There is, in theory, something magical about a new season. Stick with me here: we always talk about the “magic of the cup” and idea of a diminutive team going on a glorious cross-country tour, edging their way through the competition to reach the hallowed ground of good prize money. We think about how, for 90 minutes, any team can beat any other team, and we apply the same to major tournaments while waxing lyrical about unknown players making a name for themselves over one heady summer.
League football never gets met with the same misty-eyed idealism because 90 spellbinding minutes might only equate to three points, which never defines a season in isolation. Yet league football is the thing that makes all those exalted cup competitions possible; it’s where players from all over the world can carve out niches for themselves, spending all season endearing themselves to home fans or proving themselves to their national team coaches.
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If cup competitions are vacations, then league football is the familiarity of home. Finally, after an unforgettable summer, women’s top-flight league football in England was back with the Women’s Super League, albeit a week later than billed due to the temporary cessation of all football following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
Kick off in a new location
No longer kicking off at Tottenham Hotspur’s opulent North London home, the season instead got underway at the regular home of the Lilywhite’s London rivals, Arsenal, on Friday, giving the 2022-23 season opener that glorious tinge of a game under the lights.
In many ways, very little had changed: it was still the same old Meadow Park (under the moniker of LV BET Stadium), home to Borehamwood FC. It was the same old Arsenal with their might, and the same old Arsenal fans ready to bellow, “KIMMY, KIMMY, KIMMY, OI, OI, OI!” when Kim Little was on the ball. But the stands were full, seats claimed a full 60 minutes before kick-off, both terraces similarly as full.
It’s not a total outlier for the ground itself when Arsenal are playing, but a rarity that usually suggested Chelsea or Spurs were the opposition. Evening games have traditionally been a hard sell for WSL yet there we all were, rubbing the warmth back into our hands, shoulders rubbing against shoulders everywhere you looked as Arsenal wrapped up a 4-0 win.
VAR-less refereeing sets the course
The new season saw its first booking — in fact, its first dismissal — long before its first goal when Brighton’s Emma Kullberg clipped Stina Blackstenius’ heels as the striker raced down on the opposition goal.
There was a question of offside, one that took absentee journalists a lot of finagling with the FA Player — a free platform provided for fans to watch games that don’t get picked for broadcast — to find a freeze-frame at just the right moment to show the marginal encroachment. The still image passed between those covering the game and was then shared across Twitter only to reach the shiny smart phones of the travelling team by full-time — indeed, Brighton have already submitted an appeal against the red card.
It was to be the first of a series of marginal offside calls, both flagged and not flagged, over the weekend that could have had a serious impact on their respective games. From the opening match on Friday, there was an appeal for an offside in the build-up to the foul that led to Manchester United’s penalty against Reading. So too, a flag lofted at Liverpool’s home at Prenton Park, when Sam Kerr played off of Niamh Fahey’s shoulder to chip Reds’ goalkeeper, Rachael Laws — going by the position of the player’s boots, replays suggested she was a fraction onside.
They were big decisions, and none of them considered egregiously wrong, but they carry added drama in a world where football fans are used to seeing “VAR decision” plastered across screens at matches with multiple lines drawn across the field of play. With dotted vertical lines highlighting that a defender’s armpit fluff might be playing an attacker onside, there is a measure of common sense that has gone from the game.
Indeed, it was during and after the first weekend of the 2021-22 season that VAR was being called for in the WSL after a couple of potential game-changing decisions were disputed. As it is, the game will continue without video assistance during matches, but the PGMOL will continue to review each WSL match with intense scrutiny.
Back in Borehamwood, the ripping current of the Arsenal attack pushed against the Brighton dam until it broke. In a match that was always likely to be heavily centred around Arsenal’s offense going up against Brighton’s defence, the Seagulls being reduced to 10 players just seven minutes into the game completely unbalanced the scales. The Gunners’ ended the match with four goals to show from their 38 total shots, Brighton’s defending far from infallible but beyond credible.
When the second match of the season finished with the same 4-0 scoreline after Manchester United had emphatically dispatched with Reading there was a sense of dread. The weekend’s fixtures were never intended to be the curtain raising line-up, and they looked like a paradigm of WSL power dynamics. Save for West Ham vs. Everton, each match threatened to be unbalanced with a predictable winner.
Shocks and surprises
Sunday rolled around and brought the last four matches of the week with it. Aston Villa, who had never even taken so much as a point off of Manchester City in the past, were at home to the Champions League regulars, yet the old cliché about not getting the memo best described their start. A low drive from Alisha Lehmann following a well-pressed turnover and a sublime curling strike from Rachel Daly had the hosts well on top although a fumble from Villa goalkeeper, Hannah Hampton, gave the visitors a route back into the match.
With questions swirling around the City team after a raft of summer departures, the narrative refused to stay set for the Citizens and their disarray became strong character after they finally woke up pulled themselves ahead in the West Midlands, with Laura Coombs’ second goal arriving less than two minutes after Khadija Shaw’s equaliser. Yet it wasn’t to last as City caused all their own problems, unable to deal with Villa’s intelligent press and well-timed attacks and the hosts saw out a highly unexpected 4-3 win.
After Spurs had seen off Leicester City thanks to two outrageous goals and West Ham had prevailed over Everton, all eyes turned to newly promoted Liverpool against champions, Chelsea.
Having conceded a penalty less than 60 seconds into the match, Liverpool dug in as Chelsea failed to find a cushion or much of their usual rhythm in attack. One converted Katie Stengel penalty (awarded after a handball in the box) became two late in the game after the attacker was felled by Chelsea’s new centre-back, Kadeisha Buchanan. A late rally from the Blues wasn’t enough to claim an equaliser, although the reigning champions are no strangers to starting the season without a win.
The crowd may have looked small on paper — 6,785 at Villa Park, for instance, is far below the capacity — but absolutely blew the previous attendance record for the Aston Villa women’s team out of the water. Equally, 3,238 might not sound like much for Arsenal, but it was a sellout in Hertfordshire and one of the repeated mantras across the women’s game is that teams need to be selling out their regular homes before looking at moving somewhere bigger.
This summer brought about a boom in interest in women’s football in England and almost instantly, league teams reported a sizeable upswing in their season ticket sales, yet the problem is sustained interest.
With newer broadcast deals in place, kick-off times are often better suited to armchair fans than those who will have to battle against the untold joys of English train travel. Beyond that, there was a noticeable chill in the air over the weekend — the Swedish journalist next to me at the Arsenal game couldn’t stop her teeth from chattering — and when the weather really turns foul, forcing fans to battle with the elements, gate receipts and crowd numbers could take a substantial hit.
But that can wait for another day. It’s Monday and the 2022-23 WSL season is officially up and running.