Olli Meek reflects on the FA Cup third round fixtures, with Arsenal crashing out to add to Arsene Wenger's woes.Written by Olli Meek on 13th January 2018
Women’s Super League 1 – Spring Series Preview
Ahead of the opening weekend of the WSL Spring Series, online editor Nancy Frostick discusses each team's new signings, strengths and weaknesses
The FA Women’s Super League 1 returns for the Spring Series on 22 April as Bristol City host Reading in the opening fixture of the weekend. Whilst WSL 2 has been in full swing for a few weeks with Durham and London Bees leading the table at this early stage, the top-tier of women’s football is back for a six-week mini season. From World Cup winners to Olympic medallists and plenty of home-grown talent in between, this year’s Spring Series is the perfect opportunity for the WSL 1 clubs to find their feet before the season proper begins in September after the Euros. Here’s a team-by-team breakdown and all the players to look out for along the way:
Since the Gunners were knocked out of the FA Cup by an ever-impressive Birmingham City, their main focus will be the Spring Series. By all accounts that should mean an impressive start for Pedro Martinez Losa’s team against Notts County, especially given the troubling situation for the Lady Pies that will have provided plenty of distraction off the pitch. Arsenal have strengthened considerably as well as clearing out some dead wood from their squad – bringing in the likes of Kim Little, World-Cup winner Heather O’Reilly and rising star Beth Mead will certainly bolster their team. If Mead can continue her the form she found at her previous club, Sunderland, the 21 year-old could be the out-and-out goal scorer to fill Kelly Smith’s boots up front. It will all hang on the Gunners having a system that works against the teams around them that have capitalised on recent complacency from the North Londoners who can’t rely on their pedigree to win titles without much effort any more.
Just as a gap looked to be emerging between the ‘big three’ of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, Birmingham have upped their game and shown they have no plans of letting that pack break away. After looking convincing against WSL 1 Champions Manchester City until the very end of extra time in last season’s Continental Cup Final, the Blues knocked 14-time winners Arsenal and 2015 winners Chelsea out of this season’s FA Cup to put Birmingham back on the map in the WSL. Over the years they have produced some of England’s top talent (the likes of Eni Aluko, Karen Carney and Laura Bassett), and their squad has some of the brightest talent of the future at the moment with Freda Ayisi and Aoife Mannion just two names to look out for. The signing of Ellen White looks like an inspired move as the England international has found both form and fitness in recent weeks and looks ready and raring to go. Defensive security was one of Birmingham’s strengths last season, so maintaining that will be essential under new manager Marc Skinner. New management is another factor to take into consideration, but the format of the Spring Series will allow the Blues some time to experiment and settle in before the season returns to its usual format.
After a year in exile in WSL 2, Bristol are back where they belong and stronger than ever. It’s taken a while for the Vixens to find their feet both on the pitch and off with their rebrand from Bristol Academy to City, but things are looking good for the club that made it to the round of 32 in the Champions League in 2011-12. Another club with a great pedigree for producing talent in women’s football with players such as Jess Fishlock, Siobhan Chamberlain and Natalia all sporting a Bristol shirt in recent times, their current squad is a young one. Boss Willie Kirk has done a fantastic job to keep hold of many of the loan players that were instrumental in taking the Vixens up last season, so keep your eyes peeled for the likes of Jodie Brett and Millie Farrow (both on loan from Chelsea). The squad gained plenty of experience from relegation to WSL 2, and they’ll use the Spring Series to gauge their progress without the threat of relegation. If their FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester City is anything to go by, Bristol are stubborn, tough to beat and definitely won’t be intimidated by their opposition despite their youthful squad.
“Crystal Dunn’s move to London was one of the signings of the year considering her emphatic form for the USA recently
Emma Hayes’ side will be contenders for the Spring Series title and rightly so considering some of the star names lining up in blue this season. Crystal Dunn’s move to London was one of the signings of the year considering her emphatic form for the USA recently – she’ll certainly be a handful for defences across the league with her aggressive and direct style of play. The main problem facing Chelsea is that they probably have too much talent in their ranks to keep everybody happy and have an effective system. The Spring Series might act as a means for Hayes to work out who she wants to keep and who will be let go before the full WSL season and Chelsea’s Champions League campaigns kick off in the autumn. On top of this, the women’s side of the club certainly mirrors the men in the number of youth players out on loan – trimming back some players there could do the team a world of good to focus their efforts too. The Blues probably face a similar problem to Arsenal coming in to this season – they need to hold off the competition from below whilst somehow clawing something back from Manchester City who seem to have nailed the running of an effective team and women’s football club after only three full seasons of really trying.
Two-time WSL 1 winners Liverpool will also make up the chasing pack trying to hold on to the ‘Big Three’. As semi-finalists in this year’s FA Cup, the Reds tested Manchester City until a fantastic strike from Mel Lawley put an end to their dreams of heading to Wembley. Since their peak when they won back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014, Liverpool have looked a little off the pace but their extensive recruitment in 2017 will add to a squad with plenty of WSL and international experience. Shanice Van Der Sanden was the standout player for Liverpool last year with Siobhan Chamberlain, Caroline Weir and Alex Greenwood also proving vital in their first full season with the club. This season’s new recruits of Casey Stoney, Jess Clarke and Alex Laura Coombs shows their ambition to break into the top four after a mid-table finish last season.
Almost everyone’s favourites for the Spring Series title, City haven’t slowed down since becoming unbeaten champions of the WSL in 2016. Now fighting for trophies on multiple fronts with the upcoming semi-finals of the Champions League and the FA Cup final to balance alongside their league commitments, it is hardly surprising that Nick Cushing has bolstered his already impressive squad with new faces. Mel Lawley looks an inspired signing after her fantastic goal to send City to the FA Cup final against a stubborn Liverpool, but the biggest story of the offseason was the signing of two-time FIFA World Player of the Year and World Cup winner Carli Lloyd. The USA captain definitely brings something different to City’s game, although it remains to be seen if they have found the best system to include her to full effect in their already cohesive midfield. It is a dilemma most teams would love to have, of course, and isn’t impacting their progress in any competitions at the moment. One thing is for sure, she brings a winning mentality and a goal or the killer pass when it counts so that’s enough reason to make a bit of a clunky line-up work in the short-term. In three years the only professional women’s club in Manchester (a fact I will continue to haul out until United get their act together) have shown how women’s football should be done, so it is really hard to loathe them for all the success coming their way.
** Since the writing of this article, Notts County Ladies have folded and have withdrawn from the Women's Super League with immediate effect. Full information here.
It is a bit of a turbulent time for the Lady Pies following a winding-up petition for debts the club owes to HMRC, but Rick Passmore’s side shouldn’t let that distract them from putting in decent performances on the pitch. With the international experience of Carly Telford, Laura Bassett, Jo Potter and Jade Moore in the side, County are always a threat and should challenge for a top half finish if they meet their potential this season. Their sixth place finish last season saw them finish nine points adrift of Liverpool in fifth, which is underperforming for a team with so many familiar faces. Scoring enough goals was County’s main problem in 2016, so the losses of Ellen White and Jess Clarke to Birmingham and Liverpool respectively are a little perplexing but probably good moves for the players. If Notts can rediscover some of their form that saw them reach the first women’s FA Cup final held at Wembley in 2015 when they lost to Chelsea and get their strikers firing, the Spring Series could be their time to shine.
After finishing in 8th place last season just six points above relegated Doncaster, Reading will want to avoid a repeat of their form in 2016. The one mercy of the Spring Series is no relegation to WSL 2, so it will give the teams in the bottom half of the table time to acclimatise to things before the season proper. A number of new players such as Netherlands centre-back Mandy Van Den Berg will strengthen the Royals at the back and give England ‘keeper Mary Earps more protection after conceding 26 goals last season. The loan signing of young PSG striker Anissa Lahmari is an exciting prospect given the French side’s pedigree in European football and the addition of attacking midfielder Brooke Chaplen from Sunderland will help with creativity up top. Reading’s opening game against newly-promoted Bristol City on the opening day will definitely give them an indication of where they stand in relation to other teams expected to be knocking around at the bottom of the table at the end of the Spring Series.
“Yeovil are a club heading in the right direction with a fantastic community emphasis breeding a strong fan base – the South West derby with Bristol City could be an interesting match
Having lost star player Beth Mead to Arsenal and dropped to part-time status, Sunderland might be glad for the fact that there isn’t any relegation in the Spring Series. It’s a time of transition for the Lady Black Cats with new manager Melanie Reay at the helm tasked with the job of rediscovering some form. Plugging a leaky defence will be the priority after shipping 41 goals last season, the second worst tally in the league behind relegated Doncaster Rovers Belles. New faces like Dominique Bruinenberg and former Columbia University forward Beverly Leon have the big job of filling in for the losses of a number of crucial players for Sunderland. Although they have managed to retain the likes of Ireland international Stephanie Roche, it feels like Sunderland have been left behind whilst most of the other WSL 1 teams have stepped up.
The other newly promoted club from WSL 2, Yeovil and Bristol City’s impressive season in 2016 has well and truly brought top-flight women’s football to the South West. Although they were leaders for most of the league season last year, the Spring Series will be an interesting test for Yeovil against the likes of Notts County and Sunderland who have benefitted from a few years more experience in the top flight. New signing and Welsh international Helen Ward and last season’s top scorer Sarah Wiltshire will miss the Spring Series campaign due to pregnancy and maternity leave, but new signings such as Nia Jones will strengthen Jamie Sherwood’s team. Yeovil are a club heading in the right direction with a fantastic community emphasis breeding a strong fan base – the South West derby with Bristol City could be an interesting match too.