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Friday, June 21, 2024

WSL match length and bookings are increasing – but so is player workload

Arsenal defender Katie McCabe smirked as she trundled off the pitch in the 71st minute, with her side leading against Liverpool 2-0 on Sunday. Referee Rebecca Welch had just cautioned her for taking too long to be substituted.

Manchester City captain Alex Greenwood was less amused in October when she was shown a second yellow against Chelsea in the 37th minute by referee Emily Heaslip after she was deemed to have taken too long over a free kick.

That is just one strand of the approach implemented by Women’s Super League (WSL) officials who, as with their counterparts in the men’s game, are taking a more robust approach this season to clamp down on time-wasters.

The other strand: to ensure any time wasted via goal celebrations, injuries and substitutions is added at the end of each half to increase the amount of time the ball is in play. The International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body that looks after the game’s laws, asked competition organisers to adopt this approach after data revealed playing time was decreasing globally.

This WSL season has surpassed its halfway point (12 of 22 games), providing an opportunity to assess the impact of the Professional Game Match Officials Board’s (PGMOL) measures. And this new, stricter approach to time-keeping has brought about significant changes.

According to Opta, across the 72 WSL games played to date, the average length of a match is 101 minutes and 51 seconds — it means we are seeing an additional 11 minutes and 51 seconds of game time. But the more accurate calculation of additional time means that WSL games are, on average, three minutes longer than last season.

Arsenal have the largest difference in average game length. Their matches last 4 minutes and 36 seconds longer than last season and their average match length this campaign is the longest: 103 minutes and 41 seconds.

Meanwhile, Everton’s average match length this season is the shortest at 100 minutes and 5 seconds. They have seen the smallest difference in match length compared to last season, with just a 51-second increase.

The most impactful change, as is the case in the Premier League, has been the increase in the amount of time the ball has been in play.

The average playing time this season is 59 minutes and 37 seconds. In the previous four seasons, there had not been an annual average for ball-in-play above 56 minutes and 6 seconds. The 2023-24 season average is the biggest increase (3 minutes and 31 seconds) the WSL has seen since 2019.

Those minutes add up over a year. Although added time is a separate issue from fixture congestion, it all forms part of the conversation regarding players’ workload. England captain Leah Williamson has recently warned of the “unsustainable” football calendar stunting the growth of the women’s game.

Former Brighton manager Melissa Phillips, whose performance staff prepared players in the summer for 100-minute rather than 90-minute games, believes it’s about “looking at the bigger picture” of players’ loading, considering domestic and national team minutes.

Phillips, who left her role on Thursday, found the amount of time added on was “prevalent” and “inconsistent” at the start of the season, but feels it has been more “stable” and has “ironed itself out” as the season has gone on.

Phillips had been preparing her players to endure longer matches (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

But the players’ union, Professional Footballers Association (PFA), believe consistency of application is still an issue.

“Players have said they don’t have any instinct as to how much time is going to be added on anymore,” the PFA’s director of external affairs Ben Wright tells The Athletic.

“It’s different from game to game, making it harder for players to manage effort across a match, not knowing when it will end. It also makes it harder for managers to time their substitutions. That needs to be thought about in terms of injury risk.

“Are decisions being made with a proper consideration for the impact on players? These things all add up.”

“Physiologically, there’s a huge extra demand,” Scott Guyett, the former head of sports science and strength and conditioning at Crystal Palace and now first-team coach at A-League club Brisbane Roar, told The Athletic during the 2022 Men’s World Cup when IFAB introduced the new timing measures. “FIFA hasn’t made the game time longer — they’re just pausing the clock at stoppages. But the players are still out there for longer.”

“Pushing your body that much further must carry some element of risk,” said Sam Vokes, the former Burnley, Stoke City and current Wycombe Wanderers striker. “But, as a player, it’s the mental side that would get to you.”

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes and Leicester City manager Willie Kirk, however, are in favour of calculating added time correctly.

“When you play against teams that waste time or if there’s a delay in proceedings, it should be added on,” says Hayes.

Hayes has advocated for time being added on for stoppages and delays (Franco Arland/Getty Images)

“Does it accumulate over the course of the year? Maybe. I’m not someone who prefers playing where you’re just slowing down games all the time. (The measures) encourage teams to play a more entertaining game.”

Kirk has been frustrated in the past with the lack of playing time and says he’s “all for” added time, despite his team suffering from it when they conceded in the 98th minute against West Ham in a 1-1 draw in December.

Calculating time added on is one method to reduce time-wasting. The other is to punish those, such as McCabe and Greenwood, with yellow cards for purposely delaying the game. The logic is that more yellow cards will lead to fewer minutes added on.

That has led to an increase in the number of cautions across the WSL. Of the 220 yellow cards handed out this season, 33 have been for time-wasting, compared to 25 for the whole of last season.

In the Premier League, round seven saw the most number of yellow cards (12) being issued for time-wasting, followed by round two (10).

In the WSL, round two — the weekend Greenwood received a second yellow — also saw the most number of yellow cards (six) issued for the same offence, followed by round one, five and 12 (five). This shows there are few signs referees are easing up. Time-wasting is now being punished once in every 2.18 WSL games compared to once in every 5.28 matches last season.

“It is tough when a second yellow card is issued for dissent or delaying the restart,” PGMOL women’s select group director Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb told The Athletic after the first round of games. “As a game, we have signed up for it.”

The referees visited every club pre-season to brief players and staff on the changes. “The message was clear,” says Kirk. “There are always a few buzz topics at the start of the season and they go hard on it”. But the Leicester boss feels “the application is inconsistent” throughout the year.

Despite not being cautioned, Kirk admits he should have been during the match against Aston Villa on January 19, for stopping the opposition from taking a throw-in and delaying the start of play.

“If there’s any sign of dissent or time-wasting, stick them in the book and they won’t do it again,” he says. “At the same time, we want to have games 11 vs 11 so it can get out of hand if we’re not careful.”

Much like the men’s leagues, WSL referees have stricter guidelines for punishing bad behaviour. Players can be booked for confronting an official, showing disrespect and invading the referee’s personal space. The WSL has seen nearly a 200 per cent increase in cautions for dissent: 10 last season compared to 29 this campaign. Round two and five saw the highest number of cautions for the offence (six).

No doubt, as the business end of the season approaches, tensions will rise but officials’ stance is set to remain throughout the year.

“A culture change won’t happen overnight,” said Howard Webb, chief refereeing officer. “We all have a continued duty to hold firm for the benefit of the game’s future.”

(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

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