With the 2021/22 WSL season paused for the winter break, now feels a good time to look back over the first three and a half months of an historic season for women’s football in England.
This year has seen the advent of the new WSL broadcast deal with BBC and Sky Sports, bringing extra revenue and more attention to the competition.
The WSL continues to brim with world class performances and the level of competition still makes it the best league in Europe, if not the world.
These are the highs points of the season so far…
Even though Arsenal have had a few wobbles in the Champions League and were recently convincingly outfoxed in last season’s delayed FA Cup final, there is no denying that the Gunners have been the team to beat in the WSL during the first half of the campaign.
New manager Jonas Eidevall has picked up where former boss Joe Montemurro left off after the team finished last season with a near flawless eight wins and a draw from their final nine games.
Arsenal started in the best possible way when they beat reigning champions Chelsea on the opening weekend of the season and have dropped only two points since then. They have a four-point lead at the top of the table, have scored most goals and conceded fewest.
There is no argument here.
The aforementioned Eidevall obviously deserves plenty of credit, having come into a new league and enjoyed a lot of immediate success. But Rehanne Skinner at Tottenham has done an even bigger job.
Skinner took over at a struggling Spurs side last November and instantly brought winning form to the club. That tailed off after January but the squad has improved again dramatically this season.
Spurs only won five WSL games in the whole of last season and have already bettered that tally just 10 games into 2021/22. Having finished eighth previously – eight points off the bottom and 28 points adrift of the top three, they are now third at the winter break and are one of several clubs well placed to try and take advantage of Manchester City’s disaster.
Several players deserve positive mentions here. Frida Maanum has become an automatic starter in a very good Arsenal team, Tinja-Riikka Korpela and Maeva Clemaron have been important additions for Tottenham, and Deanne Rose is now consistently impressing at Reading.
But Hannah Blundell has automatically become one of Manchester United’s best and most important players.
The full-back arrived in Manchester as a makeweight in the deal that took Lauren James to Chelsea but so far it is United who have reaped the rewards of that particular transaction.
Blundell has become key for United at both ends of the pitch, especially for a squad that looked in summer as though it might like attacking firepower.
There were growing concerns about Manchester City in the first couple of weeks of the season. They had been forced to forgo a pre-season and were surprisingly knocked out of the Champions League before the group stage by Real Madrid, while defensive injuries were also starting to pile up.
City were narrowly beaten by Tottenham in the season’s second round of fixtures, a result most expected to be a blip. But Arsenal brutally exposed every weakness in the next round of games at the end of September, thrashing one of their supposed title rivals 5-0.
That same day, Chelsea also turned on the style and scored six past Manchester United, with Pernille Harder scoring a contender for goal of the season.
Natasha Dowie hadn’t played WSL football in more than five years prior to signing for Reading in the summer, thanks to a globetrotting existence that had taken in spells in the United States, Australia, Sweden, Norway and Italy.
The 33-year-old could have been forgiven for thinking it was a mistake when the Royals lost four games on the spin to start the season. But Dowie, in tandem with Canadian youngster Deanne Rose, has played a pivotal role in Reading’s sudden glut of wins and surge up the table since then.
Alessia Russo spent most of her debut season in the WSL sidelined through injury but is now more than making up for lost time with her performances for Manchester United since returning to full fitness in 2021/22.
Russo, who was schooled with the iconic University of North Carolina Tar Heels after starting out in the WSL with Chelsea and Brighton, has been showcasing her talents as an all-round ‘number nine’. It is a role that will be up for grabs with England for the long-term in the not too distant future.
At 22, she is still raw, but strength, power, hold up play and deadly finishing already make her one of the WSL’s top strikers and one to keep watching.
Reading came together incredibly to inflict a rare defeat on Chelsea in December. The Royals had never previously beaten the champions in a WSL game but everything clicked perfectly into place.
Chelsea dominated the ball as expected and Reading knew that breakaway chances were likely to be best they could hope for. That was exactly how it turned out when Deanne Rose fired them ahead in the early exchanges – then it was about defending to the hilt for the remaining 86 minutes.
Reading’s defensive efforts ensured that the vast majority of Chelsea’s 34 attempts on goal were off target. Goalkeeper Grace Moloney was there to save those that were on target, while centre-back Gemma Evans also made two goal-saving interventions.
Beth Mead had a point to prove after being left out of the Great Britain Olympic squad during the summer and channelled that frustration perfectly when she put Chelsea to the sword on the opening weekend of the season.
It was a huge early test for Arsenal against the reigning champions and they were able to come through thanks to Mead’s heroics.
Chelsea had already cancelled out an early Gunners lead, but Mead struck soon after half-time and then got her second of the game 11 minutes. That proved to be decisive in the 3-2 victory, although she could have even had a hat-trick were it not for a good save early in the second half.
New England manager Sarina Wiegman was watching in the stands and Mead was straight back in the Lionesses picture after her Olympic sorrow.