Tottenham Hotspur Women travel to Aston Villa on Saturday (14th January) in the first WSL game of 2023.
By then it will have been almost a month since the team’s previous game (a 1-0 away victory over Championship side Southampton in the Conti Cup). It also follows a winter break that couldn’t have come soon enough for Spurs, with the club ending 2022 on a very poor WSL run, including a two month period (November and December) in which they failed to find the net.
That said we are, of course, midway through the winter transfer window and have seen Spurs starting with a bang – breaking the record for within-WSL transfers in recruiting Beth England. That bagged us a very experienced striker, and seemed a sign of intent. Since then, however, it’s gone remarkably quiet, with barely a rumour about any additional transfer business.
All of which makes this game doubly intriguing. It will allow us to see whether Spurs have been able to reset and to integrate Beth in a way that allows the team to course-correct. It may also highlight where ongoing gaps remain (whether or not these are filled by additional winter signings).
Here are four things to look out for.
1. Can Spurs get the ball to Beth?
Spurs splashed the cash in recruiting Beth England and the club’s social media has gone all out since then to promote her. As many people have commented, Beth is a proven goal-scorer, a gap Spurs have desperately needed to fill. However, scoring goals depends on the ball getting up the field, and we saw in several games so far this season that Nikki Karczewska (or whoever was in the #9 position) got stranded up the field, shorn of good delivery. At times that meant Nikki dropped deeper to help pick up the ball and play others in. Since this was not something she needed to resort to when playing for Chelsea it will be interesting to see whether Beth changes her game in any way to do this.
A better scenario would be that Drew Spence, Beth’s Chelsea team-mate for half a dozen years, now playing in the #10 position at Spurs, is sufficiently familiar with Beth’s movement that she is able to find her in dangerous positions.
In this game Spurs’ threat from the wing will be somewhat blunted by the absence of Ash Neville, who received a three-game suspension for her red card against Everton and will miss both the away game at Villa and next week’s home game against Leicester. That said there are players well capable of sending in good crosses and others who can create opportunities by running at defenders. Whether the team gets the ball up the pitch far enough and frequently enough and whether Spurs’ other players are able to link with Beth is the key question.
On the upside, and despite many strengths, Villa have struggled at the back this season, only twice keeping clean sheets. They have strengthened in the January window bringing in two experienced midfielders in Jordan Nobbs and Lucy Staniforth, but it remains likely that this will be a game in which there are opportunities if Spurs are able to take advantage of them
If they are not, Spurs fans may spend the next couple of weeks longingly scrolling transfer rumour sites.
2. Have we sorted out our defence?
Last season Spurs’ defence was notoriously stingy. As this season’s gone on it’s become more like Swiss cheese (conceding 17 across 9 games).
In Aston Villa, Spurs face a team that has only failed to score twice in nine league games. Summer signing, Rachel Daly, has proved particularly potent, bagging eight and assisting on a further two goals; with Kenza Dali (another summer signing) a second offensive standout. Daly scores every kind of goal: headers, penalties, tap-ins, follow-ups, side-footers, bangers. Stopping her scoring is going to require Spurs resolve three issues that have plagued the team in the first part of the season.
- The right-back issue: Amy Turner has started most games at right-back but as discussed elsewhere is yet to look comfortable. The most obvious answer to this is to bring Ash Neville back to what has been her position. This cannot happen immediately, however, given her ban. And may not anyway be preferable, given the need to use Ash further forward. In lieu of signing a new player, that leaves a limited number of possibilities: 1) Esther Morgan comes into the team at RB after her return from injury and short loan to Coventry United; 2) Asmita starts on the right (as opposed to her more usual left, with Kerys as left-back); 3) Amy shows she has the gained the confidence and positional sense for RB, or 4) Rehanne Skinner switches to a back three (something she hasn’t done this season but did occasionally last season and in pre-season friendlies). It is not obvious which of these has the better chance of working, but if we’re still seeing the problems we were earlier this season at RB it’s a bad sign.
- Create better defensive cover from midfield: Spurs still miss the defensive cover provided by last year’s stalwarts, Ria Percival (out with an ACL) and Maeva Clemaron (who left the club). For the current evolution of Spurs to play well seems, therefore, to require that both of our defensive midfield pairing, of Angharad James and Eveliina Summanen, are on song. Both have shown they’re more than decent, but over-and-again this season one or other have been off their game (or haven’t started). If they both start and both play well, the team should improve its ability to keep the ball. But that’s not enough. We also need all of our players to demonstrate the physical and mental strength to start winning midfield duels, something that over the last games of 2022, they seemed unable to do; repeatedly coming off second best, and putting themselves on the back-foot, pushed into additional defending.
- Reduce mistakes: There have been so many of these, but we might count among the most memorable Becky Spencer’s pass and Eveliina Summanen’s dispossession at the Emirates; Amy’s header back against Reading; and Becky taking Jess Park on one-to-one and getting pick-pocketed in the collapse against Everton. Without knowlede of what happens behind the scenes or in training, I can only speculate that this is a matter of concentration, communication, and fitness. With a few weeks over the winter break to have worked on these let’s hope we see an improvement. Because, no-one’s going to be perfect, and mistakes happen, but it would be great to see a match without a game-changing clanger.
3. How do Spurs’ other attacking players fit in?
While all eyes are going to be on Beth England, Spurs have other attacking players who will be working out how they might fare in the new Beth-led Spurs.
Nikki Karczewska has been the most promising of our new attacking players this season. But she plays as a #9, the position we assume Beth will occupy. This might mean that Nikki (who’s anyway had constrained minutes because of injury) drops to the bench and gets used more as a super-sub. it’s possible, however, that Rehanne finds a way to fit her into a front two, even if that means deviating from what has been her favoured formation (a kind of 4-2-3-1).
In addition, Spurs have a lot of talented but inconsistent attack-minded wingers, none of whom have a starting position nailed down. That includes Jess Naz, Celin Bizet, Chioma Ubogagu and Rosella Ayane. With Neville (our most effective winger), suspended and maybe required for defensive duties in the future this is an opportunity for one or two of these players to demonstrate their value for a team that has Beth playing at the apex of its attack – will any step up and (one for future games) can they do it more consistently?
A worrying side-note here is whether Jess Naz (young player of the year at the London Football Awards 2022) will even feature. She left the pitch injured a month ago, in Spurs’ game against Everton, was not in the squad that went to Southampton three days later and has not featured in the club’s training videos since. There have been no official updates. So seeing Jess in the squad would be reassuring, while her absence would suggest another episode in Spurs’ ongoing injury woes.
4. Is there a sign of Kit’s return?
It’s been a long time that Spurs fans have been missing Kit Graham after her November 2021 ACL injury. In the year or so prior to her injury Kit was on fire; one of the most effective progressive players in the league. She was creative and a goal-scorer. Last season, once Kit was out of action Rachel Williams dropped deeper and the goals dried up.
Rehanne Skinner has previously suggested that Kit may return in January or February and the club has circulated videos of her in training. So the question is: will we see her (initially, probably, on the bench) in this, or another upcoming game? It may take a while for her to build back her form on returning from injury, and it’s not entirely clear how she and Drew will fit into the same team (both seemingly best suited to a #10 role), but having Kit back would be a sign of blue skies ahead: a massive fillip to fans (and players). It also opens up new options for Rehanne in terms of team formation.
UPDATE: In her pre match press conference Rehanne Skinner said that Kit Graham is doing well but made it sound like she was still some way from a return. On the upside she also said that Ria Percival might return this season. Given that Ria’s injury was six months after Kit’s that means her recovery, so far, has been especially speedy.
Undoubtedly the game against Villa will answer only some of these questions. Minimally, however, it should provide a first pass on where the team are and how far they are along the path to fixing those issues that bedevilled their pre-Christmas season.
That said, most Spurs fans just want to see a good performance. And of course Beth England to score the first WSL goal of 2023 before the team goes on to rack up goals, while keeping a clean sheet. Or something like that!
Aston Villa vs Totthenham Hotspur: at 12.30 on Satuday 14th January 2023.
- To attend the game, buy tickets directly from Aston Villa
- To watch online, you can catch it live and for free on the FA Player
Rachel Lara Cohen is on twitter at @spurswomenblog