and the fall isn’t as significant, either.
Looking at the rest of the table, there are some teams that have seen a drastic change in one department at least. Those teams are Brighton and Aston Villa.
Brighton under manager Hope Powell were capable of frustrating opponents. They posed mid-table numbers in terms of their defensive underlyings, but things have looked bleak this season so far. Their non-penalty xG conceded per 90 has jumped from 1.16 in 2021-22 to 2.09 this season, which is the worst figure in the league. Their downturn this season also led to the departure of Powell in October.
Aston Villa have reinvented themselves this season. The summer influx that brought Kirsty Hanson from United, Rachel Daly from Houston Dash and Kenza Dali from Everton has meant Villa have some firepower in their ranks now. Their chaotic but fun win in a 7-goal thriller against Man City was an example that they could score goals this season. They averaged the lowest number of non-penalty goals per 90 (0.5) last year, but it’s up to 0.91 this season.
Other than these main standouts, Tottenham Hotspur under Rehanne Skinner, who struggled to create much last season, are once again in the same boat coping with injury to Kit Graham. Despite adding goalscorers (which seems a very layman approach to fixing goalscoring woes), their struggles in chance creation have been a consistent theme across the seasons. Their non-penalty xG per 90 of 0.84 is down from 1 last season.
Leicester City’s already bad offensive numbers are now worse and they find themselves firmly at the bottom of the table with no wins in 9 games.
Having looked at underlying metrics and how they compare to previous seasons, it’s time to focus on how teams are trying to play this season. We can use OptaAnalyst sequence data to understand how teams operate on the ball.
Once again, the big 4 are in a different stratosphere for large parts when compared to their peers. All four teams are dominant in possession, with United posting the lowest average possession of 59.6 among them. Man City and Arsenal’s slow and patient buildup play is a part of their identity. Chelsea and United do mix it up a bit and Chelsea in particular are capable of launching attacks from the back using the distribution of their centre-backs (Millie Bright and Kadeisha Buchanan).
Behind the top 4 is a pretender. Everton have been trying to upset the elite in the last season with their strong recruitment, but have failed to impose themselves on the field. There are multiple reasons for that, from lack of patience with managers to heavy squad turnovers (they brought in 10 players in the summer). The Toffees have the tools to adopt a slow and intricate style of play but its effectiveness is inconsistent. But you know what they say, fake it till you make it (or probably not).
Aston Villa, this season, have been an interesting follow. Their attack has definitely received a boost following the transfers, giving them the tools to mix their style up and use the incisive passing of Kenza Dali or utilize the direct threat of Daly as well. Villa has recorded the second most direct attacks in the league (15) only behind Arsenal this season.
Another team that stands in its own secluded corner is a returning club, Liverpool, who are back in the top flight again. They marked their return with a shocking win over Chelsea on the opening matchday and they have been doing things their own way this season. One of the major areas Liverpool looks to create threat is via their set-pieces and a secret weapon in Megan Campbell’s long throw-ins. Their 2.86 xG from set-play is the third highest in the league, despite recording 29 shots from set-play. Long throw-ins were a major part of their promotion campaign and it proved handy in earning them a penalty against Chelsea on the opening matchday. It causes chaos and Liverpool see chaos as a ladder.
Enough team talk, it’s time to pull the curtains off the top-performing players so far in the season. Teams, tactics and numbers are all cool, but who have been the goalscorers, the chance creators and the talis-woman for their respective clubs so far in the season?
Let’s begin our analysis by looking at the shooting effectiveness of the outfield players in the season so far. The viz below helps us understand how many shots it takes for a player to score a goal on average.
Manchester City’s Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw has been running the show this season. The current joint-top scorer of the WSL with 8 goals, Bunny Shaw has been able to display her true powers with more minutes this season. She is currently averaging a goal every sixth shot and putting up 0.58 non-penalty xG per 90. Her powerful ball-carrying skills and incredible hold-up play help her side create opportunities out of nothing at times. She is also averaging a higher shot volume than anyone in the league (5.31).
England’s WEuro star, Alessia Russo, has proved just as important for United this season. The striker is currently the joint top goalscorer for United with 4 goals and scored the crucial added time winner against Arsenal recently.
Chelsea and Australia’s star, Sam Kerr, has been putting strong underlyings. Her non-penalty xG of 0.59 is the best in the league and her output is in line with those numbers, but this feels like a downturn after being used to her outperforming the xG in the last couple of seasons. She continues to get into good positions, though, and goals will soon follow.
Daly’s return to the WSL post-Euros has been a smash hit. The makeshift fullback for England is in her element playing up top for Villa. She is currently the joint top goalscorer in the league with 8 goals.
Frida Maanum is enjoying her time at Arsenal this season given the freedom to attack and make runs into the box. She has already scored more goals than last season with half of the season still to go.
Next, we will look at the underlying metrics for the outfield players, in order to understand potential roles of players in their respective teams. Are they the ones to get on the end of chances or create for their teammates?
Right off the bat, Guro Reiten is having a ridiculous season so far. Her 9 assists this season is four more than any other player in the league. Her exceptional ability to cross the ball and brilliant vision to thread the eye of the needle enables her to produce chances from a variety of situations and produce some jaw-dropping moments like the one below.
Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly are probably one of the best wing duos in the world. The English stars are capable of creating a high volume of chances. Both players rank in the top 5 for shot-creating actions in the WSL (Hemp with 43 and Kelly with 40). Their wing play and ability on the carry is capable of stretching the backline and attacking the byline or far post equally well. Both are high-usage players as well (more on that in a bit).
Players like Elisabeth Terland, Stina Blackstenius and Daly are more geared towards getting on the end of chances for their teams. On the other hand, Kenza Dali, Ona Batlle, Eve Perisset and Sarah Mayling are tasked with creating opportunities for their side.
We have seen shooting efficiency and had a look at the underlying metrics to gain an idea about the roles of different players in their respective teams but everyone loves a talismanic figure. Who runs the show for their team? Who is at the heart of a team’s attack?
Usage rate can help us gain an insight into this. With usage rate, we can understand a player’s involvement in possession-ending actions for their team. These are the players who are taking the shots, playing the final pass for a shot, or drawing a foul among other things.
The duo of Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp run the game for City. They offer an outlet, take shots and create chances off of their carries. Both players rank inside the top 4 for chance-creating carries in the WSL this season, with Kelly topping the chart at 24 chance-creating carries. Their importance for Man City can’t be understated.
Arsenal’s duo of Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema are absolutely key for everything they do in attack. Mead’s ability to offer an outlet, crossing and ability inside the box makes her an indispensable part of the team. Miedema likes to have the ball, and operating in between the lines as a number ten has brought out the best of both worlds in terms of her goal-scoring and chance creation. Miedema is integral to the way the Gunners want to operate, and her 8.24 direct attacking contributions per 90 (open-play shots and chance created) is the highest in the league so far.
Tottenham Hotspur don’t create much, but when they do it’s highly likely that Ashleigh Neville is involved in any sort of final action for Skinner’s side. The left-back is highly influential on the flank and is capable of running the game from there. Liverpool’s Megan Campbell is another such player. Campbell, who also has throw-ins in her locker, is vital for Liverpool and is capable of producing something out of literal nothing.
Manchester United’s Ona Batlle, Katie Zelem and Alessia Russo are involved in most of United’s possession-ending actions. Battle is capable of running the flank, Zelem is capable of producing chances from set-pieces while Russo is the conclusion to a lot of these chances with a shot.
We have seen how ‘much’ players use the ball, let’s see what they do with it. It will help us understand which players are efficient in their usage of the ball in terms of creating shots for their teams.
Aston Villa’s Kenza Dali is the definition of a talismanic figure for the team. She produces the lion's share of Villa’s shot-creating actions and absolutely runs the show from open-play and set pieces alike.
Lisa Evans and Katie Stengel are players with low usage rates but produce a good share of their team’s shots via their actions.
Guro Reiten and Ella Toone use the ball and create a good chunk of their team’s shots via their actions. They are capable of playing the final ball for their teammates whenever they get on the ball.
So that is the recap on the season so far but what is there to look forward to?
How will Arsenal cope with the loss of Miedema and Mead and how will their new signings fare? Will United be able to finally disrupt the top three oligopoly? Will Jens Scheuer be able to fix Brighton’s defensive woes? Will Beth England alleviate Spurs’ goalscoring issues? Will Leicester be able to win a game? Can Aston Villa produce another upset? How many long throw-ins will we see from Megan Campbell?
These questions and many more will be answered in the second half of the season! LFG.