More Frustration for Albion

Sunday saw Albion in WSL action at home to Man United, with the game being broadcast live on BBC Two at Sunday lunchtime, prime viewing if it hadn’t clashed with Formula One’s season ending showdown at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

But terrestrial TV camera being in attendance still made the total attendance of 1,776 at Crawley’s Peoples Pension stadium very impressive, especially considering the damp and cold winter weather.

Unfortunately, the bumper crowd saw Albion fall to a second consecutive defeat in the WSL. It was day of frustration and a bit of a reality check perhaps for Albion in the WSL after recent talk of Champions League qualification, as United ran out comfortable winners.

Then again, when you have key players missing or unable to start, you are always going to struggle against a team like Man United. Who’ve finished 4th in their first two WSL seasons.

Missing for Hope Powell was Inessa Kaagman who was in self-isolation, whilst a foot injury meant Danielle Carter was only fit enough for the bench, both big blows. They each have two goals and an assist to their name so far this season, the equal most in squad. Moreover, Kaagman’s shot creating actions (20) are the highest in the team this season, whilst Carter (15) has the second highest. Put simply, they are crucial to so much of what Albion do in the opposition half. Especially given Albion have the lowest number of shot creating actions of any team in the WSL’s top seven this season.

Without them Lee Guam-min (2 goals, 0 assists and 13 Shot Creating Actions) was going to be crucial, but unfortunately for Hope Powell’s team she was kept quiet by the United defence and didn’t even manage a shot. So it should come as no surprise that Albion managed just four shots in total all game and just two on target, both season lows.

United dominated all match, with Albion’s 35% possession also a team WSL season low. All of which meant that at the other end, Megan Walsh was getting called into action a bit more than Powell would have liked. With 30 minutes gone she had already made a few important saves. Those saves combined with some robust defensive work, with Skipper Victoria Williams once again a standout performer, Albion were hanging on in there, but needed get a handle on this game.

This shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, Megan Walsh, who has played every minute of the WSL season for Albion so far this season has made more saves than any goalkeeper in the league this season. Whilst only the bottom three, Birmingham, Leicester and Villa have conceded more shots on target than Albion

But Walsh can only do so much and some lazy defending in first half injury time led to a devastating blow for Albion, when they simply didn’t deal with Man United’s short corner routine leaving Hayley Ladd to poke home from close range virtually unchallenged. Incredibly frustrating after a half of great defensive robustness.

Albion were going to have to find something different in the second half and to do so brought on Danielle Carter. But despite Albion showing more attacking intent, a goal from Vilde Boa Risa midway through the half all but killed off any hopes of an Albion comeback and the game ended 2-0.

It is a result that leaves Albion with a feeling of frustration amongst a broader picture of progress, the name of the game for the club at the moment.

That’s three straight defeats for Hope Powell’s side, who fall to a still impressive 4th place, albeit now outside those Champions League places, after Tottenham’s victory over Aston Villa pushed them up to 3rd.

However, the stats suggest there may be more frustration ahead for Hope Powell’s side of improvement isn’t found, especially with the little matter of league leaders Arsenal away from home next Sunday evening. Much will depend on if Kaagman’s period of self isolation has finished by then and is Danielle Carter’s foot injury allows her to feature from the start.


Albion make reinforcements in attack

Last season’s progression from Albion’s women’s team was well timed ahead of a pivotal moment in the Women’s game in England, with the new WSL TV broadcast deal with Sky beginning later this year. However, with increased opportunity comes increased risk.

It will no doubt come with an increase in the level of competition in the WSL, something demonstrated particularly by the number of new signings made by Everton, including England international Toni Duggan and German international Leonie Maier.

Everton, who finished one place and five points above Albion last season, are setting the bar for them in terms of the standard required to make further progress up the WSL next season.

And Albion have responded with two big signings of their own. Most recently Rinsola Babajide on loan from Liverpool. Who despite her parent team Liverpool’s lack of success in recent seasons, has plenty of talent to offer the Seagulls attack, highlighted by her numerous England youth caps, including winning the bronze medal at the U20 2018 World Cup, along with a call up to the senior team last year.

Yes, it’s initially only a season long loan, but given her contract at Liverpool runs out next summer and that she handed in a transfer request at Liverpool in January, it’s hard to see her going back there, especially given their off-field troubles that saw them drop out of the WSL in 2020. So, this could well become permanent next summer, who knows.

This draws to a close a bit of a transfer saga for Rinsola and Liverpool, which appears to have led to some animosity towards her from Liverpool supporters.

After she signed a new contract with the club in the summer of 2020 following their relegation, she then received a senior England call up in September 2020, but some see her subsequent request for a transfer in January 2021 as a symptom of that call up leading her to push for a move and value personal success over her club.

But one person’s disloyalty is another’s ambition. And that Albion are managing to attract players like Rinsola, looking to make a step up to regain contention for international selection is a great sign of the club’s progress in the Women’s game.

Prior to that they had already announced the signing of Danielle Carter from Reading, another one-time England international and a big show of intent from Albion.

Carter is another player to have represented England at various youth levels and at senior level as recently as 2018. She has also won various major honours in her time with Arsenal, so adds important experience and know-how to Albion’s fairly young and inexperienced if talented squad.

But rather than joining Albion with her career on the wane at 28 Carter has her best years ahead of her. And whilst it’s been a while since she was last involved with England there’s still reasonable hope for her in that area too.

Given this and her experience, it’s no surprise she is the first Albion Women’s player to demand a transfer fee, a breakthrough moment in the team’s history and a show of intent from the club’s hierarchy.

Whilst many clubs of similar stature to Brighton have reluctantly invested as little as possible in their Women’s team, Albion have prioritised it and it’s really paying off in terms of the players it is attracting and the performances on the pitch.

These are indeed exciting times, a feeling echoed by manager Hope Powell’s saying upon signing Babajide this week:

“We achieved our highest WSL position and we’re in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, but we want to push on this season and get better. Any additions to our squad have got to add value to what we’ve got and in Danielle and Rinsola that is definitely the case.”

These signings are also a signal that Powell and the club recognise the need to address Albion main fallibility in recent times, quality in front of goal.

Whilst Albion’s brilliant run of wins towards the end of last season saw them finish in the top half of the WSL, this involved the team scoring with a great deal of efficiency in front of goal, a run that probably masks its ongoing issues in attack.

An issue highlighted by the run that preceded it in the first half of the season which was near the polar opposite in terms of its attack and left the club worrying about relegation at one point after a 3-0 defeat away to Bristol City. A run that shows this efficiency in front of goal can’t be relied upon being a consistent long-term attribute of the existing squad and that improvements in attack are needed for Albion to continue to compete at the higher end of the WSL.

The key for Albion this season is to control games better and improve the frequency and quality of their attacks. These two signings, both in adding talent in attack and experience on the pitch should help them do that.

WSL – Four wins in a row as Albion’s fortunes improve in front of goal

The last time I visited the fortunes of Hope Powell’s team was after their alarming 3-0 defeat away to bottom of the table Bristol City. A defeat that at the time looked like it could have been terminal for Albion’s WSL status, but what has followed since has been the best run of form for the club since its promotion to the topflight.

In fact, the last time they won four league games in a row was back in the 2015/16 season, when they were in the now defunct Southern Premier League, then the regionalised third tier of the Women’s English football pyramid.

Brighton won four games all season in the WSL in 2018/19 and just three during the truncated 2019/20 season. But one more win from their remaining five games this season will see them double their WSL wins total in the space of a season.

It’s a run that has taken them into the top half of the WSL and all of a sudden a little closer to the club’s stated long-term vision for the Women’s team to become a top-four club.

After a frustrating start, this run of wins has meant this season is beginning to look like a huge jump forward for Hope Powell’s side. The reason? Albion have started to take their chances at a hugely improved rate.

Having scored only 8 goals in their first 13 games, converting 4% of shots, the worst conversion rate in the WSL at that point in the season by some margin, Albion have scored 7 in their last 4, converting 20% of their shots and nearly doubling the conversion rate of the season.

It’s a trend of struggling to score goals and convert chances that has dogged their time in the WSL. In 2019/20 Brighton had a shots to goals conversion rate of 6%, only relegated Liverpool’s was worse. And they accumulated an XG of 15 compared to its total goals tally of just 11. Whilst in 2018/19 Brighton had an XG of 19 compared to a totals goals tally of 16, unfortunately the total shots statistics weren’t available. But it still all point towards an issue in front of goal.

Whilst they still average the worst shot conversion rate in the division at 7% for the current season, it is now far more comparable to the teams around them, most of whom are averaging 8-9%. And if they were to continue at a conversion rate of 20% then they will no doubt continue to rise up the table given only Arsenal have been as efficient in front of goal this season and no one was that efficient last season.

Furthermore the teams XG of 15.6 for and 28.7 against gives further evidence that their total goals scored and conceded of 15 and 30 respectively do reflect the teams overall performance this season and that the improvement in front of goal has been a genuine improvement rather than simply a fortunate run of form.

But while Albion’s goals conceded column looks bad, it’s skewed by nearly half of those goals coming in heavy defeats to Man City and Arsenal. In contrast, scoring goals has been the real issue.

However, prior to the recent good run of form there were signs things were improving in their play but which were not being reflected in the results. In particular the 3-1 defeat to Reading and the stalemate away to Birmingham earlier this season, both of which were games Albion felt they could have won and indeed should have based on XG.

Against Reading with the game tied at 1-1 after Kaagman equalised from the penalty spot, Brighton pressed Reading and had chances to take the lead but didn’t. Instead, somewhat against the run of play, Reading scored at the end of the first half to take a 2-1 lead into half time. And after the second half again saw Albion dominate and not take their chances, Reading made it 3-1 on the break in second half injury time after Brighton had been pushing for a deserved equaliser.

Then the stalemate with Birmingham saw much more huffing and puffing in front of goal from Brighton to no avail. It was a game that really personified their goalscoring issues, 20 shots, 8 on target, an XG of 1.7, all whilst managing to score no goals.

Across those two games the team managed to have 36 shots, 10 of which were on target, but scoring just once from the penalty spot. In comparison Albion’s last four victories saw them accumulate the same number of shots, 36, 14 of which were on target, whilst scoring 7 goals. A huge contrast in fortunes.

In particular the improvement falls on the shoulders of both Aileen Whelan and Inessa Kaagman, who between them scored six of those seven goals.

But most strikingly is Aileen Whelan’s turnaround who had struggled for goals this season prior to this recent run of win. She accumulated 17 shots prior to this run, only 4 of which were on target and only 1 led to a goal. But in the last four victories she has accumulated 7 shots, 3 of which were on target, leading to 3 goals. An improvement in her shot conversion rate by a factor or nearly eight.

Before their win at Aston Villa, Hope Powell said: “Aileen would continue running if she had a broken leg. She does the scrappy jobs & more importantly, she scores goals.” And her goal that night which opened the scoring and helped to secure the teams fourth victory in a row personified that. Whelan sprinted and lunged to win the ball ahead of a sprawling Villa goalkeeper who had parried the ball into the six yard box. Unsurprisingly Whelan got to the ball first and poked it home to give Albion a 1-0 lead.

Kaagman then made it 2-0 with her third in two games and sixth of the season, which took Albion’s total scored this season to 15, one off its goals scored total from the 2018/19 season having played three games less.

The last four matches may look to be simply a good run of form, but the stats show that this team, which is notoriously stingy at the back, is beginning to find the sharpness up front it requires to progress. A combination which if it persists, could see this good form become more permanent progress and see Albion continue to climb the table.

The Tweeting Seagull WSL Albion season preview – From inspiration to realisation

Ahead of the new WSL season the Telegraph asked me to answer some questions about Brighton’s prospects, which you can read here. And I’ve extended my thoughts into a season preview blog. Which you can read here:

The new WSL season starts this weekend with probably the greatest amount of anticipation since the FA launched the Women’s Premier League in 1991. And with Brighton retaining its topflight status for a second season the excitement is also building in Sussex.

Like most WSL teams, Brighton’s fan base is comparatively minuscule compared to that of the club’s men’s team. And playing their home games over 20 miles away in Crawley hasn’t helped to build on that either. But with WSL season ticket sales hitting club record numbers this summer, there is hope all that can change. The potential of the teams support no better demonstrated than the record breaking WSL crowd of 5,256 attending the final home game of last season against Arsenal after it was played at the club’s HQ, the AMEX Stadium.

Last season was a big step up for the team in its first ever topflight season. And this was particularly true for most players who were adapting to going professional, along with the squad losing some key players who decided to not go do so, like promotion winning captain Vicky Ashton-Jones. But despite a few heavy defeats to Arsenal, Man City and Chelsea, lessons were learnt and the season ended well with a 4-0 win away to West Ham.

Nevertheless for the club to remain competitive then continued progression will be required. The WSL has never been stronger and with the addition of the highly resourced Man United and Spurs replacing the softer-touch of Yeovil, points will be harder to come by. But there will still be hope of further progress at the club this season.

This is something manager Hope Powell is more than aware of ahead of the new season, saying to the Argus over the summer: “With the introduction of Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur to the division, it is set to be an even tougher task, and all the players and staff need to be ready for what lies ahead.”

And she will no doubt continue to ensure Brighton won’t replace Yeovil as the league’s soft touch. Mainly through the team’s relatively solid and resolute defensive base. Last season they made most teams work hard to break them down, bar the handful of heavy defeats that come with the territory of being an inexperienced newly promoted team.

This was an attribute shown best by the team’s relatively comparable defensive record to the remainder of the WSL outside the top four. And the shrewd additions of Dutch international Danique Kerkdijk who has signed from Bristol City along with the highly rated Danish youth international Matilde Lundorf Skovsen, adds to the teams strength at the back, which will be needed given the long-term injury recently sustained by Laura Rafferty.

It will be hoped that as well as those signings, the further additions of experienced WSL keeper Megan Walsh and former French youth international Lea Le Garrec, as well as the added experience gained by the existing players from last season, will all ensure the squad possesses the quality required to make the required progress. Required given that the team were too often found lacking against more established WSL teams last season.

At the other end of the pitch goals were harder to come by, with a quarter of the team’s goals coming in that 4-0 end of season win over West Ham. A victory that came after the team had secured survival from relegation. England youth international Ellie Brazil top scored in the league with just four, and it will be hoped that her and Imi Umotong (who scored only one league goal last season) can contribute more in that department this season.

Much like with Graham Potter and the Men’s team, much will depend on Hope Powell and her coaching team continuing to get the most out of this fairly young squad of players and for the more experienced players,including the likes of last season Albion’s player of the season award winner Aileen Whelan, to continue to lead the way. One young prospect in particular to watch out for is England u17 Captain Maya Le Tissier (no relation) who will be hoping to make more of an impact on the first team this season after making her debut last season.

In 2015 the club stated that it wanted to be playing Champions League football in 5 years, and whilst wins over Birmingham, Liverpool and West Ham towards the end of last season demonstrate progress, achieving that within the stated timeline is at best unlikely.

Those of course were different times, before the mass professionalism of the topflight and before Albion’s involvement in it. But Tony Bloom announcement at the recent fans forum that the club’s long-term vision for the Women’s team has been revised for it to become a top-four club is equally ambitious in the short-term.

Realistically another season of avoiding relegation is the goal, whilst bettering last season’s 3rd bottom finish would probably be considered a success for Hope Powell’s side.

At the beginning of last season, Hope Powell spoke a lot about the importance of her team being role models as much as being successful competitors. But with the success of the Lionesses at this summers World Cup, it does seem that discussions about Women’s football in the UK have largely moved on from talking about inspiration and aspirations and onto realisation of the sports potential.

As Assistant Manager Amy Merricks recently said “The game is changing all the time and we need to ensure that we constantly evolve with it as well… It’s great to be on this journey and now we want to be able to stay at the highest level.”

With this increased focus on Women’s football in the UK coinciding with the increased competitiveness of the WSL and Brighton and Hove Albion’s new AMEX sponsorship deal including performance based payments specific to the Women’s team, there will be much more focus this season on results and performance. The question is, can Brighton’s aspirations and progression keep pace with the continued advancements of the Women’s game in the UK?