New Champions League group stage has exposed some of the WSL’s bluster
There is often discussion and debate, friendly and fiery, over which league tops the rest in terms of competitive balance, investment and the quality of the product on the pitch. In many ways these are abstract discussions to which we will never really have a clear answer. That is in part because women’s football is not a static beast but a living, breathing creature with its development constantly in flux and uneven, which means finding a fair barometer is close to impossible.
Some, mainly in the US and prompted by frustrations at the lack of US or US-based players in the Guardian top 100 female footballers, pointed recently to the success of the NWSL’s Portland Thorns over Lyon in this summer’s Women’s International Champions Cup to champion the US league’s superiority over European leagues. The reigning European champions, Barcelona, were beaten there by their predecessors, Lyon, and the Thorns progressed to the final against Lyon having beaten Houston Dash on penalties. Except that is a friendly tournament, played in the middle of the US season but in the European pre-season, and far from a true competitive test between the continents.
The new Champions League group stage, though, has given us a much clearer and less distorted view of the state of play among Europe’s top leagues.
The exit of Chelsea, who suffered a 4-0 defeat at Wolfsburg on Thursday, Arsenal’s struggle out of their group with bruising 4-1 and 4-0 defeats by Barcelona and a 4-1 loss to Germany’s third-place side Hoffenheim, plus Manchester City’s earlier qualifying campaign collapse against Real Madrid have helped to put the strength of the Women’s Super League into the spotlight.
There are contributing factors to the European struggles of WSL teams. City have spent much of the season battling an injury crisis and had not played a friendly before their qualifying campaign opener on 31 August. Arsenal’s surprise loss to Hoffenheim came not long after an FA Cup final collapse against Chelsea and a second defeat by Barcelona which have rattled confidence. The Gunners are also only four months into a first season under Jonas Eidevall and have suffered a spate of injuries.
Chelsea, Champions League runners-up last season, were in the toughest group, with Juventus and Wolfsburg as well as the Swiss side Servette, and their emphatic 3-0 FA Cup final win over Arsenal was followed three days later by a leggy 0-0 home draw with Juventus, then by a shock 1-0 loss to Reading in the league and the capitulation in Wolfsburg.
The WSL is increasingly competitive, as Brighton’s and Tottenham’s rise, Chelsea’s loss to Reading and Spurs’s point against Arsenal have shown. That causes problems for teams competing in Europe. The schedule is heavy but with fewer easy games there is little opportunity to ease off around European fixtures to prioritise them.
That is not a problem unique to England. Wolfsburg drew with Bayer Leverkusen before they welcomed Chelsea and have played as many games since the international break, albeit a straightforward league game rather than a cup final. Their performances in a first European campaign are a testament to the growing competitiveness of the Frauen Bundesliga.
In addition to an increase in the number of games between September and December as a result of the welcome introduction of a Champions League group stage, Chelsea and Arsenal have had the 2020-21 FA Cup run to finish this season – a hangover from the Covid-delayed campaigns – and it was cruel timing that the final fell straight after an international break and before the penultimate round of Champions League games.
Despite these woes, though, the manner of Chelsea’s exit and the way Arsenal limped over the line in a 4-1 defeat are inexcusable for teams boasting deep squads and with the lofty ambition of lifting Europe’s premier prize.
In many respects the new group stage has exposed the bluster of the WSL. It is a well-financed and growing league. However, the league’s top clubs have not pulled clear of the rest of Europe’s top teams as a result of the large support for the league, far from it, and until the clubs have the same or greater ideological and financial buy-in as Europe’s other elite clubs that gap will remain.
In previous editions of the competition this was masked. Progress to the latter stages, where the big teams would finally meet, was straightforward and teams could point to their quarter-final or semi-final forays as signs of growth. A late exit, a tight result, being one or two steps removed from the cup, all painted a rosy picture.
Now, with big teams going head-to-head early on, and with the world watching thanks to a broadcast deal with Dazn and YouTube that means every game is streamed for free, the view is less forgiving.