Tottenham Hotspur Women opened their 2023-24 WSL season with a 2-1 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and should feel pretty good about that. While the two-time defending WSL champions roared out to a 2-0 lead behind goals from Niamh Charles and Lauren James, new Tottenham striker Martha Thomas pulled a scrappy goal back late in the second half, and Spurs had numerous other attempts on goal. While they couldn’t find a way to get the equalizer, Tottenham took the match straight to Chelsea, and played some surprisingly good football in the process.
Spurs Women are a new-look side, with several new players and a brand new manager. Robert Vilahamn came with a sterling track record in Sweden and who promised to bring progressive, attacking football back to North London. An opening match at Chelsea is just about the toughest challenge you can have in this league, but while Chelsea were the better team, Spurs were far from outmatched.
Spurs rung in the changes, with several new faces in the starting lineup. Martha Thomas started at the tip of the spear for the injured Bethany England, New Finnish midfielder Olga Ahtinen started alongside her international teammate Eveliina Summanen in a midfield three along with Jamaica World Cup heroine Drew Spence. New signing Grace Clinton lined up opposite Celin Bizet on the wings, while Luana Bühler started in central defense alongside Molly Bartrip with former club captain Shelina Zadorsky on the bench. Angharad James, curiously, started at right back with Ash Neville on the opposite flank. Becky Spencer, who had an excellent World Cup with Jamaica, started in goal.
The match started out somewhat frantically, with Chelsea capitalizing from some early jitters from Tottenham’s back line in the opening minute for a half chance at goal. But Tottenham earned a corner inside the first minute thanks to a driving run into the box from Celine Bizet. Chelsea did their best to get the ball to their primary goal scorer Lauren James, who was a big load the entire match. James latched onto a shot inside five minutes which forced a diving save by Becky Spencer; the ensuing corner was headed at goal by Jess Carter before being cleared off Spurs’ line by Molly Bartrip.
But Spurs were not in awe of the occasion. Three minutes later, new midfielder Olga Ahtinen put a defense-splitting pass up to Thomas, who fired her shot straight at Chelsea keeper Zecira Musovic. In the 16th minute, Bizet capitalized on Spurs’ high press by forcing a turnover just outside of Chelesa’s box. She dribbled towards goal but opted to pass to Thomas for a shot instead of taking it herself, and the ball was eventually hacked away.
Chelsea opened the scoring in the 20th minute from a pretty standard cross. Niamh Charles dribbled to the byline, put in a ball to young American forward Mia Fishel who powered a header past Spencer.
Some of the “zip” seemed to go out of Spurs’ attack as the first half went on. They seemed to lose some of their attacking impetus in the attacking third as Chelsea found their match footing, and struggled with some misplaced or heavy passes that didn’t help. But things picked up right at the end of the half. Martha Thomas had a penalty shout after she was barged over in the box by Millie Bright. Thomas got a touch on the ball before contact but the official waved play on.
Midfielder Drew Spence combined with Thomas again just before halftime. Spence carried the ball through the midfield and put a through ball to Thomas who again had her shot well saved by Muscovic. The ensuing corner came to naught.
The first half ended 1-0.
Chelsea came out for the second half with a renewed energy and put Spurs under a great deal of pressure that eventually led to the second goal. Lauren James hit the crossbar a few minutes in, and Spencer was forced into making a series of crucial saves. Ashley Neville makes a spectacular clearance off the line (that replays later showed should’ve been given as a goal), but Chelsea ended up scoring anyway in the 51st minute via a header from James.
Last season, Spurs would have given up the fight, but on Sunday they kept battling. As the half went on, Grace Clinton forced a wonderful diving save from Musovic and Tottenham continued to pile on as much pressure as they could.
Vilahamn eventually brought on Jessica Naz and Asmita Ale for Ahtinen and Spence, and Naz made an almost immediate impact, picking Chelsea’s pocket outside of their area and putting a ball to Thomas in the box that she put just wide of the post. Naz continued to discombobulate Chelsea in the high press and combined well with substitute Rosella Ayane.
Spurs got their goal late in the half after Musovic spilled a cross into the area by Clinton. Thomas pounced on the loose ball and poked it in the net to get Spurs on the scoreboard. Naz nearly leveled the game at 81’ off of another spill from Musovic, but with time to think about her shot she ended up firing straight at the keeper.
Chelsea had a goal from Jelena Cankovic called back just before injury time after Fishel was ajudged to have interfered with play from an offside position. Vilahamn brought Kit Graham on late to try and poach an equalizer, but Tottenham ran out of time. The final score ended 2-1.
- We had no idea what to expect from Tottenham this season because none of the preseason matches were televised. Now we know, and it’s very encouraging. Tottenham showed more attacking impetus in the opening 20 minutes of this match than I feel like I saw all of last season. Spurs were dynamic and positive, they passed the ball decently well, created decent chances, and had a real tactical plan. It was... fun!
- Vilahamn set the FBs up to defend, which explains why James started at RB instead of Ale. It also meant that Ash Neville played a very conservative style and did not get forward much in the first 3⁄4 of the game. It’s not very Ange-Ball, but probably the practical decision against a Champions League team. Spurs mixed it up in the second half when chasing the game.
- Spurs are having some issues playing out of the back but are progressing the ball through midfield much better than last season. Ahtinen, Spence and Summanen were all showing for the ball quite well and were able to get through Chelsea’s press and into space on numerous occasions.
- Spurs played a lot of square passes between central defenders while in possession. This is a decent way to break a high press, but kinda scary to watch in real time!
- Bizet looked bright on the wing, and Clinton had a number of good balls into the box but it still felt like the wide areas of the pitch were the weakest. Notably the pitch opened up a bit when Naz came on and she had two takeaways in Chelsea’s half that set up chances.
- Lauren James is scary good. That’s all.
- Martha Thomas missed at least one sitter in this match but she looks like a real striker. Wonder if she and England can play in the same side?
- Bühler and Bartrip formed a pretty good defensive partnership, with Bartrip making two goal line clearances.
- Chelsea are a better team than Spurs, but this was an encouraging performance despite the final score. The team actually has ideas on how to play and were getting both balls into the box and shots away. At the time this article was written FBRef hasn’t updated with stats from this match, so I don’t know what the xG was but it should be halfway decent. This was an actually mostly competitive football match and Tottenham certainly didn’t embarrass themselves. I’m intrigued. Now imagine if they had Beth England healthy.