Arsenal Women vs Chelslea Women Match Preview
Sunday is a red-letter day for Arsenal football club with two London derbies taking place in North London in what promises to be in a monumental double-header (if only there were another way to describe a high profile set of matches taking place on a Sunday, maybe a popular UK broadcaster should come up with a catchy alterative slogan?). While the men’s team venture to the edge of human civilisation – also known as Tottenham, with hopes of solidifying their position at the top of the Premier League, the Women’s team are aiming to begin their own title charge in earnest as they host Chelsea at the Emirates.
In both cases, these teams are taking on their bitterest of rivals, the men’s rivalry with the other club in North London has done much to raise the profile of a bunch of perennial underachievers who haven’t won a league title since the invention of colour tv and nothing besides the EFL Cup since the formation of the Premier League over 30 years ago. The women’s rivalry with the blue side of London is equally compelling. While the WSL games against Spurs have been the most marketable games for the Women’s team given the rivalry that exists within the men’s game – the last 2 women’s north London derbies have drawn record crowds, including one of 48,000 in September, it is in truth a hollow rivalry (albeit a fixture with increased needle in the last couple of seasons). Ask any Arsenal Women fan who their main rivals are and they will tell you unequivocally that is it Chelsea.
Again, comparisons can be drawn with the men’s game here. While there has always been animosity between the two clubs, a genuine footballing rivalry on both sides only materialised once Roman Abramovich “parked his Russian tank on our front lawn”, as former Arsenal owner David Dein put it. In the men’s game these tanks were quick to fire, as Chelsea won their first title since the 50’s within two years of the takeover.
In the Women’s game, the progress was gradual, but the end the result was ultimately the same with Chelsea replacing Arsenal as the dominant force in women’s football in England. In the same year that the men won their first Premier League title, the women were promoted to the top flight, then known as the FA Premier National Division, all whilst Arsenal won the 2nd of a string of consecutive titles – the gunners would win the quadruple 2 years later. A decade on from promotion, the Blues lifted their first major silverware as they the won the double (consisting of the WSL and FA Cup). Fast-forward to 2023 and Chelsea go into Sunday’s derby aiming for a 4th consecutive title (only Arsenal have achieved this feat before) and a 7th title in 9 seasons. All twelve of the club’s major trophies have come in the past 8 years.
Losing your seat at the top table to clubs who simply have more money than the rest (while City have struggled in the last couple of seasons, they have regularly finished above Arsenal as a direct result of oil money, while Manchester United are on the brink of breaking into the league’s top 3 having not had a women’s team just 5 years ago) stings, and Arsenal have felt that, as have the likes of now second tier Charlton Athletic and Birmingham City to far more dramatic extents. The animosity between the two clubs is clear. Chelsea manager Emma Hayes was quick to convey her displeasure at Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall’s exuberant celebrations following Arsenal’s 3-2 opening day win at the Emirates in this fixture last season. Eidevall has not shied away from talking about Chelsea’s financial muscle. In a bizarre incident that followed Chelsea’s humbling of Arsenal in the 2021 FA Cup Final, Hayes mocked Eidevall’s superstitious nature by doing an impression of a cat.
One of criticism of the women’s game is that it has an image problem when it comes to how it presents itself. Whilst the lack of tribalism compared to the men’s game is refreshing for many – the fact that you won’t get beaten up for wearing the wrong colour shirt at the wrong time is obviously a good thing and a reason why the game at the Emirates is the family friendly choice when it comes to the two north London based matches on offer on Sunday – the extent to which the game has tried to cultivate, and even manufacture, its ‘nice game’ image, is grating to some.
Games like Sunday’s are chance to add some edge and jeopardy to the women’s game. This game matters. Arsenal will go level on points with Chelsea (with a game in hand) should they win. If Chelsea take all 3 points, they will go at least 5 points clear at the top. In something of a rarity in the WSL, Chelsea will have a dedicated away end, just as United did in November. As disappointing a game as that was from an Arsenal perspective, the ‘limbs’ in the away for Alessia Russo’s winner showed that going to women’s football is more than a fun day out for the family. People are emotionally invested in these games, they matter massively in a league were a single loss across the entire campaign can cost you the title, as Arsenal found out last season.
The London derby marks the resumption of the season for these two teams following the Winter break. For Chelsea, their season started disastrously, as they lost their season opener away to newly-promoted Liverpool, but they have been flawless ever since. They have won their subsequent 9 games which included a victory against 2 of the ‘big 4’ – they beat Chelsea at Kingsmeadow in September and claimed a vital win away to the early pacesetters United in November. On top of this, they have negotiated a nightmarish Champions Leauge draw, topping their group unbeaten ahead of PSG and Real Madrid. There has been less of a reliance of Sam Kerr this season, with the goals being shared around. Fran Kirby looks back to her best following health issues whilst Guro Rieten and Lauren James have also stood out.
For Arsenal, the story of the season has been about them negotiating crisis after crisis as far as injuries are concerned. In September, they lost starting centre back partnership of Leah Williamson and Raffaele in quick succession. Lotte Wubben Moy and converted left-back Steph Catley did well to fill the void, a but a lack of aerial presence ultimately cost them their only dropped points of the season, they conceded twice off set pieces in the closing stages as a 2-1 lead quickly became a 3-2 defeat. In the midfield department, experienced skipper Kim Little recently returned after being on the treatment table for the best part of two months. The most devastating injuries have come to the team’s bonafide stars. In November, Beth Mead and Viv Miedema both attended the Balon D’or awards ceremony after both were nominated for best female footballer – Mead was officially named as the 2nd best player in the World. A little over a month later, both players were ruled out for the season following ACL injuries. One can only assume that Jonas Eidevall broke his superstition of not passing a black cat.
If Arsenal are able to sustain a title challenge without their two best forwards, it will be a stellar achievement. So far, other players have stepped up. Frida Maanum has excelled in an attacking midfield role to the extent that she displaced Miedema in the side before Little’s injury. Caitlin Foord started the campaign in electric form but has faded in recent games. Laura Wienroither, off the back of a strong Euros with Austria, has been the breakout star of the season, her tenacious performances at right-back have seen her displace Noelle Maritz in the starting XI. All in all, Arsenal have done extremely well to win 8 of their opening 9 games whilst topping their Champions League group ahead of European Champions Lyon.
With that said, January reinforcements were certainly needed and so far the club have delivered, following the model of the men’s team by hoovering up some of the best young talent available. 23 Year old winger Viktoria Pelova, who impressed against the gunners in a Champions League qualifier in September, arrives from Ajax. 19 year old Kathrine Kuhl is viewed as the most exciting talent to come out of Denmark since Pernille Harder. Another teenager, Gio Quiroz has been recalled from her loan at Everton and will provide much needed attacking depth. Goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo has been brought in to provide stiff competition with Manuela Zinsberger. A centre forward could yet arrive.
Arsenal enjoyed mixed results against Chelsea last season, they went unbeaten against their rivals in the league, the aforementioned win at the Emirates was followed up with a goalless draw at Kingsmeadow in January, Rafaelle and Williamson were particularly outstanding in that game, but failure to win ultimately saw Arsenal’s own fate fall out of their hands as far as their title ambitions were concerned. This proved fatal as both clubs won all their remaining games, meaning that west London pipped north London to the title. In the two cup ties between the sides, Chelsea’s superiority was obvious. A 2-0 FA Cup semi final win at Meadow Park in April had the unique distinction of being the second time Chelsea had beaten Arsenal in the FA Cup that season. The 2021 final had been pushed back to December meaning that Chelsea beat Arsenal in two separate ties that took place across the span of the 21/22 season. The final defeat was a low point of the season, 3-0 flattered the gunners as they were comprehensively beaten.
Sunday’s showdown is the first of five games against fellow members of the league’s big 4 (Chelsea, City and United). These games invariably define a club’s WSL season (though Arsenal did go unbeaten across these 6 games last season, only to finish 2nd). The bad news is that Arsenal lost the only one of these head-to-heads that they’ve played so far this season, the previously mentioned game against United.
Arsenal did well to muddle through a first half of the season in which the injury gods did not smile upon them. On Sunday they have an opportunity to defy the odds and stake their claim in the title race.
Written by: Max Radwan @Rads_Gooner