Far from just trying to force four teams into three Champions League berths, the Women's Super League (WSL) title fight has opened into a four-way battle heading into the last two months of the season. But with all four teams looking off colour this term, who is the actual favourite?
Chelsea left feeling Blue after City defeat
There was resignation in Emma Hayes' voice when she started to speak to the media following Chelsea's 2-0 loss away to Manchester City on Sunday. "We lost," she began when asked where things went wrong. Far from her usual chatty self, Hayes' remarks sounded like a morose acceptance of the situation, with the loss knocking Chelsea down to third when a win would have seen them take a sizable step to a sixth WSL title since 2015.
The truth of the matter was that Chelsea aren't at their best these days, and certainly weren't against Man City. Instead of fluency, they look disjointed; striker Sam Kerr is routinely isolated up top, with neither the defence nor midfield as steadfast as they've usually been.
It's been a season-long problem for the Blues and has contributed to a much tighter title race: They've lost that certain X-factor and instead of taking WSL teams apart for fun, as they've done in previous years, the majority of their campaign so far has been defined by a lack of bite and the absence of their usual vociferousness.
The weekend trip to Manchester had been the second instance in a month -- after their Conti Cup final loss to Arsenal -- in which the Blues had failed to pull a rabbit from the points hat. Indeed, Chelsea's ability to get over the line may be best summed up with their goals to xG figures so far this season, with the champions currently 12.7 goals better than their xG.
With attacking duo Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder in and out of the squad due to injury all season and the departure of talismanic midfielder Ji Soyun the previous campaign, the team have lost a shade of creativity. Kerr also looks far weaker without a player like Kirby to bounce off of in the attacking third. Down from first to fourth in shot creating actions this season, with just 26.67 actions per 90 minutes from 33.50 in 2021-22, the team are simply creating less and as such, have surrendered more possession against the teams around them this season.
The story of the game hinged on two very well-taken goals, relatively low value shots just getting the better of Chelsea shot-stopper, Ann-Katrin Berger. But the match lacked the sparkle it was capable of; so many matches this season involving one of Chelsea or City has been without that je ne sais quoi that champions can produce.
Ultimately, City took advantage of any lingering fatigue in the Chelsea team, but also did enough with the chances they'd fashioned to keep the Blues out of top spot.
In Manchester, Hayes highlighted Chelsea's busy schedule as a reason for the defeat, with the team only returning from Lyon in the early hours of Thursday morning after their midweek Champions League clash. Yet Arsenal were in a similar boat, having had to return from Munich 24 hours earlier to ready themselves for a match against Spurs. City were always going to be trickier to play than the relegation-threatened Lilywhites, but Arsenal's business-like 5-1 win was proof that teams can play at short notice.
Miss-firing Citizens also look wobbly in title chase
Yet it's not just Chelsea looking off-colour this season: Manchester City have had to adapt to life without their long-term midfield of Keira Walsh (Barcelona), Caroline Weir (Real Madrid) and Georgia Stanway (Bayern Munich), all of whom left last summer. City worked hard to add experience and depth to their side after the Euros and it's taken time to put all the pieces together.
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Against Chelsea, City started well enough, but much like their opponents Sunday, the Citizens were still arguably under-performing. For all the dynamic attackers available to City boss Gareth Taylor, the manager has kept a relatively consistent starting XI in the league -- much like United counterpart, Marc Skinner -- asking Bunny Shaw to shoulder the goal-scoring responsibility.
Needing to replace defensive midfielder Walsh, City turned to attacking midfielder Yui Hasegawa, who is at her best when she can float around in attack and create linking passes in the attacking half. However, the Japanese midfielder has been routinely deployed in a deep-lying role, which she has unquestionably performed with aplomb, but her talents feel wasted in such a position.
Despite dominating proceedings in most matches with Shaw shooting for fun, the Citizens' shot conversion leaves a lot to be desired, with City managing just 0.27 goals per shot on target and 0.09 goals per shot. Indeed, this has put City bottom of the table for Goals-xG, with the team currently 3.8 goals worse than their xG. They're one of only two WSL teams (along with bottom-placed Leicester) the only other team to be underperforming their xG.
More worrying is the simple eye-test when watching City, with players like Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly consistently looking below their capabilities this season despite Taylor being steadfast with his regular XIs. Of course, there are always highlights for the 2016 WSL champions, not least beating Chelsea but just how good they looked against Arsenal back in February, yet the team has failed to replicate that breathless performance since.
United's turn to top the table again
On the other side of Manchester, United went top with their 4-0 win over West Ham on Saturday thanks to a flurry of second-half goals, but things haven't been rosy for coach Marc Skinner, who has constantly drawn ire for his lack of squad rotation.
Indeed, as per Opta ahead of the game Saturday, Manchester United have made the fewest changes of any WSL team when it comes to their starting XIs this season. As if to highlight that fact, the introduction of the gently used Lucía García after 55 minutes acted as a catalyst for the home side at Old Trafford to push on and get the win. After the match, Skinner made reference to the "Red Devil energy" from the attacker, but bemoaned her lack of 90-minute performances, which is at odds with the cameo appearances she's actually made since joining the team.
Garcia's ability to hound defences and force mistakes has been a marker of her game since her move to Athletic Club in her teens. Against West Ham, García unleashed la furia to help take United top after a frustrating and limited first half for the hosts. For all their consistency this season, United have been another team that has lacked the intangibles you'd expect of a team eyeing the title, but like others who've lofted silverware in the past, Skinner's side keep finding ways to win ugly when needed.
A team that's only in its fourth season in WSL, there is a constant need to contextualise how long the Red Devils have been around as a professional team and how long it takes to grow a team that can compete on all fronts. If United do finish in the top three this season, the larger worry is how they will fare in the Champions League next season, especially if Skinner continues with his lack of rotation.
As it is, United are the team many expected to drop off the title pace, yet they find themselves top of the pile with six matches remaining. That said, their one point advantage over a Chelsea team with a game in hand may end up being worth little come the end of May.
Gunning for gold
There was a point this season where it looked like Arsenal coaches Jonas Eidevall and Mikel Arteta might be sharing an open-top bus parade for the women's and men's teams come the end of the domestic season, but thanks to a handful of wobbles from Eidevall's side, that dream has been thrown into doubt.
A lot has been made of the loss of both Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema to ACL injuries and how it's impacted Arsenal's ability to score vital goals and put games away, but the Gunners have seemingly turned a corner and are finding those key goals in recent weeks. This was evident against Spurs over the weekend, when four different players -- Stina Blackstenius, Kim Little, Frida Maanum and Caitlin Foord -- found the back of the net.
In midweek action against Bayern Munich and looking to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg, Arsenal have been given the same onerous task of facing City on Sunday, though unlike Chelsea, they will have the home advantage for both games. After the international break, the Gunners will have to square off against United in Leigh and for the team currently in fourth -- albeit, with a game in hand over both Manchester teams -- their season could be in for a premature end.
So who are the favorites?
Should Arsenal still be fighting for top-four (or the title), much like their rivals, the penultimate weekend of the season when they travel to Chelsea and United host City could be enough to confirm who will be playing in Europe next season.
Although Arsenal have one of the tougher tasks on the last day of the season when they will have to face Aston Villa, who themselves have a clash against United and two (one in the league, one in the FA Cup semis) against Chelsea left on their dance card. Currently comfortably in fifth and scoring with ease, Carla Ward's Villa could yet be the great leveller in the title race.
As for which of the four looks the most likely to claim the title this season, for all the missteps taken by the four in the running, Chelsea's resilience and recent dominance in England leaves them with the narrow advantage despite their current standing. The wider question of which of the four will miss out on Champions League qualification remains an open one with it currently too close to call.