WSL Team of the Season: Opta XI of 2022-23 | The Analyst
Who makes the English WSL Team of the Season based on Opta Data?
The 2022-23 WSL season came down to the final day with a nail-biting finish seeing Chelsea crowned champions for a fourth consecutive time, with a record points total and record number of wins.
Manchester United came within touching distance of a first WSL title but had to settle for a debut Champions League qualification in the end.
Arsenal picked up the final UWCL place, overcoming a whole host of injuries to leave Manchester City as the team missing out. Aston Villa were the season’s surprise package as they turned a ninth-place finish last year into a fifth place one this campaign, although still found themselves a way off the top four.
Meanwhile, Reading’s seven–year stay in the WSL came to an end with Kelly Chambers’ team being relegated on the last day of the season as Leicester completed a remarkable turnaround which saw them pick up 16 points in the second half of the campaign.
Here is the Opta data-driven team of the 2022-23 WSL season.
Janina Leitzig – Leicester City
Leicester City’s season can be split into two parts: pre and post January transfer window. The Foxes were winless before January, losing all nine games in 2022 and conceding 25 goals from an xG (expected goals) of 13.1. The threat of relegation was real and looming right above their head.
New year, new me is the phrase that best describes the turnaround by Leicester. The Foxes brought in a contingent of five talented players and among them was Bayern Munich’s Janina Leitzig on loan. The result? Foxes won their first game thanks to some heroics in goal from the 24-year-old. She made six saves in that game and kept the Brighton & Hove Albion at bay.
Two HUGE saves from Janina Leitzig!
— Barclays Women’s Super League (@BarclaysWSL) January 15, 2023
These heroics became the norm for the rest of the season. The German goalkeeper produced a gargantuan performance against Manchester City in the next game, producing 15 saves from 17 shots on goal, conceding just two from an xG of 3.4 in the game.
The former Hoffenheim goalkeeper went on to produce 66 saves overall, just behind West Ham United’s Mackenzie Arnold (70), with 48 of them coming from inside the box. A caveat here is the opportunity cost of being able to make a save.
Leicester’s leaky defence meant opponents managed to get high volume and high-quality shots off. The Foxes faced the second most shots (140) and the fourth highest quality of shots in the league (0.26xG), and as a result, frequently required Leitzig to save their blushes.
The German produced 10+ saves in three separate matches in her time at the club (vs Liverpool, Man City and Man United), featuring three times in the top seven for most saves made in a 2022-23 WSL game. Leitzig recorded an overall save percentage of 74.2% in the WSL this season while saving 70.6% of shots from inside the box, which was the third best figure in the league – including a penalty save against Arsenal.
At 6-foot, Leitzig has control over balls in the air into the box. She is blessed with good reach and control over her cross collection. She recorded the best cross collection percentage among all goalkeepers in the division (11.9%) while facing 159 crosses into the penalty areas.
Leitzig is comfortable with the ball at her feet, too. She recorded the fourth best long pass completion rate in the league (39.8%), picking out teammates with respectable accuracy.
While her responsibilities at Leicester didn’t need her to step out of the box often, Leitzig was the perfect antidote to their defensive problems as she produced save after save and was one of the major reasons the Foxes managed to stay in the WSL.
Gabby George – Everton
Everton are the big ‘pretenders’ in the WSL. They aim to mimic the big sides and dominate possession against their opponents and play some scintillating football produced by some shrewd signings and reinventions.
The Toffees have produced an against-the-grain pick for the left-back spot in our WSL TOTS following Gabby George’s metamorphosis this season.
The former central defender’s transformation into an attacking full back/wing back/winger has been a great story to follow. The 26-year-old finished the season with two goals and two assists to her name before an injury prematurely ended her season in April. She had the fourth most direct goal contributions for the Toffees this season.
Despite not playing since the start of April, George has the fifth most ball touches (924) and fifth most touches in the opposition penalty area (30) for Everton this season, highlighting her importance in possession for the Merseyside club.
The English defender received out wide and offered progression with her carries while taking on defenders and producing passes into the box or shots on the cutback. Only Lucy Graham (31) had more carries into the final third for Everton this season than George (22) while only Nico Sorensen (20) had more carries into the penalty area than George (14) at Everton.
The right-footed left side player showcased good 1-v-1 ability in take-ons. Her right footedness allowed George to cut inside and generate a shot or a crossing opportunity.
Only three players have taken more shots for Everton this season than George (19) with only four players accumulating an xG (1.5) better than hers for the Toffees. She produced an absolute peach of a goal on her 100th WSL appearance against Liverpool this season.
Her seven crosses into the penalty box were the second highest at the club. while her 11 passes into the penalty box is only bettered by three players at Everton this season. George produced 13 direct shot-involvements in the competition despite playing 200 fewer minutes than full backs above her.
The full back is astute defensively as well, carrying her duel abilities from her time as the central defender. She does well in physical tussles with her opponents, dominating them and winning her duels in key areas.
George has been at the Merseyside club since the start of her career amassing over a century of WSL appearances so far and she is integral to Brian Sorensen’s system offering versatility and quality alike.
Maya Le Tissier – Manchester United
Maya Le Tissier made waves at Brighton across the previous two seasons and a potential move for the prodigious ball-playing defender has been in the works for a while now. Manchester United were the first to react as they triggered the release clause with a year remaining on her contract.
Brighton’s two-time Young POTY was on her way to don the red of Manchester. She immediately gave a glimpse of what made her one of the most well-rounded defenders in the country by scoring a brace in her first game for the Red Devils. Across 2022-23, no outfield player played more minutes for United than Le Tissier (1,958) in the WSL.
The 21-year-old became an indispensable part of United’s impenetrable defence that gave up just 12 goals throughout the season. She showcased her already defensive acumen with her prescient movements and game awareness while her physical attributes and engine allowed her to dominate duels and territory.
Beyond her defensive solidity, her on-ball qualities are unmissable. She was heavily involved in the build-up and progression phase for Manchester United. Her affinity and comfort on the ball can be observed by the fact that only Alex Greenwood (1,591) attempted more passes than the United centre-back (1,574).
Le Tissier is consistently looking to progress the ball higher up the pitch with her passes and ball carries – only Ona Batlle (224) had more progressive carries than Le Tissier (209). A lot of these carries are relatively short in distance (5-10m long) followed by a penetrative pass into the opposition half.
Only Alex Greenwood (216) and Katie Zelem (212) recorded more final third entries in the league via passes than Le Tissier (198) and no outfield player progressed the ball further forwards than the Red Devils defender (23.2m) on average with her passes. These numbers highlight her ability to advance possession into dangerous areas and she does this while maintaining a pass completion rate of 86%, sixth best in the league for players with over 1,000 passes attempted. Somewhat surprisingly, Le Tissier (four) ranks only behind Ella Toone (six) for through-balls underlining her line-breaking abilities.
The former England U19 captain also possesses great range on her passes. Her long-range passing ability enables multiple routes for her to progress. No player attempted (260) or completed more long balls (143) than her in 2022-23.
The youngster – often compared to Lucy Bronze due to her physical and technical attributes – cuts a steadfast figure on very capable shoulders. Le Tissier has arrived in the big leagues now and she is here to stay.
Rafaelle – Arsenal
The news that Rafaelle would be leaving Arsenal at the end of this season understandably came as a significant shock for many fans of the club, with the Brazilian centre-back being one of their most impressive recent bits of recruitment.
Playing in her first full WSL season, Rafaelle stood out for her ability to master all areas of defending, as well as pairing up with a number of different players throughout the season. Her relationship with Leah Williamson stood out, but she also helped marshal a defence with Lotte Wubben-Moy and Jen Beattie as Arsenal became stretched with injuries.
Arsenal occasionally struggled with balls into the box, with Manuela Zinsbergeronly making 11 catches and punches across the entire season, ranking her 10th of 13 goalkeepers with more than 900 minutes in the league this season. However, Rafaelle became a much-needed aerial presence for the Gunners, winning 28 aerial duels this season with a 60.9% success percentage – the third highest number for a centre-back in the WSL.
Her ability on the ball is also key, with Rafaelle often looking to step out from the back with the ball – she can pass or carry. She made 5.5 passes into the final third per 90 this season, which for context, is 0.01 fewer than Arsenal midfielder Lia Walti averaged, to show how Rafaelle likes to get higher up the pitch.
One of her most eye-catching abilities is the way she takes players on to move beyond them. No centre-back had more successful take ons than Rafaelle (12), five of which were in the opposition half.
With Williamson likely to be unavailable for the majority of next season due to her ACL injury, losing Rafaelle was about the biggest blow Arsenal could have had as they look to find some security in their defence for 2023-24.
Ona Batlle – Manchester United
Ona Batlle has been the best right-back in the league for several seasons now, but a slight change to her role has seen her have her highest attacking returns ever for a WSL campaign. Batlle has gone from having zero goal contributions in the 2020-21 season to finishing this year with 10 – nine of which were assists.
Batlle has spoken about feeling more freedom to get higher up the pitch, which has helped her create more chances than any other defender in the league, averaging two chances from open play per 90. What is notable is that Batlle has not had specific connections with any one player but has assisted seven different United players in the WSL – two for both Alessia Russo and Lucia Garcia, with a single assist for Hannah Blundell, Ella Toone, Rachel Williams, Leah Galton and Hayley Ladd.
She has also continued to be one of the league’s best players on the ball, with her 128 progressive passes (second most in WSL) and 224 progressive carries (the most in WSL). She is constantly proactive when it comes to being on the ball and pushing it up the pitch.
Interestingly she has also seen her tackle and interception numbers fall. Whereas in 2020-21, she averaged 5.4 tackles and interceptions p90 and 5.1 in last season, she made only 4.1 this year.
With Man Utd being the best defensive team in the league this season, conceding an expected goals allowed of only 13 across the whole year, Batlle had the security of a more robust defence to allow her to do less of the defensive work and instead on getting higher up the pitch. It clearly paid off.
Batlle has been linked with a return to Barcelona this summer with her Manchester United contract expiring. Her exit from the club would be a huge blow to the Red Devils.
Guro Reiten – Chelsea
The most impressive player in Chelsea’s WSL title win, Guro Reiten, is the latest in a long line of Chelsea attackers who have risen to the occasion over the past couple of years.
With the absences of Pernille Harder and Fran Kirby for large swathes of the season, Reiten has become Chelsea provider in chief. With 11 assists, Reiten finished just one away from equalling Beth Mead’s single season record, with her four against Leicester in a single game particularly impressive. The ball she curled round three Leicester defenders into Sam Kerr’s path would have earned her assist of the season if such an award existed.
— (C)helsea FC Women (@ChelseaFCW) May 10, 2023
Reiten’s form has been aided by Emma Hayes’ rejigged Chelsea formation where she has moved from being a left wing back as part of a 3-4-3, to a left winger in a 4-2-3-1. Reiten has finished the season with 94 crosses (fifth most) and 50 chances created (fourth most). But the shift has allowed her not to just cross into the box but get in on the scoring, too.
Reiten’s nine WSL goals this season made her Chelsea’s second most prolific goalscorer, behind Kerr with 12. With seven goals in her last 10 WSL games, she has also found form at the most important moment to help secure Chelsea the title.
Reiten was involved in 20 open play attacking sequences that ended in a goal, the third most in the league whilst she also created 21 secondary chances, the fourth most in the league. Her 0.33 expected assists per 90 was also the fourth most in the league and her 5.4 xG assisted was the highest for a Chelsea player.
Reiten is a unique wide player – unlike many other wingers in the league she carries the ball much less than might be expected. Chloe Kelly, who leads the league in carries, carried it close to double the number of times Reiten did (305 to 167).
It has long been a mark of Hayes’ sides that different players blossom with each passing season. This year it was Reiten’s turn to step into the limelight.
Yui Hasegawa – Manchester City
Hasegawa’s big move to Manchester City wasn’t as surprising as her development over the course of the season. Few could have predicted how she’d excel in an unfamiliar defensive midfield role for the Sky Blues.
The Japanese international, famed for her amazing line-breaking abilities and creative zest on the ball, adapted to a deeper role seamlessly while retaining her on-ball strengths.
She was still involved in the shot-creation for her side, showcasing her qualities to undo defences with her vision and play some slick passing combinations in the attacking third resulting in sequences like these…
— Barclays Women’s Super League (@BarclaysWSL) March 12, 2023
But there is a new dimension to her attacking mischief.
Operating in a deeper role, she became integral to the squad, playing the third most minutes in the league for them (1,783) only behind Khadija Shaw and Alex Greenwood. She was tasked with recovering possession, and she executed this role to a tee.
Only five players have regained possession more times than Hasegawa (113) in the 2022-23 WSL while no player initiated more open-play sequences than the 26-year-old midfielder (302), highlighting her ability to recover possession and kickstart sequences for Man City.
Hasegawa won the ball back in important areas for City, winning possession 29 times (joint most) in open-play sequences that led to a shot, accumulating an xG value of 3.44 (the most), highlighting her off-ball awareness and reading of attacking situations. She compensates heavily for what she lacks in physicality with her technical and tactical brilliance.
She did this while maintaining the second highest pass completion rate (88.6%) among players with 1,000+ passes attempted, showcasing her composure and comfort on the ball. The Japanese international helps City play through the opposition pressure with her positioning and close control on the ball.
Hasegawa is still the nimble footed wizard, showcasing her ability to thread the needle and facilitate chance creation, albeit not directly. No player was involved in more unique build-up sequences ending with a shot (75) than she was, while she ranked ninth for secondary chances created (18) picking up five pre-assists – only two players picked up more, despite being withdrawn from the final third.
The former West Ham player has been hit with a software update at Man City in the new role, laying groundwork for City’s possession, facilitating play in the final third while displaying her nimble footedness in a fresh look. Playing deeper enhanced her overall skillset and cemented her status as one of the most brilliant midfielders in the game.
Frida Maanum – Arsenal
It has been a tough season to be a player at Arsenal with injuries decimating the squad throughout the year. But Frida Maanum has continuously been a shining light as the 23-year-old has taken on increased responsibilities in the middle of the park with aplomb. With more minutes in the WSL than any other Arsenal player (1,711), her nine goals and four assists this season were crucial in helping Arsenal improbably secure Champions League football for next season.
Maanum started off the season coming off the bench but her display against Lyon in the UWCL group stages was particularly eye-catching. After that, she went on to start every WSL game for the Gunners. Whilst she was initially deployed as a 10, when injuries to Kim Little and Leah Williamson happened later in the season, she was also used in a holding role or pivot for Arsenal, showing her versatility.
Manager Jonas Eidevall reflected on her importance in midfield after her winning goal against Leicester, saying “she has that versatility that she starts as a six and she can come up as a 10 and of course that’s what you see when we play her as a six, she does that good, but you really see what you’re missing when you don’t play her as a 10.
“She’s so good in front of that defending line, the power she has, touch, the way she engages defence, and if you don’t step against her, she shoots, so it becomes a really hard task for the defending team.”
Those shots have been incredibly important for Arsenal this season as she finished their top scorer in the league. Maanum had the furthest average shot distance (19.6m) of any WSL player with more than five goals, highlighting exactly where she likes to try and score from. Her 16 shots on target from outside the box is the most for any player this season, so she is justified in her confidence to attempt from those kinds of areas of the pitch.
But it is not just scoring where Maanum has been essential for Arsenal. She has been a player who does it all for them with 1.7 open play chances created per 90, the club’s highest, and 32 successful take-ons, putting her joint second in the league overall. With 124 open play shot involvements, Maanum was the fifth most involved player in the WSL.
As Arsenal’s players return to full fitness it will be interesting to see where exactly Maanum ends up on the pitch but what’s clear is that she can be relied on to do whatever job is asked of her.
Leah Galton – Manchester United
This WSL season has been one where various left-sided wingers have shone. Kirsty Hanson’s loan to Aston Villa was so impressive she probably would have thought she could have a decent shot at going back to Manchester United and playing, if it wasn’t for how good Leah Galton was in that exact role.
Galton has been historically underrated due to her decision not to play international football but has been an incredibly important player for United over the past couple of years. So much of United’s success this season was based on player availability, with 10 players playing more than 1,500 minutes. No other team had more than eight players play this tally of minutes, with champions Chelsea only seeing Magdelena Eriksson (1,579) and Sam Kerr (1,547) reach this threshold.
Galton has shone – not because with 10 goals she has recorded her highest ever WSL tally, but her defensive work is outstanding as well. Protecting Hannah Blundell has been a key part of her remit with 1.6 blocks p90 and 0.9 clearances. She also won 75% of her aerials with a significant number of touches in the defensive penalty area and defensive third for a winger.
In an attacking sense, what is notable is how Galton offers something United different. They had far fewer direct attacks (19) than the rest of the top four (average of 35) but when they were attacking directly Galton would be involved. She had 14 goal involvements overall – only six players had more overall, with 11 of these from open play situations.
Whilst the season might not have been as successful as United would have hoped, Galton’s year on year improvement has been a strong demonstration of how much they have developed as a squad.
Khadija Shaw – Manchester City
Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw blossomed into her own this season and shouldered the goalscoring load for Manchester City.
She finished the season as the league’s second top goalscorer (20) behind only Rachel Daly (22), narrowly missing out on the golden boot. She recorded the most direct goal involvements (27 – 20 goals and seven assists), the same total as the next two highest players combined for Man City.
After being used sparsely in the previous season, Bunny was the most used player for City this season, playing 1,898 minutes in total. This change was reflected in her output as well, which went up from 12 direct goal contributions last season to 27 in the current one.
The former Bordeaux striker is a high volume shot taker. She was the only WSL player to attempt over 100 shots this season (123) and averaged 5.8 shots per 90. The Jamaican international recorded the most direct shot involvements (100) where her only involvement was the shot, a whopping 33 more than the next best player. She accrued a non-penalty xG of 16 in the process, five more than any other player in the league.
Shaw doesn’t just get on the end of shots but is responsible for creating them as well. Overall, she had the second highest open play shot involvement in the league (159), only behind Chloe Kelly (164), with 21 of those sequences ending in goals, a figure only bettered by Villa’s Daly (25).
The 26-year-old is a bulldozing presence who can disrupt opposition lines with her carries and generate shots for herself. Only Kelly recorded more shot-ending carries than Bunny (23) in the league, with four of them ending in goals.
Her physical prowess is reflected in her aerial ability as well. No player has won more aerials than the Jamaican (61), 10 more than second placed Dagný Brynjarsdóttir. She uses this to act as an outlet and a reference point in attack, holding up and linking play with her teammates.
She drops deep to be involved in the build-up while retaining her goal threat. No player had more (six) multi-goal involvements in the league than Bunny, where she was involved in the build-up and scored the goal as well. She exhibited her ability to serve as an outlet linking up play with others via her layoffs – no player had more (15) than her in WSL 2022-23.
Rachel Daly – Aston Villa
Rachel Daly joined Aston Villa off the back of a successful summer with the Lionesses, going on to pick up the golden boot (22) and record the most direct goal contributions in the league (28) in her first season back after being deployed in her favoured striker role.
Daly equalled Vivianne Miedema’s record for most goals scored in a single WSL season (22), while the 30-year-old had a direct hand in 62.2% of Aston Villa’s goals this season as she finished the campaign averaging over a goal per 90 and producing the best seasonal return of her career to date.
Her 81 shots in 2022-23, second only to Khadija Shaw (123), had her accumulate a non-penalty xG of 10.4 (only Sam Kerr and Shaw had more). At times, it felt like everything Daly touched turned to into a goal for Villa. She was on a hot streak where she scored ~9 goals more than her xG, such heavy overperformance might not be replicated in the near future. However, Daly generates a healthy shot volume from inside the box as well.
She was often the conclusion to Villa’s possession sequences. The England international had the fourth most direct shot involvements (61) where her only involvement was the shot, while she wasn’t involved in the build-up for 15 of her 19 non-penalty goals this season.
Daly was facilitated by Kirsty Hanson and French playmaker Kenza Dali. The combination between these players caused a lot of problems for the opposition to deal with. Dali-to-Daly and Hanson-to-Daly were the third and fourth most effective combinations in the league, generating 17 and 15 chances respectively, throughout the season.
— Barclays Women’s Super League (@BarclaysWSL) April 28, 2023
Daly’s versatility has been an asset of the national side, seamlessly slotting into the backline. Inherently, however, her instincts are true to a forward. Her double movements to lose a marker or get in front of them and the speed of execution inside the box allows her to score goals from a variety of situations. This goal against Manchester United is one of the many examples of her movements inside the box.
Daly is tenacious off the ball, applying pressure and fighting for balls but now she gets to wreak havoc in front of the opposition box.
The former Houston Dash forward’s homecoming tour has been a resounding success.
Carla Ward – Aston Villa
Aston Villa finished the 2021-22 season in ninth place, scoring only 13 goals the entire year, so the turn around this season has been one of the most spectacular that the WSL has seen.
Carla Ward has been highly thought of for several years, mostly thanks to the impressive way she kept Birmingham City in the top division despite barely having enough players for a squad. Yet the improvement at rivals Villa might be even more impressive than that.
Villa finished in fifth place in the 2022-23 WSL with an expected goal difference p90 of +0.15. That is still a way off the xGD of the top four all of whom had an average greater than one, but still ahead of Tottenham who had the sixth best xGD of -0.3, and an improvement on last season’s -0.76.
Lots of Aston Villa’s improvement could be chalked up to recruitment. Bringing in players like Kenza Dali, Lucy Staniforth and Jordan Nobbs has obviously helped raise the quality level, but Ward deserves credit for the way she has integrated them into the team.
Obviously, Rachel Daly was Villa’s best player but Ward also deserves credit for coaxing her best ever goal scoring season out of her, and giving her the freedom to get into the positions required to score 22 times in a single season. It would have been easy to try and use her in a more direct way, but Villa have been much closer stylistically to the top four than they have the rest of the league.
Villa averaged 3.16 passes per sequence with an average sequence time of 8.77 seconds. Whilst they were firmly mid-table when it came to open play sequences with more than 10 passes, it is clear that they are aiming to play in a more intricate way than might have been expected at the start of the season.
Whilst they are not particularly a high pressing team with a PPDA of 12.9 (less than Leicester City), they scored 10 goals from high turnovers, the joint most with Chelsea and Manchester United, showing how Ward has focused her team’s energy higher up the pitch to great effect.
Ward signed a new deal with Aston Villa and whilst she will have her eyes on bridging the gap to the UWCL spots, it will also be important that she does not ignore the teams around her. Tottenham have been a concerning example that finishing fifth is no guarantee of continued success, but Ward has created some strong foundations for her Villa side going forward.
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