Goals were easy to come by for Manchester City as they continued their eye-catching home form against Brighton. Chloe Kelly played a starring role as Gareth Taylor’s side cruised to victory and deepened Brighton’s troubles near the bottom of the table.
An early own goal from Veatriki Sarri sent City on their way before Julie Blakstad and Laura Coombs added to the tally. Brighton pulled one back late on through Lee Guem-min.
“It was a good win,” Taylor, the City manager, said. “I think we looked a bit slow in the first five minutes, but the goal settled us. Our set-play delivery was really good today and then after that we scored two excellent goals.
“I would say the second half was a bit too loose from us in possession … I’m just disappointed that we’ve not added more goals to our performance. But it keeps us right in touch and that’s the really pleasing thing.”
Taylor’s side have been somewhat flying under the radar this season, but their form has been noteworthy. Plenty of turnover in the summer and injury issues led to disruption early on but his side are unbeaten since September and evidently heading in the right direction. With the league’s joint top scorer in Bunny Shaw spearheading their attack they have made the Academy Stadium a fortress, winning the past eight at home.
City were clear favourites with the weight of history and Brighton’s inconsistent form on their side. They have won all but one of their previous league encounters against the Seagulls, scoring 34 goals and conceding just three. Amy Merricks’ side have been scoring more recently but are predictably leaky at the back.
This trend continued in the first half with City dominant throughout. Kelly ran Brighton’s defensive line ragged with her dancing feet and driving offensive play. The England forward is still searching for her first domestic goal of the season and seemed determined to break that run. It appeared she had in the 11th minute as her dipping corner ended up in the back of the net only for it later to be marked as an own goal against Sarri, who had got a touch at the near post.
Kelly continued to be City’s main attacking outlet and was the instigator of their second goal. With another driving run down the right she beat both Poppy Pattinson and Lee before setting up Blakstad for a diving header. It was the 21-year-old’s fifth goal of the season as she continues to make an impact.
With less than half an hour on the clock, City were three up and in cruise control. Coombs, known as a strong box-to-box midfielder, produced a sublime top‑corner finish that flew past the outstretched Megan Walsh.
With a comfortable lead, City could afford to take their foot off the gas in the second half. Taylor was also able to give minutes to his bench, with Kelly brought off, among others.
Brighton proved a sterner opposition in the second, with Danielle Carter coming close to pulling one back for her side. They got their consolation at the death when Lee poked home in the 93rd minute. For her part, Merricks was impressed by the improvements her side made in the game, providing them with a platform to build on.
“I think in the first half there were some key areas that we needed to improve on,” Brighton’s interim manager said. “I think we did that at half-time and came out better in the second. The players really applied themselves and were committed to the idea of what we wanted to do … Obviously, they’re going to have opportunities. I think we limited that, and we created [opportunities]. We can hold our heads up high today in terms of how we showcased ourselves.”
Despite this consolation, it was a comfortable victory for City as they closed the gap on the top of the table. Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium await them next weekend, an occasion that will prove a real test of their title credentials.
It took a stunning strike from Dutch record goalscorer Vivianne Miedema to give the Gunners a narrow win at home to Everton, but the scoreline made the league meeting look far less comfortable than it ultimately was.
“I felt OK until the last five minutes,” said Arsenal’s manager, Jonas Eidevall. “I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t put the game to rest because we had chances to do it.”
Despite the utter dominance of the home team in this fixture, with the Gunners having won the past 13 games against Everton, scoring 36 and conceding six, number 14 (which would be the longest winning run of one team over another in the WSL) was not a foregone conclusion.
Everton are a renewed force under Brian Sørensen and while it is taking time to show in their results, the fledgling signs of growth are there.
Meanwhile, Arsenal fell to a first league defeat last time out in the WSL, losing 3-2 to Manchester United at the Emirates Stadium and ending an 18-game unbeaten run and 14-game winning streak.
“Winning is strong for the team,” said Eidevall when asked how important the result was. “We see a team here in an adverse moment that we are hopefully on the verge of turning around with players returning, but I think we have been managing a difficult period so far very well, and that’s important if you want to build a winning team.”
For Sørensen, it was a sign of growth that they held Arsenal to one goal for so long. “It’s probably where we are,” he said. “They are a really good team and we had a chance to go away with a point but we weren’t sharp enough.”
Against United the absence of Kim Little, who picked up an MCL injury in Arsenal’s defeat of West Ham in October, felt like one too many. She joined Lina Hurtig, Leah Williamson, Rafaelle Souza and Teyah Goldie in the treatment room, while Beth Mead ruptured her ACL in the team’s first loss of the season to join them.
It was a welcome sight for Arsenal fans then, to see influential centre-back duo Williamson and Souza back in the matchday squad for the visit of the Merseyside team, who themselves could recall Nicoline Sørensen to the squad for the first time since her ACL injury.
The Gunners dominated from the off, as they have so consistently this season, but they lacked bite up top, giving Everton hope when they got rare opportunities on the counterattack. The fluid formation of the Toffees would see them drop into a back five whenever Arsenal pushed towards the final third, meaning options were limited. Despite being in control, after 20 minutes each team only had one shot apiece, with neither on target.
It needed something special and then it happened. Miedema, making her first league start since Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat of Reading on 16 October, and having benefited from a rest over the international break, collected from Caitlin Foord who, with her back to goal, shielded the ball into the feet of the WSL record goalscorer. Miedema cut onto her right foot before lashing into the top far corner.
Arsenal should have doubled their lead in the second half, when goalkeeper Emily Ramsey, on loan from Manchester United, pulled off an impressive double save to deny Miedema before being beaten by a third consecutive effort only for a blue shirt to clear off the line.
With 20 minutes remaining Williamson would enter the fray in place of Jen Beattie and instantly blasted the ball clear to the delight of the home crowd.
With a chance to go top of the Women’s Super League table for the first time this season following Manchester United’s 3-2 defeat of Arsenal, Emma Hayes back in the dugout, and Stamford Bridge bouncing, it has been a good weekend for Chelsea. And a comfortable 3-0 defeat of Tottenham ensured the team leapfrogged United and Arsenal, which was the cherry on top.
Since a shock opening-day defeat against Liverpool, Chelsea have cruised to the summit and, while performances have not quite had last year’s swagger, they have been brutally efficient. It was no different at Stamford Bridge, which was scheduled to host the sellout opening game of the season against West Ham before that match was postponed following the death of the Queen and tickets transferred to this fixture.
Hayes said she would “like to be here more” and that the “audiences are here for maybe eight to 12 games a year” when asked about bringing her team back to Stamford Bridge. “We all know that [there is a] conundrum in the women’s game around what we do,” she said. “From small stadia, is there a medium-term plan to go to medium-size stadiums before eventually everyone comes home to the large stadium? I don’t know, but I’m absolutely certain we’re all outgrowing our small stadiums. The players want to play here more but I really believe we have to increase the overall pricing structure if we’re to play more in these places, because there is a cost implication to it.”
The visiting north London side, contending with a number of injuries, began more brightly but it took just 12 minutes for Chelsea to quash hopes of an upset. The centre-back Millie Bright, deep in her own half, lofted the ball towards Sam Kerr and the dynamic Australian forward shrugged off the challenge of Shelina Zadorsky before firing coolly past Tinja-Riikka Korpela.
It was a welcome sight for Hayes, who was glued to the edge of her technical area for the duration having missed Chelsea’s preceding six games in all competitions while she recovered from an emergency hysterectomy after a long battle with endometriosis.
“First half I felt fine, second half my back was killing me, when it got cold, but I feel like I hadn’t been away,” Hayes said. “Someone asked me earlier how many games of football I’ve coached in my career and I couldn’t tell you, but it’d be over 1,000 I suspect. It just felt like I was going back out to my family and I felt like a spectator for the most part and just gave little bits of information as and when necessary. I really enjoyed it.”
Chelsea had won five games in succession against their London rivals before their trip to Stamford Bridge and outscored them 12 to two. That balance looked unlikely to shift: Spurs have struggled for consistency and they are lacking an out and out striker with Kit Graham injured. Instead, partnering Jess Naz up top was the former Chelsea defensive midfielder Drew Spence who, alongside Ash Neville, is Tottenham’s joint top scorer with three goals.
“In terms of the squad depth, some of the challenges we’ve faced over the course of this season is creating a few issues with how many options we’ve got in and around the squad,” the Spurs manager, Rehanne Skinner, said. “Overall, every transfer window we’ve just got to keep evolving the squad so we’re in a more consistent position to compete with these teams and take chances when we get them.”
Chelsea’s second was as stylish as the first, with the ball dropping to Erin Cuthbert on the end of the area and the Scot sending a looping strike dipping down under the crossbar and in.
Less than 10 minutes later the home team had a third, with Guro Reiten stepping up to convert from the spot after Neville clipped the heel of the majestic Lauren James in the box. Chelsea continued their dominance in the second half but struggled to break through the renewed resilience of the Tottenham back line.
Chelsea move three points clear, albeit having played a game more, while Spurs are back to the drawing board having failed again to string together two consecutive league wins this season.
Alessia Russo’s injury-time header helped Manchester United recover from a second-half collapse to end Arsenal’s perfect start to the season and draw them level at the top in a thrilling 3-2 win at the Emirates Stadium.
In front of the second-largest WSL crowd of 40,604, after the 47,367 that attended Arsenal’s defeat of Tottenham at the Emirates, United took the lead through Ella Toone late in the first half before Arsenal struck back in the second. Frida Maanum drew Arsenal level before Laura Wienroither gave them the lead.
United flipped the script though, with Katie Zelem delivering twice from set pieces, first for Millie Turner, then Russo to send the hefty away contingent wild.
Manchester United manager, Marc Skinner, had urged his team to step up against the top teams before this game. “As a group, we have to keep pushing each other because we want to be in these games, winning these types of games even though we know how difficult that is to do,” Skinner said.
In the reverse fixture against Arsenal last season, a 79th minute goal from Arsenal’s Swedish forward Stina Blackstenius denied the visiting side a huge three points at Borehamwood after Alessia Russo’s first-half opener.
Skinner said his team’s growth has been huge since that 1-1 draw but, ultimately, the real test of that growth will be reflected on at Christmas, after they have played Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City in three of their last four games before the winter pause.
The international break has taken its toll on the increasingly depleted Arsenal but centre-back Lotte Wubben-Moy was fit enough, following a mild quad strain, to return to partner Steph Catley at the back with Leah Williamson and Rafaelle both still out with foot injuries. Jordan Nobbs, Beth Mead, Manuela Zinsberger and Laura Wienroither all also started despite all suffering injuries at different points during the break.
United, meanwhile, welcomed back Ona Batlle for the trip to London with the right-back having not played since mid-October.
You could have been forgiven for thinking the visiting team in green were the unbeaten side that is flying in the league in the first half, rather than a team emerging from a tough defeat to Chelsea. United were slick and rampant and the Gunners gifted them possession in the middle far too often, with the trio of Nobbs, Maanum and Lia Wälti struggling – the influential captain, Kim Little, who has a knee injury, an obvious miss.
It looked like United could having been following a similar path of one trod often under Skinner – of not capitalising on a strong first half performance – but a richly deserved goal to given them the lead came six minutes before the break, having won possession in the middle the ball was played wide to Hayley Ladd on the right and the midfielder swung a cross to the back post where the unmarked Toone, who had snuck in behind Wubben-Moy, sidefooted in.
Their profligacy would be punished instantly in the second half though, as Maanum hustled the ball from Nikita Parris inside the centre circle before gliding towards the edge of the area and sending in a shot that would loop off centre-back Maya Le Tissier and in. Arsenal had come out of the dressing room fighting, playing with an intensity sorely lacking in the first half and United were rattled. A hefty but fair challenge on Parris by Caitlin Foord in front of the United technical area resulted in Skinner receiving a yellow card for remonstrating with the referee.
After the hour mark Vivienne Miedema came on, in place of Nobbs, after she was rested for Arsenal’s 4-0 defeat of Leicester and the international break.
Hard work from Miedema would lead to Arsenal’s second, having broken in on the left the Dutch forward was forced to shift the ball backwards to Foord, who fed Katie McCabe who swung the ball to the back post where Wienroither volleyed in her first goal for Arsenal from close range.
Right to her core, Ashleigh Plumptre is a Leicester City player. Growing up in Melton Mowbray, about a 30 minutes’ drive from the city, the 24-year-old defender played for the club’s centre of excellence from the age of eight to 14, having started playing a few years earlier for a local girls’ side.
“I was one of those kids that just always wanted to be active,” Plumptre says. She recalls getting home from school, dropping off her bags before playing football outside until “my mum would say I had to be home for dinner”.
As a teenager she temporarily left her hometown club, where she would later sign her first professional contract. As Leicester’s senior women were relegated from the third tier in 2013, Plumptre was tempted by Birmingham, a founding member of the Women’s Super League, where she joined their under-17 squad. After that followed a brief period at Derby, before she joined Notts County, who were then a WSL side.
In 2016, Plumptre moved to the US on a scholarship at the University of Southern California, where she majored in human biology. Her college side won the National Championship that year and were invited to the White House. Of that time, she says: “It influenced so many things in my life, and not just football, I found out more about myself, what I’m passionate about.”
But her ambitions never strayed far from returning to Leicester. By this point, the club had risen through the ranks to the Championship. After graduating in 2019 and despite interest from a few WSL sides, Plumptre was set on Leicester. Her father, also her agent, approached the club directly. The deal she signed has since extended it until at least next June.
“[It] meant a lot to me to sign for Leicester because it was the club I’ve always supported and I grew up here,” she says. “I felt valued here, and I felt like I had a purpose here in trying to bring success to the club.”
After joining, Plumptre played a key role in securing Leicester’s promotion to the WSL for the 2021-22 season. Money likely helped, too: her team went fully professional in August 2020, after it was bought by King Power. “All the investment … it showed in the players that we brought in, and [promotion] was everybody’s mindset from the beginning,” she says.
Football, though, is far more than just a sport to Plumptre. “I have to have a purpose in it,” she says. “I struggle just to play it.” Case in point: she is an ambassador for Menphys, a local charity supporting young people with disabilities, which has supported her brother, who is autistic. (Plumptre has two younger brothers and a sister, all half-siblings.)
It was also in this mindset that, during the coronavirus lockdowns, Plumptre began thinking more about her Nigerian heritage: her paternal grandfather was born in Lagos.
Soon, she was talking to her 12-year-old sister about it. “Even though we have the same dad, we both have a Nigerian dad and a white mum, she looks a little different to me and has experienced things in school that I never had,” she says. “Most people just assume that I’m white. I identify as being mixed heritage. But my sister … she identifies as being black.”
“I felt a bit helpless in that,” she says of learning about her sister’s experiences. Plumptre had played for England’s youth squads, including at Under-23 level but this year switched her allegiance to Nigeria, making her official debut in February. She says: “That’s where I’m like: ‘OK, Nigeria would be good for me to do because then I can experience the culture more, I can come back and teach her about our heritage.’ That was the trigger for me.”
Having not visited Nigeria until last year, Plumptre has embraced playing for the west African country. “I love the culture, I honestly love everything about being in Nigeria,” she says. She has also “realised how lucky I’ve been to just have been born in this country, the opportunities that I’ve been blessed with”. She adds: “My Nigerian teammates, for example, they’ve worked so hard but sometimes they don’t get the same opportunities based upon the teams that they’re playing in, the lack of exposure that they have. It’s a privilege to play with them.” Next year, she hopes to make the squad to represent Nigeria at the World Cup.
Back at Leicester, Plumptre faces a turbulent season ahead. With her side having lost their first seven matches, a relegation battle looks likely. But after fighting off the drop last season, she’s hopeful. “We know how it feels and we know how to get out of it so ultimately everybody is pretty much keeping the faith,” she says. “We know we can get results.”
What else does she want to achieve? “I just want to have an impact by being myself, I don’t really know what that looks like yet,” she says. “I want to help people, that’s all.”
Get to know the players in England’s top flight better with our WSL player in focus series. Read all our interviews here.
“It shows how much more powerful love can be than hate,” Beth Mead says as she reflects on a year of tumult and glory which has changed her life. The Arsenal striker won the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament as she helped England become European champions in the summer but also had to endure the pain of her mother’s cancer and the upsetting memory of how, last year, she had been excluded from the GB squad at the Olympic Games.
Those football woes, and her worry and care for her mum, meant that Mead began last season in a frame of mind which, I suggest, seemed to fuse anger and love. The 27-year-old replaces “anger” with an even starker word in “hate” as she conveys her hurt. “I would say me hating that situation I was in [after missing the Olympics and with her England future unsettled] was my main motivator in pre-season. But the perspective of what my mum is going through meant I needed to snap out of it, stop being a baby and enjoy my football again. I wanted to find the enjoyment I had as a six-year-old girl when I started playing football.”
Mead smiles on a dark afternoon at Arsenal’s training ground as she says: “A lot of people have mentioned that the last year was a revenge tour for me. Actually, it’s been more of a love tour.”
She has just written a book where the most moving pages emerge in a chapter about her mum’s cancer. The situation is so raw that Mead asks not to talk about her mother in too much detail. Even the memory of how she found out that her mum was ill, when Mead answered her phone while having a bath, is bruising and still very painful. “I felt dazed, winded. I put the phone down reeling with shock, unable to register everything Mum had just said to me. My tears mingled with the bathwater until I couldn’t tell which was which.”
Mead explains that the brave and stoical way in which her mother has confronted the disease inspires her. She has spent all year “trying to put a smile on my mum’s face. Obviously this summer was incredible, to share that moment with her when we won the Euros. I try to find where my parents are during the warm-up to every game. But for me to get to them straight after the final was special because all I wanted was to share that moment with them. We had so many happy tears but lots of emotion came out about the struggles I’ve had throughout. We were thinking of everything that went before that moment and for us to share that together in front of a packed-out Wembley was incredible.”
Mead’s voice remains steady when I ask how her mum is coping with her treatment. “She’s in hospital at the moment. There’s obviously a lot of repercussions about management of chemo. It’s taking its toll on her a little bit but she’s doing OK.”
The admirable way in which Jen Beattie, her Arsenal teammate, has kept playing football while recovering from breast cancer has been a source of comfort and hope for Mead. “Jen’s been amazing. All the Arsenal girls and the staff have been incredible to me but Jen’s experienced cancer. She understands how it affects the family as well as the person involved. She’s been great.”
Mead suffered anxiety as a young girl and her book captures how she sometimes claimed to be ill, or even developed psychosomatic symptoms, as she tried to avoid leaving home or going on England youth training camps. “They made me the player and person I am today,” she says of those early insecurities. “Lots of things unsettled me. I was very much a home girl with a great family around me. Leaving that was always difficult.”
At the same time Mead felt she “always had a point to prove. I’m still doing that to this day, to prove people wrong, but that set in from a very young age.”
Her formative years were spent playing for a boys’ team and she got used to the sniggers and mocking words when the opposition and their parents saw she was a girl. “It became the norm but I love playing football and as soon as I got on that pitch, over that white line, I didn’t hear them. By the end of most games, I had so much respect from the other boys and their parents.”
Life became more complicated as she began playing girls’ football. Her prodigious goalscoring meant that she was offered a chance to join Sunderland – which she initially resisted by telling her parents that, after throwing her kit and boots in the bin, she was giving up football. They were patient and helped her find the confidence to accept the opportunity. But when she was picked for England youth teams, “I would never sleep the night before. I curled up on the end of my mum and dad’s bed and then I would make up that I was sick or I made myself sick because I was that anxious and nervous.”
Even when she signed for Arsenal in 2017, at the age of 21, Mead found the transition from the north-east upsetting. She needed her mum to come south for a while to settle her homesickness. It did not take long for Mead’s talent to flourish and she was soon called up for the national side. She made her international debut in April 2018 and set up Ellen White’s equaliser in the World Cup semi-finals a year later. England eventually lost 2-1 to the United States in a defeat which Mead believes fired her and her teammates with the resolve they needed to become European champions.
Mead had a “love-hate” working relationship with Phil Neville when he was England manager. He recognised her potential but often warned Mead that she was “too nice” and needed to develop an angrier edge. That anger duly came when Neville’s replacement, Hege Riise, echoed an earlier England manager, Mark Sampson, in making it clear that she did not have much faith in Mead. Riise left a devastated Mead out of the GB Olympic squad.
“This was the first time I’d not been selected for a squad,” Mead says. “I struggled mostly with the reasoning she gave me. My bread-and-butter is being aggressive on the pitch, being on the front foot, winning balls back, and she basically told me that was the reason for me not going to the Olympics. For the next four weeks I was pretty low, not in a good place, and hated the way I was thinking. I didn’t want [GB] to do well even though I love some of the girls in that team. I was borderline depressed but then I got back for pre-season and things happened with my mum. I knew I had to stop being a child, snap out of it and work hard.”
Her new determination coincided with the arrival of Jonas Eidevall as Arsenal manager and he surprised Mead by suggesting she was good enough to win the Ballon d’Or. By the time the Euros were under way Mead, after an outstanding domestic season, was in superlative form. She picks out her hat-trick performance against Norway, when she was described in this newspaper as being “absolutely unplayable”, as the highpoint in terms of the sheer quality she produced in an 8-0 victory: “I felt I could have done anything and it would have gone right that day. That was a game where nobody was going to bring me down.”
She stresses that so much of England’s European triumph was down to Sarina Wiegman, who transformed the squad and an atmosphere which Mead describes as “flat” and “bitchy” towards the end of Neville’s tenure. “It was difficult for anyone to come in but she stamped her authority, and what she wants the culture and environment to look like, as soon as she got here,” Mead says of the Dutch coach.
“In a short period she changed the environment to one we love. Sarina has this amazing knack of helping you know exactly where you stand and her communication is impeccable. She also has this incredible ability to make you feel so calm as a team and an individual when it’s a high-pressure moment. In the changing room before the final she was as calm as you like. She is just an incredible human being and obviously she’s won a Euro championship before in her home country.”
Mead stresses that the quarter-final against Spain was England’s most difficult match of the tournament. “Germany in the final was hard but coming from behind against Spain, and getting the equaliser so late before going on to win, was so tough.”
Spain were without arguably the best player in the world as Alexia Putellas missed most of last season with a bad knee injury. Putellas’s absence from top-flight football meant that Mead should really have won the Ballon d’Or as the European game’s most prestigious individual prize is meant to be awarded to the player who achieved most in the preceding season. “Yes,” Mead says simply. “I didn’t think I was that invested in it until I came second and it was so close, by one vote. It was something like 163 points for her and 162 for me. Considering what we did at the Euros, and my individual achievements, I could have won it. But I’m even more hungry to win things now.”
Winning the World Cup next year is Mead’s and England’s next testing target. But I am curious as to why there are so few black players in England’s squad. Mead shakes her head when asked whether this anomaly suggests there might be a residual issue of racial prejudice in the development of English women’s football: “I think it’s completely coincidental. We put out our best 11 and you don’t think of anyone’s race or anything like that. I think that’s more an outsider’s perspective.”
Mead, who has spoken out against homophobia in Qatar, where the men’s World Cup is about to be played, highlights how healthy the women’s game is in regard to sexuality. “I’d love to bridge that gap to make it more normal [in men’s football], but it’s a culture,” she says. “The men’s game needs to catch up and get in the 21st century. As women we don’t sit there and put out a big fancy statement that we’ve got a girlfriend or we’re gay, bisexual or whatever. We’re normal human beings. If you’re happy it doesn’t matter who you fall in love with.”
Mead is settled in her private life as she and Vivianne Miedema, the brilliant Dutch striker and her Arsenal teammate who was also nominated for the Ballon d’Or, have a happy relationship off the field. Their parents first met each other in Zwolle in 2007 when Miedema and Mead made their international youth debuts in the same under-15 game between the Netherlands and England. “Small world, eh?” Mead says with a grin. “It’s crazy because we both scored and our families met.”
It still took years for them to fall in love because Miedema’s arrival at Arsenal came just as Mead was trying to establish herself. “Obviously I had to move positions [and play in a wide role rather than as the central striker] because Queen Viv came in.”
Mead laughs. “It worked out well because that position suits me much more. In our first few years we weren’t jumping with excitement for each other but things have worked out great for us. We know and understand each other’s life and schedule and expectations and we’re pretty good at being able to switch off and not bring football into the house. I was buzzing about the Ballon d’Or, as it was my first, but Viv did remind me it was her fourth.”
She is still worried about her mum, and adjusting to fame, but Mead sounds secure as she says: “The football pitch has always been my safe space and that’s still true today. It’s the place where I switch off and enjoy myself. You’re supposed to call it a job but I just love it. I don’t think too many people in the world can say that every day.”
The gap between Manchester United and Chelsea is closing, but the WSL champions emphasised their continued superiority over United with a hard-earned 3-1 defeat of their title challengers.
It was fitting, somewhat, that the former United starlet Lauren James scored Chelsea’s important second goal in front of a record home crowd of 6,186. James was the talisman of a United team looking to power to the top after being re-formed in 2018, but she spent much of last season on the bench for Chelsea, with Emma Hayes saying she was far from ready for a place in the first team.
James’s goal came four minutes after Sam Kerr had put the first goal past Mary Earps in the league this season. Alessia Russo’s strike helped spark United back to life but they could not find the leveller and Erin Cuthbert’s deflected strike in added time killed things.
Praising James, Chelsea’s general manager, Paul Green, who revealed Hayes would return to the dugout for the team’s game against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge after the international break, said: “We’ve got a hell of a player on our hands, and we just need to keep developing her the right way.”
James said: “It was sweet [scoring against my former club] … Sometimes the fans have booed me here. But I love Chelsea and I’m trying to do my best for them.”
United’s manager, Marc Skinner, said before kick-off that “the great thing about tonight is that we can cause them as many problems as they cause us”. That may have sounded fanciful given United are yet to beat Chelsea, home or away, since they won promotion to the WSL in 2019. Instead, United have now lost five and drawn once, with this fixture last season ending in a bruising 6-1 defeat, but his team are a far grittier beast this season.
At a bitterly cold and rain-swept Leigh Sports Village, where cars queued, barely moving, right up to kick-off to try and squeeze into the car parks that surround the isolated stadium, it was a tightly fought first half, with United edging possession (53%) and the sides having one shot on target apiece.
Chelsea could feel aggrieved to not have been awarded a penalty, with Maya Le Tissier crashing into Guro Reiten’s knee in the box, narrowly missing the ball.
“There was nothing really in it in the first half,” said Skinner. “Second half I felt we were outdone by lapses in concentration and their speed of thought was a little bit quicker than ours, especially at the back. We spoke about their movement, and we need to be better with that.”
On the hour mark came the first shot on target of the second half, and it resulted in Chelsea taking the lead. The usually solid Millie Turner gifted possession to Sophie Ingle and the midfielder found Kerr, who tucked into the bottom corner.
It was quickly followed by the second. Kerr, this time the provider, collected a ball over the top and raced clear on the left before cutting back for James to power in, the 21-year-old sliding to her knees in celebration in front of the United Barmy Army that so worshiped her when she wore red for three years.
United were rocked and the visiting side upped the ante, with Reiten crashing an effort off the post.
The reply came very much against the run of play, but it made the temporarily muted home crowd roar to life. This time it was a Chelsea error. Erin Cuthbert conceded the ball to Ella Toone and the United forward released Russo, who finished coolly past Ann-Katrin Berger.
Lifted by the goal United regained their composure and were threatening, but they could not breach the Chelsea backline again and Cuthbert atoned for her error sending a deflected effort past Earps.
United drop to third, three points behind Chelsea, who have played a game more, while Arsenal moved top after a 4-0 defeat of Leicester City.
Manchester United’s thrilling start to the Women’s Super League season, with five straight wins and five clean sheets, has put them top, with one goal separating them from second-place Arsenal. The run of the only team yet to concede has been somewhat unexpected, but should it be?
This is a United squad fuelled by disappointment, driven by a desire to avoid feeling the pain that has engulfed them at the end of the past two seasons. After a maiden WSL campaign under Casey Stoney, in which they finished fourth, 13 points off third-placed Arsenal, the regrets have been plentiful.
In their second season the team came agonisingly close to disrupting the triumvirate of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, finishing one point behind the Gunners, but they were still eight points off a Champions League spot. Last term the pain was more acute, with United at times favourites to secure third place and a spot in Champions League qualifying after a format change, only for City to pip them by five points. City charged to the line after a rocky start, but third was very much United’s to lose and they crumbled.
In the 10 games in which they dropped points (four losses and six draws) the team gave up a lead or conceded late in seven. In a 2-2 draw at home to City, goals from Lucy Staniforth and Alessia Russo helped United to come from behind before they conceded to Ellen White in the 79th minute.
Against Tottenham, Russo’s goal in the 45th minute was cancelled out by Ria Percival in the 90th. Ella Toone’s first-half strike against Everton was undone by Simone Magill in the second half.
After Russo had given United an early lead at Arsenal, they could not prevent Stina Blackstenius from scoring in the 79th minute. On course to take a point away at City, Marc Skinner’s side conceded in the 81st minute in February to lose 1-0.
Toone’s goal against West Ham was cancelled out by Grace Fisk’s 90th-minute effort and finally, on the last day, United twice led against the eventual champions, Chelsea, only to lose 4-2.
The way in which the team dropped points accentuated the pain. “I sat with you at the end of the season and said it hurts,” Skinner said after United’s professional and composed 3-0 defeat of Everton last Sunday. “Hurt drives the hunger – we’re hungry.”
Watching United’s defeat of a well-organised Everton, in a fixture they drew last term, was symbolic of their growth. It was a patient and composed performance. Where last season United fell away in second halves, here they turned the screw, goals from Hayley Ladd and Leah Galton extending their lead.
Ladd described the performances this season as “mature” after that match. The team have benefited from the confidence coursing through the veins of their four European champions. The goalkeeper Mary Earps was superb when called into action against Everton, Toone is the creative engine and Russo, when fit, and Nikita Parris have been firing. They understand how to beat the best and never say die like never before.
The true test of this new maturity and grit is to come, though. On Sunday comes the visit of Chelsea, who have won the past three titles and are level on points with United and Arsenal but have played a game more. Then, after the international break, United travel to Arsenal before hosting Aston Villa at Old Trafford and playing City at the Etihad in their final league games of 2022.
“That is what we are here for,” said Skinner, when asked about those fixtures. “We want to pitch ourselves against the teams that are, historically, the best in the country. We aspire to be there.”
For now, talk is of United being well in the hunt to get into the Champions League for the first time, but when does the conversation shift to the team being genuine title contenders? Perhaps it should have already.
Hope Powell has stepped down as manager of Brighton Women after Sunday’s 8-0 home defeat by Tottenham. The former England Women manager joined the club in July 2017 and led them to their best Women’s Super League finish of sixth in 2021.
The hammering by Spurs left Brighton second-bottom with one win and four defeats from their opening five league games. Powell’s team had faced each of the top three – Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea – in the opening weeks.
“We’ve had a very challenging start to the new season with many changes to our squad and results not going as we had all hoped,” Powell said in farewell comments to the club’s website. “Sunday’s heavy loss at home to Tottenham was particularly disappointing.
“As a club, we’ve made a lot of progress in the past five years, but I feel now is the right time to step aside and allow a new coach to take the team forward with plenty of Super League football still to play this season.”
Brighton said Amy Merricks, the assistant manager, would take charge at West Ham on Sunday, supported by Alex Penny and Perry Northeast.
Michelle Walder, chair of the women’s and girls’ football club board, said: “Hope’s contribution to the development of women’s and girls’ football at our club, and for the women’s game in this country, cannot be underestimated.
“Hope has established Brighton & Hove Albion in the Women’s Super League, has overseen the opening of a new state-of-the-art women’s and girls’ teams training facility at our club, and has undoubtedly inspired further generations of young girls to play football. We wish her well for the future.”
Brighton also finished ninth twice and seventh last season under Powell, who managed England from 1998 to 2013.
Manchester United returned to the summit of the WSL table and continued their unbeaten run with victory over Everton at Walton Hall Park.
Nikita Parris’s first-half goal against her former club was added to by Leah Galton and Hayley Ladd in the second half as United increased their goal difference to 14.
After missing out on a place in the Champions League by a single point last season, United are on a mission fuelled by being so close to the next milestone for the club.
This term, everything is clicking for Marc Skinner’s team. Even without injured forward Alessia Russo, who returned to the bench for the trip to Everton, the United train is rolling freely.
The trip to in-form Everton began a run of tough games that will put the new hardier Red Devils to the test. Next weekend, United host Chelsea and then after the international break the team travels to north London to play Arsenal.
Their opponents at a windy and rain-swept Walton Hall Park have been transformed by manager Brian Sorensen. The Danish manager joined the Toffees from Fortuna Hjorring in the summer, replacing former Lyon manager Jean-Luc Vasseur.
Vasseur had presided over a poor 10th-place finish, five places below their 2020-21 tally, with the Blues taking five wins and 20 points from 22 games.
Skinner was full of praise for Sorensen’s impact, warning that United needed to be “very careful” in the way they approached them. “Brian [Sorensen] has come in and done an excellent job in terms of changing the style of play, they’re much more based with the ball, very good at moving it and finding pockets of space,” he said.
Despite the threat of the home side, it took 13 minutes for United to break through the organised back three of Katrine Veje, Rikke Sevecke and Megan Finnigan.
Goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan, returned to the starting XI with United loanee Emily Ramsey ineligible, rose with defender Finnigan and United Galton but it was the forward that got to it first, heading down into the run of Parris who fired into the empty net.
Everton’s Gabby George forced a smart save from England goalkeeper Mary Earps almost instantly but despite the home side matching the visiting team in the middle, they struggled to carve out chances against the United back line.
There were two changes for Everton at the break, with Chelsea loanee Aggie Beever-Jones and Sweden’s Hanna Bennison off for Katja Snoeijs and Izzy Christiansen.
Whether it was the changes disrupting their rhythm or not, the Blues were made to work hard after the break and as United put their foot on the gas, Everton seemed to ease off theirs.
In the 55th minute the visiting team were rewarded for a patient and organised performance. Galton wrong-footed Finnigan, and nutmegged Sevecke as she fired in past Brosnan.
The third was another quality strike, Hayley Ladd collecting from Lucia Garcia before powering in from the edge of the box.
It was comfortable for Skinner’s side in the end, with Everton playing the last nine minutes with 10 players after Veje was forced off with an injury, and there was time for Russo to make her return from injury with 71 minutes on the clock.