Breaking into the Women’s Super League’s top three is not easy.
For eight years Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City have dominated the top of the table – Birmingham City and Liverpool were the last clubs to break that stranglehold, in 2014.
But could that change this season?
Manchester United have finished fourth in the past three campaigns, while Tottenham showed they could challenge in 2021-22 and have ambitions to close the gap further this year.
Manchester City were the team to grab third place – and the final Champions League spot – last season but after a number of key departures at the club this summer, as well as a see-saw 4-3 defeat on the opening weekend by Aston Villa, has the door been opened for their rivals?
Have Manchester United improved?
It was a big summer at United, who brought in seven new signings, including four attackers in Adriana Leon, Lucia Garcia, Rachel Williams and Nikita Parris.
They increased their squad depth – with exciting youngsters Grace Clinton from Everton and Maya Le Tissier from Brighton also joining.
“We’ve not been lazy in our recruitment, in fact the opposite of that,” said manager Marc Skinner.
“There’s been a lot of change in other teams as well. What I do know is we have to have an exceptional season.
“The preparation is to try and break into that top three of course. We can’t hide that here. We can’t sit here as Manchester United and say ‘we want to finish fourth again’.
“No, we’ve got to try and break into that group but we have to be exceptional.”
Manchester United finished five points behind Manchester City last season despite Gareth Taylor’s side suffering a huge injury crisis in the first part of the campaign.
Skinner’s side got off to the perfect start last weekend with a comfortable 4-0 win over Reading with new signing Le Tissier scoring twice on her debut.
“We start every season wanting to be the best we can possibly be. I think this season if we don’t make the top three it will be a disappointment,” added midfielder Jade Moore.
Spurs ‘pushing’ for Champions League
Tottenham were playing in the second tier three years ago before earning promotion to the WSL.
A few months on from their debut in the league, they hosted Arsenal at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in front of 38,262 fans – the highest crowd for a WSL match.
Since then the club have cemented their position as a top-flight club, with seventh, eighth and fifth-place finishes in their past three seasons – while they even attracted the services of USA icon Alex Morgan in 2020.
Performances on the pitch have been helped by backing off it. Spurs have new training facilities, were due to open the season at the men’s stadium again before the round of fixtures were postponed following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and they have been ambitious in the transfer market.
Spurs feel they have added depth to the squad, particularly in midfield, and designed a challenging pre-season schedule competing in the Women’s Cup – hosted by American club Racing Louisville – in order to improve competitive experiences.
“We brought players that will add value to the team,” said winger Jess Naz. “We have done little things like making sure standards are set so we can bridge the gap between us and the top three.”
Former Manchester United defender Amy Turner was a shrewd addition from Orlando Pride, alongside German midfielder Ramona Petzelberger and ex-Chelsea striker Drew Spence, who scored on her debut in the win over Leicester last weekend.
Manager Rehanne Skinner said her team were “definitely pushing” to be in a position to qualify for the Champions League but has not put a timescale on it.
“If you’re not trying to get to the top of the table then what are you doing really? We certainly want to keep improving on the things we did last season,” she added.
‘Let’s not write Manchester City off’
Injuries dampened City’s season in 2021-22. They ended the season strongly to claim third and qualify for Europe but it was still the first time in eight years they did not finish as one of the WSL’s top two.
That meant they had to compete in the qualification rounds of the Champions League and they failed to progress for a second successive season with defeat by Real Madrid in August.
The goal which knocked them out was scored by Scotland’s Caroline Weir – one of several high-profile players to leave City in the summer.
Also exiting the club were England midfielders Georgia Stanway and Keira Walsh, who joined Barcelona for a world record fee, following defender Lucy Bronze to the Spanish side, while striker Ellen White announced her retirement.
They recruited some exciting talent from abroad, including Australia forward Mary Fowler, but with only 22 games in a WSL season means they have little time to settle.
Questions were asked of Taylor before last weekend’s defeat and City’s performance did little to address those concerns.
“They lost their starting midfielders. When you look at the names that went out they had leadership, maturity and WSL-winning experience. You can’t replace that,” said former England defender Laura Bassett.
“You can replace them with talent from overseas but do they know the league and the physicality of it? It takes time to evolve and settle in.
“But let’s not write Manchester City off. They had a tough time last season then went 13 games unbeaten and finished third. There is a lot of work to do for City, and they will know that.”