2019/20 Season Preview

For the second year in a row Blues Women begin their season with a home game against Everton, but there will not be much familiarity with that match-up from last season given the dramatic turnover of Blues’ playing staff since then. From the starting 11 that day, only Kerys Harrop and Lucy Staniforth remain with the club going into the new season and the manager on that day, Marc Skinner, was replaced by Marta Tejedor in January.

Recent comments made by Tejedor during an interview with the club website suggest that she is the driving force behind the squad overhaul, so she will be judged on the success of the group this year. Tejedor admitted that she tried to maintain the principles that had been put in place by her predecessor when she first took over but she has been able to put her own stamp on the team this summer and implement her own philosophies.

Remainers (no, not that type)

Given the extent of the upheaval at Blues this summer, it is easier to run through the remaining members of last season’s squad:

18-year-old goalkeeper Hannah Hampton took over from Ann-Katrin Berger when the German left for Chelsea midway through the season. Hampton showed plenty of promise in these appearances, and was deservedly called up to England’s under-21 squad for the recent internationals. Her shot-stopping and comfort with the ball at her feet were stand-out qualities that Blues will hope she can develop further with more playing time this season.

Harriet Scott started 12 of Blues’ 20 games last season, mostly at right back, and is expected to continue in this role for the coming season. Scott is comfortable at either full back position; she is defensively solid but does not offer much going forward.

Kerys Harrop started all but 2 of Blues’ games at centre back last season and returns to captain the side for another season. Harrop’s dominant physical presence and leadership qualities have meant Tejedor deemed her indispensable amongst the numerous outgoings.

Scottish midfielder Chloe Arthur missed out on the starting 11 on only one occasion after Tejedor took over, and made her country’s World Cup squad this summer. She is very adept at winning the ball in central areas and driving upfield but her passing can be erratic.

Lucy Staniforth is the biggest name in this squad, having made England’s World Cup squad this summer, and the 26-year-old remains with Blues despite handing in a transfer request on her return from France. While Staniforth’s penetrative passing is a huge asset, this is offset by her lack of defensive output and terrible shot selection which kills as many attacks as she creates. With one year left on her contract, and in the context of the rebuilding process that is ongoing at Blues, there is a case to be made for cashing in on Staniforth while her stock is high.

Connie Scofield is an attacking midfielder who performed so well in limited minutes last season that she is a prime candidate to break out this season; she joined Hampton in the England under-21s and will be hoping to continue her development by establishing herself in the first team this season.

Sarah Mayling is a useful squad player whose versatility saw her fill in at a variety of positions last season.

Departures

Amongst the many outgoings this summer, the most significant were those of Aoife Mannion and Ellen White, who both joined Manchester City.

Centre back Mannion was the only player to start every Blues game last season and she formed a formidable partnership with Harrop at the heart of the Blues defence; while Harrop was more active defensively, Mannion’s ball carrying and aggressive passing were key to initiating Blues attacks. Her ability to break the opposition’s initial press through dribbling out from the back destabilised defences and opened up space for Mannion and her teammates to pass the ball through midfield. While it will be possible to find a replacement who can match Mannion’s defensive capabilities, Mannion’s on the ball skillset is truly unique so they will need to find alternative methods of opening up passing lanes in central areas.

England’s World Cup star Ellen White was not as durable as Mannion, but was arguably as important; she was Blues’ top scorer for the season with 6 goals, despite missing more than half of the games through injury. White was brilliant at finding space in the box to get on the end of chances, and Blues do not seem to have a direct replacement who has a similar predatory instinct to fill the goalscoring void left by White.

On top of White’s departure, Blues have also lost fellow attackers Emma Follis, Charlie Wellings and Lucy Quinn who contributed 9 goals between them last season, so Blues fans can expect a completely new look front line for the coming season. Blues have also waved goodbye to last season’s starting left back Paige Williams, defender Meaghan Sargeant who deputised across the back line, and combative midfielders Hayley Ladd and Marissa Ewers.

Arrivals

While Rachel Williams is not a new signing, an ACL injury prevented her from getting on the pitch at all last season. The striker is in her second spell with the club, and she was prolific in her previous 2 year stint at Blues. However, that was over 5 years ago and Williams has not replicated that goalscoring rate at any of her clubs since. At 31 years of age she is past her prime physically and coming off a serious injury so there are big question marks over her ability to shoulder the goalscoring burden.

Claudia Walker has joined permanently from this Sunday’s opponents after impressing in her loan spell last season. An attacker who had previously played centrally for Everton, Walker was deployed out wide by Tejedor. She has a very direct style of play, willing to run at opposing defences at every opportunity. Walker was able to create for her team mates and get on the end of high quality chances in her few appearances on loan; if she can do this with more regularity, she could be a key contributor to Blues this season with goals and assists.

Blues signed Scottish forward Abbi Grant from Anderlecht.  Grant joined the Belgian club after plying her trade at various clubs in Scottish football; she went on to score 8 goals in her 12 appearances there and won the Belgian Super League. While the quality of the Belgian league may not match the WSL, she has scored goals at every stop of her career and Blues will be hoping she can make the step up to replace some of the attacking output that the squad has lost this summer.

American midfielder Brianna Visalli has joined from West Ham. It is not clear what Visalli’s strengths are on the pitch, as she does not win the ball back very often, nor is she a proficient passer and she is not an attacking threat either. However she does seem to be a good character, and this may be the reasoning behind Blues’ pursuit of Visalli, especially considering the dressing room leaders who have left the team this summer.

Blues have also added a pair of 23-year-olds in Rebecca Holloway and Lucy Whipp from Nashville Rhythm and St John’s University respectively. Holloway is a versatile midfielder who can fill in at full back or winger if required and has WSL experience from her time at Bristol City. Whipp is a more attacking player who can play anywhere across the front line; she previously played in the top flight for Everton.

Speedy full back Adrienne Jordan has signed for Blues from Atalanta, who she joined after stints in Sweden and Iceland. It is expected that the American will slot in to the LB spot vacated by Paige Williams.

Conclusion

It is not clear what the recruitment process is at Blues, but what we can decipher from the profile of players who have been brought in is that management identified a need to bring the average age of the squad down by targeting players in their early 20s, and letting some established veterans leave. They have also tried to find value by targeting players from lesser known leagues such as Italy, America and Belgium. The motivation behind these objectives may be finance-related, as younger players from more obscure leagues are cheaper than proven veterans from top tier leagues, or it might be the case that Tejedor likes to work with younger, hungrier players as they are more receptive of her coaching methods and she is able to impart her ideas on them more easily.

The best case scenario for Blues would be that the key players who have returned, such as Staniforth and Harrop, thrive in Tejedor’s new system, the new acquisitions are able to adapt to their new surroundings and hit the ground running straight away and young players like Hampton and Scofield realise their potential by consistently performing at a high level. Tejedor’s tactics are able to hide any talent deficiencies and multiple attackers chip in with goals to mitigate the loss of Ellen White. This outcome would probably only result in a mid-table finish, but it would provide Blues with solid foundations to build upon in the coming years with an established manager and a young, collaborative squad.

However, the downside could be that key players’ performances dip due to the demotivation of seeing their former teammates and manager depart. The players purchased this summer are unable to step up to the demands of the WSL. Younger players look out of their depth in a struggling side. Tejedor’s set-up is unsuited to the group of players at her disposal and the lack of a natural goalscorer haunts Blues for the season. This would see Blues struggling at the bottom of the league, hoping to avoid relegation and probably looking for a new manager.

After Sunday’s home opener against Everton, we will have a better idea of where on this spectrum Blues will end up this season.

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