The year of Ellen White
Ellen White cemented herself in the record books in 2021, overtaking Kelly Smith as England Women’s all-time leading goalscorer.
The Manchester City Women forward broke the record in England’s 20-0 drubbing of Latvia Women in November. White scored twice in the opening nine minutes to take her level and then past Smith’s mark of 46 goals, before completing her hat-trick to leave her on 48 goals in 101 appearances for England.
She told ITV4 after breaking the record: “I actually feel really emotional about it. It’s been spoken about for a long time and I feel very proud. I feel really proud of the girls tonight, we’ve got so many girls who scored their first goal for England.”
Asked what she would have said if told as a schoolgirl she would one day become England’s record goalscorer, White added: “I’d say you’re having a laugh! It’s incredible. But I’m not stopping here. I still want to score goals for England.”
White also scored six times for Team GB at the Tokyo Olympics in the summer and was named as England’s player of the year for 2020/21. It was the third time she had won the award, having done so in 2011 and 2018.
White also earned her 100th cap for England against Austria in November and was shortlisted for the 2021 Ballon d’Or.
Speaking after the match against Austria, England manager Sarina Wiegman said: “It’s just an incredible achievement. If you have 100 caps, you’ve been so consistent.
“I’ve learned to know Ellen as a real professional player, a terrific team player and then the consistency she brings – still she wants to become better every day, and that’s really special.”
Chelsea’s domestic dominance
It has been another successful 2021 for Chelsea, who have added to an already creaking trophy cabinet.
In March, they won their first silverware of the calendar year, thrashing Bristol City 6-0 in the League Cup final at Vicarage Road. Sam Kerr scored a hat-trick, Fran Kirby added a double before Guro Reiten scored the sixth in the 55th minute.
Next came their second successive Women’s Super League title. The race went down to the final day after a 2-2 draw against rivals Manchester City in the penultimate game of the season left Chelsea with a two-point lead.
Both teams won their last games – Chelsea winning 5-0 at Reading, while Man City saw off West Ham 1-0 – with the Blues lifting their record fourth WSL trophy.
“Last season we weren’t the champions in some people’s eyes. But this season the players really wanted to demonstrate we’re the champions,” Emma Hayes said after the title victory.
“Knowing you’re coming into the last game and it’s in your hands is the only place you want to be. The whole season we’ve only lost one game. We’re never too good to lose and it keeps you on the edge. My team show so many sides again and again – and today another brilliant result.”
The 2020/21 season spilled over into the new campaign with the FA Cup final in early December. Chelsea faced Arsenal, who had beaten the Blues 3-2 in the opening game of the 2021/22 season. However, Hayes’ side enacted a touch of revenge, winning 3-0 in front of 41,000 fans at Wembley to complete their first domestic treble.
Perhaps the blemish of their year has come in the Champions League. In May, Chelsea were the first English side to reach the final since Arsenal’s victory in 2007, but they came up against a dominant Barcelona side. They were dispatched 4-0 by the Spanish side, who lifted their first Champions League title.
Chelsea went into the 2021/22 campaign as one of the favourites to again reach the latter stages of the competition, but were knocked out in the group stages in December as the Omicron variant began to take hold in the UK.
Hayes said after their exit: “Our heads were all over the place, we are human beings. A few days ago we had two players stuck down with Covid, we know inevitably that when we land tomorrow there will be positive cases.
“When you are in a team environment, you know it spreads like wildfire in the team. I just feel that this was deja vu and we are here 12 months after a really bad Covid outbreak at the same time… It’s across the game at the moment. For me, it’s a major reason behind our performance tonight.”
Re-emergence of Arsenal
Arsenal have long been a stalwart of English women’s football, but after winning the Women’s Super League in the 2018/19 season, they had found themselves finishing third in the last two league campaigns behind Chelsea and Man City.
There was a change of personnel in the summer – Joe Montemurro was replaced by the little-known Jonas Eidevall. However, the Swede has revolutionised Arsenal, seeing them four points clear at the top of the WSL table over Christmas.
In a recent Monday Night Football special, former Arsenal striker Kelly Smith said: “You never know how a team is going to react when a new manager comes in. Jonas has taken over a good Arsenal side after Joe Montemurro laid a good foundation.
“They’ve kept a lot of their core players from last season and added some quality like Tobin Heath, Mana Iwabuchi, Frida Maanum and Nikita Parris – all outstanding attacking players.
“Eidevall has got Arsenal playing a different way; their pressing has been more intense and aggressive, on the front foot and has won them the ball higher up the pitch, and they have had a longer ball game, playing ball in behind.”
Arsenal remain unbeaten in the WSL this season, winning eight and drawing one, although this came in Eidevall’s first north London derby against Tottenham. However, victories against Chelsea and Man City – with both sides also dropping points this season – has seen them capitalise.
However, it has not all been plain sailing elsewhere. While Eidevall guided Arsenal into the Champions League group stages early on, they were drawn against holders Barcelona in Group C. They lost both games against the reigning champions, but did qualify for the quarter-finals in second place.
There was also the recent 3-0 defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup final, with Eidevall admitting his side were way under par on the big occasion.
“It’s a combination of Chelsea being a very good football team when they get time and space in the final third and us committing way too many mistakes as a team.
“We don’t feel good right now. We can perform much better than we did. We need to learn from it. That’s my job, to try and correct it. We need to look forward.”
Disruption of the WSL pecking order
While Chelsea and Arsenal trade blows for domestic glory, elsewhere in the Women’s Super League, there’s a shake-up happening with what would have traditionally been called the ‘status quo’.
Earlier in 2021, Manchester United and Everton – under Casey Stoney and Willie Kirk respectively – looked to break into the WSL’s traditional top three. However, as the season continued, Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal pulled away from the pack.
Man Utd finished a point behind Arsenal in fourth, while Everton were dubbed ‘the best of the rest’ – finishing fifth, 15 points behind United.
But at the start of the 2021/22 season, all bets have been off. Man City have had a difficult start, an extensive injury list – including the absences of Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton and Ellie Roebuck – has seen them with work to do to finish in the Champions League spots, having finished in the top two in the last six seasons.
One of the stories of 2021 has to be the rise of Tottenham. In their first two WSL seasons, they finished in seventh and eighth respectively – the former coming during the cancelled 2019/20 campaign – but under Rehanne Skinner this season, they sit third over the winter break.
Speaking on the recent Women’s Football Weekend preview podcast, Sky Sports’ lead WSL presenter Caroline Barker said: “Rehanne clearly has the respect. All the players have bought into it this front-foot, possession-based philosophy at Spurs. She had the end of last season just to get that under way and seeing what has happened at the start of this season has shown how they’ve bought into it.
“You just have to give managers time, believe in what they want to do, giving that support to them. The facilities Spurs have got are phenomenal, she talked about wanting to bring more of her team in with her too, to expand the squad.
“Going full time into the training facilities has obviously helped, but all that she learnt as assistant boss at Arsenal and taking that now into Spurs – the way she talks, the way she has got them going has been brilliant. It’s been a real revelation this season.”
Hope Powell has also galvanised Brighton into top-three contenders this season. The long-time coach, aided by the arrival of Danielle Carter in the summer, has taken her Seagulls to fifth in the WSL table. They also reached their first FA Cup semi-final in 45 years, eventually losing to Arsenal.
Manchester United are still flourishing after promotion to the WSL in 2019. Marc Skinner has continued the good work done by Stoney and they are just two points off the Champions League places, although some of their performances and results have been hit and miss.
Skinner said in a recent interview with Sky Sports News’ Anton Toloui: “I think we have a lot of good players, but the best teams win. We’re trying to build a culture here where the team is the most important and not the individual. The individuals shine and show their qualities but, for us, we want to build that togetherness where everybody wants to work for everybody.
“It’s such a shame because other results have sometimes marred performances at times. We’ve not performed excellently in every game, but in the majority of games, we’ve been on top and not been as ruthless as we need to be. The one thing I want to remind this group is to be ruthless in both boxes.
“If Manchester United are going to produce what we want to be where we want, which is Champions Leagues, winning titles and cup competitions, we have to have the depth and challenge within the squad.
“Hopefully we can grow our players into that international fold, but we still need to recruit and make our team strong so we can compete at all levels.”
Start of Sarina Wiegman era
The Lionesses began the year in a fairly uncertain spot. England Women had not played any fixtures since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and it was soon announced that boss Phil Neville – who had been set to see out his contract until July 2021 – would be leaving the national team to take up the vacant managerial role at Inter Miami.
Wiegman had already been appointed as Neville’s replacement, but would see the Netherlands through their Olympic campaign. Hege Riise took over as interim manager, taking charge of three England games in her short tenure and overseeing Team GB in Tokyo.
Speaking at the time of Wiegman’s appointment, FA director of women’s football, Sue Campbell, added: “Sarina was our number-one choice. She’s the perfect cultural fit for us, which is crucially important in building a winning team. Her technical expertise, leadership skills and winning mentality is hugely impressive.
“I am confident that together with our incredible support staff and ambitious, talented playing squad she can help us achieve the international success we are striving for.”
Since taking over in September, Wiegman has won all six of her games in charge as the Lionesses began their qualification for the 2023 World Cup. It is safe to say that England have been pretty successful too – scoring 53 goals and conceding none.
The highlight was undoubtedly a 20-0 win against Latvia in November, played in front of home fans at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium. Beth Mead, Russo and White all netted hat-tricks, with Lauren Hemp also scoring four times. They were her first goals in an England shirt, while Jess Carter scored her first international goal and Katie Zelem also made her debut.
Their 20-0 victory surpassed their previous record competitive win, a 13-0 success against Hungary back in 2005.
However, it did contribute to the on-going debate regarding the competitiveness of women’s international qualifiers, with Wiegman saying after the Latvia victory: “You want competitive games and these are not competitive games.
“In every country you want to develop the women’s game but I don’t think it’s good that the scores are so high. I know it has the attention of the federations and I think that’s good as I don’t think 20-0 is good for the development of anyone.
“We really need some top-level games now which we’re going to have [next year] because then we’ll really know where we are.”
However, England should have the chance to be tested against top opposition in February next year as they prepare for a home European Championship next summer.
WSL flourishing with new investment
In March, Sky Sports was announced as the new primary broadcaster for the Women’s Super League, alongside the BBC and FA Player, on a three-season deal.
The WSL began with a bang live on Sky Sports too, with Manchester United beating Reading 2-0 in the opening game of the season, before Arsenal sprang a shock by beating WSL holders Chelsea 3-2 in a thrilling encounter at the Emirates.
Since then, the WSL has received the full Sky Sports treatment with at least one live match every gameweek. Sky Sports’ lead WSL pundit Karen Carney has mastered the touchscreen, bringing a new dimension to women’s football analysis, with the likes of Stoney, Smith and other special guests also providing vital insight.
In December, Barclays announced they are investing more than £30m into women’s and girls’ football over the next three years as part of an investment that will see them become headline sponsors of the FA Women’s Championship.
Barclays became the title sponsor of the Women’s Super League in 2019 as it pledged to invest in excess of £15m in the women’s and girls’ game.
It will now also become the title sponsor of the Women’s Championship from next season and is doubling the previous figure – setting, according to the FA, a new record for investment in UK women’s sport.