Albion’s huge point at Poundland

On Saturday Albion travelled to the midlands to face Aston Villa, their first WSL game since losing to Leicester three weeks ago. And with Saturday afternoon also seeing bottom placed Leicester in action, this would be a big day in this season’s relegation battle.

Despite that crushing defeat to Leicester last time out and getting only two WSL wins so far this season, the new Brighton manager Jen Scheuer appears to have gained a renewed sense of optimism. With the manager saying pre-match: “Every day I can work with my girls are exciting days, every day I am really happy to be here, because I see a team that is willing to be better and that makes me happy.”

There was a first start for Rebekah Stott in the WSL since 2020, after scoring the opening goal in last weekend’s 7-0 FA Cup win over West Brom. A match which was Stott’s first start in any competition for the club since her diagnosis of stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and subsequent remission.

Stott re-joined the club last year after leaving in 2021 to return to Australia for treatment. And its little surprise that her return to the side has seen a stiffening up of Albion’s backline.

Whilst Albion have struggled at the wrong end of the table this season, opponents Villa have started the season strongly, including notable wins over both Man City and Man United, and were sitting in 6th place, which represents a serious improvement on their 11th and 9th placed finishes in the previous two seasons respectively.

And looking at the line up pre-match you could see why. It was intimidatingly strong, including Lionesses Jordan Nobbs and Rachel Daly.

So, it should have come as no surprise that Villa controlled early proceedings. However, they were limited mostly to long range efforts early on. And just when it looked like Albion were getting a foothold on the game, Villa took a somewhat fortuitous lead.

A short corner routine from Villa saw the ball floated all the way to the far post after Albion ‘keeper Megan Walsh failed to get anything on the cross, ultimately ricocheting in off an unsuspecting Kayleigh Green to give the home side the lead. It’s been that kind of season for Albion…

In the end, that Albion managed to get to half time just 1-0 down was a huge positive. And in part thanks to some fortune that Kirsty Hanson failed to turn in a menacing Rachel Daly cross, along with a number of important saves from Megan Walsh, including turning a Kenza Dali shot onto the bar.

As the second half began, the unfortunate Green along with Danielle Carter (who’d largely been a spectator given the dominance of Villa in the first half), were replaced by Emma Kullberg and Veatriki Sarri to switch Albion from a 343 to a 4231, with manager Jen Scheuer saying after the game he asked his team to be “more brave”.

Sarri in particular made a noticeable impact, forcing a useful save from Hannah Hampton, after her deflected shot appeared to be heading for the top corner. But as the second half continued, Albion were still having to hang on in there.

Villa’s quality was showing. But not enough to kill off the game. Rachel Daly uncharacteristically missed two good chances. The first volleying a simple chance over the bar from six yards. The second running onto a ball played in behind the Albion defence, but failing to beat Walsh in a one-on-one, who blocked her tame effort.

And with 15 minutes to go, Albion made Villa pay for all those missed chances, when Julia Zigiotti Olme pounced to put Albion level on the rebound.

An initial attempt from Veatriki Sarri, one-on-one with the Villa keeper Hampton, was well saved, but the loose ball was not dealt with by the Villa defence. Katie Robinson pounced to win it back, playing it into the path of Zigiotti Olme, who drew Albion level. Her first goal for the club since joining just over a year ago.

And that’s how it ended. It’s massive goal in Albion’s season that secures a vital point, one which didn’t look like it was coming for long periods.

Given Albion’s poor defensive record this season and Villa’s overall control of the game, keeping the home side down to just one goal is also a huge positive to take forward.

In particular, this was credit to another fantastic game from Megan Walsh, who at times kept Brighton in it. She could have done better with the cross for Villa’s goal, but her supreme shot-stopping abilities were on show for all to see. Once again showing why she’s made the most saves in the WSL since it began, and for my money, is one of the best shot stoppers in the women’s game.

With Walsh’s competition for the number one jersey, Australia international goalkeeper Lydia Williams, signed from PSG last month, making the goalkeeper position at Albion one to keep an eye on.

It was a performance from Albion, which BBC Sport described as “Gutsy”, but also admitted: “this was a largely uninspiring display, but as long as they pick up gifted points as they did here, they can avoid dropping into the Championship.” A statement as damning of Albion’s season so far as it is reassuring, for a club with stated ambition of becoming challengers at the other end of the table.

Jens Scheuer was more positive in his post-match comments. Whilst admitting that the home side were the better team in the first half, he stated this was without creating “really big chances.” And after that tactical switch at half time he said, “the girls did really, really well. I saw an Albion team which were in the second half the better team, and for me the point is really deserved.”

This game certainly did demonstrate evidence of the work the team has been doing on the training ground to improve its defensive record. Albion gave away fewer chances, limited the opposition to lesser opportunities, and the draw was a just reward for all that hard work.

This was a point they didn’t look like getting for long periods of the game, but a result that lifts them five points above bottom placed Leicester, who lost 2-0 at home to Man City.

In a league where there’s only 12 teams, and only one relegation spot this was a hugely important set of result for Albion. With any points won away from home always being particularly crucial.

It’s a result that puts Albion above Reading and up into 10th. There is still a long way to go, but you wonder if Leicester have left themselves with too much to do to catch Albion now, even after their win at the King Power last time out.


Albion in relegation trouble

Sunday saw Albion’s women travel north to Leicester for their return WSL action after six weeks out. And it was a rusty and disjointed performance that led to a significant dent in this season’s prospects.

After the winter break three of last weeks new signings. Morse, Bergsvand and Stefanovic all made their debuts from the start, whilst Visalli made her debut from the bench.

The opening half hour was tight, with both sides clearly sensing the potential importance of the occasion. A win for Leicester and they were right back in the battle for survival. A win for Brighton and they could start looking up the table, rather than over their shoulder at bottom placed Leicester.

Things took a turn for the worse for Albion. As Stefanovic’s debut ended early as she limps off injured in the first half and was replaced by Albion’s fourth debutant Visalli.

Shortly after things would get worse as some awful defending left ex-Albion striker Aileen Whelan bags of time and space to pass the ball past Meghan Walsh in the Albion goal and into the back of the net from near the penalty spot.

You just knew it… this was Whelan’s first goal for Leicester in her tenth start since leaving Brighton in the summer (along with a long list of others). And what a time to get it.

Albion had been second best in the first half and were yet to test the opposition keeper, and needed something to change. But what followed was the opposite as Leicester doubled their lead through Samantha Tierney, who also scored her first goal of the season.

With Albion in trouble, new manager Jens Scheuer made his second substitution by throwing on Danielle Carter with half an hour to go, and then used his final sub to bring on the match winner in this fixture last season Maisie Symonds. But neither could muster the something special needed despite Symonds twice forcing the Leicester keeper into making a save. Given Albion had scored just 11 goals in their previous 8 WSL games this season, they were always unlikely to be able to turn over a two goal deficit with limited time left on the clock.

Leicester made it three in between Albion’s substitutions, and they were well worth their lead. The highly rated 18-year-old Monique Robinson came on for her first WSL appearance of the season and put away the third, with a finished described by BBC Sport as “a touch of class”.

Meanwhile Albion were floundering and sleepwalking toward relegation trouble. Much like it has been for the majority of this season, Albion were regularly exposed defensively, whilst offering a lack of cutting edge going forward.

New manager Jens Scheuer has spoken about the need for defensive stability, but that felt a long way off as Albion were humbled by a Leicester side who’d conceded 13 goals without reply in their last three fixtures and were looking dead-certs for relegation. Not so much now.

This was a huge victory for Leicester, thier first points of the season. And a huge defeat for Albion, both in size and importance. One which leaves them second bottom and just four points above opponents Leicester and that relegation spot.

And it’s no wonder when you consider Albion have the worst defensive record in the league. They certainly showed why in this game.

Something needs to improve fast to avoid relegation. They have conceded 32 goals in just 9 WSL games this season. 7 goals more than bottom placed Leicester who’ve played a game more.

Albion conceded just 6 more goals (38) in the entirety of last season over 22 games. And it has been 13 games since Albion have kept a clean sheet, conceding 44 goals in that time.

There’s just the little matter of Arsenal at home next weekend too. Arsenal beat Albion 4-0 earlier in the season, and have scored 26 goals so far this season. So you could argue it’s already looking like a damage limitation job.

Still, it’s early days for Jens Scheuer and the new signings, who will need time to adjust. Let just hope Stefanovic’s injury isn’t serious.

It’s not quite time to panic yet though. There’s still over half of the season left and still plenty of time to turn things around. We’ve been in worse positions, let’s just hope Albion didn’t leave it too late with their recent recruitment.

Whilst it was a difficult result for Albion. It was good to see Leicester playing at their main stadium, the King Power.

Maybe if Albion had committed to more games at the AMEX in recent times, we wouldn’t have seen such a stream of departures last summer? Departures that have left huge issues that Albion are still trying to resolve.

Whilst the reminder of the loss of Whelan will be felt sharply after her opening goal, the loss of the defensive talents of Kovisto, Le Tissier, Gibbons and Kerkdijk were once again felt most of all, as Albion continue to struggle to rebuild their defensive stability after this summers mass exodus.

The season so far has seen more downs than ups. Whilst the departure of Hope Powell couldn’t have been seen coming after last season’s impressive league finish of 7th and 2021’s record high of 6th, it just demonstrates how badly things have gone since that a manager with such a great track record, such a long standing relationship with Paul Barber and such a massive reputation in women’s football was relived of her duties after just 8 games of the new season.

If Albion fail to resolve their issues they could realistically be playing next season in the Championship with local neighbours Lewes.

So with fortunes on the pitch faltering and home games in Crawley inevitably attracting small crowds. The club are at risk of not taking advantage of the upturn in Women’s football and being left behind by the competition.

Do Brighton Women’s team need relocation and reparations?

With both Brighton Men’s and Women’s teams finishing in the top ten in the country this year (9th and 7th respectively), these are exciting times to be a Brighton fan. And more exciting times are ahead with the AMEX stadium getting ready to host three Women’s Euros matches this summer, including one of England’s group games and potentially their quarter final match should they win their group. 

Hosting games at this summer’s Euros is a huge opportunity for Women’s and girls’ football in Brighton, as well as across the country. One that will almost inevitably lead to a much greater interest in the Women’s game, particularly at the top level. And so it is a huge opportunity for Brighton to in turn boost interest in thier Senior Womens team.

But a big part of the problem for the club in enabling that increase in interest to materialise into higher attendances and increased coverage, is playing their home games twenty-two miles north of Brighton in Crawley, on the very north edge of Sussex.

The best way for the club to capitalise upon this summer’s excitement as a club is to instead play all Women’s senior team games in Brighton. The problem with Brighton as a location is the lack of potential venues, but there is a simple and obvious solution here, play Women’s senior team games at the AMEX stadium.

Need is a word that I think is often overused by football fans, but above anything else at the club this summer, I feel this does NEED to happen. And happen now, not in three to five years’ time.

Before I continue, I want to prefix this by stating how lucky we are to have a club that resources and equips Women’s and girls’ football better than most in this country. The infrastructure that the club has built both in terms of its new state of the art training facilities, the expert personnel running the show at the club and the specific commercial deal with American Express for Women’s and girls’ football, have all enabled the Women’s senior team to excel and achieve club record league finishes of 6th and 7th place in the WSL in the past two seasons respectively.  

And going forward the club has stated serious aims to become an established top four club, competing at the very top end of the WSL and in European competitions. But all this makes their continued persistence with playing home games at Crawley all the more perplexing and frustrating.

What does the club have to say on this? Recently Paul Barber discussed this very idea, and his thoughts were essentially that resources are finite, and the club has little choice but to prioritise the Men’s game due to the potential financial burden of playing Women’s team games at the AMEX. An understandable business decision, but a short sighted one given the enormous potential growth in the Women’s game to come.

As one of the best Women’s teams in the country right now, the club has a huge opportunity to gain first mover’s advantage. Women’s football has grown massively over the past decade and this summer’s Euros will no doubt continue that trend. So, continuing to play games over at Crawley in front of around 1,000 people is an effective way to diminish that advantage and lose a huge opportunity for growth in the Women’s team.

Just look at the effect of the Men’s teams return to Brighton at Withdean in 1999. It wasn’t an 100% suitable solution and the club made a loss when hosting games there, but returning to Brighton and Hove provided a platform and a foundation for the club to build on, which has ultimately enabled its recent success. Without those years of struggle and strife the club wouldn’t be where it is today if be in existence at all.

In his comments on the reasoning for the Women’s team continuing to play home games at Crawley, Paul Barber also pointed to the potential strains on the AMEX pitch. Again, an understandable reason and I’m no expert on the use and management of football pitches, but given Albion only play 11 WSL home games per season, in general two of which are already being hosted at the AMEX, this is a relatively small number of additional games to account for in terms of pitch management. The equivalent of Albion’s Men’s team being involved in European competition for example.

Nine games, that’s it. I find it hard to conclude anything other than that the club could easily achieve playing both Men’s and Women’s senior games at the AMEX without too much additional strain on the pitch by shifting its priorities. We aren’t talking about ground sharing with a rugby team for instance, as is the case with many other Premier League and Championship teams.

The club already hosts a variety of events, international games as well as a mix of its youth teams matches at the AMEX each season. I find it hard to reconcile the club prioritising those events over Women’s senior team games alongside its previously stated ambitions for the Women’s team.

Let’s be honest, Crawley is barely even in Sussex, let alone near Brighton. I think it’s hard for the club to claim they treat the Men’s and Women’s teams equitably when the Women’s team don’t even play in the vicinity of the city of Brighton and Hove. 

As much as some will suggest options like Withdean or the clubs training ground in Shoreham, realistically, as we found out during the prolonged fight to build the AMEX at Falmer, there is no other realistic option in or around Brighton & Hove when it comes to hosting professional football matches. It’s the AMEX or nowhere.

When you look into the realities, it’s an accommodatable issue. Yes, crowds will likely be relatively low at first compared to mens first team matches, but even if it’s a case of playing in a tenth full AMEX stadium, that would be far better than playing in a fifth full Broadfield stadium in Crawley, miles away from the club’s key supporter base, and by a long way.

I don’t accept the financial arguments either. Particular given that Men’s football has ridden a wave of success built on the foundations of the repression of Women’s football for many decades.

As discussed by Freakonomics on a previous episode of their podcast (a series that I would wholeheartedly recommend), reparations are one option to solve this issue and in my opinion in this case are now long overdue.

I am not suggesting that the Men’s teams should share their revenue 50/50, but merely are required or even just encouraged to invest a portion of it into Women and girls’ football to compensate for the advantages the Men’s game has had by the restrictions placed on the Women’s game for so many decades.

If we go back to the beginning of Brighton Women’s teams’ history, we can understand this better. Brighton Women’s story begins in the 1960’s; in those days Brighton was represented in Women’s football by Brighton GPO, a team formed by several workers from the local post office’s telephone exchange.

There was no Albion Women’s team then as the state of play in Women’s football was vastly different. Men’s teams weren’t involved in Women’s football due a ban on Women’s football taking place at football league grounds that had existed since 1921. And it wasn’t until the formation of an independent body in 1969, the Women’s FA (WFA), that there was an official national organisation behind Women’s football giving teams like Brighton GPO the opportunity to compete in a formalised national competition.

Two years later, in 1971, the FA lifted its ban on Women’s football taking place in football league stadiums and in 1983 the WFA became officially affiliated as part of the FA. However, it wasn’t until 1991 that the FA fully integrated Women’s football within its national structure and a national league structure was established. Therefore, in 1990, along with a number of other clubs at the time, the Brighton Women’s football team was affiliated under the Brighton and Hove Albion F.C. umbrella and became a founding member of the Women’s Premier League in the 1991–92 season, starting within the regionalised second tier, the Division 1 South.

Despite this being relatively recent history in the terms of English football, in the early 90s Women’s football was still very much in its infancy following the decades of oppression from the hands of organisations like the FA and by extension international bodies like FIFA which it had great influence over, who deemed football ‘unsuitable for females’. For example, it would be another five years until Women’s football would first be played at the Olympics during the 1996 Atlanta games, despite the Men’s tournament existing at all but one Olympics since 1900.

Whilst since the 90’s and particularly the turn of the Millennium, Women’s football has continued to grow rapidly, there were still limited resources at the club to provide any significant level of investment into the Women’s team. With the Men’s senior team struggling to make ends meet at Withdean this left little funds for the Women’s team and left them still reliant on AITC fundraising to survive. This meant whilst teams at the very top like Arsenal were going professional, most others like Brighton were still semi-professional and most fans who went to watch their clubs Men’s team were lucky if they saw a page devoted to the Women’s team in the match day programme or an advert for the odd cup game against a big side to be played at the clubs main stadium.

In regards of one of Albion’s senior teams playing miles outside of the vicinity of Brighton & Hove, the club has of course experienced this kind of thing before with the Men’s teams brief 2-season spell ground sharing with Gillingham before their aforementioned move to a temporary home at the Withdean Stadium.

Whilst the journey to Gillingham was admittedly much further away than Crawley, the teams return to Brighton saw a rejuvenation in the club’s image after the damage of the civil war years in the mid-nineties and average crowd numbers doubled. There is no reason to believe that with the help of a post-Euros boost, a similar if not greater increase in crowd numbers could be achieved by the Women’s team were they to be permanently based in the vicinity of Brighton and Hove.

Whilst the club can in many respects be seen as a leader in regard to Women’s and girls’ football in this country, and they do their best in making Crawley feel like a suitable home for its Women’s team, including putting on free coaches for supporters and previously investing in upgrades to the ground’s facilities. It feels like an unsatisfactory solution and one which doesn’t sufficiently resource one of its senior teams, who are meant to have equal status at the club.

A simple way for the club to make a gesture towards repairing the damage carried out on the Women’s game for decades in this country, and to build upon the club’s recent success in the Women’s game, is to give their Women’s senior team the opportunity to thrive by playing their games in its state of the art AMEX stadium within the city of Brighton and Hove. If so, I don’t think it’s a decision anyone will come to regret.

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.

Inessa Kaagman – Providing a positive energy

Albion have continued to step up their game in terms of recruitment in recent years. Nowhere is this more true than with the women’s team. But of them all, the signing of Inessa Kaagman is looking like the most astute of the lot. Having scored 6 goals in 18 games this season, she’s been a key part of Albion’s rise to 6th in the WSL.

Prior to building a name for herself in England, Inessa started her career in her native but Holland. She spent her youth career at Hollandia B1 before she earned a move to Ajax, making her debut in 2013 and winning the KNVB Women’s Cup with the club in her first season.

That summer she captained the Dutch team that won the UEFA u19 European Championships in 2014 alongside now WSL top scorer Vivianne Miedema, who unsurprisingly top scored at that tournament with 6 goals and was awarded the player of the tournament award. Whilst Miedema caught the headlines Kaagman too had a huge impact, including scoring the winner against Belgium in their final group stage match that saw them qualify for the semi-finals.

Inessa’s progress and potential was later recognised by her club team when she won Ajax’s Talent of the Year award the following season. During her five years at the club she went on to play over 100 times, winning 2 Eredivisie titles, 2 more KNVB Women’s Cups and becoming a key members of the team.

But despite her potential, due to Holland’s wealth of talent in the middle of the pitch it would be another four years before she made her senior international debut in 2019, going on to make the Dutch squad for that year’s World Cup alongside fellow Albion teammate and housemate Danique Kerkdijk.

The Dutch went all the way to the final, finishing as runners up to the mighty USWNT, however due to her rookie status Inessa didn’t play at the tournament. But she still reflects on it as a positive experience, telling the Guardian “Even though I didn’t play I felt like I deserved the medal. The staff made us feel like part of the team from day one. It’s not the 11 players or the 14 players who’ve played that win the silver medal, it is everyone.”

Prior to the World Cup and after five seasons at Ajax she had left Dutch domestic football for the WSL in England, moving to Everton in 2018 in a deal that took fellow Dutchwoman Marthe Munsterman the other way. 

Upon signing for Everton she said: “I hope to help them by scoring goals and attacking.” And her eight goal contribution in her first season (four goals, four assists), did just that and was a huge part in Everton’s survival in the Women’s Super League as they scraped a 10th place finish. That season she also won the club’s Goal of the Season award in for an outstanding long-range strike in the Merseyside derby.

But while the following season the team’s fortunes improved, her influence reduced and her contract was not renewed at the end of the season. She told the offside rule on her second season at Everton: “It’s a huge improvement from last year so I am really happy to have played a part in that. Last year was my first season away from the Eredivisie and Ajax and when I was there we were always playing for the Championship and the cups. But the league here is much better and far more physical and the game moves a lot faster, the Dutch game is catching up but it’s not at this level yet. For me it was very different to be that low in the table and it was annoying because I wasn’t used to losing that many games but this season we’ve improved lots in results and in the football we’ve been playing.”

However, Inessa was now left looking for a new club. Fortunately for her, despite a less impressive second season at Everton she was still considered a highly thought of player. As said last summer: “The options for Kaagman are virtually endless. Many clubs in Europe are in need of a player like her.” Going on to say “she has gone under the radar at Everton and quietly became one of the most underrated players in the league.”

So it was a coup by fellow WSL strugglers Brighton to sign her back in the summer. Upon signing head coach Hope Powell told the club website: “We’re really pleased to have signed Inessa, I think she is going to be a big asset to us. She has plenty of WSL experience and I first noticed her at Everton a couple of years ago. She will bring energy to the midfield and she is capable of scoring her fair share of goals too, which is an area we are looking to improve as a team.”

And she has been all that and more this season for Albion. She is constant positive force in midfield, demonstrated by the fact she has more key passes (passes that directly lead to a shot) than any Brighton player in the WSL this season, as well as her impressive goalscoring record. If Albion’s fellow attackers were more clinical in front of goal she’d have a few assists to her name too.

It has been an up and down season for Brighton in the WSL this season, but one with many positives. Arguably none less so that Inessa Kaagman.

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.

Albion make things too three-sy for bottom of the table Bristol City

It was a huge game for Albion in the WSL on Saturday away to bottom of the table Bristol City. A win for Hope Powell’s side would have taken them up to 8th and a massive 10 points clear of their opponents who started the day bottom in the WSL’s relegation place, with just 2 points collected from the 11 games they’d played so far this season. Instead a defeat has meant Bristol climbed to within 4 points of them.

A recent Covid outbreak among the Albion team left among others key player Fliss Gibbons still serving an isolation period. All of which has limited Hope Powell’s options of late, but she was still able to reshuffle things at the back after that 7-1 hammering at the hands of Man City last time out. Namely dropping Kerkdijk and bringing in Williams at centre back with the young Bethan Roe also coming in at right back for only her second appearance for the first team, with Nora Heroum dropping out and Kayleigh Green reverting to her usual position higher up the pitch after deputising in defence their last time out.

Roe had been on a season long loan at Charlton in the Championship until earlier this month, but after the Covid outbreak limited the players available for selection, she was recalled. As a result of which, Powell could only name six out of the eight possible substitutes. Still, this is one more than the five they named last weekend away to City.

Powell was optimistic ahead of the game with some players now beginning to return from COVID isolation periods. Saying “it is nice to see players coming back, not possibly at full fitness, but I would take that rather than not having them at all.”

But this somewhat makeshift Albion team made possibly the worst of starts. When trying to play the ball out of the back, Albion gave it away on an admittedly heavy pitch and after failing to sufficiently close down Bristol’s Yaya Daniels, went behind after her slightly speculative shot caught out Fiskerstrand inside the first three minutes. Powell was critical of her keeper saying: “The early goal really put us on the back foot. I question our goalkeeper’s positioning, she was probably a little bit too high.” Albion’s defence should take their fair share of the blame here too, first for giving away the ball, and then giving Daniels too much space to get the shot away.

In response Albion put Bristol under plenty of pressure but failed to really test the keeper and get an equaliser. But it was Bristol who looked the most dangerous on the break and they caught Albion out again when a simple long ball through the middle of defence beat Le Tissier and allowed Ebony Salmon in behind to make it 2-0.

As half-time came a two-goal deficit was already a hard task for Albion to overturn, and it would get even harder after the break when Williams was penalised for what looked like a harsh handball decision and from the resultant penalty Salmon scored to double her tally and make the game safe for City.

Things got even worse shortly after when Kayleigh Green was given her marching orders, losing her head in all the frustration and stamping on Bristol’s opening goalscorer Yaya Daniels. Hope Powell said after that game that Green was “disgusted with herself”, and so she should have been. City’s interim manager Matt Beard’s comparison with Green’s actions and WWE wasn’t unfair.

Green did apologise after the game and Daniels stated that all was forgiven, but that was only after her red card was followed by Green having to be held back by her team-mates during what was described by Tom Garry in The Independent as “an expletive-ridden exchange with a furious Bristol City bench.”

But at least things didn’t get any worse after that, Albion only losing by three on this occasion compared to the six goals deficit the week before. Nonetheless this is a damaging 3-0 defeat, which leaves Albion right in the middle of a relegation dogfight and with many of the teams around them having games in hand, it may get even worse as the weeks go on.

Saturday saw Albion have lots of possession but struggle with their ball retention all afternoon on a bad pitch. They can’t just blame the pitch though, their average passing accuracy on Saturday of 69% is on par with their average all season and is the third worst in the division. In contrast, Bristol adapted far better to the conditions, with their far more direct style allowing them to create the better chances despite having significantly less possession.

Absences haven’t helped, both Gibbons (71%) and the Denise O’Sullivan (79%) have averaged higher passing accuracies than the team and tend to be far more reliable on the ball. Denise O’Sullivan’s in particular, who has now returned to her parent club North Carolina Courage after her loan period ended last month, has a passing accuracy that is the best at the club this season and her absence has been keenly felt this month.

It was ultimately the basics in defence that cost Albion here. Caught out by a speculative long range effort after giving the ball away in their own half and then again by a fairly straightforward long ball down the middle, making the game all-but out of reach before halftime.

In contrast, there was lots of possession and lots of promise going forward but simply not enough bite up front from Albion who have struggled for goals all season, scoring just 8 in their 13 WSL games. In fact it’s been an issue all season in the WSL, whilst they have averages over 10 shots a game this season, more than 4 of the other 5 teams in bottom half of the WSL, they have only scored a goal every 0.04 shots, the worst conversion rate in the division this season.

As Powell admitted after the game: “We weren’t good enough by our standards,” going onto say: “With how much we’ve developed, it feels like we’ve hit a brick wall and we have to go again.”

Especially given this was such a heavy defeat to a Bristol City side who hadn’t won in the Super League for nearly a year and who since the start of the season had amounted just two draws along with nine defeats in their eleven games played. A job recently taken on by interim manager Matt Beard, which he described after their 4-0 defeat last time out to Everton as “a big challenge”.

All making for a miserable day in the West Country, which mean they have lost 6 from their last 7 games and find themselves in a really bad place at the moment. The aforementioned hammering last weekend at the hands of Man City is unfortunately one of those things for Albion at the moment in what is becoming an increasingly top-heavy WLS, but taking a three-goal hammering from bottom of the table Bristol City who’d only scored six goals all season prior to kick off is another thing entirely and a huge setback for Powell’s team.

With Albion now being only 4 points above Bristol in 12th, the home games coming up against West Ham and Spurs later this month are now huge, especially if they are to avoid the season finale rematch with Bristol being a relegation decider. And just the little matter of a trip to league leaders Chelsea up next weekend.

On that prospect manager Hope Powell said “we’re gonna have to [be better]”, and she’s not wrong. If Albion are going to get out of the slump they find themselves in, they have to look after the ball better. Giving the ball away for Bristol’s opening goal here shows just that. Poor passing out from the back gifted possession to Bristol far too often, and if they keep doing that against better opposition they’ll be punished again and again, just like they were against City last weekend. Chelsea are likely be just as ruthless.

Monday Musings – Albion are taught lessons on the pitch amongst deadline day panic off of it

Everton teach us a lesson

The 2020/21 football season is going to be a weird one with so much football being packed in. As this weekend’s results resoundingly proved.

And just when it looks like most teams could do with a break, we get a round of international games with three games packed in, then we are back for more of this madness in two weeks’ time!

On top of that, it was always going to be a tough start to the season for Brighton given their opening fixtures, especially considering the amount of player turnover there has been in a very shortened summer break

Whilst Albion played well at times, scoring twice and putting Everton under some serious pressure, there were parts of the performance against Everton that weren’t great.

In particular the now worrying habit of conceding goals from set pieces and giving the ball away in our own half, but we still have plenty of positives to take away from the first 4 games and into the remaining 34 games.

Ten goals conceded from four games is a fairly poor return, but take account of the opposition and it’s not that unreasonable. Albion conceded 7 in the same fixtures last season whilst season scoring just three compared to this season’s eight goals scored. And accumulated just one point compared to the three so far this season. Clear signs of improvement.

But let’s not pretend there aren’t issues. Albion’s main fallibilities of defending set pieces and at times overplaying in defensive areas were costly for all four goals conceded and were exposed by an in form & high quality Everton team.

This Albion team is young, relatively inexperienced and many haven’t played together long. So some of the mistakes in those first four games were predictable but they can’t keep persisting if Albion really want to improve on last season’s 15th place finish.

The defeat will have been a reality check for some Albion fans as the team were well beaten by a very good side who took apart our every weakness. That’s 7 wins from 7 this season for Everton. Whilst for Albion that win over Newcastle is looking very important.

Easier games are to come, once we get to the second international break we‘ll have a better idea of how far this team has come, it’s very early to make any judgements just yet.

Powell’s team offers promise but are also taught a lesson.

There’s been lots of promise from Hope Powell’s team so far this season despite last week’s FA Cup exit. Something particularly shown by the four point picked up from their first two fixtures. But their third league game of the season against United was a big test of those signs of improvements and an equally stark reality check for Albion’s other senior side.

And unfortunately despite Kaagman, Green, Connolly and Walsh all returning to the starting line-up, Man United dominated and eased to a 3-0 victory in Sunday’s WSL match between the sides.

Like against Man City, Brighton again defended well for long periods. But you can’t expect to concede as much possession and territory every week and keep coming away with a clean sheet.

The highlight was a brilliant solo goal from the ex-Albion player and England international Alessia Russo to make it 2-0. A goal that highlighted how Man United were simply a cut above their guests, putting Albion under constant pressure who found it tough to get out their own half for long periods. With the eventual 3-0 scoreline a fair reflection of the home sides dominance.

A league cup tie against West Ham follows for Albion this week before another tough WSL game at home to Arsenal.

Deadline Day Panic

A lot of the transfer window discourse from Albion fans this time around has been very negative, a further example of the club’s disproportionately ever-growing expectations.

I personally think we’ve had a good window and would prefer no business today. Panicked deadline day deals are risky.

The club has a good first team squad and with Graham Potter in charge it looks more than enough is in place for the team to have a good season.

Yes, the club’s spent limited funds this summer, but offers for the likes of Brewster & Watkins were always likely to fall short if club’s with less frugal ownerships got involved as happened.

We must remind ourselves that the club has a relatively small budget for the Premier League and being here is success in itself.

The noticeably more frequent investment in u23 players and it’s academy is its way of the club trying to gain an advantage over the likes of Villa and others, something we have a proven success of doing in recent years.

Yes, we’ve spent big in prior years, but many of those players are still on our books. Some now filling the bench, filling the treatment table or out on loan, but all on financially limiting long term big money contracts. Can we afford to add yet another big money player to the wage book who could just as likely flop as much as he could be the “silver bullet” people have argued for? Especially amongst the current global economic turmoil and that has been caused by COVID.

It’s also a sign of the clubs plan to become financially self-sufficient whilst remaining competitive and working towards its long term goal of established top-half topflight status.

This is a more realistic long term strategy than splashing inordinate amounts of money on one player in search for short term success, Tony Bloom can’t keep bankrolling the club’s losses forever.

Disproportionately growing expectations are something I’ve written about before and that have been a problem for the club for a while, in part it’s a symptom of Albion’s success.

But I can’t help but feel they have created a rod for their own back by not managing things better.

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?