Halfway through the 2022-23 Women's Super League season with Chelsea top of the table, is it too soon to declare them the winners after the Blues' closest rivals dropped points again over the weekend?
The proposition for the teams at the top of the WSL will always be to navigate the season with as few points dropped as possible, with the acceptance that winning every single league game is a stretch. However, we've seen teams go entire seasons without losing a game -- Arsenal in 2012, Manchester City in 2016 and Chelsea in 2017-18 and 2019-20 -- and indeed, there is a lot a team can gain from a draw, especially if it's one snatched from the claws of defeat.
Yet, a draw can also be a sizable blow. Arsenal fans might remember from their 2017-18 campaign how a scoreless draw against Yeovil Town dented their title chances and in isolation -- due to finishing a point behind Manchester City -- kept them out of the Champions League the next season, even though it was one of just seven games they failed to win.
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With stalemates for second-place Manchester United and third-place Arsenal on Sunday, it's reasonable to wonder if, at this point in the season, this will be one draw too many for each side as they chase Chelsea at the top of the WSL table. As the Blues held on to see out the last minutes of a nervy 3-2 win over Spurs earlier in the day, Arsenal's frustration in front of goal at West Ham may have just put all title challenges out of reach for the season. Hours later it was Manchester United, sitting two points behind Chelsea, who failed to score against a resolute Everton team.
Just brilliant. 😍 pic.twitter.com/aNlPr74EOS— Chelsea FC Women (@ChelseaFCW) February 6, 2023
It's worth picking out the sterling goalkeeper performances of both Courtney Brosnan and Mackenzie Arnold in the Everton and West Ham nets respectively. The two shot-stoppers worked hard to keep clean sheets and help their teams earn a point, which only complicates matters for Man United and Arsenal respectively from here.
There is plenty to analyse over why neither United or Arsenal could score when they posted 25 and 21 total shots -- the Red Devils were notably wayward, managing just four efforts on target. To their credit, Arsenal worked Arnold more with their nine shots on target, completely camping in the West Ham half and keeping the Irons from even having a shot of their own after the 10th minute. Compare that with the nine attempts Chelsea managed against Spurs -- and three goals from five shots put on frame -- and you can see three different matches with both Spurs and Everton able to go forward against their opponents.
On another day, it's easy to expect different results with both United and Arsenal finding just enough to get the better of Brosnan and Arnold -- as we know, sometimes that's just the way it is in football. Yet there is only one team that consistently finds just enough in each game: Chelsea. Tottenham's two goals came from two shots on target and Chelsea were genuinely sloppy at the back -- the team clearly misses the presence of defender Magda Eriksson when she's not on the pitch. But the Blues did what they have so consistently since lifting their first WSL title in 2015 and found enough to get them over the line.
Indeed, Chelsea put the WSL on notice at the turn of the year, when Arsenal had a chance to leap-frog both Chelsea and Man United and go top of the table with a win over the Blues. In the 88th minute at the Emirates, the Gunners were headed for a win and about to tie the reigning champions on the table on points, but then disaster struck: Chelsea forward Sam Kerr nodded the ball over the lofted glove of goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger. The result, a 1-1 draw, was a blow for Arsenal, but being just three points adrift of Chelsea with a game in hand, it wasn't the end to their title challenge. However, with each passing week as Chelsea continue to find a way when their challengers can't, every dropped point starts to matter more.
Sometimes, it's about the perfectly executed plan from Chelsea and how they can exploit the weaknesses of their opposition. Others, it's a moment of magic like the one forward Lauren James produced against Spurs, or simply the benefit of partnerships that have been worked on week in, week out. The Blues are consistent in their ability to score goals and bank points even in games when they look positively off colour, like their draw against Arsenal in January, when they didn't have a shot on target until the last 10 minutes.
With 10 games still left to play for Chelsea and United, and 11 for Arsenal, it feels far too early to be declaring anyone champions when Chelsea's lead could be dissolved in a single match day. Yet a stumble never seems to impact the Blues once the finish line is in sight, as their four WSL titles over the last five seasons would suggest.
Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall may well be rueing the club's inability to have brought in a "prolific striker" in the January window, and he has said he wanted, after the Gunners' world record bids for star forward Alessia Russo turned down by Man United. For all the quality in the Arsenal team, with every single player able to score regardless of position, it was that lack of clinical finish that cost them against West Ham on Sunday as it did against Chelsea in January. The back-to-back league draws might not have been the nails in the coffin for Arsenal, but their title challenge is in need of some medical attention.
As for United, who came apart during the second half of the season last year to finish in fourth, and who have had to follow in Chelsea's footsteps and win a couple of games ugly already this season, there is a growing need for the team to find a Plan B during frustrating matches, lest they slip out of the running once more.
For now, Chelsea are top of the table, with a small buffer between them and those chasing, which is exactly where they love to be. For challengers like Arsenal and Man United, they ought to hope they don't look back on last weekend as the moment they ceded the WSL race to Chelsea because wrestling the title away from the Blues might be harder than trying to get the newspaper out of your dog's jaws.