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Brighton’s surprise sacking of Melissa Phillips a sign of WSL impatience

At 2.30pm on Thursday, Melissa Phillips was in a press conference discussing Brighton’s upcoming game against Manchester United. At 6.45pm it was announced that she had been sacked by the club after close to 10 months in charge. At 12.30pm the following day, the interim manager, Mikey Harris, was presented to the press. It was a whirlwind 22 hours on the south coast and Phillips’ exit had caused widespread shock.

“This is not a decision which has been taken lightly, but we feel is vital for the progress we want to see in the Women’s Super League,” said the Brighton technical director, David Weir, in the club’s statement. “We have invested heavily in the women’s squad and infrastructure going into this season, and results and performances have not been at the level we had expected, given that investment.”

Brighton sit 10th in the Women’s Super League on 11 points after 12 games, having won three, drawn two and lost seven. They are six points above bottom-placed Bristol City and three above West Ham. However, only two points separate the Seagulls and Leicester in seventh. So what has gone so wrong?

After Hope Powell left in October 2022, Brighton turned to the German coach Jens Scheuer but concerns over his coaching style meant his tenure lasted only 68 days. His assistant Amy Merricks took interim charge and, in April 2023, with Brighton rooted at the bottom, albeit with two games in hand, in came Phillips.

Phillips’ arrival as manager was as surprising as her exit. The 36-year-old American had left London City Lionesses after leading them to the summit of the Championship in January to join the Los Angeles-based National Women’s Soccer League side Angel City as an assistant coach. Four months later Brighton had lured her back to English football, and two wins and a draw in 18 days secured their survival with three games to play.

It was an impressive start and Brighton recruited heavily in the summer to arrest the decline of the team that finished sixth in the 2020-21 season and seventh the following year. Ten players came in and 13 departed, including loan deals, and Phillips was in charge of meshing them into a side capable of competing higher up the table. So has the investment not been matched by results and performances?

Brighton have the second-lowest expected goals (xG) figure in the league, but they looked like a side that still learning their identity under Phillips. A point from Manchester United and three against Manchester City are highlights of their campaign and their performances in two league defeats by Chelsea have shown promise.

“The manager had only been in place since last April, she’s just brought players in the window this January,” said Emma Hayes after Phillips’ departure. “I thought they were a very organised team when we played them last week, but there are a lot of young players in there that take a while [to gel]. Getting into the top three is tough for anyone, we’ve seen the challenges it has posed for Manchester United and they’ve developed a much more experienced squad than Brighton. I was shocked by that decision. Yes, the game is going that way but no one is being paid a million pounds [in women’s football] and to make that decision seemed a little bit quick.”

The track record of teams that have had a big turnover of players in the summer is not good. When Willie Kirk took charge of Everton in December 2018, the team were bottom. They finished 10th that season, avoided relegation and the following campaign Everton finished sixth and reached the FA Cup final. Spurred on by the rapid rise of the team, nine players came in that summer but after two wins from their opening five games of the 2021-22 season Kirk was sacked.

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This season, it is Aston Villa’s turn, with a fifth-place finish last year prompting six new signings and 10 players exiting in the summer. Villa lost their opening five league games of the new campaign and sit eighth, just a point above Everton and Brighton.

Gelling squads together with wholesale changes is clearly not easy and, critically, there is no quick fix, regardless of the quality of the players incoming. Yes, Brighton signed some good players in the summer, but not of the quality that would walk into the starting XI of any of the top four WSL sides. Maria Thorisdóttir joined from Manchester United after failing to impress there, and before that at Chelsea. The goalkeeper Sophie Baggaley also arrived from United but, having been a backup to Mary Earps, had not been playing regularly. Vicky Losada was signed from Roma with plenty of pedigree having played for Arsenal, Barcelona and Manchester City, but at 32 is nearing the end of her career. Pauline Bremer’s Manchester City career was stunted by injury and she made just 24 league appearances across three seasons at Wolfsburg after leaving the WSL to return to Germany.

It’s hard to say if Phillips have been given more time since there are no guarantees she would have been able to turn around Brighton’s fortunes. Increasingly, it seems like impatience is the name of the game in the WSL in a 12-team division where the result of a single game can be critical. That does not help a growing trend of short-term managerial tenures.

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