Aston Villa Women manager Carla Ward made her and her side’s goals for the coming Women’s Super League season incredibly clear in a recent interview with the 1874 podcast:
“For me, it has to be top eight.”
Ward described in frank terms, how she turned Villa’s relegation threated season around after their positive start quickly trailed off. By implementing a higher tempo and a more possessional style, Villa’s performances improved after the Christmas break. However, the manager felt they didn’t get the goals to show for it; in the interview Ward described the need for an “out and out goalscorer.” The recent signing of Simone Magill from Everton before the Northern Ireland international’s unfortunate long term injury demonstrates that desire. But do Aston Villa actually need an out and out goalscorer to push them up into the Women’s Super League’s midtable and beyond?
The statistics clearly show improved performances. Villa’s average possession rose from 43.9% to 47.9%, their number of touches from 483 to 569, and the proportion of them in the opposition’s final third increased from 23.75% to 25.14% from 23.75%. They reduced the number conceded from a relegation form 2.2 per match to a respectable 1.33. The story was not the same at the other end of the pitch. For all this improvement, the number of goals scored dropped from 0.66 to 0.5. Goals and possession are, however, inconsistent metrics to view performance; goals can often be scored against the run of play or are simply considered lucky. A better measurement is expected goals (xG), a model that measures the quality of chances a team creates and concedes.
The 10-game rolling xG timeline above shows how Villa’s chance creation and prevention improved over the course of the season under Ward. The average smoothes out the match-to-match differences in chances, which is to be expected against opposition of varying strengths. This shows the overall trend of chances and is a good indicator of performances, with higher chance creation more likely to result in goals and points on the board. While there is some way to go to match the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, the side clearly improved after the Christmas break, particularly in the quality of chances created. Yet despite the better chances Villa still scored less per match than earlier in the season, which is evident when comparing Villa’s expected goals to their actual goals.
Comparing Villa’s actual goals to the quality of their chances demonstrates Carla Ward’s assessment. Her side undoubtedly underperformed in front of goal during the second half of the season despite a clear improvement in chance creation. But this does not necessary indicate the need for a goal scorer. Football data analytics often deals in small sample sizes and 12 matches is certainly a small sample size. This introduces a element of randomness to expected metrics such as xG, meaning it is entirely possible that Villa were simply unlucky in front of goal, and they will over time ‘return to the mean’.
However, with current starting number nine, Emily Gielnik, experiencing fitness issues throughout the season, another striker who matches Ward’s tactics would be a smart signing. Villa require someone who can balance high energy pressing with movement in the box to compliment their wide forwards Alisha Lehmann and Chantelle Boye-Hlorkah. The signing of Samone Magill was potentially a step in that direction; unfortunately, the Northern Ireland international recently sustained a long-term injury at this year’s European Championship. Villa will also hope that Australian forward Gielnik will be able to stay fit throughout the season.
Given these availability issues do Aston Villa need another forward? And how might that forward fit in when Gielnik and Magill are fit?
Both Gielnik and Magill’s profiles demonstrate that out and out goalscorer archetype that Ward was referring to. Both record plenty of shots on target. Magill boasts the highest percentage of shots hitting the target in Statbomb’s WSL database with 83.3%. Her goalscoring suffered when Everton dropped from 5th place to 10th, but could be deadly if she returns to her 2020/2021 form, while Gielnik offers more of an aerial threat. Magill also offers high energy pressing and active tackling, while Gielnik is considered quite difficult. Neither contribute much to chance creation, receiving in the box rather than dropping deeper to receive and create.
The point is moot right now; the question remains of who can adopt the forward role until they return. Perhaps rather than an out and out goalscorer like Gielnik or Magill, Villa should look to the false nine model of forward. Signing another classic number nine would risk making one of the existing forwards surplus to requirements when they are all fit. A false nine would mitigate this, and fill the creative qualities the current forwards lack, bringing Villa’s wide forwards into play more. This would also allow Villa to play with multiple forwards or use that more creative presence on the wing. Aston Villa women’s side are underperforming in front of goal, but perhaps the introduction of another type of forward might further improve their chance creation and performances overall to push Villa into the top eight.