Aston Villa enjoyed their best ever Women's Super League campaign in 2022/23 and head into the new season aiming to maintain consistency after an impressive summer of recruitment.
Villa were dark horses last season but quietly proved they could compete with the top teams in the league, holding Manchester City to a draw and earning a win over Arsenal on the final day of the campaign.
It's Carla Ward's recruitment that has made the Villans so successful. The arrivals of Kenza Dali and Rachel Daly have changed the dynamic of the team and the January additions of Lucy Staniforth and Jordan Nobbs created the perfect balance of experienced talent and young capability.
Finishing fifth was an enormous achievement for the Birmingham-based team after coming ninth and tenth in the two seasons prior, but the ten-point gap between Villa and fourth-placed Manchester United is a deficit manager Ward will look to close this campaign.
Aston Villa Women 2022/23 season recap
Villa's 2022/23 season was simply remarkable. Climbing four places up the table and reaching the FA Cup semi-final, it was a year complete with small victories for the Villans. They were also the only team in the WSL outside of the top four to take points off the teams ranked ahead of them.
Star striker Daly netted crucial goals to keep Villa in contention for a high-placed finish. The England international won the WSL Golden Boot, equalling Vivianne Miedema's record of 22 goals in a single season.
Aston Villa Women key players 2023/24
Former defender Rachel Daly returned to the WSL from NWSL side Houston Dash last season after spending nearly a decade in the United States. Ward signed her as a striker despite playing for the Lionesses at left-back in what has proven to be an inspired bit of business.
Daly's clinical finishing was something of a secret weapon for Ward and Villa but with new talent arriving over the summer, the 31-year-old is no longer the only keen finisher other teams will have to worry about.
Ahead of the 2023 World Cup, England manager Sarina Wiegman took notice of Daly's prowess and put her up front at national level. She ended up featuring as a wing-back for the latter part of England's campaign, which ended in a 1-0 defeat to Spain in the final.
One to watch
Picking just one of Villa's impressive signings is hard given the world-class players they have attracted. However, Ebony Salmon - returning to her former club - will do wonders for developing Villa's attack.
Salmon just missed out on a place in the Lionesses squad at the World Cup, likely because the NWSL was in its off-season in the months leading up to the summer tournament while England-based players were well-bedded into their campaigns. Wanting to optimise her chances for selection, the move was mutually beneficial for both parties.
With Kirsty Hanson on one side, Daly in the middle and Salmon on the right, Ward has created a ruthless attack that will plan to punish any defence they face.
Aston Villa Women manager
Ward has defined herself as a curator when it comes to designing a team capable of rivalling the WSL leaders. While Villa are still a little way off from breaking into the top four, Ward has done an excellent job of bridging the gap considering they finished their past two campaigns near the bottom of the pack.
As a former Leeds and Sheffield United player and one of only five female managers in the WSL, Ward has an apt understanding of managing a club during the period when women's football is on the rise but still facing major obstacles.
Referring to herself as a manager rather than a head coach, the capital environment and close relationship Ward has formed with her team has allowed those under her care to thrive. She penned a new deal to stay with the club until the end of the 2024/25 season, marking her commitment to the club's aspired trajectory.
Aston Villa Women summer transfers
- Daphne van Domselaar (GK) - Twente
- Lucy Parker (DF) - West Ham
- Anna Patten (DF) - Arsenal
- Kirsty Hanson (FW) - Man Utd
- Ebony Salmon (FW) - Houston Dash
- Adriana Leon (FW) - Man Utd
- Evie Rabjohn (DF) - Man Utd - details
- Remi Allen (MF) - Birmingham
- Emily Gielnik (FW) - released
- Chantelle Boye-Hlorkah (FW) - London City Lionesses
- Ruesha Littlejohn (FW) - London City Lionesses
- Tash Harding (MF) - released
- Elisha N'Dow (DF) - Charlton
- Sian Rogers (GK) - Charlton
- Hannah Hampton (GK) - Chelsea - details
- Meaghan Sargeant (DF) - retired
- Mary McAteer (MF) - Sunderland
- Olivia Rabjohn (MF) - West Brom
- Freya Gregory (FW) - Reading - loan
Villa targeted young talent during a promising transfer window. While her turnover may have been higher than expected, Ward needed to free up funds in order to sign Kirsty Hanson from Manchester United on a permanent deal.
Young Dutch shot-stopper and Ballon d'Or nominee Daphne van Domselaar could become the signing of the summer, while adding Anna Patten on a permanent deal adds significant strength to the back line. West Ham's Lucy Parker has signed on a free transfer while retained players Rachel Corsie, Danielle Turner and Sarah Mayling will also feature in defence.
Aston Villa WSL prediction
Villa need another quality season before they can considered as contenders for fourth spot given the gap between them and the top two London and Manchester sides. Instead, a campaign of consistency and continued improvement is crucial for Ward's side.
If they can maintain the form they concluded last season with, ensuring wins over the bottom teams with large scorelines and knocking points off the top of the pack, Villa will be perfectly placed to finish fifth once again.
Closing the gap in the points difference is a viable target for the Villans to strive towards to measure their success against last season's position.