As we enter the fifth FA WSL season, I thought it would be interesting to review the four previous seasons and see how things have evolved. I think it is clear that there are 3 distincts period in the FA WSL history : 2011 & 12, 2013 and 2014 with 2015 looking to be another evolution.
2011 & 12 Semi professionalism and FA WPL 2.0
When the FA WSL started, it was clearly with the aim to have all the teams playing as semi-professional. At the time, it was simply the continuity from the FA WPL with teams still training only twice a week ( Tue and Thu) as a general rule and sometimes on a Saturday for some teams. As a result the 2 seasons resulted in the same Arsenal dominance we used to see in the FA WPL. It is quite funny that the 2011 and 2012 final tables were exactly the same but for Lincoln and Bristol swapping fourth and fifth place. Things did not really fundamentally change from the old WPL in term of results : FA WSL 1.0 = FA WPL 2.0. The main impact in reducing the elite division from 12 to 8 teams, is it did lead to moving quality players together rather than seeing them spread around different teams. We did see an improvement in fitness overall and also in term of keeping the defensive shape. We saw teams getting player at getting behind the ball quicker once the ball was lost, in line with Hope Powell tactics with the England team.
Arsenal stayed in 1st place, Birmingham improved to 2nd place from 10th the season before thanks to an excellent campaign that saw them renew the majority of their players. Everton moved from regular contenders to 3rd place. Lincoln who were playing in the Northern Division at the time of FA WSL team selection finished 4th then 5th. They had a good recruitement campaign and also had fun with a manager musical chair game for many seasons. Bristol also made a lot of changes from the squad that finished 12th in the FA WPL and finished 4th then 5th. Chelsea finished 6th, Doncaster 7th and Liverpool were bottom for 2 seasons in a row as they did not really change their squad from their Northern Division time.
2013 Full time training enters the FA WSL ie FA WSL 2.0
Liverpool, with Matt Beard having arrived in the middle of the previous season, started a revolution with full time training in 2013 moving on the previous 2 or 3 times a week. It will take a full season for other teams to catch up or even more for some teams are still not full time by 2015. This puts them at a huge competitive disadvantage. Extra training means more fitness, more touches on the ball and a quicker development of the technical skills as well as a squad gelling quicker. Liverpool did change the majority of the squad signing English players and going abroad when there was no quality English player available in certain positions. They managed to win the League with a record 36 points.
Bristol led by Mark Sampson managed to find the right tactics to maximize their players strength and also with clever signings, their counter-attacking style surprised everyone and they ended up playing for the title on final day at Liverpool and their runner-up place was a fantastic achievement.
Arsenal led by new manager Shelley Kerr tried to recover from a poor season’s start, but hindered by internal problems their title challenge collapsed after an administrative mistake and they finished 3rd loosing the title for the first time in nearly 10 seasons. All those problems lead to a dozen of players leaving at the end of the 2013 season and massive overhaul with Kerr bringing many foreign players during the next winter window.
Birmingham were in a transition season as players stated early their intention to leave the club at the end of the season. This lead to the early blooding of young players to prepare for the following season. They finished 4th and outside of the Champions League place for the first time in the FA WSL history.
Everton, Lincoln and Chelsea had indifferent seasons despite early promises and potential with good signings but things did not happen.
In the end Doncaster finished the 2013 season at the bottom with 6 points and a win. Equaling the record for the lowest number of wins in the competition. That record will be unfortunately beaten the following season.
The line-up for the FA WSL 1 and the newly created FA WSL 2 with 10 teams was announced after Matchday 1. The main surprise was Man City selected to WSL1 and Doncaster Belles selected to WSL 2 and therefore demoted with 13 games out of 14 to be played. With marketing and money playing a huge part in the criteria for selection, it was only half a surprise to see a team with available money promoted to WSL 1. The second surprise was Lincoln moving its franchise to Notts County for better training and ground conditions. At the bidding stage, the BBC had an early article saying : “Man City lead Women’s Super League bidding process”, so news were leaking from some place about the bid’s values. To be fair, the original 8 teams line-up created as much controversy back in 2010 as many teams not selected felt hard done by the FA and the lack of transparency on the selection results did not help.
2014 FA WSL 3.0
A new evolution with 8 teams in WSL 1 and 10 teams in WSL 2. Liverpool’s success definitely convinced teams that full-time training was the way forward, and a couple of teams moved to full time for their squad while others had part of their squad doing full time while others players on previous usual schedule. Some teams stayed on twice a week team sessions, while others moved on to 3 or 4 rather than twice a week. There was an obvious improvement in general attacking in 2014. With more attacking quality disclosed as some quality foreign imports were signed during the close season. It was indeed a busy transfer window with many England senior and youth players moving club as well as quality foreign imports joigning the League
A couple of teams had a defensive game plan defending deep and hitting the opposition on the break, Notts County mainly and Everton doing it a bit as well . Birmingham decided to have a very compact team, very difficult to beat but playing higher on the pitch than those defensive teams. Bristol changed their playing style as Dave Edmonson replaced Mark Sampson who have taken the England job. They changed into a possession based style but players did not swtich style and the Vixens finished at a disappointing 7th place. Everton unfortunately beat the least win in the WSL 1 record by not winning any League game the whole season. They sadly ended as the first team ever relegated from WSL 1 ( Doncaster were demoted).
Man City struggled a bit at the start of the season and then halfway through it moved all their players to full time and finished on a high with a cup win. They finished 5th in the League. Arsenal had another bad season start under Shelley Kerr. The changes she implemented did not work out and the team took a lot of time to gel. She left mid-season with 4 league games played and no win. The Gunners finished in 4th place, having gone through multiple caretakers before a new manager was appointed.
The title and Champions League places went to the final day with 3 teams in it to win it. Chelsea with their flamboyant attacking style, Birmingham with their compact team and Liverpool who managed to stay in the title race despite having mutiple long and short term injuries for the most of the season. In the end Liverpool managed to snatch the title off the other team’s hand. Chelsea a Champions League place and Birmingham the chocolate medal ie nothing to show for their season’s effort.
WSL 2 saw Sunderland being promoted on final day with Donnie Belles unlucky to miss out after going head to head the whole season. Reading should also have been also fighting for it but a disastrous second half performance against Sunderland that ended up with a draw finished their promotion hope.
The football qualify definitely took off in the 2014 season as a result of more training overall for the teams that led to more fitness and more skills developed. The game’s general intensity also went up compared to previous seasons as well as the TV coverage provided by BT.
2015 FA WSL 4.0
Another busy transfer window with nearly all the teams now training 4 or 5 times a week, which should mean a level playing field more or less. The professionalisation era is entering the FA WSL on every level on and off the pitch with all the good and bad things coming together. Teams are currently rebuilding and adding players so we should know by the end of March where teams stands in term of title/champions league/relegation ambition.