Arsenal Ladies face Notts County Ladies in the FAWSL Continental Cup Final. The competition ostensibly replaced the League Cup Final 5 seasons ago and the Gunners have featured in every single final, winning three and losing once. Last year they succumbed to Manchester City Women at Wycombe’s Adams Park. This year, they go into the game as favourites against Notts at Rotherham’s New York Stadium.
The two league encounters between the teams were closely fought affairs. Arsenal needed a last minute equaliser from Chiomu Ubogagu to bring a point home from Meadow Lane in April, whilst the Gunners came from behind to win 2-1 at Meadow Park in July. Prior to Sunday’s showpiece final, I caught up with Arsenal centre half Jemma Rose about the game, her first season at the club and what the future holds for the girls.
It’s been 3 weeks since the semi-final against Birmingham City, the team’s last game. Some of the girls have been away on international duty during that time as well. How has the team prepared for Sunday’s match during that interim?
We’ve still been in training, some of the girls have been away on international duty but that was planned a long time before the Continental Cup Final. But the rest of us have been working hard in training. We had a little bit of time off too, so that we could switch off a little bit. On Thursday, everyone was back in and back from international duty.
When you play for a club like Arsenal, lots of players play for their countries so you have to manage with players being away. If they’re playing well for the club, they’ll go and play for their country. A lot of us have still been here with Pedro, working hard together and working on things that we want to put into practice on Sunday.
It’s been your first season at the club Jemma, you’ve played in nearly every game, how do you feel your first year at Arsenal has gone for you personally?
I came here with high expectations of the club and I’ve not been disappointed. I knew I would have to work hard to gain a starting position, since I was a kid I wanted to play for Arsenal Ladies so when I got the call, I couldn’t say no. My first few training sessions were difficult, getting used to the style of play here and it’s completely different at Arsenal compared to Bristol.
I feel like I’ve grown with every game this season. My teammates have been pushing me, Pedro has been pushing me, he knows I can get better with the players I’ve got to work with in this squad. I feel I have got better and grown with each game and I think that’s why Pedro has shown so much belief in me. That’s really helped and I really appreciate his support.
The team has suffered a lot of disruption through injuries, particularly in midfield. Pedro (Losa, the manager) has had to shuffle the team around quite a lot and has used a back three on several occasions. As a centre half, how is it different playing in a back three compared to a four? Had you played in a three before?
It shows the versatility in the squad and it shows the belief Pedro has in us as his defenders. I’ve played in a back three a few times before under Mark Sampson when I was at Bristol, so I wasn’t just thrown in at the deep end. Casey is very experienced and she has played in a back three before too. In a three you are a bit more isolated and you have to rely on your one on one defending skills a little more.
But I feel like we have those skills in our defenders and in the defenders Pedro started with in the back three. It allows the team to attack more and with wing-backs, it gave us a bit more width as well. It gets players like Alex Scott going forward a lot more, which everyone knows she’s very good at doing. You are slightly more vulnerable to the counter attack, but we scored a lot of goals playing that formation.
Your centre-back partner Casey Stoney won Arsenal’s Player of the Season. The partnership between the both of you has been key this season and has not been disrupted by injuries. How helpful has Casey been to you?
Coming to Arsenal earlier this year, obviously I knew all about Casey and her career and I had a lot of respect for her straight away. She’s got lots of England caps, very experienced at international level and club level, I knew I was going to learn a lot from her and I’ve not been disappointed. I’ve learned so much from her just in one season at Arsenal.
That partnerships can only get better with me learning from her in each game and me growing with players like her helping me out, along with Pedro. I’ve learned so much and I’m looking forward to playing with her in the future too and learning even more.
Pedro likes a passing style that involves goalkeepers and defenders passing out from the back, so you’ve had to learn to be very comfortable with the ball at feet under pressure. How has Pedro worked on this in training? Are there any specific drills that he’s implemented to develop the defenders in this area?
We play a lot of small sided games in training. Some we play in some small areas, some in big areas. It’s about getting me and Casey and the other defenders on the ball in tight areas and getting us used to playing the ball out under pressure. The standard and the fitness is so high in the WSL now that you don’t get time on the ball, you need to be able to play in tight spaces anyway.
It helps the midfielders too to play out from the back, play through the middle and play out wide too to get crosses into the box. Working on this so much in training has shown in the games because we’ve got better at it as the season has gone on. It shows that the squad is technically at a very good level, it helps us to play attractive football which is a real positive we have at Arsenal.
I knew when I first came to the club that that was Pedro’s style and that’s what would be expected of me, to get the ball to feet and play out from there. Casey has really helped me improve that side of my game and Pedro too. We’re much more comfortable in possession now.
Injuries have obviously caused a big problem for Arsenal in the WSL this season, how much of an effect do you think the mid-season World Cup in Canada had on the squad’s fitness?
Obviously it’s a higher game load and workload for the girls that went, but it’s such an honour and privilege to be able to represent your country at a World Cup, it’s the biggest honour in the game. I think it maybe played a part in some of the injuries, but it’s difficult to say. Those injuries could have happened without a World Cup in the middle of the season.
But we’ve managed well with the injuries we’ve had, we’ve had a lot with players like Jordan Nobbs out, Vicky Losada has been injured, Marta Corredera has had niggly injuries, but I think we’ve dealt with them well. We finished 3rd this season and maybe with those players available for the whole season, we might have done more. Hopefully we have better luck with injuries next season and see where it takes us.
Is there a sense of frustration in the squad that injuries probably cost the squad Champions League qualification at least? (Arsenal finished 3rd, the top 2 teams qualify for the Champions League in the WSL).
I don’t think there’s frustration over injuries, there are frustrations because of the standards that exist at this football club. We’ve got to be winning trophies, historically, Arsenal are the most successful women’s football team in the country and within women’s football. To not be in the Champions League is a big disappointment to us, but we’re not blaming it on injuries.
We’ve dropped points in games where we’ve had most players fit, away at Bristol Academy for example. We drew that game when we should have won it and had we won it, it could’ve moved us up into second and it would’ve put us in a better position going into the last few games of the season. But we’ll take those lessons into next year and push on again next season and not repeat those mistakes and we’ll fight for a Champions League place again next year.
Arsenal had two very tough, closely fought games with Notts County in the WSL this season. How will the girls prepare for their threat on Sunday?
Every club in the WSL now is watching videos of opponents, understanding their tactics and style of play. You can’t predict exact starting XIs or exactly how they are going to play, but you definitely watch videos of how they have played against you in the recent past and how they’ve played against other teams in the league as well.
Going into a game I want to be aware of how the striker plays, what foot they kick with, how they like to receive the ball, how they turn, the positions that they like to take up. For Casey and I especially, that’s a massive part of our preparation. Finding out the small details about the strikers so that we can be one step ahead of them on the pitch. We’ll sit down as a team and watch some videos, identify our strategy and work on it out on the training pitch.
It’s gonna be a hard game, we drew with them initially in April when Ellen White scored that amazing free kick goal before we got a goal back late on. We were losing at half-time in our home game against Notts. Notts County are a physical team and a very direct side, we’ll have to match them physically and then get the ball down and play. Starting from the back and we have to play the way we have been all season.
Off the pitch, things look exciting for Arsenal at the moment, with the core of the squad signed up to new deals, good young players coming through, new facilities being prepared and the club professionalising behind the scenes. How confident is the squad in challenging Chelsea and Manchester City next year and for the years to come?
There’s been a lot of good things happening behind the scenes at Arsenal. At this club we like to do things quietly and just get on with our business and this season I think we’ve definitely progressed and come on professionally as a club. We’ve got a long way to go to catch up with the setup at Manchester City but we’re definitely going in the right direction. We want to get back to winning the league and playing in the Champions League and winning the F.A. Cup every year like Arsenal have always done.
Though you weren’t at Arsenal when they lost last year’s final, does that defeat add an extra edge on Sunday for the girls that were here? Notts County lost the F.A. Cup Final in August, so it’s fair to say they have a score to settle as well. Will that make any difference to the contest come this weekend?
Yes I think so. I think this is always a very competitive fixture anyway. I did the punditry for BT Sport when these two teams played each other last year and it was an amazing game to watch. It’s always physical and it’s always very fast paced. Technically both teams have very different strategies that are both very good to watch.
Notts County are going to want to win their first trophy (they were formed in 2014 and absorbed Lincoln City Ladies) and for us, we’ve not won anything this year and this is our only chance for silverware. For me personally, I’ve never won a trophy at club level before, so for me and my family, this is a massive game and I want to have some silverware to show for the hard work. Especially at Arsenal, this is what I came here for.
Many thanks to Jemma for her time. Arsenal play Notts County Ladies on Sunday at 3pm in the Continental Cup Final at Rotherham’s New York Stadium. You can buy match tickets here for £5 adults and £2.50 concessions.
The match is also being broadcast live by BT Sport, coverage starts at 2.30pm.