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    Pizza, Target Points and Key Transfers: The Inside Story of Leicester City's Great WSL Escape

    Leicester have one of the least experienced teams in WSL, only reaching the top tier in 2021. Photo: Getty Images/Plumb Images

    In mid-January, Leicester City languished without a single point in the bottom half of the Women's Super League. On Saturday afternoon, they completed the WSL's greatest run.

    It was not the last gasp to avoid relegation on the last day of the season, but the culmination of a six-month turnaround after Willie Kirk replaced Lydia Bedford as manager in November .

    After initially appearing to be limping into the WSL winter break like a punctured F1 car trying to get back into the pits, the month-long reprieve gave the East Midlands club a chance to start from scratch. The club decided to treat the second half of the season as pre-season training, returning to Belvoir Drive on December 27 – earlier than many clubs had planned – and the message was simple: “We're hitting restart.” .

    After calculating a points goal they believed would secure based on WSL historical data and projections from previous seasons, Kirk met with the club's board and mapped out a strategic plan to achieve that result in the remaining games. The exact scoring goal was never revealed outside of camp, but was assumed to be in her late teens. Leicester missed their inner target, but were still awake, as Kirk's staff knew that if they got close to it, they would have a chance to win.

    The club played two friendlies behind closed doors during the winter break. and are believed to have beaten the American touring team and West Ham in these secret games. The plan was to build confidence in a team that had only scored two league goals in the first half of the season.

    By Wednesday 17 May, when Leicester were not yet safe but fate was in his own hands, Kirk took the team out for pizza at Dough What on King Street in the city centre. The atmosphere was relaxed and fun – the complete opposite of the “dreary” mood at camp before Christmas.

    “They totally deserved it and they really enjoyed it,” Kirk said of the dinner, joking that it was “an expensive day.” Before the match against West Ham in the penultimate match of the season, he added: “I am really proud of the work done by the whole club, from the support I received in January to make the moves I made, to the staff and players who believe in that direction. in which we wanted to send them, everyone was on board.”

    The January transfer window was pivotal, with Leicester signing five deals. The arrival of 19-year-old England Under-21 international Ruby Mays, on loan from Manchester City, in particular, proved to be very important. Mays has shown maturity beyond her years, playing in midfield as well as being a centre-back, and her ability to play the ball has helped Leicester gain confidence in possession.

    The real masterstroke in this window was the loan of German goalkeeper Janina Leizig from Bayern Munich, whom Kirk called “the best goalkeeper in the WSL”. Leizig has made more saves than any other WSL goalkeeper, despite only arriving in England halfway through the campaign. Australian defender Courtney Nevin has also made a strong defensive impact in her 11 league appearances since arriving from Hammarby, helping the Kirk team keep four WSL clean sheets.

    “There was no point in thinking about the first half of the season in the second half of the season. Many underestimated us. We've all had a collective shift in terms of how we think we can play and the results we can deliver.”

    The second half of Leicester's season was not without its shortcomings, including a 5-0 draw and a 6-0 away loss to Aston Villa and Chelsea respectively. However, a league-deciding brace over Liverpool and a last-gasp goal over relegated Reading 2-1 shortly before Easter helped them fight back.

    Leicester will no doubt be strive to strengthen the team. with great experience. Eventually, before the final day, Leicester named the youngest starting players in the top flight (average age of players 25 years and 56 days according to Opta) and used more players (30) than any other team in league games. this term, which highlights the need for a more stable XI next term.

    However, hopes will be high. Kirk previously held last place in the WSL – Everton in 2018 – and led them to a fifth-place finish in 2021. Anything of this magnitude next season will be a big surprise, but after this twist, no one will write it off. Lester Kirk.

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