Football

Leicester survive, Liverpool go down?

Leicester survive, Liverpool go down?
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Five-and-a-half matchdays into the Women’s Super League season, Leicester City are propping everyone else up, yet to take a point from their six league outings. After that come three teams on three points, and all will be hoping to avoid relegation.

Whilst it’s a little too early in the season to be clamouring, « Danger, danger, Will Robinson! » toward the likes of Reading or Liverpool, two of those teams on three points, five games in a 22-game season is still a substantial sample size.

For each team in the bottom third, there are plenty of questions and reasons to feel uncomfortable about where they stand. But each can still take positives from their performances so far and find a glimmer of hope for the remainder of the campaign — even second-bottom Brighton, who were demolished 8-0 by Tottenham over the weekend, have shown flashes of good football.

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Here is a look at the teams in the relegation zone of the 12-team WSL, including where it’s all gone wrong and where potential solutions may yet be found. Only the bottom club will be relegated — can Leicester pull out of it, or are they doomed to Championship?

Leicester: In last place and in need of balance

On the floor of the league sit the Foxes who, despite an initial uptick in results when Lydia Bedford took over as manager from Jonathan Morgan last season, have a desperately disappointing record in WSL.

The biggest problem for Leicester is their lack of goal threat: the Foxes focus so much of their attention on remaining compact off of the ball in their efforts to not concede, but the flip side is that they look so ill-prepared when they break forward . The inclusion of forward Natasha Flint in the starting XI against Reading at the weekend gave them a degree of incision, but even the attacker, who showed so much promise when she was younger, cannot be the magician that Leicester can depend upon for the bulk of their goals.

Rather, the team needs to find the balance between their nullifying defense with an ability to counter.

Brighton & Hove Albion: Changing managers won’t fix everything

Of the bottom three teams tied on three points — all with one win from their first five matches — Brighton & Hove Albion sit lowest on goal difference, a distinction they had even before their substantial loss against Spurs on Sunday.

For a team with lofty ambitions and high investment off of the pitch, Brighton languishing low in the table doesn’t quite add up. There are a number of questions in desperate need of an answer but no oracle in sight for the Seagulls, not least as they are now looking for a manager once again, a process that took over a year last time.

The wider problem for the Seagulls was never Hope Powell, who stepped down as manager after that 8-0 home thrashing, but losing players like defender Maya Le Tissier and midfielder Inessa Kaagman over the summer. Le Tissier went to Manchester United and Kaagman joined PSV, only Brighton failed to replace them with players who could instantly take the mantle.

As it stands, the Brighton squad arguably has that little more caliber than others in a similarly precarious position in the table, but they are too much like a patchwork quilt, increasingly threadbare: they’ve fielded only 15 players so far this term.

The team desperately needs stability and cohesion on the pitch, yet if you were to go back to their first game of the season — a 4-0 loss away to Arsenal after having been reduced to 10 players early in the game — they stuck together well enough considering the circumstances. In that match, Brighton even had a few promising counter attacks; it’s clear they’re not a bad team, just that something has failed to add up for them so far this campaign.

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Liverpool: Constantly close, but constantly falling short

Moving up the WSL table on goal difference alone are Liverpool. The Reds have enjoyed mixed fortunes so far in their first season back in the top flight. An opening day win against the reigning champions, Chelsea, could have been a springboard for the team — but it was swiftly followed with a 3-0 loss in the Merseyside derby at Anfield.

Stability is once again the issue here as Liverpool have rarely been played off the pitch this season. Their 2-0 loss to Arsenal included a sublime goal from Gunners midfielder Lia Walti to open the scoring — a goal the Reds could do little about. So too was the case in the loss to Manchester City: even though the Citizens dominated the chances, they still needed a late goal from winger Hayley Raso to snatch all three points from the Reds.

For Liverpool, who were promoted to the WSL at the end of last season, this campaign is very much about growth and acclimation, even with a squad boasting plenty of WSL-tested players and a manager in Matt Beard who has won a title with the club before in the second division.

This season is about finding those margins that turn a 1-0 loss into a credible draw or accelerating a win from a draw. So while there shouldn’t be a major worry over Liverpool’s survival, the trouble would be if they keep finding themselves on the wrong side of 2-1 scorelines.

Reading: An unpredictable anomaly in the WSL

Rounding out the quartet of WSL strugglers are Reading, who needed a very, very late thunderbolt from midfielder Rachel Rowe to scoop their three points on Sunday. The win over fellow-stragglers Leicester put an end to Reading’s run of 17 games without a win in all competitions and secured their first points of this WSL campaign.

There is something almost strange about Reading — maybe it’s just that they’re not affiliated with a Premier League team, the only WSL side to have such a distinction, or maybe it’s the up-and-down seasons they’ve enjoyed since their promotion to the WSL. Indeed, if there is any team in the league that is hard to pin down or even predict, it’s the Royals, a team able to dig out a comprehensive win against Man United between draws against straggling Aston Villa and Everton, as was the case during the 2021-22 season.

Having lost forward Deanne Rose to a serious injury at the start of the season, there are renewed concerns over how well Reading will be moving forward. Their late win over Leicester this weekend may very well be a blip in their ongoing struggles since last season, which point to a larger problem with their place in the league.

Reading’s win over the Foxes might just be enough to keep their heads above water in the WSL for now, yet with a team like Leicester able to invest with more gusto and potentially sign more established players, questions around their long-term sustainability are once again what plagues the Royals.

Although most teams are only five games into their league season, they are also almost a quarter of the way through the campaign. Some may have plunged into a tailspin too early to pull out of, while everything could still turn on its head, not least with how narrow the gaps are in WSL, which has swiftly subdivided itself into three « mini-leagues. » For now, no one team mentioned should be making long-term plans for a steady life in the top flight.

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