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The Return of the WSL: The Evolution Of Top-Flight Women’s Football in England

 

With Frauen-Bundesliga’s leading scorer, Pernille Harder, among several leading players from Europe, Australia and the United States all choosing England as the destination to play their domestic football this summer, The FA Women’s Super League appears to be going from strength-to-strength. With the action resuming this weekend, Stats Perform takes a closer look at the recent performance trends of the competition.

 

By: Andy Cooper

Following an enforced six-month hiatus, domestic top-flight women’s football returns to England this week with the start of the 2020/21 FA Women’s Super League.

Prior to the onset of Covid-19, the women’s game was riding a crest of a wave in England, with over 11 million television viewers tuning in to watch the Lionesses’ World Cup semi-final against the USA last summer and more than 77,000 fans attending an international friendly against Germany at Wembley three months later. In addition, Chelsea’s acquisition of the reigning NWSL MVP, Sam Kerr, signified that an increasing number of the world’s leading players were seeing the WSL as a desirable place to play their domestic football.

These developments also coincided with significant financial investments in the sport off the pitch, which included Barclays becoming the first-ever WSL title sponsor in a multi-million-pound deal.

Taking all this into account, the premature curtailment of last season’s WSL could not have happened at a worse time, particularly given the incremental improvements in the quality of the competition over recent seasons.

To help illustrate this point, we have looked into how the WSL has evolved over the past five seasons (including the 2017 Spring Series), to highlight how the league has developed as a whole, and how this has impacted the evolution of two of its leading teams, Chelsea and Manchester City, who competed in the season’s curtain-raising Community Shield match last weekend.

The Adoption of a Possession-Based Approach

As highlighted in our season review for the 2019/20 WSL season, Chelsea, City and Arsenal all recorded substantially more passes per possession sequence and slower ball progression compared to the rest of the league.

This trend is logical, given the top three teams spent a larger proportion of game time leading matches. However, if we look at the competition as a whole, it appears that teams across the board are now attempting more passes per 90 minutes and giving the ball away far less compared to five years ago.

The greater focus on ball retention is also reflected in the volume of passes which are played forward. Back in 2016, 46% of all passes were played forward but this number has steadily declined year-upon-year and dropped below 40% for the first time in 2019/20 (39.9%).

2019/20 was also the first season where the number of passes made in a team’s own half exceeded the number of passes in the opposition half, with teams looking to keep the ball and disrupt the opposition’s shape before moving it forward.

The Stats Perform sequence framework also indicates that teams are committing fewer shorter sequences, with passes comprising at least six passes up by over a third compared to 2016, with a steady drop in the direct speed forward.

The Case For Defence

One of the factors behind the greater ball retention in the middle-third is the significant improvement in the defensive performance of WSL teams. 2019/20 saw the fewest average number of shots on goal (4.8) and goals scored by a WSL team per 90 (1.5) in five years, and if we dig deeper into the numbers we can identify some significant trends in relation to improved defensive performance.

One clear trend is that teams are harder to break down and are allowing less space in-behind for teams to exploit. Teams in possession are finding it harder to penetrate the final third, with a clear drop in the number of passes being played into advanced areas of the pitch, while the number of through balls played behind the back line is also in decline. The number of players caught offside has also dropped significantly in the last two years, which indicates teams as a whole are defending deeper.

The number of individual errors leading to goals also dropped last season – 0.14 per 90, which was the first time this number had dropped below 0.2 during the period analysed.

Greater defensive solidity has also resulted in noticeable changes in the approach to defending. In the past two seasons in particular, there has been a large drop in the number of interceptions, ball recoveries and clearances. Whilst this in part could be a result of attacking teams completing more passes in advanced areas despite lacking penetration in the final third, it could also indicate that defenders are being less proactive in winning the ball back and remaining more compact in the back line.

The Impact of Playmakers

The improvement in teams defensively has meant that decision-making by attacking players in the final third is crucial to finding good goal scoring locations or playing a decisive pass which can lead to a scoring opportunity.

Our 2019/20 season review demonstrates the ability of the league’s standout performers to not only find good positions in and around the box to shoot, but also determine when it is better to pass to a teammate in a better position.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the major standout players was PFA Player of the Year, Vivianne Miedema, who was the only player to rank in the league’s top 10 for both expected goals and expected assists per 90 last season, with a strong xG per shot ratio of 0.2.

Whilst seeing a reduction in the number of passes occurring within the final third, the past two WSL seasons has also seen an increase in the number of intentional assists occurring per 90 minutes, which reflects the growing influence of playmakers creating opportunities for teammates.

One area which hasn’t changed significantly though is the shooting habits of WSL players. Over the past five years the expected goals output for each team per 90 has remained around 1.4 (with the exception of the 2017 Spring Series, where is stood at 1.7) and the volume of shots attempted outside the box has roughly remained at 40%.

As means of comparison, the 2019 NWSL saw a fewer proportion of goal attempts from outside the penalty area, 36%, which dropped to 32% in the 2020 Challenge Cup, which indicates that top-flight players in the USA are less likely to shoot from distance than players as a whole in England.

The Evolution of Chelsea and City: Sacrificing Possession and Exploiting Transitions

Whilst the league as a whole has seen little fluctuation in xG, Chelsea reaped rewards from generating a higher volume of high quality chances in 2019/20 compared to the previous campaign, (2.7 xG per 90 compared to 2.3), from fewer total shots attempted.

Emma Hayes has been in charge of the Blues for the past eight years and throughout her time in charge, has demonstrated tactical flexibility through adopting a wide range of different formations and systems. For the past two seasons, she has typically set her team up with a back four, but for the first time in several years fielded two strikers in nearly half of Chelsea’s WSL matches during 2019/20.

With the increasing number of WSL teams looking to retain the ball in the defensive and middle thirds, Hayes’ decision to sacrifice a midfield player in several games resulted in a drop in Chelsea’s share of possession and attempted passes, averaging 50 fewer per 90 compared to 2018/19. There was also an increase in the number of open play crosses being delivered into the box, from 15.8 to 17.5, with their top four players for xA in 2019/20 all operating in wide areas.

Chelsea’s use of width saw an increase in their volume of goal attempts from headers, which accounted for one in five of all their shots. Beth England was responsible for a high volume of these attempts, with 36% of all her goals coming via headers and as a whole, the team scored nearly 20% of their goals from set plays, including seven from corners.

With their opposition enjoying more possession, Chelsea looked to exploit opportunities resulting from transitions when they won the ball back, a tactic which had been successfully utilised by Arsenal during the previous campaign. Joe Montemurro’s side scored ten times directly from sequences starting with a defensive action in their title winning 2018/19 campaign – and Chelsea more than doubled their output from such situations last season.

Another team who looked to punish opponents in transition were Manchester City. As highlighted in our season review, City recorded the highest number of shots (38) and goals (5) from turnovers that occurred within 40 metres of the opposition goal in WSL.

Like Chelsea, City had enjoyed managerial continuity with Nick Cushing in charge for just over six years before his departure in February, a month before the WSL came to a stop.  As was the case with Hayes’ side, City saw less of the ball during matches played in 2019/20 compared to previous seasons.

Prior to that campaign, they had seen their share of possession increase season-by-season since 2016, peaking at 60.7% in 2018/19, before dropping to 55.2% last season. They also moved away from the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 systems preferred in the previous two campaigns, and set-up with two strikers in over half their matches, following the arrival of Ellen White and departures of Claire Emslie and Nikita Parris.

In possession, City continued to use Keira Walsh as their main outlet to collect the ball out of defence and into midfield, but while she would look to combine with Caroline Weir in 18/19, who generated the highest xA for the team from central areas (0.47 per 90), last season she was looking to get the ball out wide to Janine Beckie down the right, who ended up being a key player in City’s attacking play.

Having been used as a forward in her first season in Manchester, Beckie started the season on the right flank. However, following the ACL injury suffered by Aoife Mannion in October, the Canadian international spent the majority of the season at right back, where she had a considerable impact getting forward. Beckie averaged more touches per 90 in the attacking third than any other City player (30.1) and recorded the highest xA per 90 in WSL (0.38).

One area where Beckie posed a real threat to opposition full backs was in her ability to dribble with the ball before looking to find a teammate – over half of her assists occurred following a forward carry and her total of 17 carries per 90 was also the most of any player in the league.

Whilst City were not generating as many open play crosses into the box as Chelsea last season, averaging 14.3 per 90, the threat provided by Beckie again demonstrates how another leading team was looking to create opportunities from wide positions, as opposed to central areas. Her utilisation as an attacking full back mirrors the positional evolution of Arsenal duo Katie McCabe and Lisa Evans, who both started their respective careers further forward before being converted into attacking full backs, so it will be interesting to see if Beckie retains this role once Mannion returns to full fitness.

Going against the wider league trend, City’s attacking players were also incredibly disciplined when it came to shooting – over 73.8% of their attempts occurred inside the box, a 6% increase on their previous campaign, and over 12% higher than the WSL average.

New Arrivals Provide WSL With A Further Boost

During the long break in action, City, Chelsea and Arsenal have all been proactive in their recruitment of new faces to strengthen their respective squads, recruiting from both home and abroad.

Domestically City have added another notable ball carrier to their squad, Chloe Kelly, who ranked second to Beckie for chances created following ball carries in WSL last season. Having operated on the opposite flank to Beckie whilst playing for Everton last season, City now possess two players who could cause considerable problems running directly at opposition full backs once the season starts.

In addition to the 22-year-old, City have raided the NWSL to recruit midfield duo Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle, who were both part of the United States’ World Cup winning squad last summer.

Chelsea have also strengthened their midfield options, signing Melanie Leupolz from Bayern Munich and Canadian international midfielder Jessie Fleming from college soccer in the States. However their biggest summer signing is the capture last season’s Bundesliga top scorer, Pernille Harder, who joins from Wolfsburg following their defeat in the Champions League final.

The growing international scope of WSL recruitment is further reinforced by Arsenal recruiting experienced Australian duo Steph Catley and Lydia Williams, who both possess significant NWSL experience and two Swiss players, Noelle Maritz from Wolfsburg and 20-year-old prospect Malin Gut from Grasshoppers.

Behind the top three, Manchester United have also raided the Swiss league to sign Ivana Fuso from Basel, but their most notable signing is Lucy Staniforth from Birmingham City, who created 25% of all of the Blues’ chances last season, despite missing nearly a quarter of their matches as a result of injury.

The continued recruitment of established international players, coupled with the potential WSL return of Lucy Bronze, suggests that despite the loss of the momentum caused by Covid-19, the competition is well placed to continue where it left off in the spring, as the league looks to go from strength to strength in front of a free-to-air domestic audience and in partnership with a growing number of overseas broadcasters. 

In turn, supporters of the women’s game will be hoping that the growing interest in the domestic competition will play a part in continuing the sport’s upward trajectory in England, as the country prepares to host the European Championships in less than two years’ time.

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