How the WSL title was won and lost in tightest of races
After Chelsea retained the WSL title with a 4-2 win against Man Utd on the final day, we look back at where the trophy was won and lost in a nailbiting race to the finish.
It was nine long months ago that Arsenal raised eyebrows with an opening-day win over the reigning champions at the Emirates Stadium, with new Gunners boss Jonas Eidevall announcing his arrival in style, and his celebrations at the full-time whistle enough to annoy some of the Chelsea backroom team.
That extra bite has lived on throughout the season, with a respectful but bitterly-fought title race going almost to the wire until the final day, where Chelsea beat Man Utd 4-2 to win their third successive title by a point over Arsenal.
Chelsea’s sensational run
After losing to Arsenal on the opening day of the league season, Chelsea have won 18 of their 21 games since. Although they were beaten by Reading in December, Emma Hayes’ side have been in relentless form as the heat began to rise in the title race, winning their last nine league games straight after holding Arsenal to a 0-0 draw at Kingsmeadow in February.
They have dug deep to find victory at times, and created some memorable scenes when Sam Kerr’s 92nd-minute goal gave them a 1-0 win over Aston Villa in March which kept the title race in their own hands.
The final day was no different either. They were 2-1 behind at half-time against Man Utd and needing two stunning goals from Kerr – along with Guro Reiten – to secure their third successive WSL title.
Even spending almost an hour with 10 players against Tottenham last month, when goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger was sent off, couldn’t stop them beating their old rivals 3-1 and continuing their title charge.
“In crisis my team do really well, there’s rarely times in the last few years in crises we go under and I thought that was an amazing, amazing display of courage, confidence, conviction, togetherness, camaraderie, all the things you cannot understate,” said Hayes after the game.
There haven’t been many crises around Kingsmeadow under her leadership, and they have consistently kept their cool – edging out Manchester City by a point last season, and now seeing off Arsenal in a similarly tight race this time around.
And with all that, they have dug deep enough to give themselves the chance to retain the Women’s FA Cup when they face Manchester City at Wembley on May 15.
Rewind back to September though, and things weren’t looking so rosy after that opening-day defeat at Arsenal…
Europe plays its part in WSL title race
The Champions League has had an effect at both ends of the season – Chelsea made it to the final in 2020/21, losing to Barcelona a week after the final WSL game of the campaign.
They then returned for an FA Cup fifth round win against Everton, before a number of players headed to Tokyo to compete in the Olympics.
Of course, Arsenal also featured in the fifth round and had a number of players representing their countries, but played far fewer games during the season, having missed out on European qualification.
This season, the Gunners had played three competitive Champions League qualifiers before they beat Chelsea on the opening weekend, giving them a lead over the Blues they would hold until March. In that sense, it aided them to set the early pace in the WSL.
Arsenal midfielder Kim Little told Sky Sports in December: “Straight after the summer and the Olympics, we had a lot of players away but slightly different to most other teams, we came straight back into it because of the Champions League qualifiers.
“So we were able to find momentum and performance quite early on in the season. We started really well, especially in the WSL, and then going into the Champions League and FA Cup games. Then naturally with that, because there are so many games, we’ve not performed as well as we would have liked, comparing that to the August, September, October time.”
Chelsea took a little more time to find their feet as the squad looked to gel again after a busy summer, arguably with fatigue and Covid-19 absences playing their part. They were also knocked out of Europe on goal difference in the group stages, with a 4-0 hammering in Wolfsburg in their final game seeing them knocked out by the Germans.
“Our heads were all over the place, we are human beings,” Hayes said after Chelsea’s exit. “A few days beforehand we had two players stuck down with Covid.
“When you are in a team environment, you know it spreads like wildfire in the team… It’s across the game at the moment. For me, it’s a major reason behind the performance.”
Arsenal, meanwhile, were still in the knockout stages at the end of March before Wolfsburg saw them off too, with the sheer miles involved adding to the physical and mental strain on Eidevall’s team.
Sky Sports’ Karen Carney concluded: “The Champions League might be a factor come the end of the season. Chelsea went out early, they could focus on the league.
“Arsenal were still in it and playing against real top opposition and had to focus on that. Their squad rotation had to change, they had injuries and that might be a factor.”
Where did Arsenal fall short?
While the Gunners pushed Chelsea all the way – they were top of the table at half-time on the final day – Arsenal’s issues have been plain to see in Eidevall’s first year in the job.
Although the Gunners are the league’s top scorers with 65 goals and conceded a goal less than Chelsea, they have just fallen short as time has gone on in big games, dropping eight points across the season against the teams currently sitting in the top five – including the two Manchester clubs.
The element of surprise played its part in their early success which saw them put three past Chelsea and hit Manchester City for five in the early weeks of the season, as since then they have scored only eight goals in six games against top-five opposition, or 16 in eight games across the season.
Compare that to Chelsea, who have dropped only five points against top-five teams. Only two of those were after that opening-day defeat to Arsenal while they also scored 22 times in eight games against their rivals. That allowed the Blues to fall to that shock defeat at Reading, and even draw with Brighton, while still emerging victorious in the title race.
But perhaps Arsenal’s biggest downfall was a shock 2-0 defeat to eventually-relegated Birmingham in their first game back after the winter break – the Gunners’ only defeat of the league season.
It was bottom versus top at St Andrews with the Gunners heavy favourites for a vital victory that would have seen them extend their lead at the top of the WSL. But poor defensive play saw the Blues take all three points, and former Arsenal striker Kelly Smith believes the defeat defined the season.
She told Sky Sports: “Arsenal were at the top of the league for the majority of the season… They’ve played such a fantastic season, but they’ve just fallen short.
“The Birmingham result when they lost 2-0 and they were expected to win, that result could have changed the outcome of the season.”
Despite beating West Ham 2-0 on the final day, the race for the title was ultimately out of their hands. Having spent 182 days at the top of the WSL, Arsenal had to again settle for a runners-up spot.
Eidevall told the BBC: “It feels very empty right now. I am very proud of the players how they handled the situation. We have been phenomenal.
“When you take 55 points, you know you can win it. We just feel empty that we didn’t do it.
“Obviously you can feel the atmosphere here at the stadium. You feel the tension during the game. You love it and it’s great to see how the players reacted under the pressure. I loved that.
“Of course, it’s emotional. It’s so hard to summarise at this moment. One part of me is so proud with what we achieved. We were pretty close to being unbeaten all season. Another part feels so empty to not get a trophy. This is a test for us. We need to keep believing and up our game next season.”