Toppling Chelsea from their WSL perch will be the toughest of tasks Women’s Super League
Nothing is inevitable in football. No matter how long the odds, there is always the chance of an upset. That said, there is an unmistakable air of invincibility around the Chelsea side crafted for a decade by Emma Hayes.
They were pushed to the wire by Arsenal last season before winning a third consecutive Women’s Super League title, by a point. In the 2020-21 campaign they pipped Manchester City by two points. In the preceding season, Hayes’ side were awarded the title on points per game after the campaign was halted by the pandemic with Chelsea a point behind City but having played a game less.
Each of those titles – three of their five under Hayes – have, on paper, been tight. The numbers, though, do not tell the full story. Chelsea have only got stronger. The team’s unwillingness to relinquish their crown was demonstrated by the manner in which they leapt on Arsenal’s January wobble, when the Gunners lost to Birmingham, before going on a run to the end of the season where each twist and turn only ever looked like a cat toying with a mouse before it feasted.
Scarily, Hayes’ side are now mature and well-oiled, at the peak of a team life cycle rather than the start or end of one. Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder are settled, Jessie Fleming has stepped up and Lauren James has been reconditioned to meet the demands of a team eyeing success in Europe. This summer, Hayes has dipped into the transfer window to strengthen the full-back area she tried not to build upon last year. “It’s not that we didn’t target players, we just didn’t get the ones that we wanted,” she said a year ago, when asked why Chelsea had not recruited any players in that position.
Now, France’s Ève Périsset, recruited from Bordeaux, and West Ham’s Katerina Svitkova have been added to strengthen those wide areas. Meanwhile, Kadeisha Buchanan has come from Lyon to provide serious competition for Magda Eriksson and Millie Bright.
Toppling Chelsea is not easy. Leading the pack to do so are, arguably, Arsenal. Their manager, Jonas Eidevall, is stepping into his second season in England with expectations raised. The Swedish forward Lina Hurtig is the only addition who could break into the first team, with Gio Queiroz immediately loaned to Everton after signing from Barcelona and Kaylen Marckese in line behind the No 1 goalkeeper, Manuela Zinsberger. Eidevall’s biggest boost is the retention of the Netherlands’ record goalscorer Vivianne Miedema, who was courted by a number of clubs.
The key to Arsenal’s title challenge will be consistency. Last season, a defeat by Chelsea in the FA Cup final in December and heavy losses to Barcelona in the Champions League seemingly ruptured the confidence of a side that had burst out of the blocks. The slide was arrested in January, with Stina Blackstenius, Laura Wienroither and Rafaelle recruited to shore things up. Now, Eidevall has a squad capable of competing, boosted by the England captain Leah Williamson and the golden ball and golden boot winner Beth Mead returning fresh from their Euros heroics, and he seems far more settled.
Traditionally, the next in line to the WSL throne would be Manchester City, but with a huge overhaul of the squad there is significant pressure on their manager, Gareth Taylor, to get the side gelled quickly. Last season their campaign was over before it had begun, with a spate of injuries hampering their start. Taylor’s recruitment will be put to the test after the departures of Keira Walsh, Lucy Bronze and Caroline Weir to La Liga clubs, Georgia Stanway to Bayern Munich, Janine Beckie to Portland Thorns and the retirement of Karen Bardsley, Jill Scott and Ellen White. Questions are being asked about why so many big hitters have wanted to leave, with a number citing Taylor’s predecessor, Nick Cushing, as key to their time at City in their exit statements, but pressure on Taylor could be held at bay if the team gets a solid start.
The number of changes could open the door to a series of challengers hoping to break apart the stranglehold of the traditional top three. Chief among those are Manchester United who, aside from having made some astute signings, have England’s supersubs Ella Toone and Alessia Russo. Tottenham also look good, with Drew Spence, Amy Turner and Angharad James adding top-level experience to the squad.
Will anyone usurp Chelsea though? It’s unlikely, but not impossible.