Match ends, Everton Women 1, Brighton and Hove Albion Women 2.
When Lionel Messi won the World Cup at the fifth and, seemingly, final attempt in Qatar last December, it was the last jigsaw piece in arguably the greatest footballing CV of all time.
But victory was only part of the story.
Behind the scenes and then on the biggest stage, Messi’s transformation in the Middle East became evident.
The 35-year-old’s genius has long been beyond doubt and debate. But his character had changed. As a teenager, Messi was so painfully shy he would get changed in the corridor to avoid his team-mates in the Barcelona youth set-up.
“This World Cup he was different,” said Argentina and Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.
“We are probably more aggressive than the players in the national teams he’s played with before. So he’s probably becoming a little more like us – that bad boy.”
Here, some of the stars from the recently-released BBC Sport documentary Lionel Messi: Destiny, unpack and dissect that final evolution of Messi – from shy teenage genius to talismanic “bad boy”.
“He’s a great lad but he can’t even direct traffic. How can you give the national team to Scaloni?”
Diego Maradona’s typically colourful thoughts regarding Lionel Scaloni’s appointment to the Argentina manager job in 2018 captured the mood of the nation.
Putting it bluntly, Scaloni was a Lionel Messi appointment – a deliberate decision by the Argentine Football Association to keep a generational talent onside and in the side.
In the years prior to Scaloni’s appointment, Messi had a troubled relationship with the national team and, at times, with the national boss.
After a talented Argentina team was comprehensively beaten by Germany in the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup, Maradona, then-Argentina coach, criticised Messi’s leadership qualities.
A fiasco of a 2018 World Cup campaign brought an early exit for Argentina and another coach in Jorge Sampaoli.
Sandwiched in between was 2016, a year which saw Messi briefly retire from international football after missing a penalty in the Copa America final defeat by Chile.
Such set-backs ensured that the number one motivation for the Argentine FA in appointing Scaloni was to keep their number one star happy.
“The FA had a single objective, to find a manager who could work with Messi and get the best out of him,” said Messi biographer Guillem Balague.
“When Scaloni took over he said to Messi, ‘what do you think, what would work for you?’.
“It was an equal conversation, and you have to do that when you have the best player in the world.”
Argentine journalist Marcela Mora y Araujo added: “He was appointed without massive press coverage or a presentation moment – there seemed to be little energy to go hunting for big names.
“Most people were furious. We didn’t know much about him. The thought was that the job should go to a football celebrity or influential character, and it just went to a guy who was sort of anonymous.”
However, it was that anonymity, small-town humility and lack of ego that endeared Scaloni to the Argentina squad – and crucially, to Messi.
“Scaloni’s very relaxed,” Argentina and Manchester City forward Julian Alvarez said. “Very honest, and he has that thing of coming from a small town. I also identify with that a lot because I also come from a small town, and you can see that human quality that he has.”
Martinez added: “You’re always going to have talented players, but it’s how you manage them. It’s like having a Ferrari – if you don’t know how to drive it, then you’re going to crash on every corner. That’s the only explanation I can give for Scaloni – he knows exactly how to drive a Ferrari.”
Creating a home from home in Qatar
Looking after what was under the bonnet was vital to keep Messi – and ultimately the Argentina squad – happy in Qatar.
Despite leaving Argentina as a teenager, Messi has held on to much of his Argentine roots and specifically his hometown Rosario.
“He speaks with an Argentinean accent, eats Argentinean food, watches Argentinean films and listens to Argentinean music,” said Jonathan Wilson, author of Angels With Dirty Faces – a footballing history of Argentina.
Scaloni and the Argentine FA were fastidious about leaning into those home comforts for Messi and his team-mates, creating a “little Argentina” at their World Cup base at Qatar University.
Early in the Scaloni reign, some of the younger players bonded with Messi by knocking on his hotel door and asking him to play the Argentine card game of Truco.
That same game was ubiquitous in Qatar along with Argentine tea called mate, and, more importantly, asados (barbeques) with imported Argentine beef. It was reported the team brought in 900kg of the meat for their campaign.
“I think for all Argentina people, if you have mate and a beautiful barbeque you don’t need more in life,” said Messi’s former Argentina team-mate Pablo Zabaleta.
According to both Balague and Mora y Araujo, these techniques ensured Argentina got the best out of Messi, transporting the top player in the world back to a childhood left behind when he moved to Barcelona aged just 13.
On the pitch, the echoes of that childhood were most clearly heard during the quarter-final win over the Netherlands.
Dutch manager Louis van Gaal had questioned Messi’s work-rate off the ball before the match. It was a move that angered his team-mates and added fuel to a historic enmity between the pair.
“Attacking Leo… you shouldn’t do that to Argentines,” Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister said.
Messi’s feelings spilled out in the 73rd minute of the quarter-final. Messi celebrated Argentina’s second goal by standing in front of the dugout, cupping his ears to seemingly mock Van Gaal’s previous comments.
Messi and former Argentina international Juan Roman Riquelme are now close friends.
Before though, during Riquelme’s solitary season at Barcelona in 2002, the relationship was more one of adulation.
Riquelme’s former agent once recalled a teenage Messi “sitting looking at Riquelme as if he were Jesus Christ” at a barbeque arranged for Barca’s South American players.
Mora y Araujo suggested Messi’s celebration against the Netherlands – one which Riquelme has performed throughout his career – also reflected Messi’s historic frustration at his friend being played out of his usual position during his time under Van Gaal at Barcelona in the early 2000s.
“It was surprising coming from Messi,” she said. “The nod to Riquelme was unexpected.”
Whatever the motivation of the celebration, it was not the end of Messi’s combativity.
After the match, the Argentine forward confronted Dutch assistant Edgar Davids on the sidelines and in the tunnel he interrupted his own live TV interview to insult the Holland “number 19”, as Messi called him, Wout Weghorst.
“In the tunnel on the way to the changing rooms – ‘the number 19’, as he calls him, walks by,” Mora y Araujo added. “Messi interrupts the interview to say, ‘go away silly, what are you looking at?’.
“Messi’s delivery was very spontaneous. It has Rosario intonations, it’s something someone’s grandmother might say.
“It’s clearly not mild anger he’s expressing.”
Balague suggested Messi “reacted in a way that, even he himself, did not recognise”.
To understand the outburst it is necessary to go all the way back to Messi’s childhood in his hometown of Rosario, 185 miles (300km) north west of Buenos Aires.
“There is an edge to Messi at the World Cup, and that is to do with the people he has got around him and him feeling comfortable with that.
“Because when he was 12, he was probably like that in the streets.
“Then when he moves to Barcelona he has to be a different person, more Catalan, more distant, more quiet.
“But he had that in him.
“It’s not that he became Maradona. It was the Rosario in him that appeared in the World Cup in front of our eyes.”
Both Mora y Araujo and Balague point out that the insult Messi chose for Weghorst – “bobo” – is a word that only “kids use”.
And Martinez agreed with Balague in suggesting the change was akin to a child falling in with the wrong crowd at school.
“We are probably more aggressive than the players in the national teams he’s played with before,” he said. “So he’s probably becoming a little more like us – that bad boy.”
For Wilson, Messi finding his voice was as much about the players that weren’t there.
The presence of big talkers such as Javier Mascherano in previous Argentine teams meant Messi wasn’t needed to perform that role.
But in Qatar, there was a vacuum.
Journalist Christian Martin was embedded in the Argentine camp throughout the tournament.
Both he – and Messi biographer Balague – were struck by how Messi filled that vacuum, from as early as the first match.
A shock 2-1 defeat by Saudi Arabia left one of the pre-tournament favourites facing a potential early flight home.
Historically, after such a setback, Messi would spend the least time possible amid the gauntlet of microphones in the media ‘mixed zone’ players are obliged to walk through.
“It took him an hour to go through the mixed zone after Saudi Arabia,” said Balague.
“He was saying ‘we’re better than this’.”
Martinez added: “He spoke to every single broadcaster and repeated the same sentence: ‘Believe in us, we won’t let you down. Stick with us.’
“It was a very strong sentence by Leo.”
Zabaleta said: “I think we really enjoyed Messi, being a proper leader, but in a good way.
“In hard situations he was the only one talking, he didn’t want to send some of the inexperienced players out to the media and that was great to see.”
This willingness to front up, in the press and on the pitch such as in the Holland game led to articles galore on the notion that Messi had become “Maradonised” and had found his “inner Diego”.
But Mora y Araujo disagrees with the idea that Messi was channelling, or becoming, Maradona. Rather, he was, perhaps finally, comfortable in his own skin – a far cry from the teenager carrying the weight of his family’s fortunes at Barcelona or the superstar weighed down by a nation’s expectations at previous World Cups.
She said: “There was a lot of smiling on the pitch. His head was up. He was confident.
“He showed and transmitted an acceptance of himself. There was no awkwardness in delivering his awkwardness if that makes sense.
“People were texting and writing, ‘has Messi been taken over by the spirit of Maradona…? Maradona speaks through Messi…’ No! He hasn’t turned into Maradona. He has grown into himself.
“For many years there was enormous pressure on Messi to perform, or to be, or to behave to some nebulous demand to be more Argentinean, to be more passionate, to be more like Maradona.
“I think for a long time he was uncomfortable with that.
“The main observable thing about Messi at this World Cup was a comfort in his own body. Less pressure to perform. More comfortable being himself.”
Comfortable in himself. And comfortable with the stakes.
“I think he must have felt the breath of history on his shoulder. He must have felt time closing in on him,” said Wilson.
According to Mora y Araujo, dealing with the clock ticking down on his career was Messi’s greatest feat in Qatar. For a month he was able to kept calm, without dulling a ferocious desire to win.
“That’s a very interesting combination. At the 2006 World Cup, he famously sat on the bench and didn’t even get to play in the quarter-final defeat by Germany.
“There was a grouching, tantrum-y, child-like reaction so at odds with the Messi we saw in Qatar.
“It is a great progression to a point of emotional maturity.
“And I think it’s wonderful to see that growth over a career of almost two decades.”
Did Messi come of age? Did he channel the late Maradona? Did he rediscover a personality left behind in the backstreet games of his hometown of Rosario?
Whatever was going on in Messi’s mind in the Middle East, it helped realise his sole focus – the winner’s medal.
“I think after this World Cup – he completed football,” Martinez said.
Everton 1-2 Brighton: Elisabeth Terland double gets Seagulls off to winning start
Elisabeth Terland scored two first-half goals to help Brighton get their Women’s Super League season off to a winning start against Everton.
Brighton took early command when Terland headed home in the third minute after Katie Robinson’s shot had struck the crossbar, before adding a second 11 minutes later.
Everton captain Megan Finnigan netted with 25 minutes remaining to give her side hope, but the hosts were unable to find an equaliser despite dominating the second half.
The win marks a positive start for Melissa Phillips’ team who were involved in a relegation fight last season.
More to follow.
- 47OlesenSubstituted forVanhaevermaetat 66′minutes
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- 2VejeSubstituted forPayneat 66′minutes
- 14SørensenSubstituted forBissellat 66′minutes
- 18PiemonteSubstituted forDugganat 88′minutes
- 2ThorisdóttirBooked at 35mins
- 22RobinsonSubstituted forRuleat 75′minutes
- 10OlmeSubstituted forFerreira Pintoat 62′minutes
- 11TerlandSubstituted forSymondsat 75′minutes
- 9LeeSubstituted forSarriat 61′minutesBooked at 90mins
- 17Ferreira Pinto
Second Half ends, Everton Women 1, Brighton and Hove Albion Women 2.
Attempt blocked. Emma Bissell (Everton Women) right footed shot from the centre of the box is blocked. Assisted by Toni Duggan with a headed pass.
Veatriki Sarri (Brighton and Hove Albion Women) is shown the yellow card.
Attempt missed. Maisie Symonds (Brighton and Hove Albion Women) right footed shot from outside the box is too high. Assisted by Vicky Losada with a headed pass.
Corner, Brighton and Hove Albion Women. Conceded by Lucy Hope.
Foul by Nathalie Björn (Everton Women).
Tatiana Pinto (Brighton and Hove Albion Women) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Corner, Everton Women. Conceded by Emma Kullberg.
Substitution, Everton Women. Toni Duggan replaces Martina Piemonte.
Foul by Heather Payne (Everton Women).
Veatriki Sarri (Brighton and Hove Albion Women) wins a free kick on the right wing.
Foul by Martina Piemonte (Everton Women).
Guro Bergsvand (Brighton and Hove Albion Women) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Substitution, Everton Women. Clare Wheeler replaces Aurora Galli.
Attempt missed. Heather Payne (Everton Women) right footed shot from the left side of the box is close, but misses to the left. Assisted by Elise Stenevik.
Foul by Justine Vanhaevermaet (Everton Women).
Maisie Symonds (Brighton and Hove Albion Women) wins a free kick on the left wing.
Attempt saved. Tatiana Pinto (Brighton and Hove Albion Women) right footed shot from the left side of the six yard box is saved in the bottom left corner. Assisted by Pauline Bremer.
Foul by Nathalie Björn (Everton Women).
Etienne Vaessen: Dutch goalkeeper continues recovery, say club RKC Waalwijk
RKC Waalwijk say their goalkeeper Etienne Vaessen “had a good night and has continued his recovery” after he was knocked unconscious during a match against Ajax on Saturday.
He lay motionless as he was treated on the pitch but regained consciousness while being taken off on a stretcher.
“We hope to see him again at the club soon,” added RKC Waalwijk.
“For Etienne, it is important for now to be able to recover in peace in the coming hours and days,” the Eredivise club wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“We would therefore like to ask you to give him and his family the time and rest for this.
“On behalf of everyone within RKC Waalwijk, we wish Etienne, and all the people around him, a lot of strength.”
Players frantically called for help and were in tears as medical staff worked on Vaessen on the pitch, with screens put up around him.
The Dutch top-flight match was abandoned with just six minutes of normal time remaining and visitors Ajax leading 3-2.
The stadium announcer explained that several players were “too affected to continue playing”.
Ajax later wrote on X: “This is about more than football. Praying you’re okay, Etienne.”
RKC confirmed after the match that Vaessen was taken to hospital for further medical examination.
Sportscene analysis: Michael Beale ‘has himself to blame’ for Rangers problems
Sportscene pundit Michael Stewart says Michael Beale’s recruitment is at the heart of Rangers’ struggles this season.
Duncan Ferguson: Former Scotland striker ’emotional’ after first Inverness CT win
“Serene” is not a word many would use to describe Duncan Ferguson.
But when his Inverness Caledonian Thistle side rushed into a 3-0 Scottish Championship lead at Arbroath, he was controlled.
Even when the hosts pulled two back to force a nervy conclusion to his first game in charge, the 51-year-old remained chilled.
There were no coming-togethers with combustible opposing manager Dick Campbell. There were no shouting matches with referee Don Robertson. There were no skelpings for his players, either. It was all so… even-tempered.
And that’s exactly what Ferguson was aiming for on his return to Scottish football. “I wanted to be calm,” he said afterwards.
On the touchline he was poised. But when he celebrated with the band of travelling supporters at full-time, a glimpse of the old competitor in him shone through.
Understandable, given the win was the first of the season for Inverness, and one which lifts them off the bottom of the table.
And if scenes, during and after the game, are anything to go by, then the only way may be up for the Highland side.
‘Caring’ Ferguson ‘has been through it all’
On his return to the seaside Angus town, where as a boy he spent time in the nearby amusement park, the former Scotland international was relaxed.
While he meandered around Gayfield – the venue where he scored his only hat-trick in Scottish football – Ferguson chatted amiably, stopped for those pleading for an autograph, and even managed to avoid being smothered by mascot Smokie Joe.
“I am a caring person,” he said. “I like connecting with people.”
His composure was captivating. Even for a man of his stature, it would be near impossible to brush off the expectations, pressure and noise that has been forced upon him on his eagerly awaited return home.
But he was unfazed, fully focused on the football and revitalising a low-in-confidence Inverness side.
One would imagine a Ferguson pre-match team talk would galvanise the troops. Or perhaps strike the fear of God into them.
And they were energised. There was a freedom to their play. Ferguson allowed them to express themselves.
“I try to give tactical instructions to the players and give them encouragement,” he said. “I have a lot of experience in football, I’ve been through it all, it’s never over.”
Not until the referee blows his whistle, anyway. Another thing Ferguson learned was there is no fourth official in run of the mill Scottish second-tier games.
He was left red-faced searching for one when desperate to know how long was left in the game…
When the final whistle did eventually peep, and the formalities with the opposing bench were done, a sighting of the passionate Ferguson peeked through.
Marching over to the Inverness fans – who had hailed their new leader throughout – he beat his chest and clenched his fists, reciprocating their adulation. They’ve bought in, and so has he.
“I am enthusiastic and know how much these fans are committed to the club,” he added. “They spend a lot of money going up and down the country and it’s the first time they’ve seen a victory this year.
“It was emotional, but it was the team that got the three points. I never headed a ball, I never scored a goal. I just set them up as pushed them as hard as I possibly could.”
All the fanfare may have been directed towards the former Dundee United and Rangers striker, but Saturday was never really about him, as far as he was concerned.
He couldn’t even remember that hat-trick here three decades ago. Instead, his lasting memory of Arbroath was scurrying around the floor of the arcade at the penny falls, searching for loose change.
Perhaps that’s the man he’s always been. But his first win as Inverness CT manager might just now be the first thought that springs to mind.
VAR: PGMOL replaces official Darren England after Liverpool error
Darren England has been replaced as the fourth official for Sunday’s Premier League game between Nottingham Forest and Brentford after his error as the video assistant referee during Liverpool’s defeat at Tottenham.
England failed to overturn an incorrect decision on the pitch to disallow a Luis Diaz goal for offside as the Reds were beaten 2-1 on Saturday.
Dan Cook was assistant VAR for the game and he has been replaced as assistant referee for the game between Fulham and Chelsea on Monday.
“Craig Pawson will now assume England’s duties as fourth official at the City Ground while Eddie Smart will take over from Cook as assistant referee at Craven Cottage,” said referees’ body PGMOL.
More to follow.
Man Utd 0-1 Crystal Palace: Decision-making ‘not good enough’ – Erik ten Hag
Erik ten Hag says Manchester United’s decision-making was “not good enough” after they suffered their fourth defeat of the season, losing 1-0 to Crystal Palace at Old Trafford.
MATCH REPORT: Palace claim impressive win at Man Utd
Watch highlights of Saturday’s Premier League action on Match of the Day on Saturday, 30 September at 22:30 BST on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website & app.
Available to UK users only.
Man Utd 0-1 Crystal Palace: ‘No excuses, not good enough’ – Erik ten Hag concerned by worst Premier League start
Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag has said he is concerned after his side suffered their worst start to a Premier League season with Saturday’s defeat by Crystal Palace at Old Trafford.
The Red Devils have lost four of their first seven games of the campaign – the first time they have done so since the 1989-90 season.
It is also back-to-back defeats at home in the league, with Joachim Andersen’s first-half goal enough to secure all three points for Palace.
The last time Manchester United lost two consecutive home games in the Premier League was against Liverpool and Manchester City in October and November 2021, their last two home league games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The final whistle was greeted by boos from the home fans, and Ten Hag said he understood their frustrations.
“I understand fans are expecting a win and we didn’t win and we lost,” said the Manchester United boss.
“Of course it is a concern, we have to be more consistent, this is not the demand for Manchester United. The demand is we get a row of wins and get into a series. We have to do better than now.
“I can give you reasons but you will explain it as an excuse and there are no excuses, we have to win.”
The defeat was all the more frustrating for Manchester United after recent results had suggested they were heading in the right direction.
They beat Burnley in the Premier League last weekend and then followed that up with a comfortable win against Palace in the Carabao Cup at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
But Palace were a different proposition on Saturday, helped by the return of several first-team players who were rested midweek.
They defended superbly and made the most of their few chances. In contrast, Manchester United were wasteful in the final third and became increasingly frustrated against their well-organised opponents.
The victory for Palace moved them up to ninth, with Manchester United dropping to 10th.
“We have to do better, and that is definitely the case. It’s not good enough,” Ten Hag added.
“We have to show it in our body language that Old Trafford is a fortress and you can’t get anything here, and the only way you can go away is with a loss.
“We have to do better here.”
‘A worrying afternoon for Ten Hag’
Crystal Palace boss Roy Hodgson has found a way to get results at Old Trafford, with this win extending his unbeaten run there to five successive games.
“A lot of talk will be about Manchester United, about them not creating well and playing well enough, but Palace deserve all the credit,” former Newcastle striker Alan Shearer told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“Their defensive display stopped the home side from playing.”
Former Blackburn striker Chris Sutton felt Manchester United did not do enough to deserve the three points, despite dominating possession.
“We know that if Crystal Palace get their noses in front they are a very, very difficult side to break down,” he said.
” A fantastic strike from Andersen and a fantastic defensive display.
“On the other hand Manchester United only forced Sam Johnstone into a few routine saves. There were a few good clearances from Palace defenders but aside from that they struggled to create.
“A worrying afternoon for Erik ten Hag.”
Girona 0-3 Real Madrid: Jude Bellingham on target as visitors go top of La Liga
Jude Bellingham scored his seventh goal of the season as Real Madrid moved top of La Liga with a comfortable victory over high-flying Girona.
Joselu opened the scoring from a fabulous Bellingham pass before Aurelien Tchouameni headed in the visitors’ second.
Bellingham completed the scoring with a smart second-half finish.
The win lifts Madrid above Girona and Barcelona, who beat Sevilla on Friday.
Girona, who topped the table going into the latest round of La Liga fixtures, started with a spring in their step and created two golden opportunities to take the lead.
Yangel Herrera headed narrowly over the crossbar from a central position inside the area, before Viktor Tsygankov struck the outside of the post from another free header.
Madrid gradually found their rhythm and eventually took the lead thanks to a marvellous piece of play from Bellingham, who picked out Joselu with the outside of his right boot to give the former Stoke and Newcastle forward an easy finish.
Tchouameni doubled Madrid’s lead four minutes later after being left completely unmarked from Toni Kroos’ inswinging corner.
The home side almost pulled one back five minutes into the second half, but Kepa Arrizabalaga was equal to David Lopez’s header and Eric Garcia was unable to steer home the rebound.
Bellingham got Madrid’s third with 20 minutes remaining, finding the far corner after Paulo Gazzaniga had parried Joselu’s initial effort. The 20-year-old is only the second player to score at least six goals in his first seven La Liga matches for Madrid this century, after Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.
The game ended on a sour note for the visitors as Nacho was dismissed deep into added time for a reckless challenge on Portu, who left the field on a stretcher.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team travel to Napoli in their second Champions League group match on Tuesday.
- 25GarcíaBooked at 64mins
- 8TsygankovSubstituted forFernándezat 45′minutes
- 21HerreraSubstituted forSolisat 87′minutes
- 5LópezSubstituted forPortugués Manzaneraat 60′minutesSubstituted forat 90+6′minutes
- 16Moreira de OliveiraSubstituted forTorreat 79′minutes
- 9DovbykSubstituted forStuaniat 60′minutesBooked at 90mins
- 15Ramírez López
- 24Portugués Manzanera
- 25Arrizabalaga RevueltaBooked at 84mins
- 22RüdigerBooked at 90mins
- 6NachoBooked at 90mins
- 15ValverdeSubstituted forDíazat 87′minutes
- 5BellinghamSubstituted forCeballosat 74′minutes
- 7Vinícius JúniorSubstituted forRodrygoat 68′minutes
- 14JoseluSubstituted forVázquezat 87′minutes
- Juan Luis Pulido Santana
Match ends, Girona 0, Real Madrid 3.
Second Half ends, Girona 0, Real Madrid 3.
Eric García (Girona) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid).
Delay over. They are ready to continue.
Delay over. They are ready to continue.
Portu went off injured after Girona had used all subs.
Cristhian Stuani (Girona) is shown the yellow card.
Antonio Rüdiger (Real Madrid) is shown the yellow card.
Nacho (Real Madrid) is shown the red card.
Delay in match because of an injury Portu (Girona).
Delay in match (Real Madrid).
VAR Decision: Card upgraded Nacho (Real Madrid).
Portu (Girona) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Nacho (Real Madrid).
Yan Couto (Girona) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Eduardo Camavinga (Real Madrid).
Cristhian Stuani (Girona) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Nacho (Real Madrid).
Aston Villa: How WSL club are using transfer market to try to close gap
Aston Villa may only be three years into their Women’s Super League journey but they are already intent on closing the gap to the top four – and they are using the transfer market to do it.
Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United have been the dominant teams in the WSL for several years but Villa, finishing fifth last season, have plans to change that.
BBC Sport takes a look at how Villa, who host United in their season opener on Sunday (12:30 BST), have successfully climbed their way up the table.
‘My job is managing people’
Manager Carla Ward joined the club from rivals Birmingham City in 2021 and has taken the team on an upward trajectory since.
Alongside the club’s head of women’s football, Lee Billiard, Ward set out a three-year plan which centred around recruitment and a style of play.
A key part of Ward’s philosophy was making each player feel valued and she did that by connecting with them on a personal level.
“I always go back to that human element. If you ask any of the players, like Jordan Nobbs, I know why she signed and what her reasons are,” Ward said.
“They are not just footballers, they are people. I’m a far better manager than I am a football coach. I have coaches who can coach very well. My job is managing people.”
Having achieved what they had set out to do a year earlier than planned, Ward admits there is a new challenge this season which they have not yet faced – a target on their backs.
“We finished as the best of the rest, which is what everyone wants,” Ward said. “We know it comes with it. But the expectation from within is far greater than those on the outside and that’s the reality.
“[The squad] are all ambitious and always want to be better. We won’t be resting on the fact we finished fifth. The success last year wasn’t just a Leicester City winning the Premier League moment. It was a long three years of work and continuing to build in every transfer window.
“In each window we’ve replaced players going out of the door with ones pushing to play in the starting XI. That’s really important in terms of our strategy. We had a very clear plan and we are well on track with it.
“It’s why I never want to get carried away because we are on a journey and if we can continue to develop then of course, top four, sooner or later, will be in sight.”
‘We always have a plan A, B and C’
Villa have made some big signings in recent windows, including last season’s Golden Boot winner and Player of the Year Rachel Daly.
The Euro 2022 winner has been joined by Scotland winger Kirsty Hanson, England midfielder Jordan Nobbs and defender Lucy Parker, and Netherlands goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar.
“I’m quite picky and I know what I want in football. It’s important we went after them,” said Ward. “We got offered a lot of players after finishing in the top five but we can’t just take good players.
“We have to take players that fit into the way we play, our values and our principles. They also need to be the right person for our dressing room. That’s bigger than anything.”
Part of Villa’s recruitment strategy is to create ‘bands’ of players. That means they identify players to sign who are intended to improve the starting XI, others who can compete for a place and others who will provide squad depth.
“We know from now who we have [who have contracts] running out this summer, next summer and the summer after that,” added Ward.
“There are different types of players and bands. We then know that if a certain player’s contract is running out, when we can start negotiating and who we need to get in as replacements if [those contract negotiations] don’t happen.
“We always have a plan A, B and C. For example, Daphne van Domselaar was done at Christmas. Everyone who came in this summer, we were on track to do either last summer or in January. We were very clear what we were going after.”
‘People were asking silly money for players’
Not just recruiting talent, but retaining talent, has been key to Villa’s success since earning promotion to the WSL in 2020.
Only one high-profile player left the club this summer, with England goalkeeper Hannah Hampton joining Chelsea – but Villa replaced her with Van Domselaar.
They kept successful loanees Hanson and Anna Patten, while renewing contracts for regular starters Kenza Dali, Alisha Lehmann and Maz Pacheco.
“One of the things on my initial presentation to the board was to reduce the turnover of players,” said Ward.
“The players we have in the building now, there’s not many whose contract runs out next summer. If you look at our starting XI from last year – 90% of the games we had a similar team – all of those players bar Hampton are still here and that’s important.
“Now those players have competition [for places] which we didn’t have last year. If your strategy is water-tight and aligns with what you’re trying to do, you shouldn’t be in a position where you’re going after nine or 10 players.”
The WSL transfer market has changed rapidly in recent seasons with top clubs willing to spend large sums of money on the world’s best players, while longer-term contracts are now being offered.
“[The transfer market] is wild. One transfer of Bethany England going for £250,000 [from Chelsea to Tottenham in January] has inflated everyone’s prices,” Ward added.
“People were asking silly money for players which was utterly ridiculous. You have to make sure you grow alongside the inflation in the game otherwise we will crash.”
Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Liverpool: Jurgen Klopp bemused by VAR error for disallowed Luis Diaz goal
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp calls for further discussions to prevent incorrect VAR decisions in the future, after Luis Diaz’s goal was wrongly ruled offside in the Reds’ 2-1 loss at Tottenham Hotspur.
MATCH REPORT: Spurs beat nine-man Liverpool with late own goal
Watch highlights of Saturday’s Premier League action on Match of the Day on Saturday 30 September at 22:30 BST on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website & app.
Available to UK users only.
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