On Thursday evening, Arsenal Ladies kick off another FAWSL campaign with an away match at Notts County Ladies (which will be screened live on BT Sport). Manager Pedro Martinez Losa has added attacking talent such as Lianne Sanderson, Vicky Losada, Natalia Pablos and Chiamo Ubogagu to the squad, along with defender Jemma Rose. The club have also added a full time goalkeeping coach and a strength and conditioning coach to the backroom staff for the first time.
So how are the girls shaping up for the new season? Tim Stillman took a trip to London Colney for the recent Arsenal Ladies Media Open day to find out for Arseblog News.
The Arsenal Ladies team seem in relaxed mood as photographer David Price lines them up for their pre-season photo call. “Hurry up Dave, it’s bloody freezin’ out here,” chirps Jordan Nobbs in her distinctive Stockton-On-Tees lilt. 2014 was a year of transition for the Arsenal Ladies squad, with a large player turnover- not to mention the brevity of Shelley Kerr’s reign as manager. It was an unsettling season if nothing else and that translated to the pitch, where the Gunners propped up the WSL table at the season’s half way point, before eventually finishing 4th.
Once the photo call is over with, the work begins. I had the opportunity to watch Arsenal Ladies train in May of last year and on that occasion, after a few brief warm up exercises, the ball work started soon after. Not so on this occasion. As well as adding players to the squad, Pedro Martinez Losa has supplemented his backroom staff. Pedro is not involved at all in the first 40 minutes of the session and there is not a football in sight. The girls are put through their paces by new fitness coach Ivan Mukandi with a rigorous strength and conditioning session.
Only goalkeepers Emma Byrne and Siobhan Chamberlain are seeing any action with a football, as newly appointed goalkeeping coach Jason Brown conducts an elaborate series of drills. When I spoke to Emma Byrne in 2013 she told me that she took goalkeeping sessions herself, but otherwise, the goalies just trained with the team. This is an increasingly professional setup and a response to the increased wealth and professionalism in the WSL, which has compromised Arsenal’s historical dominance.
“The first secret to being in a position to win in modern football is to have the right environment for the players,” Losa tells me. “Putting the players in the right environment is going to improve the players we have, so even if I don’t sign any other players, we are still better off. The players I had were already winners and have the mentality to win, we have players that can make the difference and win a game in a moment. Putting this kind of player in the right environment is going to increase their performance.”
“The new staff has added a lot of professionalism, we’re monitored a lot more now in terms of performance and our fitness,” agrees midfielder Caroline Weir. “I don’t know if we have seen the benefits yet, but we will definitely see them by the end of the season. Lots of clubs are spending money, so we have to stay competitive and this is the way we are going.” Losa goes on to reveal that he is able to spend five hours with the squad every day, compared to just two hours a day when he took over in August.
In 2015, Arsenal Ladies certainly seems like a happier, more settled place. Appointed last summer, Spaniard Pedro Martinez Losa oversaw an upturn in fortunes as the Gunners eventually climbed to a fourth place finish. The shoots of recovery were already evident in truth, Shelley bowed out with the F.A. Women’s Cup in June- the club’s 13th cup win- which turned the season around. This year, the off season has been spent strengthening the squad, as opposed to replacing departing stars. Grappling with the strain of transition, the girls struggled for goals at the beginning of last season.
The departures of Kim Little and Ellen White coupled with injuries to Jordan Nobbs and the legendary Kelly Smith, meant the new look attack struggled to click. There has been no such issue under Losa’s stewardship and the Gunners eventually finished last season as top scorers in the FAWSL with 24 goals. The attacking trend certainly looks to continue with exciting offensive additions such as Sanderson, Natalia, Losada and Ubogagu. Nobbs and Smith meanwhile, have signed new contracts. The girls demolished Millwall Lionesses 7-0 in the F.A. Women’s Cup 5th round recently, there is no doubting Losa’s commitment to attacking football.
“I like balance,” Pedro points out, “but I think the best way to defend is to attack. I think most of the time, the team that is winning is the one that is trying to win and trying to make things happen with the ball. That’s going to be our objective.” There’s no disagreement from 19 year old Scotland international Weir, “With the players we have, we’ll always score goals. Pedro is an attack minded coach and we like to play good football, so I think we can score even more than we did last season.” She is, however, quick to point out the importance of staying tight in defence and “not conceding silly goals” which Arsenal did more of last season than they usually do, shipping 21 goals.
As a fan it feels as though Arsenal Ladies are on an upward trajectory again, even if the team are no longer outright favourites for the league title. But last season was a mixed bag. 4th place was the team’s lowest finish in time immemorial. The club bagged their 13th F.A. Cup, but lost the Continental Cup Final to a heavily backed Manchester City side. The women’s game is more competitive than it has ever been in England, which is very positive for women’s football, even if Arsenal have ultimately seen their superiority fade. Last season, three teams were in the title race on the final day of the WSL season. In 2013, Liverpool Ladies and Bristol Academy faced off for first spot in the season’s final fixture.
The two grandstand finishes have been excellent for the image and excitement of the WSL. Realistically, there are four or five teams that will believe that they can compete for the title in 2015, Arsenal being one of them. The fact that Arsenal were involved in neither of these climactic season deciders is painful for the squad and there’s a determination to use that disappointment as a guiding force. “We’ve definitely got the quality to win the league,” insists Caroline Weir. Pedro contends that remaining as part of the title picture and contesting cup finals is very much his aim for the season. But he implies that the pressure lies elsewhere. “Liverpool are champions, so they have the pressure. Chelsea and Manchester City are adding well. There is pressure for Manchester City too because of their resources and they are able to spend more money than anybody.”
The 38 year old Spaniard does believe however, that Arsenal’s fruitful academy can give them an edge over their competitors. The likes of Leah Williamson and Jade Bailey broke into the team last season, with Vyan Sampson and Carla Humphrey heavily involved in pre-season, they look like the next of the crop to make the step up. “We have good characters with Arsenal in their blood. You can see pictures of Carla and Leah in Arsenal kits when they were eight years old. They have taken their opportunities and they are ready to compete. We won the Development League cup last year and the U-17s are in another final and we have players here too who can help me teach them how to win.”
The women’s game has changed and the competition is keener and fiercer than ever, which is a positive development. But after two seasons as WSL bridesmaids, Arsenal Ladies want to toss the bouquet again.
The girls’ opening game against Notts County is live on BT Sport at 19.30 on Thursday. Arsenal Ladies Season tickets are still available for £40, more information is available here.