|Women’s Super League|
|Dates: Opening fixtures on Saturday, 7 September & Sunday, 8 September|
|Coverage: The Women’s Football Show returns on Sunday, 8 Sep, at 19:00 BST on BBC Four, repeated at 22:30 on BBC One, and also available on the BBC iPlayer|
Arsenal won their first Women’s Super League title since 2012 last season, but can they hold off their rivals again this term?
As the new campaign begins on Saturday, we asked six BBC Sport pundits to pick their top four, with explanations for their selections.
The Gunners, Chelsea and Manchester City have dominated the silverware at the top of the English women’s game in recent years, and all six of our pundits are predicting they will lock out the top three again.
However, four are expecting last year’s runners-up, Manchester City, to drop out of the Champions League places and finish third.
Newcomers Manchester United have received some backing to break straight into the top four, while Reading and Birmingham City have also been tipped for fourth spot.
‘It could even come down to goal-difference’
Former England defender Laura Bassett:
Champions: “It’s going to be a lot tighter between Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City, but not qualifying for the Champions League will have hurt Chelsea, so they’ll be like a wounded animal and they can fully concentrate on domestic competitions. They will miss Karen Carney’s leadership after her retirement, but also it’s a chance for others to step up.”
Runners-up: “Arsenal will be so competitive in all competitions and I’m convinced they will win some silverware this season, but their downfall might be their amount of games. That fixture list can take its toll. They have brought in some fantastic players – I’m really looking forward to seeing the Netherlands midfielder Jill Roord – but with so many players and their strength in depth, how is Joe Montemurro going to keep them all happy?”
Third: “The top three teams are still ahead of the rest, but Man City have lost England winger Nikita Parris, who has been such a consistent performer for many years. With 19 goals and seven assists in the league last season, she contributed to more than half of their goals, so her move to Lyon will leave such a big hole. Nevertheless, I’m hoping Georgia Stanway has another fantastic season, while it’s also a big year for Lauren Hemp.”
Fourth: “With such a good, balanced blend of strong, experienced players, Reading are a reliable, efficient machine. They have innovative set-pieces, and great game-management, so they know how to be difficult for other teams to face.”
Arsenal ‘have not rested on their laurels’
Former England goalkeeper Rachel Brown-Finnis:
Champions: “Arsenal were absolutely scintillating last season and Switzerland midfielder Lia Walti coming back from injury for them is huge. Their defence and goalkeeper departments needed boosting and Joe Montemurro has done that, but they have not just brought in average players – they have brought in top-class players. They haven’t rested on their laurels.”
Runners-up: “I expected more from Chelsea last season. They’ll be desperate to get back into Europe. They have not made too many signings but they have got a depth to their squad and Emma Hayes is very forward-thinking and innovative. Last season, they struggled after Katie Chapman retired – will they struggle again after Carney’s retirement? I think they’ll manage that better than last year.”
Third: “It’s the most competitive season we’ve ever had, and I feel Man City might slip down the order this season. Nikita Parris was a huge player for them, plus Abbie McManus and Jen Beattie have gone. Nevertheless, they have brought in good players, like young overlapping Portuguese full-back Matilde Fidalgo, and it’s going to be brilliant to see their local rivalry with Man Utd.”
Fourth: “It’s a bit of a left-field one, and we won’t know what their consistency of form is going to be like until they’re regularly coming up against WSL opponents, but from what I saw last season, Man Utd really have some good talents. United do things right, and it’s great to see a young female coach like Casey Stoney really giving back to the game straight away. I also like their fans, their Barmy Army – I’m excited to see them on tour, because they will help increase the crowds.”
‘Wounded Chelsea’ to reclaim crown?
Former England and Chelsea midfielder Karen Carney:
Champions: “Chelsea always respond well when they haven’t won anything. They will be wounded. They won’t be playing Champions League football, so they will only play one game a week and that’s really easy to prepare for. Arsenal had that situation last year. Your training week is much better and you don’t have to manage recovery and travel.”
Runners-up: “With such a good, expansive squad, the challenge for Arsenal is can they win it two seasons in a row? Everyone will be coming down on them as the team to beat. Last season, they had such a strong start that nobody could catch them up. Jordan Nobbs coming back into the team will be helpful too.”
Third: “Man City will be up there again. I just think they need to increase their goal tally. I worry with Ellen White out injured, who will pick up the rest of their goals? There’s big pressure on Georgia Stanway and Lauren Hemp and they are just kids. But they are a top team with amazing players. Defensively they are solid and I really like the manager [Nick Cushing] – he knows how to get results. But again, will European football go against the squad?”
Fourth: “Reading need to have a good season. They have been there or thereabouts for a while. They have some good players but need to get back the identity they had a few seasons ago because they weren’t themselves when we [Chelsea] played them last season. There are lots of big players in the squad so I expect more from them this year.”
‘Manchester United can be a big success’
BBC commentator Robyn Cowen:
Champions: “Montemurro has shown what an astute coach he is since coming in to Arsenal two years ago. He expertly navigated the Gunners to their first title since 2012 despite a multitude of injuries. Their squad depth nearly cost them last season but, with the signings of proven internationals Beattie, Leonie Maier and Roord, along with the return of talismanic midfielder Nobbs, they have plenty of cover to cope should the worst happen again.”
Runners-up: “Failing to secure European football would have hurt Emma Hayes and Chelsea. Yet the fact they won’t be playing in Europe may help their cause. The retirement of Carney is a big blow, but new signing Guro Reiten impressed during the World Cup. And of course, if they can keep Fran Kirby fit, they’re a match for anyone.”
Third: “Man City have been consistently brilliant in domestic competitions, but will the high turnover of players affect them this season? They will continue to be hard to beat – defender Aoife Mannion from Birmingham is an exceptional signing – but ultimately too many draws cost them the title last season and that may be their downfall again.”
Fourth: “I’m confident Man Utd can be a big success in their first WSL campaign. Their recruitment has been excellent, adding Mary Earps, Hayley Ladd, Jane Ross and Jackie Groenen, who are all proven at the highest level. They also possess one of the most natural talents in forward Lauren James. At 17, she’s only going to get better. Most importantly, their coach Stoney is a born leader, destined to manage England one day.”
‘A few teams are in with a shout of fourth’
Former England winger Sue Smith:
Champions: “I loved how Joe Montemurro and his Arsenal team went about winning the league last year, playing some lovely football, and this year they’ve strengthened again to cope with European football. Maier is a top signing who will add experience and quality to the side, with lots of energy from full-back, and Roord adds competition to an already-excellent midfield.”
Runners-up: “It’s a difficult call between Man City and Chelsea but I feel White will make the difference. She is a super-clinical, ultra professional who, as we saw in the World Cup, can have one chance and score. She will lead by example from the front. Laura Coombs is another good signing, from the heartbeat of Liverpool’s midfield, and will fit in with the way City want to play.”
Third: “Chelsea have not really added depth this summer, but arguably have one of the best squads in the league, so they won’t make the same mistakes they did last year. The retiring Carney will be a big loss on and off the field, but I expect Beth England – who has just made her England debut – to have another fine campaign.”
Fourth: “This is difficult because there are a few teams in with a shout, including Man Utd, but it is a huge step up from the Championship. West Ham again recruited well under Matt Beard’s guidance, but I just feel Reading have the edge, with their really good set-up, their good manager [Kelly Chambers] and quality players with a mix of youth and experience.”
‘Arsenal’s Dutch stars will shine again’
BBC commentator Vicki Sparks:
Champions: “After a seven-year wait for the title, the most decorated club in English women’s football are back with a bang – and I expect them to stay there. Arsenal’s attacking play is sublime, and Montemurro seems to know just how to get the best out of a very talented squad. Nobbs’ return is a major boost, and Vivianne Miedema and Danielle van de Donk are set to shine again.”
Runners-up: “Last season’s runners-up Man City may have lost top scorer Parris, but there aren’t many strikers that you’d rather replace her with than White. She was scintillating at the World Cup, but her knee surgery is an early blow to their hopes. No-one could accuse City of being a one-player team, however, and if Stanway and Caroline Weir can keep the goals going in during White’s absence then they’ll be strong contenders as usual.”
Third: “Make no mistake – 2018 double winners Chelsea will be going all out for the title, after missing out on European football for the first time since 2013. They’ve been the least active of last season’s top three in the transfer market, but this is a squad that gave holders Lyon a run for their money in the Champions League semi-finals last season. Expect them to push hard once again.”
Fourth: “Outside of the ‘big three’, Birmingham City have largely been the ‘best of the rest’ recently. This season will be a different test, however, with several senior players departing – most crucially, White. Their pedigree suggests staying power, but given their squad overhaul I expect them to be pushed much harder this time around. Keep an eye out for Everton, who endured a difficult 2018-19 but have brought in real quality over the summer – as have newly-promoted Man Utd, despite losing captain Alex Greenwood to Lyon.”
BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame this summer to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women’s sport available to watch across the BBC this summer, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women’s sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.