The Liverpool FC Women returned to the WSL after two years in the wilderness of the FA Women’s Championship. The top tier league has become progressively more competitive as investment has (finally) begun flowing into teams. The goal for Matt Beard and his squad this season was simple — survive and avoid relegation.
After a surprise win over Chelsea on opening day, Liverpool unsurprisingly struggled during a very difficult run of fixtures to start the season. With injuries to key players in the attack, Matt Beard set his side up to limit damage in the first half before stepping on the gas in the second half, but defensive errors and tentative play saw Liverpool go down early in matches and struggle to find a way out of the hole. The Reds didn’t pick up points again until late November. Liverpool found their footing against sides in the bottom half of the table with two wins and two draws to finish out the calendar year.
The second half of the season saw Liverpool make major strides thanks to a change in set up in midfield, with January signing Fuka Nagano proving to play a pivotal role. From February on, the Reds played with a new level of assuredness and control, and the results followed. Outside of a bad 4-0 loss to Leicester City, Liverpool strung together a series of strong performances that saw them climb comfortably out of the relegation battle and into seventh in the table. There were some losses mixed in, but the Reds were in every one of the matches.
With the jump to the WSL, Matt Beard looked to enhance an already veteran core of players with some players with top flight experience. While Shanice van de Sanden was the most heralded of the signings, it was Emma Koivisto who had the largest impact. The right back finished with the second highest offensive output on the team with two goals and four assists for the season. She was a willing runner down the right wing and provided some stellar deliveries for the likes of Katie Stengel. Koivisto also showed a great engine to make recovery runs to track wingers down after making forays forward.
Two mid-season signings also provided a big boost to Liverpool despite limited time. Fuka Nagano signaled a shift in formation and philosophy for the side. When the Japan international signed in January, Matt Beard moved to a midfield three with Nagano sitting at the base. Her ability to remain calm and make progressive plays when under pressure helped keep control of games and unlock defenses. Nagano tailed off towards the end of the season, but her play provided a big boost for the likes of Ceri Holland and Missy Bo Kearns.
While Fuka Nagano helped solidify the midfield, Gemma Bonner played a similar role in defense after rejoining the club in January. After the shock retirement of Gilly Flaherty, and the injury troubles for Niamh Fahey, Matt Beard needed someone to step into central defense and fill the void. Gemma Bonner did that and more. She anchored the defense and did well to shut down the likes of Manchester City’s Bunny Shaw. Bonner was also a huge asset in the air on both ends of the pitch. She was always on hand to make an incisive header to clear danger, and she proved to be a threat on the end of dead ball situations on the attacking end.
As mentioned above, Liverpool’s change in formation in the winter going to a three person midfield proved to be a key factor in the squad’s second half success. While Ceri Holland and Missy Bo Kearns were always willing runners playing as a double pivot in a 3-4-3, adding Fuka Nagano allowed the other two player to be more aggressive with their forward forays and involvement in the attack. Both Holland and Kearns saw that involvement result in four goals apiece. Neither shirked their defensive duties despite the increased attacking presence, with both players finishing in the top 3 on the team for tackles/90 minutes per FBref. For their efforts, Holland and Kearns earned honors at the end of the season.
It feels important to call out the efforts of the American striker. Stengel was the lone constant in the attack, leading the line to the tune of a team-high nine goals. While that number may not pop out as particularly significant for a center forward, Stengel managed that while being partnered with a rotating cast of player depending on who happened to be fit that week. She was often left isolated in the attack, especially early in the season. Despite all of that, Stengel never stopped battling. She dropped deep and showed great hold up play to relieve pressure on a frequently beleaguered defense in the first half of the season. She also continued to show startlingly quick feet and good close control to beat players on the dribble. Despite being 31, she seems like she still has plenty in the tank.
Coming into the season, Liverpool looked to have a nice balance of speed, trickery, strength, and finishing along the forward line. Unfortunately, Shanice van de Sanden started the season with an achilles injury, and suffered a knee injury warming up on a frozen pitch shortly after returning to action. Liverpool’s other speedy forward, Leanne Kiernan, suffered a bad ankle injury in the first match that held her out until the very last fixtures of the season. To top it all off, Melissa Lawley, who was a top performer through the early stretches of the season, saw her season end in late winter after battling through a hip injury.
Along with the plethora of injuries to attacking players, the central defense saw key players miss significant chunks of time. Captain Niamh Fahey and Megan Campbell both missed a couple months of time at the latter stages of the season.
Goal Scoring Consistency
It probably comes as no shock that an offense that was missing quite a few of its main pieces due to injury struggled to generate goals. Liverpool scored 24 goals in 22 games, which was the fourth lowest goal total in the league, and they failed to score in 10 of their league matches
While it’s not uncommon to feel a team left points on the table, Matt Beard felt particularly aggrieved with some poor finishing in big opportunities, as well as some potentially massive missed calls by referees in key moments. While Liverpool probably stole the match against Chelsea to open the season, they were denied a draw with Spurs despite outplaying them for the majority of the match. The Reds also will have felt they should have won matches against Everton, Brighton, Reading, and Aston Villa that all ended as draws. Yana Daniels in particular missed some key chances in moments that could have decided matches.
Liverpool won zero (0) away matches this season. That’s bad.
Liverpool showed that they had the capability of competing with any team in the WSL on their day. While Matt Beard built a side comprised primarily of players with significant WSL experience, Liverpool will likely look to get younger in both the defense and attack if they want to continue their progression and start challenging for a spot in the top half of the table.
In central defense, there are only four players left on the roster after the departures of Megan Campbell, Leighanne Robe, and Razza Roberts. Of those, Hannah Silcock (18) is the only player under 30 years old. Niamh Fahey (36), Gemma Bonner (32), and Jasmine Matthews (30) provide plenty of leadership and experience, but the club needs to get younger and faster as a defensive unit.
In the attacking and, Leanne Kiernan is entering her prime at 24, but she is coming back from a major ankle injury. Katie Stengel (31), Shanice van de Sanden (30) and Melissa Lawley (29) provide a nice core of players along with Kiernan with complementary skillsets. Still, outside of Stengel all other players had significant injury troubles this past season. One or two younger attackers to work into the mix would probably make sense.
The midfield seems settled and stocked for the time being after the signing of three players this winter. There are rumors of interest from abroad for Ceri Holland after her strong season. If she were to move on, Liverpool would need a top of the line midfielder to replace her.
While squad building will be at the forefront of most minds, there is still the outstanding issue of finding a permanent training facility and sorting out a stadium for the LFC Women. There have been the occasional whisper that the club are looking at options. Just this past week, James Pearce of The Athletic reported that Russ Fraser and the club are in the later stages of a deal to purchase the Melwood training facility back as a permanent home. Getting the training facility sorted would be a great signal of intent that the Women’s team is finally being taken seriously.