Another Women’s Super League season has come and gone, and again fans/pundits alike have been enjoyed heated debates over who the stand-out players from the past nine months have been. To settle all arguments (or maybe stoke some more), ESPN’s women’s football writer Sophie Lawson has thrown around some alternative — and some not-so alternative — awards as well as putting together a team of the season.
Best attacking trio: Kenza Dali, Rachel Daly and Kirsty Hanson (Aston Villa)
Having already highlighted Daly and Dali’s blossoming partnership earlier in the year, the Aston Villa attack is once again due some heady praise for their endeavours over the season.
With all three players new to the Villa set-up at the turn of the season, the trio wasted little time in finding a rhythm that worked for them and although it was Daly who found herself climbing the goalscoring charts, the interplay between them (though Hanson has since returned to Man United following the end of her loan) allowed the Villainesses to attack with so much flair and vigour.
Best positional shift: Ruby Mace, Leicester City
It was seen as quite the coup when Manchester City signed Mace from Arsenal in 2021, but the teenager faced the same struggle for minutes at her new club; in the end, she needed a winter loan move to the Foxes, and it provided her with the perfect chance to get some much-needed pitch time.
Normally deployed in her more familiar central defensive role, manager Willie Kirk opted to play the 19-year-old in a double-midfield pivot, which gave her freedom to lean further into the physical side of her game. Playing 10 full 90-minute stretches for Leicester over the second half of the season, Mace became a vital member of Kirk’s team and her role at the base of midfield to disrupt opposition attacks proved to be invaluable. That Leicester managed to stay up, finishing 10th, was in no small part thanks to Mace’s form and reliability.
Worst positional shift: Yui Hasegawa, Manchester City
This is a bit of a “bear with me” here for Hasegawa, as she has clearly excelled in a deeper role for City since moving at the start of the season. Such is her unparalleled vision and calm in possession that shifting her around the team caused little impact to City’s season. However, taking the Japanese international out of her favoured attacking midfield role — one that allows her to roam and feed the ball forward — feels like an egregious waste of her talent. The U.S. equivalent: Crystal Dunn’s best position for club vs. country.
Coldest penalty: Maren Mjelde, Chelsea vs. Olympique Lyonnais
It’s not quite a WSL moment, but nevertheless it’s unforgettable. At the end of March, Chelsea’s Champions League fate against Lyon came down to penalties, but not just the shoot-out that happened after extra time.
With Chelsea needing a goal in extra time to take the came to penalties, up stepped Maren Mjelde in stoppage time — literally the actual, factual last kick of the game — to convert one in the 128th minute after Vicky Becho was judged (after a replay) to have fouled Lauren James in the box. Mjelde, no doubt aware of the situation, calmly converted to send the game to a proper shoot-out.
Then, as if to prove the “ice in her veins” point in full, Mjelde took the first Chelsea kick of the actual shootout, too, casually thumping the ball beyond the reach of Tiane Endler to set the Blues on their way. (Chelsea would go on to win 4-3 on penalties, booking the unlikeliest of semifinal berths after a gripping game.)
In addition to her penalty heroics, the 33-year-old Mjelde is worthy of a mention for the ease at which she slotted into the Chelsea backline late in the season, when defensive injuries had Emma Hayes looking to her after markedly limited minutes. As it turned out, the Blues barely missed a beat on their way to yet another WSL title.
Lawson: Chelsea grind their way to another title
Sophie Lawson reports from Reading as Chelsea sealed another WSL title.
Worst injury crisis: Arsenal
This is not an award to be celebrated, but it’s worth pointing out the rash of injuries — including four torn ACLs — the Gunners have suffered this season. The volume and severity sets them apart from the rest of the pack, who have had their own knocks and availability issues to deal with.
The mounting list of absentees for Arsenal as the season wore on, coupled with the North Londoners fixture congestion in the league, Conti Cup and Champions League, could have led to a total collapse. Yet this team showed incredible resolve, rallying around manager Jonas Eidevall to the dig in even further, pushing their way to a third-place WSL finish and narrowly missing out on a spot in the Champions League final. It bodes well to see what this team can accomplish when fully fit.
Most underrated January signing: Fuka Nagano, Liverpool
The winter window saw a host of astute moves around the WSL, and while it’s easy to see how much Spurs benefited from bringing in Bethany England or how the addition of Lucy Staniforth and Jordan Nobbs strengthened Villa, Fuka Nagano’s move to Liverpool fails to get the coverage it deserves.
Another in an steady progression of Japanese internationals to move to the English league, Nagano’s impact has been felt across the Liverpool side. Chiefly, she is the architect in the middle of the park, helping ease the pressure on the defence with her calm shielding of the ball and clever play to set the Reds’ attack in motion.
Creativity award: Chloe Kelly, Manchester City
Although absent from most teams of the year (including ours), there’s no denying just how productive Kelly has been this season. The attacker led the league with a striking 80 chances created, but still finished two assists behind Chelsea maestro Guro Reiten. Although the City attack hasn’t always sung this season, it’s hard to overlook the individual work of Kelly.
Best renaissance: Carla Ward, Aston Villa
When it comes to managerial awards, it’s hard to look beyond Ward and Kirk, the former recruiting smartly over the summer to bring in the players who could implement her attacking style and the latter using the loan market in midseason to change the trajectory of the team. But for the sheer scale of impact Ward has had on Villa this season — taking the team from doing little more than treading water to one knocking on the door of the top four, and leaving room for further growth over the next few seasons — is worth praising. Without her, it simply wouldn’t have happened.
Best goal: Ashleigh Neville, Tottenham Hotspur vs. Leicester City
In true WSL fashion, the opening round of fixtures delivered at least one banger, and Neville’s chip from downtown against the Foxes was for everyone who loves a good lob.
— Barclays Women’s Super League (@BarclaysWSL) September 18, 2022
(Honourable mention goes to Lauren James’ mazy run and low finish against Spurs in February.
WSL team of the season
GK: Janina Leitzig, Leicester City
RB: Ona Batlle, Man United
CB: Maya Le Tissier, Man United and Rafaelle, Arsenal
LB: Katie McCabe, Arsenal
RM: Frida Maanum, Arsenal
CM: Yui Hasegawa, Man City and Erin Cuthbert, Chelsea
LM: Guro Reiten, Chelsea
ST: Rachel Daly, Aston Villa and Bunny Shaw, Man City
Coach: Willie Kirk, Leicester City
Bench: Mary Earps (Manchester United), Gabby George (Everton), Alex Greenwood (Manchester City), Anna Patten (Aston Villa), Fuka Nagano (Liverpool), Leah Galton (Manchester United), Bethany England (Tottenham Hotspur)
We’ve seen a lot of players excel this season and though few would argue over naming Batlle as the season’s first choice right-back, Leah Galton has shown her quality time and again for United as England racked up 12 goals in as many games for a struggling Spurs team. Just as players outside of the top four or five teams have been squeezed out in this XI and bench, there’s sadly no room to praise Everton’s departing centre-back, Rikke Sevecke, or Brighton’s impactful attacker, Katie Robinson, for impactful seasons in their own right.
Women’s Super League 2022-23 awards: Best XI, best goal, more