Anyone looking to wrestle a fifth straight WSL trophy away from Chelsea and Emma Hayes will have a major job on their hands this season. The Blues are a lean, mean winning machine who have only missed out on the title once in the last six years.
Gareth Taylor’s Man City were a world away from threatening that dominance last season, finishing 11 points off the pace at the end of a year of squad overhaul – far more than the manager had ever envisaged.
It was their lowest finish in the top flight for almost a decade, and on paper there are far stronger challengers to Chelsea’s crown. But stability goes a long way in football.
After a much-needed summer of serenity in the North West, there is a feeling around the club that they are ready to lift the trophy themselves for the first time since 2016.
“We know we need to win silverware. This club deserves it,” City and England winger Chloe Kelly recently told Sky Sports News. Her manager is just as forthright.
“Our intention is to win the league. It’s as clear as that,” he tells Sky Sports without a second thought. “We have it in our thought process, that’s the aim. We know how difficult it is, having such a tight season with 12 teams and 22 games.
“But we’ve seen a lot of teams challenging now, taking points off one another. We know it’ll be a bumpy ride at times, but of course our aim is to win.
“Sometimes it’s better the devil you know. We never wanted to make as many changes as we did last summer, and we lost Keira Walsh really late in the window as well.
“But we reacted, we managed to bring in Yui Hasegawa, at a new club, with a new coach, new team-mates, a new position, and she ends up with a Ballon D’Or nomination. It’s remarkable.
Man City’s summer outgoings compared
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“We started to see the start of something exciting happening. We were close, there were periods where we were really close. We’re a little disappointed with the fact we came up slightly short – but the margins are so, so tight in this league.
“It just goes to show, we’re moving things in the right direction. We want to improve continuously, and that’s the exciting thing to look forward to.”
A total of 15 players joined or left the club during the summer of 2022. The majority of those who departed were experienced heads such as Jill Scott, Caroline Weir, Lucy Bronze and Ellen White.
Their replacements, including Hasegawa, were clearly talented but needed time to bed in. Back-to-back defeats to start the season were a harsh lesson and already gave them an almost insurmountable mountain to climb.
This time around, Hayley Raso’s transfer to Real Madrid is the only departure of note. Meanwhile Jill Roord, another on this year’s Ballon D’Or shortlist, has joined from Champions League finalists Wolfsburg for a British record fee.
Jess Park will feel like another new signing after returning from a year’s loan at Everton, where she impressed so much she earned four England caps and scored her first international goal.
There’s the added bonus of a new contract for last season’s 20-goal Khadija Shaw too, all the more important in the same summer that Alessia Russo slipped out of Man Utd’s grasp to join Arsenal on a free transfer.
“We’ve known Jill for a long time,” says Taylor. “She was playing for Arsenal during my first season here, then we tracked her when she went to Wolfsburg. It’s not easy to bring these players in, everybody else is competing for them.
“But once we had good initial conversations, it was pretty straightforward in terms of our vision for her, and how she saw things.
“She offers us good quality, a goal threat, a hell of a lot of experience, not just of the WSL but the Champions League and on the international set-up. We see her as being one of the best players in that position in the world. We want to make her the best.
“We probably didn’t want to lose Jess last season, but it was important for her to go out and experience playing week-in week-out.
“We’re building a squad to compete on all fronts, that’s not just with 11 players, and she’s come back looking really good and sharp.”
City could have done with the added, if unwanted, bonus of additional rest days compared to their title rivals owing to their absence from this season’s Champions League. But after Arsenal’s early exit at the hands of Paris FC in qualifying last week, Jonas Eidevall’s side will also avoid the distraction of European football during their WSL pursuit.
Taylor and his side have been in their shoes. They were knocked out in qualifying by Real Madrid in both 2021 and 2022, leaving the City boss frustrated at UEFA’s process to reach the group stages and sympathetic of the Gunners becoming the latest English side to suffer.
He says: “It just goes to show how tough it is. The first thing is getting into the Champions League in the first place, then navigating your way through qualifying, which is probably tougher than actually playing in the group stage. I really mean that.
“How we drew Real Madrid in a second and third qualifying round game two years in a row is pretty incredible.
“It’s a real shame when you see big teams dropping out at this stage of the competition, and lesser teams perhaps enjoying that smooth route into the group stages. I understand it’s inclusion and everything else, but at the end of the day, you want to see the best teams there.”
Even winning the league would not be a guarantee of reaching the Champions League group stages for the first time in three years, with the WSL holders entering at the final qualifying stage. But that is next season’s problem.
For now, all eyes are focused on getting back to the top. Taylor talks regularly of the exciting potential of his squad – the WSL will get its first taste of just how much excitement is on the cards when they open their campaign at West Ham on October 1.