WSL has thrilling conclusion but must not follow Premier League’s shortcomings

Chelsea Women 2021-22Getty

On Sunday, the Women’s Super League’s first season in front of the Sky Sports cameras came to a thrilling conclusion – one fitting of the record-breaking TV deal it secured last year.

Both Chelsea and Arsenal were in contention to win the title as they entered their final fixtures, with Manchester City and Manchester United also both competing for that last Women’s Champions League spot.

There were plenty of twists and turns on the day before the Blues made it three league titles in a row, the Gunners had to settle for second and City bounced back from some big setbacks to secure third.

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It is no wonder, then, that the action has seen record TV figures, with there more and more upsets in a league that has often been criticised for a lack of competitiveness from top to bottom.

But is that increased competitiveness hindering these teams in Europe? Arsenal’s season is over now. Manchester City and Chelsea have one more game – the Women’s FA Cup final on Sunday – but none will be in the Women's Champions League final the following weekend, as Barcelona take on Lyon in Turin.

City had their own extraordinary circumstances at the beginning of this year that played a big part in a qualifying exit at the hands of Real Madrid. Chelsea only went one round further, knocked out in the group stages as Wolfsburg and Juventus progressed.

The German side would go on to eliminate Arsenal in the quarter-finals, meaning its now 15 years since an English side was crowned European champion. Chelsea came closest to ending that barren run last year, but were beaten heavily by Barcelona in the final, eventually losing 4-1.

If the WSL is in fact one of the best leagues in the world, what is going wrong on the continent?

Chelsea Women 2020-21Getty

“It might be a loading issue and I think it might be something that we need to cooperate between the clubs in WSL,” Arsenal boss Jonas Eidevall said earlier this season when posed with the question.

“We know that the games that we play in the FA Cup, in the WSL, in the [League] Cup, they will be intense games and it's a physical league with a physical style of football in England.

“Then we need to see, okay, the teams playing in Europe, how can we make sure that they are rested and recovered as well as possible when they're playing games in Europe?

“Because we are not only representing ourselves in Europe. We are representing England with the association coefficient which will, in every five-year period, determine how many spots England will have in the Champions League, what ranking we will have and how easy it will be for us to get into the tournament.

“When we are playing, for example, Barcelona on a Tuesday. Originally, our game against Aston Villa was Sunday night and we were supposed to play Tuesday night at Barcelona which would have been almost an impossible turnaround.

“[It] required a lot of effort from the club and other people to get that game turned around on the Saturday. But still with a late kick-off.

“For me, it would just be interesting to see if the clubs would come together and try to talk because, if you look at the schedule now - after we played Hoffenheim on the Thursday, there was actually a free weekend in the WSL before the international break.

Jonas Eidevall quote PS gfx 1:1Getty/GOAL

“For me, us playing this congested, it would have made every sense for us to move a game out from this period and to put that onto the weekend after the Hoffenheim game.

“It would have given us so many better possibilities to play the Champions League games with as strong a squad as possible. But that, I think, is a league decision and it needs to be made by the clubs and we need to cooperate.

“We need to try and talk about the principles on how we treat English clubs playing in Europe to make sure that the clubs get the best possible conditions to perform - because it's so hard and we need to have every percentage with us so we can start beating Spanish teams and get more success here for English clubs.”

That is not a new problem for English football, either. On the men’s side, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is among those regularly slating the scheduling, stating it is why English teams struggle to win the quadruple.

But it is a remarkable complaint on the women’s side given that there are only 22 games played per club in the WSL, compared to 38 in the Premier League. In that sense, it should not be a problem. Yet it clearly is, with Eidevall making a good point.

That is not the sole reason for the performances of English sides in Europe this term. The success of clubs like Lyon and Wolfsburg over the last 10 years have been down to strong investment, good strategy and clever planning.

It will naturally take time for others to catch up – not just in England either. Barcelona’s rise might seem overnight to some, yet it is anything but.

You can also point to tactical shortcomings at times when it comes to WSL clubs in the Champions League – or simply great performances from the opposition, such as Juventus’ excellently executed game plan against Chelsea at the end of 2021.

There is no single reason why the WSL’s strength as a league has not translated into ending the barren run of European triumphs in the last 15 years.

But for all the explanations that could be given for a successful domestic season not translating onto the wider stage, it would be absolutely foolish should the league and the Football Association allow scheduling to be one.

As much as both want the WSL to grow, it should be doing all it can to ensure progress in Europe too – and once the dust settles on Sunday's spectacle, it certainly should be something on the mind to address and assist with in any way possible, as soon as possible, before England falls further behind.