Arsenal Women, A Season Preview
The most anticipated season in the history of English women’s football has begun. Barring sporadic appearances in cup competitions in their early years, this is Arsenal Women’s 32nd season and it is surely their biggest yet. With more eyes on women’s football than ever , this season is expected to a be a historic one. As former Arsenal right-back and BBC pundit Alex Scott said, the train that is women’s football has finally left the station and it is gathering speed.
Arsenal at the Euros
You would have to have been living under a rock this summer (if you lived in England at least) to not know why that is. After 56 long years of hurt, football finally came home this summer in the shape of the Lionesses winning the Euros. If you were one of the 365 million to watch on tv or among the 574,865 to attend the games in the stadiums, you will be well aware that the players representing England’s biggest and most successful football club (the fact that punditry teams were regularly entirely made of people with Arsenal connections tells you all you need to know about the club’s standing in the women’s game), played a major role in the national team’s triumph.
Beth Mead announced herself to Europe, if not the World, by winning the golden boot and being named player of tournament in the process, but her performances came as no surprise to an Arsenal fanbase that have seen her at her ruthless best since the start of last season. Off the back being snubbed for Hege Riise’s Team GB Olympic squad last summer, Beth has gone on what Ian Wright coined a ‘revenge tour’ that saw her rack up 22 goal contributions (11 goals and 11 assists) last season and win Arsenal’s Player of the Season award before ultimately etching herself into English football folklore. She has been nominated for the Balon D’or and has every chance of becoming the first Arsenal player ever (female or male) to win the award. This is a player who is going supernova, and she plays for the Arsenal.
The other Arsenal Lionesses, live and breathe red and white, they know what it means, to be Arsenal, they get it. One is Lotte Wubben-Moy, who despite being one of five players who didn’t make onto the pitch during the tournament (a victim perhaps of Sarina Wiegman naming the starting same XI for all six games) would’ve gained invaluable experience from being part of an international tournament winning squad, and she has a winner’s medal to show for it. The final of Arsenal’s Lionesses trio is of course Leah Williamson, who stands next to Bobby Moore as the only other England captain to lift silverware for their country. She has been the poster girl for Arsenal for years now, and whilst she remains behind Kim Little and Jordan Nobbs in the captaincy pecking order for her club, she is a leader without the armband on the pitch for a childhood team. Perhaps more importantly, she is vital to how Jonas Eidevall’s side play. Both he and Joe Montemurro before him placed an emphasis on playing out from the back and this is where Leah excels. Her absence during the winter months of last season was telling, as Arsenal struggled dearly against the high press of Chelsea and Barcelona as both sides inflicted comprehensive defeats on the Gunners who struggled to get out their own half without a calming presence of Williamson in the build-up phase.
The Rest of the Squad
Of course, the Arsenal presence at the Euros went far beyond just the Lionesses, but the other members of Arsenal’s forward line endured contrasting summers to Mead. Fellow Balon D’or Nominee Viviane Meidema, who was hit with Covid and failed to score for an underachieving Netherlands side admitted that “my whole tournament just sucked“. Stina Blackstenius did not hit the goalscoring heights that were hoped of her in a Sweden team that were ultimately demolished by England in the semi-finals, another member of that Sweden squad was new signing Lina Hurtig, who joins the club from Juventus.
Frida Maanum was part of an Norway side that endured a nightmarish tournament, shipping eight goals against England before ultimately crashing out of the group stages at the hands of Austria. Austria, incidentally, were a nation that boasted two Arsenal players among their ranks in Manuela Zinsberger and Laura Wienroither. Arsenal’s No.1 enjoyed as strong start to the tournament, as she made a standout display in the Old Trafford opener against England, but a Euros campaign in which Austria proved to be something of a surprise package ultimately ended in personal ignominy for Zinsberger, who produced a goalkeeping howler that sealed a 2-0 quarter-final defeat to Germany. Her compatriot Wienroither on the other hand, gained plenty of plaudits. Having struggled to find her feet at the club since arriving from Hoffenheim in January, the right-back produced a player-of-the-match worthy performance against England, in which Lauren Hemp received little joy off her all night, and she subsequently impressed against Norway and Germany. If she can carry that sort of form into this season, Noelle Maritz will encounter some stiff competition for the right-back spot.
Maritz and Lia Walti played for a Switzerland side that gave both Sweden and the Netherlands a run for their money, and it was Walti’s importance to the Swiss side, where she is a single point of failure at the base of the midfield in much the same way as she is for Arsenal that really stood out. In the final game against the Netherlands, with the scores level at 1-1 and Walti dictating the tempo for a Swiss side who needed a win against the at the time reigning European champions in order to progress, the midfield orchestrator was forced off in the latter stages of the game. In her absence, Switzerland lost 4-1, conceding 3 times in the final 6 minutes of the match.
Away from the Euros, Rafaelle captained her Brazil side to Copa América Femenina glory, meaning that Arsenal boast a pair of international tournament winning captains as their first choice centre-back partnership. In terms of the rest of the squad, the likes of Katie Mcabe, Steph Catley, Caitlin Foord and Mana Iwabuchi will feel rested and raring to go after a summer with no international football to worry about, Jordan Nobbs will have a point to prove after once again being snubbed by her country, whilst Kim Little made the trip across the Pond to Seattle for a short-term loan spell at OL Reign.
In terms of transfer business, Arsenal have reigned things in after busy summer and January windows last season that saw eight players arrive at the club. American goalkeeper Kaylan Marckese comes in to replace the departing Lydia Williams and provide backup to Zinsberger. Arsenal fans will be familiar with Marckese after she produced standout performances against the Gunners for her former club HB Køge in the Women’s Champions League last season. Last week, Arsenal added to their Brazilian contingent at the club with highly rated 19 year-old Gio Queiroz joining from Barcelona having scored 7 times on loan at Levante last season. She was part of the aforementioned Brazil side that won this summer’s Copa América and has already been capped 12 times for her country before reaching the age of 20.
With an eye on nailing down a starting spot for Brazil at next summer’s World Cup, Gio will spend the forthcoming season on loan at Everton. The outfield addition to the Arsenal squad for this season comes in the shape of experienced Swedish international Lina Hurtig, who joins for a reported club record fee of €100,000. A versatile option across the frontline, she will add depth to an Arsenal attack that seen has seen Nikita Parris and Tobin Heath leave the club in recent months. There is concern by some however, as to whether a player who scored just 4 league goals last season and for whom there is no clear place in the starting XI when Mead, Miedema, Blackstenius and Foord are all fit, justifies a 6 figure outlay.
This is a Jonas Eidevall Team, Now They Must Deliver
To many, this has been an underwhelming window, and the rumours are that Jonas wanted to add one more player to his squad but a deal to achieve this ultimately fell through. However, Arsenal only managing to complete one a major signing is not as bad as it seems. First of all, Eidevall and the club hierarchy have essentially gone through a process of streamlining the squad. Replacing someone like Parris with Hurtig, for example, should be seen as a net positive.
A deal to bring Parris to the club from Lyon last summer was agreed before Jonas had arrived at the club, in other words, Parris wasn’t his player and that probably goes some way towards explaining why Parris struggled for minutes and failed to score a non-penalty league goal last season. As the Swede continues to shape the squad in his image, the hope is that Arsenal will only improve, the fact that he recently signed a new contract until the summer of 2024 suggests he has the full backing of his employers.
Without wanting to sound too much like Arsène Wenger, there are a few players who will feel like ‘like a new signing ‘. Arsenal brought in three players in January: Blackstenius, Rafaelle and Wienroither. Players brought in midway through the season typically need that first half season at the club to acclimatise. Despite this, Blackstenius was impressive to the point that her arrival swiftly led to a change of system, with Miedema dropping back to the number ten position to accommodate Stina at centre forward. Rafaelle meanwhile, is the central defensive partner to Leah Williamson that Arsenal have been crying out for a good few years now (with the greatest of respects to Wubben-Moy and Jen Beattie who provide quality and depth in this position). As composed and comfortable on the ball like Leah, she brings physicality to Arsenal’s backline and relishes individual duels. She was a standout performer in the second half of last season and was at her imperiously resolute best in the goalless draw against Chelsea at Kingsmeadow.
On Tuesday’s frustrating 2-2 draw with Ajax she was the best player on the pitch by a mile. With a pre-season at the club under their belts, these players can provide the quality needed to propel Arsenal to the title this season. The most important business of all for Arsenal this summer however, was tying down an existing player in Miedema. The WSL’s record goal scorer had been the subject of long-term interest from Barcelona, and many were expecting Viv to tread the path from Colney to Catalonia that has been all too familiar to followers of the men’s team over the years. Turning down the greatest sporting team in the world at the time of writing and choosing instead to stay at the club that has propelled her to superstardom was a welcome surprise to Arsenal fans and a huge show of faith in the club by Miedema. Now Arsenal must repay that loyalty by dethroning Chelsea and reclaiming their rightful place as English women’s football’s premier club.
A Defining Season?
This is the most hotly anticipated Women’s football season of all time and for Arsenal in particular, the pressure is on.
There are a few reasons for this. First of all, Arsenal haven’t won a trophy since 2019 when they last lifted the WSL title. Three years without a trophy may not seem catastrophic to those unacquainted with the history of Arsenal’s women’s team, but make no mistake, this is an absolute age without silverware for a club of Arsenal’s pedigree. As the table below shows, Arsenal had endured a total of three trophyless seasons across a 28 year period from 91/92 to 18/19 and have never gone consecutive seasons without silverware. This barren spell represents an unprecedented trophy drought for the club.
Of course, it is the pursuit of the WSL title that will define Arsenal this season. Last season, the first under Jonas Eidevall, was certainly a step in the right direction. Since guiding the Gunners the title in 2019, Arsenal had stagnated somewhat under the stewardship of Eidevall’s Australian predecessor Joe Montemurro as they recorded consecutive third placed finishes. The switch from Joe to Jonas ahead of last season revitalised an Arsenal side who would ultimately miss out on the title by one point, having been top of the league at halftime on the final day of the season.
A key improvement from previous, campaigns came in Arsenal’s results and performances, in the league matches at least, against the WSL’s ‘big four’. Arsenal went unbeaten against Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United, recording wins against all three of those teams. In the previous campaign, Arsenal recorded just one win from their six ‘head-to-head’ games against these opponents. It was first time since the 18/19 title winning campaign that they had beaten Chelsea or City. This uptick in results can be somewhat attributed to the fact that Eidevall instilled greater tactical flexibility in the team than his predecessor.
Pressing and counter-pressing, as well as an emphasis on verticality and concentrating play down the wings (whilst Mead rightly grabbed the headlines, fellow winger Caitlin Foord also enjoyed her best season in an Arsenal shirt) became the fundamental tactical principles of a rejuvenated Arsenal. ronically, for a team that have gained a reputation for being flat-track bullies against teams outside of the big four over recent seasons, it was a defeat against a Birmingham side who finished bottom of the league with only two wins to their name, that denied Arsenal not just the title but an unbeaten league campaign.
This does not mean that there aren’t things that Arsenal can improve on this season. Whilst they could count themselves unlucky to lose out on the title to a Chelsea side who, like Arsenal, didn’t drop a single point in the league from mid-February through to the end of the season, performances in the UWCL (Women’s Champions League) and domestic cup competitions left plenty of scope for improvement. The low point of the season came in December’s delayed 2021 FA Cup Final against Chelsea. Arsenal struggled to get out their own half and were comprehensively demolished by Sam Kerr and co; the only positive was that a heroic performance from Zinsberger meant that the scoreline was kept down to just a 3-0.
In the UWCL, Arsenal came up against two European football powerhouses and had their noses bloodied both times. In the group stage, they lost 4-0 at home and 4-1 away to Barcelona (there is no shame in shipping four to the best team in the world of course, Chelsea did the very same thing in the 2021 final), and were outclassed in Germany in the away leg against Wolfsburg as they exited the competition at the quarter-final stage. Arsenal cannot yet realistically be expected to compete with the likes of Barca or holders Lyon, but closing the gap on those teams and beating a Wolfsburg, Bayern or PSG would represent a major step in the right direction. With two members of Arsenal squad having just won silverware on a bigger stage than anything they are likely to experience in their club career, Mead and Williamson at the very least should not be overawed if Arsenal find themselves in a cup final/semi-final or a big UWCL tie this season.
The Other Contenders
Finally, a word on the sides Arsenal will have to overcome if they want to achieve success in the league this season. Manchester City have usually featured WSL title races, but haven’t won the league since 2016, and weren’t at the races at all last year, almost relinquishing a UWCL spot to their bitter rivals Manchester United. There has been significant upheaval at the club this season with long term pillars of the team like Georgia Stanway, Lucy Bronze, Ellen White and Jill Scott all leaving the club, whilst doubts remain over former Lionesses skipper Steph Houghton’s ability to prove her long term fitness. Most notably however, Kiera Walsh, deployed at the base of midfield as a number six and considered by many to be the ‘glue’ of the team has deservedly earned a move to Barcelona, where she will join up with Bronze. On top of this, serious doubts remain over the capability of manager Gareth Taylor, and this season is already off to an inconspicuous start. City ignominiously crashed out in the UWCL qualifying rounds for a second consecutive season before losing their WSL opener away at Aston Villa.
City may be on the decline but the other Manchester club appear to be on the rise. Manchester United, who have narrowly missed out on a top three in each of the last two seasons, will hope that this will be the year that they can finally crack the UWCL spots. Their squad has been bolstered by the arrivals of Maya Le Tissier, Lucia Garcia and Aissatou Tounkara amongst others, whilst Parris arrives from Arsenal to join up with fellow Lionesses, Mary Earps, Ella Toone and Alessia Russo – all of whom starred at this summer’s Euros. Don’t rule out a title challenge from United, although a securing a first top three finish and winning a major trophy for the first time in the form of one of the domestic cups is a more realistic aim, especially in wake of star midfielder Jackie Groenen’s move to PSG for a six-figure fee.
The likelihood, however is that Arsenal will once again be competing with a Chelsea side that will be looking to become just the second team to win four consecutive women’s top division titles (Arsenal achieved this feat 06/07 as part of a run that saw them win the league for nine years on the trot). Chelsea were relentless in their pursuit of the title last season, winning their final nine games of the campaign. They have strengthened their defence by dipping into the French market – France international Evie Perisset, capable of playing at right back or on the right of a back-three will add depth to the Blues’ defensive options, whilst Canadian Kadeisha Buchanan, widely considered to be one of the finest central defenders in the women’s game, has been prized away from European champions Lyon.
Further up the pitch, winger Johanna Rytting Kaneryd arrives from Rosengard. The versatile Swede had attracted significant interest from Arsenal over the summer but ultimately ends up in west London rather than north. Arsenal will expect to go toe-to-toe with their London rivals once again this season, but last season and the very early stages of this one show that there are a few chinks appearing in the amour of Emma Hayes’ side. First of all, it is worth remembering that Arsenal produced arguably their two best performances of last season against Chelsea, as they went unbeaten across the two league games against their title rivals, winning 3-2 at the Emirates on the opening weekend before playing out a goalless draw at Kingsmeadow in February. Chelsea have also shown that they are not infallible to dropping points against the WSL’s lesser lights, last season they lost at Reading and drew at home to Brighton, as well being given major scares against Aston Villa, Spurs (twice) and Birmingham City, before almost throwing the title away on the final day after twice trailing at home to Manchester United. On top of this, they suffered a major blip on the delayed opening weekend of the WSL season, losing away to newly promoted Liverpool in a game in which they took a first minute lead. With Arsenal strolling to an opening night victory against Brighton (the final scoreline of 4-0 flattered their south-coast opponents), the Gunners have a chance to steal an early march on their rivals, with Chelsea facing City this weekend.
Today, Arsenal will play Spurs in the women’s North-London Derby at the Emirates. At the time of writing 48,000 tickets have been sold, smashing the previous WSL record of 38,000 set by our north London neighbours in the reverse fixture back in November 2019. If Arsenal can sell just over 1,000 more tickets between now and Saturday, the record for any competitive women’s club game in England will be broken (provided all those who have purchased their tickets actually turn up). Saturday’s match will therefore be a historic occasion, but with more eyes on them than ever before, for Arsenal women, the pressure is on.