Emma Hayes and Gareth Taylor, managers of Chelsea and Manchester City, echoed each other as they prepared for the teams’ meeting at Kingsmeadow on Sunday by calling for an expansion of the Women’s Super League. Both made the appeal for an increase from 12 teams unprompted and off the back of conversations about just how exciting the title race is this season.
“For the neutral it’s exciting, especially when you have these types of fixtures at the weekend,” said Taylor, also referring to the game between Arsenal and third-placed Manchester United on Saturday. “It just goes to show that the levels are improving in the WSL and if we were able to ever get to add a few more teams into it, to make the competition more than 22 games in a season, I think you would see really different types of results on a more consistent basis.”
Hayes said: “I wish the season was longer. I want it to go to 14 teams. I want more games, that’s the next step for our league.”
For the first time in a while the title race is wide open with less than half a season remaining. No team has looked unbeatable. Of the traditional top three, City racked up four defeats as they struggled with an injury crisis in the first half of the season while Chelsea have dropped points to Reading, Arsenal and Brighton, and Arsenal failed to collect more than a point against Aston Villa, City and Tottenham while also losing to Birmingham. Manchester United, meanwhile, have grown into contenders under Marc Skinner, while Tottenham remain a point above City despite their challenge seeming to be on the wane.
“It never stops and we’ll keep going until the end,” said Taylor, whose side sit fifth, nine points behind Arsenal, the leaders, and five behind Chelsea. “It’s such an unpredictable race this season and very different to what we’ve seen over the last few years. In football anything can happen and it’s good that we’re still in the hunt.”
Hayes similarly played up the opposition’s title credentials. “The pendulum can swing really quickly,” she said. “This is a six-point game; if they [City] win the pendulum swings in another direction. But I think next weekend [when Chelsea play Arsenal] will have a much bigger impact and give clarity on the positions.”
For both managers, with an array of injuries affecting their teams, the chance to give minutes to almost every squad member has been a small silver lining. “I’ve got an incredibly happy dressing room,” said Hayes. “Every single player is involved. When you’ve got a big squad and not many games it’s a lot harder to manage, but we’ve had no choice, we’ve not had the players. ‘You’re tired? Don’t care, you’ve got to go again.’ Then you develop resilience.
“That’s why I’m so proud of these performances. Because I didn’t know how we’d fair with all these back-to-back games. I didn’t know how Jessie Fleming or Niamh Charles or Erin Cuthbert would cope but they’ve been brilliant, they’ve shown something when the team really needed them to.”
Taylor conceded Chelsea “have had the edge over us this season” and, with the London team unbeaten in each of their last nine WSL games against City, it could be argued they have had the edge a lot longer. However, City are far from the side that lost the reverse fixture 4-0 and Taylor praised the resilience his side have shown after a tough start to the campaign.
“It’s testament to the squad,” he said. “Everyone stuck together in that moment, everyone pitched in, sometimes not playing in their ideal role but understanding the needs of the team. We don’t look at that lightly, we understand the importance of that. Now we’ve got real competition in the team whereas previously it was a little bit ‘needs must’, but the application and attitude has been spot-on.”