The New Pretenders: Can Brighton, Tottenham or West Ham Really Keep up With the Very Best?
With two WSL games to go until the Christmas break, there is an unexpected trio of teams with their focus on the upper echelons of the table. Whilst Chelsea and Arsenal have steamed ahead of the rest of the pack in what is now certainly a two-horse title race, Manchester City’s disastrous start has left the historically closed-shop third placed position a bit more open. And with Manchester United also stuttering under new coach Marc Skinner, there are a new set of sides interested in the opportunity of Champions League football.
All three of Brighton, Tottenham and West Ham have taken something of a ‘slow and steady’ approach to life in the Women’s Super League. Unlike Manchester United, who decided that the best way to make up for their historical refusal to have a women’s team was to go straight to the top, all three of these sides have steadily worked their way through the leagues. Whilst the backing of their men’s Premier League sides has hardly hindered them – only two WSL sides do not have a Premier League team backing them, compared to double that five years ago – they have not looked to ostentatiously splash the cash in the way Chelsea have done, for example.
Yet there have been signs that these teams have always intended to move in this direction. Tottenham’s shock signing of Alex Morgan last summer showed that even though Morgan herself had little impact, they saw themselves as a potential destination for world-class players. Similarly, Brighton’s five-year plan back in 2015 aimed for Champions League football, whilst this year they spent money on a signing for the first time in their history, bringing in former Arsenal striker Danielle Carter from Reading.
But even so, their starts to this WSL season have still been surprising. How have they done it, and are they capable of keeping it up?
Tottenham, Brighton and West Ham have all improved by a greater margin defensively than they have offensively, but it is Tottenham who now have the meanest defence of all three.
It is this defence which helped Tottenham pick up four points from two games against Arsenal and Manchester City (with a small bit of help from Rosella Ayane’s hand), conceding only two goals in the process.
Under Rehanne Skinner, Tottenham this season have been a lot more effective at holding their shape and winning back the ball. It is no surprise that three of the five players with the most tackles in the league play for Spurs, with the side as a whole average 14.5 tackles won per 90 minutes, an increase of three per game over last season.
As well as improving their tackling, Tottenham have also become a lot harder to play through, reducing the number of times per game they are dribbled past by an opponent (down to 2.9 this season from 5.0 last). In fact, it is telling that Brighton, Tottenham, and West Ham are three of the bottom four teams for this metric, with Chelsea being the fourth. It seems that all the sides aiming for that third spot have focused on staying compact to reduce the opportunities opponents might have to score.
The graphic above shows the benefit of this. The number of shots that Tottenham are facing has not particularly declined, but the quality of each one on average – measured by xGA/shot – has dropped.
The addition of Maéva Clemaron in midfield has also given Ria Percival the freedom to get forward more from a midfield position. This season, the number of chances Percival creates per 90 has almost doubled from 5.9 to 10.8, and the pass map from Clemaron to Percival shows how the French midfielder loves to find the Kiwi with direct forward passes.
Percival’s chance creation will become even more essential after Kit Graham damaged her ACL, ruling her out for the rest of the season. Graham has been the creative hub of Tottenham, creating more chances from open play than anyone else in the side, as well as scoring a quarter of their goals in the league this season. As the attacking sequence involvements graphic below shows, Graham has been involved in by far the most shots for Tottenham so far this season, taking more shots and creating more chances than anyone else.
If Skinner’s side are to keep up the pace they’ve set for themselves, they’ll need to bring in another creative player in the January transfer window.
Whilst Tottenham have worked on beefing up their midfield in order to disrupt opponents on the ball there, Brighton have taken a more holistic view to improving their defence this year. Hope Powell’s side have switched from the back four they played last season to a back three, with wonderkid Maya Le Tissier moving from the right back position that saw her catch everyone’s attention to become the right-sided centre back in a back three.
This shift has allowed Powell to play Emma Koivisto as a wing back with Le Tissier linking up with her. Le Tissier’s on the ball ability has allowed Brighton to have an extra attacking option from their defence. Only two defenders have played more passes into the box than Le Tissier this season, whilst only Inessa Kaagman has created more chances for the club than Le Tissier.
Le Tissier’s pass map shows how she will often get extremely high up the pitch to support Brighton’s attacks.
The formation shift has also helped Brighton out defensively, with the Sussex side’s expected goals against per 90 falling from 1.7 to 1.0, a level of solidity that is comparable to Everton and exceeds Manchester United. The number of shots on target they are facing has also declined from 5.6 to 3.8.
Brighton have also benefited from goalkeeper Megan Walsh’s ability this season, with Walsh conceding just seven goals from an expected 7.2 on target. Walsh is one of just two goalkeepers in the league to have conceded less than expected to, alongside Manuela Zinsberger of Arsenal.
Yet despite Brighton’s successful efforts to bring some additional solidity to their backline, they have been unable to make many improvements going forward, despite the signing of Dan Carter. Her expected goals per 90 of just 0.2 ranks her 22nd of all WSL forwards to have played at least four games. A goal against Chelsea showed her quality, but if Brighton are to continue to have a shot at the top three, they will need her to get in better positions.
West Ham are easily the weakest of the three teams aiming to upset the WSL status quo, with an expected goal difference of -1.8 actually ranking them 8th in the league. Yet Olli Harder’s side have shown glimpses of quality that if they could demonstrate consistently, would make them a fearsome side to play against.
Much like Tottenham, West Ham have excelled in midfield with the signing of Yui Hasegawa offering them guile alongside the efficiency of Dagný Brynjarsdóttir. Opposition teams have struggled to deal with Brynjarsdóttir’s late runs into the box, although she has struggled to convert her easier chances as efficiently as she might like.
Similarly, the loan signing of Lisa Evans from Arsenal has been a great addition to a side who have not always been blessed with lots of threatening attacking players. Despite missing a number of games through injury, Evans has established herself as a key part of this West Ham team as a right wing-back.
Both of these players’ ability to get forwards more than their position might expect has seen West Ham end up with the fifth highest number of touches in the opposition box, with the traditional top four all ahead of them. Given how hard weaker teams find it to gain footholds higher up the pitch, capitalising on this kind of territory could be crucial for West Ham across the rest of the season.
But West Ham have struggled to keep their concentration in games, dropping six points from winning positions this season. No side in the WSL has dropped more.
Draws against Aston Villa and Reading both came about as a result of injury time equalisers, showing a serious inability to see out a match.
West Ham will hope that the return of Grace Fisk to the starting line-up might give them a bit more control, with Fisk being one of only five players across the whole league to play every single minute of last year. Given West Ham have improved their defence on the face of it, it might not seem like her presence has been that much of a loss but as one of England’s most promising young centre backs, her return will give the Hammers confidence that their defensive form could improve further.
Can Any of Them Keep It Up?
Tottenham, Brighton and West Ham have been able to assert themselves on the table this season as much thanks to the poor start of Manchester United, Manchester City and Everton, as it is due to their own improvement.
Looking at their expected goal difference, Tottenham are the only one of the three who look like they could be a genuine contender later on in the season, with Manchester City clearly having reason to feel a bit hard done by from some of their results this year.
However, there’s reason to hope the trends seen from these teams so far this season could improve further as the season goes on. Given the way these teams have tackled top-flight football over the past couple of years, they will see their position at this stage of the season as evidence that slow and steady can win the race.
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Design by Matt Sisneros.