The last month has been something of a mixed bag for Arsenal Ladies since the resumption of domestic duties after the World Cup in Canada,. They have won 2 and lost 2 of their 4 WSL games, they currently sit two points behind leaders Chelsea at the top of the WSL with the sides meeting at Boreham Wood on 23rd August. In the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, Manager Pedro Losa said that the schedule was “putting the players in danger” and the Gunners have certainly felt the effect fitness wise. Alex Scott and Vicky Losada were injured in the 1-0 victory at Birmingham City, whilst Jordan Nobbs returned from Canada with a hamstring tear.
Leah Williamson has also fallen victim to the injury curse and, as a result, Arsenal’s first choice midfield of Williamson, Nobbs and Losada have been simultaneously missing, which has led to understandable dysfunction. New girls Dominique Janssen and Marta Corredera have been asked to hit the ground running in their new team instantly, and both have performed in a number of positions. Janssen, purchased primarily as a back up centre half, has played at left back and in midfield. Whilst Spaniard Corredera has played in both full back positions, on both wings and as part of the midfield three.
In the short term, it’s not ideal for new players to be given such a baptism of fire. But in the long term, it will probably speed their transition and understanding with their teammates. Corredera and Janssen both have the technical level Losa requires, as they are economical in possession. Janssen has a tall, lean build and she knows how to use it, she has embraced the physical side of the women’s game in England, a trait some overseas players have struggled with in recent seasons. (Foreign players are still a new phenomenon in the WSL, Anouk Hoogendijk, signed in January 2014, was Arsenal’s first ever non British or Irish player).
With only three points separating the top 4 at time of writing, the WSL race itself is an intriguing one. Newly promoted Sunderland have illustrated why it was such a nonsense to exclude their application from the original WSL structure created in 2011. Promoted from WSL2 at the first available opportunity, they have emerged as the most creditable challenger to leaders Chelsea. Arsenal have managed to stay in touch at the top, whilst Manchester City’s form looks ominous for the league. Created only 18 months ago, the massive cash injection that bought them some of the best talent in the English women’s game is beginning to foment. The team are gelling and have won all 6 of their fixtures since the World Cup, beating Arsenal 3-2 at Boreham Wood recently- a result that flattered Arsenal in truth.
With the money and training facilities available to them, it would be something of a surprise if City do not go on create a duopoly at the top of the WSL with the similarly plush Chelsea Ladies. Arsenal were unfortunate to run into City at a time when their entire midfield was decimated by injury, but City have the best squad in the division. They are a physically imposing team too, with the likes of Steph Houghton, Jen Beattie, Jill Scott and Toni Duggan around the 6 foot mark. Arsenal were bullied by City in the duels and the away side made their superiority count through possession. It is difficult not to worry that some of Arsenal’s better players may be tempted away as economic realities start to separate the wheat from the chaff in the division. Alex Scott’s contract comes to an end in December and she has openly admitted that she considered offers before signing her last deal.
That said, there have been plenty of positives this month too. Youngster Leah Williamson signed a new contract, at 18, Leah is already one of the best players in the division. By the time she leaves her teenage years behind, she really could be England’s finest player. Pedro has used the Continental Cup in much the same way that Arsene Wenger uses the League Cup, with the club’s rich crop of talented youngsters getting their chance against WSL2 opposition such as Watford and London Bees. The Continental Cup has been widened out this season to include WSL2 teams in order to vary the fixture list a little. But the issue here is that most WSL sides are professional and train five days a week and the gulf in class between the divisions is vast. It’s not just teams that are a division apart; we are talking about professionals v amateurs, which has largely showed in the results.
Nevertheless, the likes of Evie Clark, Chloe Kelly and Georgia Allen have gained valuable experience for Arsenal in the competition, which will ready them for first team involvement. Expect these three to be staple first team squad regulars next season, slowly incubated into the picture in the same manner that recent graduates Carla Humphrey and Leah Williamson have been. The relief for Pedro is that Arsenal only have 1 league match and 3 Continental Cup group matches for the remainder of August, which should enable Arsenal to rest some weary limbs and to nurse some injured players back to health. Jordan Nobbs returned to the bench against Manchester City and Leah is reportedly close to action again.
Pedro will need these players with the league match against Chelsea to come on 23rd August. Anything other than victory against the current leaders would be fatal to their title hopes and probably to their hopes of Champions League qualification too. (The top 2 qualify in the WSL). Injuries have seen Pedro experiment a great deal; often deploying a back three with pacier players such as Corredera and Yankey used as wing backs. Occasionally, the tinkering has exacerbated the dysfunction with the formation often changing two or three times in a single match. Against Notts County, Arsenal’s attackers looked positively dizzied by the constant rotation of positions and structures. They clawed back a one goal deficit via a pair of setpieces, situations where the confusion that was rife in the forward line did not matter quite as much.
That said, some of Pedro’s preferences are beginning to take shape. When I spoke with Emma Byrne last month we spoke about Losa’s preference for passing out from the back. At first, the defenders looked very nervous and panicked in possession, creating dangerous turnovers well inside their own half. But gradually the defenders have become more comfortable with receiving the ball deep in their own defensive third and mistakes are less frequent. The Gunners lack height upfront in any case, so playing long is not an advisable strategy. Under Losa, Arsenal tend to be a team that improves in the second half of matches. They fought back for victories against Notts County and London Bees having trailed at half time and even in the defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City, there was a marked improvement in the second half performances, which suggests that Losa knows how to conduct a team talk.
Overall, Arsenal have shown a good deal of improvement under Losa compared with Shelley Kerr’s difficult (and abrupt) reign. Though Natalia has really begun to settle after an underwhelming start, there is still a sense that Arsenal could do with another more clinical forward, possibly with a greater physical presence. Much of Arsenal’s season rests on the upcoming WSL match against Chelsea at Borehamwood. Chelsea have already defeated Arsenal in the FA Cup at Meadow Park back in April and it looks as though the Blues and City are going to begin to pull away from the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Notts County over the next year or so. The Gunners are going to need a cleaner bill of health and probably some good fortune to stay in touch with the title race.
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Arsenal Ladies’ next home game is against Chelsea at Meadow Park on Sunday, 23rd August at 6pm. Tickets are £6 adults and £3 concessions and can be purchased here. The game is also being screened live on BT Sport.