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Can anyone stop Chelsea? Women's Super League 2022-23 preview, team guides, games to watch

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Thompson: Walsh exit leaves 'a massive hole' for Man City (1:02)

Becky Thompson tells Mark Donaldson why Manchester City could be in for a tough WSL season. (1:02)

Before we get started, I am contractually obligated to remind all readers that it came home this summer. Yes, this is a pithy English attempt to remind the world that for the first time, in a very long time, we won a football thing, but it's also key context to remember as we head into the new Women's Super League (WSL) season.

Just as America's National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) enjoyed a World Cup bounce following the U.S. Women National Team's triumph in France in 2019, most are expecting (or hoping) that the WSL can capitalise on the intense interest driven by the Lionesses over the 2022 Euros. Indeed, there was a global hope following the 2019 tournament that women's football had finally arrived, with huge television numbers reported across the world throughout the tournament. However, the pandemic put paid to the sport really picking up any serious forward momentum with leagues truncated and played behind closed doors.

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Although COVID-19 is still a factor, it has taken the backseat for many, meaning stadiums are once again open and fans are eager to catch up on the football they missed at the start of the decade. Once again, women's football looks set to benefit with teams all around England reporting huge upswings in ticket and season-ticket sales, in clear correlation with the good-time feeling produced by England lofting the Euros trophy at Wembley on the 31 July.


The structure

The WSL consists of 12 fully professional teams who will spend the year either going for the big prize, trying to stave off relegation as at the end of the season, the lowest-placed finisher will be dropped into the semi-pro second tier (the Women's Championship), or just trying to better their lot as a mid-table team.

Despite the commonly held notion that any team can beat any other on their day, the title has only ever gone to four teams: Arsenal (three times), Chelsea (five times), Liverpool (twice) and Manchester City (once). Worse still, in a league that is billed as an open and competitive one, the top three for the past seven seasons has been some version of Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal. and if you want to get really bleak, the only other four teams (Birmingham City, Bristol City, Everton and Liverpool) who've ever featured in the top three have all been relegated at one time or another.

Following on from the UEFA Women's Champions League reformat, finishing third in the league is enough to claim a UWCL berth for the next season (albeit at the first qualification stage), opening up more intrigue in the battle for third. This is good news for Manchester United, who finished fourth in each of the past three campaigns, ranging from being 13 points off of the pace to just one at the end of the season before last.

The obvious goal for everyone -- long-term improvement and reaching those coveted European spots -- yet as we have seen, not all teams are built the same, or at least not all teams have the same amount in the bank. Meaning that in a window when West Ham United bring in Norwegian under-19 Thea Kyvag, Chelsea can sign Olympic gold medallist, Kadeisha Buchanan: everyone improves, but the gaps remain.


The teams

Let's talk about the 12 teams in the WSL this season, including some all-too-bold predictions as to where they'll finish.

Arsenal

  • Manager: Jonas Eidevall

  • Finish last season: 2

  • Predicted finish this season: 2

One of the historically great clubs of women's football in England, Arsenal haven't always been at their best in the WSL era and despite only finishing second last season by one point, the Gunners suffered a quite serious wobble part-way through the season that saw them looking a shadow of themselves.

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Playing an entirely different style of football under new (for last season) coach, Jonas Eidevall, the team is still undergoing something of a personality change and despite the considerable talent they have in their ranks, if the season comes down to a head-to-head battle with Chelsea, the Blues already look like the team that would come out on top.

Key player(s): MF Kim Little, MF Lia Wälti

Aston Villa

  • Manager: Carla Ward

  • Finish last season: 9th

  • Predicted finish this season: 8th

Life in the WSL has never been smooth sailing for Aston Villa, who were promoted ahead of the 2020-21 season, but even with a managerial change or two, the West Midlands club has slowly found more of a firm footing in the league. Having strengthened in attack during the summer, notably bringing Rachel Daly back to England, signing Kenza Dali from Everton as well as securing Manchester United's Kirsty Hanson on loan, the team will be packing a bite to match their bark this season.

Key player: MF Sarah Mayling

Brighton and Hove Albion

  • Manager: Hope Powell

  • Finish last season: 7

  • Predicted finish this season: 9

With a brand spanking new women's football hub at the club's training ground in Lancing, it's clear that Brighton are fully invested in the success of their women's side and as a neon sign within the hub proclaims: it's their vision to be a top-four club. But ambitions take time to achieve, and it's unlikely the Seagulls are going to go on their own mazy run this season, not least with the unfavourable fixture list the computer has spat out for them.

That being said, there is enough quality in the Brighton ranks that there should never be the threat of relegation hanging over their heads -- or nipping at their ankles.

Key player: DF Victoria Williams

Chelsea

  • Manager: Emma Hayes

  • Finish last season: Champions

  • Predicted finish this season: Champions

Chelsea, the back-to-back ... to-back champions of the last three seasons can be beaten, and that's a salient point to remember going into the season. That said, it doesn't happen that often and Emma Hayes has again been busy over the window, adding comparable talent to her already star-studded squad. The team has clearly been built to win (or at least) compete for the Champions League title, as the sustained investment for the Blues enough to dwarf the majority of the league.

Although the team might have been a little light-handed at full-back last season, they are one of the most compete sides in WSL heading into the new year -- having signed, among others, French fullback, Ève Périsset. A team that doesn't like to be without the ball, the biggest challenge for most WSL teams isn't keeping Chelsea out -- although that is no easy task -- but simply getting their foot on the ball long enough to launch their own meaningful attack, the Blues' adept at getting players back behind the ball at pace.

Key player: FW Sam Kerr

Everton

  • Manager: Brian Sørensen

  • Finish last season: 10th

  • Predicted finish this season: 6th

Everton's 2021-22 season was, in a word, shambolic. The club with such lofty ambitions and eye-catching signings fell foul of the fixtures computer and soon parted ways with then-manager, Willie Kirk. Kirk one of the first of three managers the team had over the course of the season, the side in a permanent state of limbo throughout the last campaign.

However, there is cause for mild excitement this season with Brian Sørensen coming in to take the reins and the Danish manager having already started to build his own team, focusing on younger players who he can help develop in England. Sixth place might be a generous preseason prediction but if the team can hit the ground running, they should be able to take the rough with the smooth throughout the year, however, if they fail to jell sooner rather than later, they could easily come apart with a sticky run of games around November.

Key player(s): MF Izzy Christiansen, MF Lucy Graham

Leicester City

  • Manager: Lydia Bedford

  • Finish last season: 11th

  • Predicted finish this season: 12th

Another team who saw a managerial upheaval last season, Lydia Bedford unquestionably steadied the Leicester ship and did enough with the players available to stave off relegation, yet going into the new season, the Foxes read as one of the teams who haven't kicked on over the summer. For a team with bags of WSL experience across the pitch, there is the sense that the side will struggle to cope not just with the Chelseas and Arsenals, but the Brightons and West Hams. Coupled with a less than ideal fixture list, the task facing the Foxes this season seems all too great.

Key player: MF Josie Green

Liverpool

  • Manager: Matt Beard

  • Finish last season: Promoted from the Championship

  • Predicted finish this season: 10th

The only team outside of the current top three to have won the WSL (back-to-back no less), the very short story of Liverpool is they invested at a time few teams were, bagged some silverware and then fell behind. In a big way. The good news, for Reds fans as well the wider game is that Liverpool are once again investing in women's football and that commitment saw them wipe the floor with all challengers in the second tier last season.

Now, looking forward; it's clear that the team Matt Beard built up last season was one intended not just to win the Championship, but to compete in WSL; as such, it's bursting with WSL players. Yet as we have seen time and again, the acclimation period following promotion can take quite sometime and with a grueling run of matches, it may indeed take some time for the Reds to start looking like a real WSL team that can challenge in the middle of the table. The quality is there.

Key player: MF Rachel Furness

Manchester City

  • Manager: Gareth Taylor

  • Finish last season: 3rd

  • Predicted finish this season: 3rd

The five-time WSL runners-up (and one-time winners), the third team in England who are always nearly there head into the new season as a bit of an unknown. A forgettable start to the 2021-22 season -- manager Gareth Taylor was missing some key starters -- almost looked to have ended City's season before it had fully begun, but with players returning later in the season, the Citizens went on a lightening run to snatch third and European football. Yet before this campaign has even started, the Sky Blues are already out of the Champions League having fallen foul to Real Madrid, in qualification, again.

It has been a season of upheaval (although not the first one) but as has too oft been overlooked, City have brought experienced and talented players in to replace those they've lost. Yet there is the bigger question of how all the pieces come together, with Taylor guilty of not always using his players to the best of their ability. So the questions continue around the City Football Academy stadium: will Jamaican goalscoring sensation Khadija "Bunny" Shaw finally lock down a starting role? Will midfield maestro Yui Hasegawa, signed from West Ham on the last day of the window, be used as a deep-lying playmaker in an attempt to replace defensive midfielder, Keira Walsh?

Or even: should a team with this much talent still have so many questions?

Key player: GK Ellie Roebuck

Manchester United

  • Manager: Marc Skinner

  • Finish last season: 4th

  • Predicted finish this season: 5th

A long way from being a long-standing member of WSL, Manchester United are heading into their fourth season in the top-flight despite the club only being re-formed five years age, which is what inarguably makes their three successive fourth-place league finishes all the more impressive. There has always been the sense that success for the Red Devils would take time and when inaugural manager, Casey Stoney, departed after the 2020-21 season, it was clear the team still had a long way to go with their back of house operations.

Things have continued to improve for the team that plays their home matches at Leigh Sports Village, but on paper, there continues to be a gulf between the team so used to finishing fourth and the three heavyweights above them. Sooner or later, United will end up breaking into the top three and making their bow in Europe, yet this season doesn't read as if it will be the one for them despite the fire power they've added over the summer.

Key player: MF Ella Toone

Reading

  • Manager: Kelly Chambers

  • Finish last season: 8th

  • Predicted finish this season: 11th

Reading Women stick out in WSL as the only team of the 12 who aren't affiliated with a Premier League club, Reading Men plying their trade in the English second tier (and only just having avoided relegation themselves). As such the Royals don't have the same financial clout, the team that almost over-performed in the 2017-18 season when they finished fourth has been gently sliding back down the table since, from fifth to seventh to eighth.

Not a team completely devoid of stars (or ballers), there is something of the regression (or recession) about Reading that suggests the gaps will continue to widen between themselves and those challenging at the top end of the table. With the relegation of Bristol City and Birmingham City over the last two seasons, there is a worry Reading will be the last non-Premier League affiliated team to drop back into the Championship. That being said, the Royals should have just enough to stay up.

Key player: FW Natasha Dowie

Tottenham Hotspur

  • Manager: Rehanne Skinner

  • Finish last season: 5th

  • Predicted finish this season: 4th

When it comes to investing in a women's team, there are various ways to go about it; in Tottenham's case, the investment, development and subsequent improvement has been incremental or progressive, if you will. Meaning when it comes to Spurs, there's a sense that the team is always getting better and the following season should see further improvements.

With a squad almost entirely overhauled from their second- (and third-) tier days, the club continue to mix experience with the youth that head coach, Rehanne Skinner and assistant coach, Vicky Jepson are so adept at developing. Whilst the Lilywhites have strengthened across the pitch during the off-season, it's in the forward areas where they've brought in talented Norwegian youngster Celin Bizet Ildhusøy and Polish international Nikola Karczewska that look to be the most exciting. It could be enough to see them make the jump to fourth.

Key player(s): DF Molly Bartrip, MF Angharad James

West Ham United

  • Manager: Paul Konchesky

  • Finish last season: 7th

  • Predicted finish this season: 6th

There will always be unknowns heading into new seasons. For many, that will mean a new signing, but it's rare that we mean a manager -- not least one undertaking their first senior role. An assistant to out-going Hammers manager from last season, Ollie Harder, Paul Konchesky is a name that will already be familiar to fan's of men's football, specifically London teams of the 2000s (or so). But as we head into the new season, there is only a finite amount we know of Konchesky as a coach.

We do know, however that West Ham have lost some key players over the summer, like captain Gilly Flaherty (now at Liverpool) and midfielder Yui Hasegawa (now at Man City). But so too have the Irons strengthened, and have brought in a glut of diverse players, who, if they can settle well will add bags of quality to the London team. As it is, I'm expecting the quality of players like Viviane Asseyi, Honoka Hayashi and Lisa Evans to shine through when the ball gets rolling.

Key player: MF Dagný Brynjarsdóttir


The blockbuster games to watch

My general advice when it comes to picking out matches to watch, even if you know nothing of the league or the teams, is to try to avoid top vs. bottom. Sometimes wonderfully unexpected things happen, but too often you find yourself watching something one-sided that could fall into the "women vs. girls" category. Luckily this season, the table looks likely to be split into several mini-leagues which should bring about some good quality matches each week.

Over the first week, for instance, I would be inclined to direct you towards West Ham vs. Everton (Sept. 18). For the second week, the first Women's Football Weekend -- weekends that coincide with men's FIFA windows that the FA use to showcase the women's game with derbies and top of the table clashes -- each and every match could be a classic, not just Chelsea vs. Man City (Nov. 6).

Overall, the derbies (Arsenal vs. Spurs on Sept. 24, Everton vs. Liverpool on Sept. 25, Man City vs. Man United on Dec. 11, etc.) should be marked on your calendar as well, of course, as the matches that will invariably be billed as title deciders, so any version of Arsenal vs. Chelsea vs. Man City. But look out for the next rung down, the Spurs vs. Man United vs. Everton, or the Aston Villa vs. Brighton vs. West Ham type game.