2021/22 WSL (FA Women’s Super League): Manchester United v Reading
This year sees the WSL (FA Women’s Super League) celebrate its tenth anniversary and whilst tradition dictates that tin should be given as a ten-year anniversary gift, symbolising strength and durability, a decade of persistence by the WSL has been duly rewarded with the biggest ever broadcast deal for the women’s game in England. It is a long time coming for a sport that has been in existence for over 120 years, but even those who have been in and around the game as recently as the last twenty years may not have been able to imagine the days of mainstream coverage of women’s top flight football. And whilst this new deal marks a pivotal moment in the game, everyone associated with the sport will be hoping it isn’t all just a flash in the pan. However, if last night’s opening fixture of the 2021/22 season between Manchester United and Reading was anything to go by, organisers will have nothing to worry about, after an entertaining, exciting and high-quality encounter between last season’s fourth- and seventh-placed finishers respectively.
Indeed, the first half-hour of last night’s match especially showcased the women’s game in all of its glory. From back to front, both teams were brimming with quality in what turned out to be a tight contest and it is clear that the women’s game has developed significantly, both technically and tactically. The emphasis on building from the back and the surety of the defenders was in full display, whilst there was a noticeable patience and composure to the build-up play that are all clear signs of the growth of the game in recent decades.
One of the strengths of the women’s game has always been a lack of histrionics and gamesmanship, and this too was showcased in the opening clash, with a game that saw plenty of meaty challenges but none of the playacting. It will be interesting to see whether any of this changes as the women’s game becomes more commercialised, but there was certainly no evidence of it last night. Even when Reading central defender Deanna Cooper took a thunderbolt of a strike flush in the face that drove to her the ground, she got up and continued without a murmur and no signs of the physios even entering the field.
Whilst comparisons will inevitably be made with the men’s game, the only thing notably lacking last night was the absence of technology, with two contentious issues that could have had an effect on the result. The first came at 1-0, when Reading’s Brooke Chaplen’s shot rebounded off the underside of the crossbar and looked very close to having crossed the goal-line. The speed at which it happened made an on-field decision virtually impossible, but it would have been an instantaneous determination by goal-line technology and could very well have seen the sides levelled up early in the second half. Just as the players brushed aside the tough tackles and challenges, however, there was no fuss or dispute from the Reading contingent, no crowding of the referee or berating of the lineswoman. Instead, the game continued, but Reading soon found themselves once again on the wrong end of a questionable verdict as there was a tight offside call in the build-up to the Reds’ second goal. Whilst fans of the Premier League have pulled their hair out with VAR in the last couple of seasons, its absence last night may have been telling on the result and highlights the ongoing discrepancies at the structural level in the men’s and women’s games.
It has to be said though that the officials themselves did a sterling job, allowing the match to flow in a way that reflected well on the women’s game and that encouraged a strong, competitive and fair contest. Indeed, whilst much of the spotlight will have been on the two well-worked United goals from Hanson and Batlle and Toone’s decisive role in each, for me it was the centre-backs in the shape of Reading’s Gemma Evans and United’s Maria Thorisdottir who epitomised the quality on show, with excellent one v one defending and some well-timed, robust challenges. Blundell at right back too, put in an impressive performance. The tempo and precision did wane in the final quarter of the match, with Reading especially looking slightly leggy, but overall this opening match was a hugely positive reflection of, and impressive advert for, the women’s game in the first showing of this new supercharged season. Long may it continue.